A visit to the principal shops in Honcho-dori, the shops chiefly frequented by foreign residents of Yokohama and by travellers landing here, shows that a trade of some magnitude has gradually sprung up in silver articles, such as spoons, dishes, bowls, vases, menu-stands, boxes and so forth. That there was room for large enterprise in this field is a fact often pointed out in these columns in past years, and we are not at all surprised to observe that our forecast has been verified. There was a time when, in spite of the evidence of extraordinary glyptic skill furnished by the sword ornaments which so many foreigners collected, no one appeared to think of getting silver utensils made in Japan, and when a race-cup or a presentation piece was required, recourse was had to China or India, where the silver-smiths' work never could bear comparison with that of the Japanese. Such a mistake is no longer perpetrated. But if there is cause for congratulation is one sense, there is reason for much regret in another. It has fared with the work of the Japanese silver-smith precisely as it has fared with the work of the Japanese art-artizan in every branch; vitiation has been the result of his attempt to cater to foreign taste. Among the hundreds of silver articles displayed in the shops of Yokohama to tempt European or American buyers, we have not been able to find one that reaches the standard of even second-rate skill. All are of the same kind –profusely decorated with designs in high relief, which, when not obtained by the simple process of casting, are chiselled so rudely as to be without the smallest claim to technical excellence. There has always been a broad distinction between the Japanese point of view and the foreign with regard to glyptic work. The Japanese clearly distinguishes the pictorial aspect from the technical. As a matter of fact, the greatest Japanese chisellers of metal in all eras were not designers. They obtained decorative subjects either direct from contemporary artists, or from the numerous grammars of design which the artizan class possessed. Thus no credit belonged to them with regard to the design itself, unless it was the credit of making a tasteful selection. Their credit began and ended with the technical execution, and it is to the quality of the chiselling that the Japanese connoisseur looks, whereas the foreigner thinks primarily of the picture and the decorative effect. Of course, there are some practical considerations in favour of the latter canon, but its pernicious potentialities are very visible in the work of which we are now speaking. None of it, absolutely none, displays any of the qualities of vigour, grace, delicacy and naturalistic fidelity that distinguish the metal artist of Japan as he is known among his own people. The whole aim of the Yokohama silver-smith seems to have been to produce what might be called a “handsome" object at small cost. He apparently knew that he was working for customers who would not recognise, or pay any attention to, skill in sculpture, and that if he showed them a really fine specimen at a correspondingly high figure, they would merely call him exorbitant and go next door, where an equally showy object could be had twenty or thirty per cent. cheaper. There is no other way of accounting for the absolutely uniform inferiority of all the specimens in all the shops. They have been forced down to a low technical level by the pressure of competition among sellers, and by a lamentable want of discrimination among buyers. Trade is trade, and if a demand exists for these rude articles, we do not say that it should not be satisfied. But the trouble is that the reputation of the Japanese sculptor of metals suffers, Such work does not invest him with any title to claim special superiority, or to become, as we believe he might become, the world's recognised craftsman in many branches of metal sculpture. Our readers, if they pause to reflect, will probably say that, after all, the fault is with the foreigner, and that since he is content with inferior work, the Japanese can not reasonably be expected to offer him anything else. We do not altogether deny it. What we urge, however, is that the Japanese might profitably make some effort to educate European and American customers to a higher standard. They might have sufficient enterprise to keep in stock a few really choice specimens, so that a foreigner unacquainted with the kinzokushi's real capacities, would have an opportunity of learning something about them by the aid of object-lessons. At present he has no such opportunity. The impression he must inevitably carry away from a visit to the Honcho-dori shops is that Japan's metal workers are very mediocre artizans, not standing much higher than the artizans of India or China. It is an unhappy state of affairs; a repetition, as we have said, of the familiar experience that the foreign market exercises a demoralizing effect upon Japanese art.
Source: The Japan Daily Mail - 29th December 1900