The wit and poetry in Japanese kanzashi

The Japanese over the centuries have distinguished themselves by their cultivation of humor, fine design and poetry within their art. In fact, these qualities are what originally attracted me to kanzashi. As an artist I found myself entranced by the variety of expression within these beautifully crafted pieces.

The poetic aspect of kanzashi can be seen the top silver hair ornament with the clamshell, which is traditionally can also suggest a woman. When opened up, inside the shell is a gold crab! It startles the viewer and the immediate instinct is to laugh with surprise. The second ornament of a similar theme features a clamshell and the knife used to pry open clams. It’s moveable parts open to reveal a pearl inside. Symbolic objects are frequently seen on kanzashi which enhance the expression and meaning of each piece. The tortoise comb with a fishing rod can be seen as a metaphor for the game of love. The image of a rod implies the hooking and the reeling in of one’s "catch". A fish is considered “yin” and suggests the feminine (also yin) while the male aspect (yang) is symbolized by the pole along with the action of catching the fish. The crow, a common bird that has a loud caw and bad manners, ends up as on a red lacquer hair comb as an elegant adornment for a woman of position and beauty. The juxtaposition of what is considered ugly played with utmost beauty becomes a poetic statement. So, to really enjoy Japanese kanzashi it is necessary to see them not only as finely crafted decorative objects, but also as art works which have more subtle meanings.