Agricultural Tools and

Tools, etc., used by Tradesmen

Old tools frequently turn up in antique and flea markets. Most of them don't appeal to me, but these all caught my attention for one reason or another. As with most of the other material in this section, what mainly attracts me is the fact that they immediately evoke a Japan not long gone, but nevertheless gone for ever, except perhaps for one or two isolated pockets of "resistance".



This is an instrument for lifting bales of rice straw. The metal hook is connected to the haft by a piece of wire (see right). The hooked end would penetrate the bale, and it could then be hoiked onto one's shoulder, or whatever. A hundred years ago it would have been one of the commonest and most basic tools and familiar to almost everyone. Just out of interest, I showed it to a class of some eighty Japanese students of eighteen to twenty years of age, and not one of them could identify it!




This is an old brush. I don't know what it was for. I associate it in my mind with the rice-baling tool, because I bought them as a "job lot", but it may belong more properly in the domestic utensils section. Still, it seems to fit here, if only because of its rustic manufacture. It is not made of hair, but of some kind of grass-like vegetable fibre, and held together with nails that have been driven through and then hammered flat (see right). Despite its makeshift construction, though, it has what appears to be an old manufacturer's label on the handle.

This is an old handsaw. The handle is basically just a chunk of branch with the bark removed. There is a small piece of wood wedged in to keep the blade in place. The teeth point backwards, as is normal (even today, the backwards stroke is the cutting stroke of the Japanese saw).


The "sumitsubo", for making a straight line on a horizontal surface, is still used today. This one, with a wooden spool but a metal winder, is probably from the late Meiji or Taisho periods. Ink is placed in the bowl (right, above), the whole thing is placed on the ground, and a thread, which is passed through the ink via two holes (right) is unwound from the spool and pinned to the ground. Then the string is lifted up a few inches and released with a sharp twang. It hits the floor, leaving an inkmark.

Apothecary's scales. The metal rod has notches along its length. The pan is attached to the rod by green threads. Another green thread is attached to the pivotal point. The whole is lifted up by the thread attached to the pivot and the weight would be hung from the appropriate notch on the rod to calculate the exact amount to be measured. The leather thong at the top of the neck of the case slides along the neck to keep it closed when not in use. Such scales were in common use in the Meiji period, as can be seen from the following sketch, made by a western visitor to Japan at that time.


The rod of this set measures some 54 cm. (21.5 inches) in length, and the weight is 300 grams (about 10 ounces). Again, there are notches along the side of the rod.




This is one of my favourites. Even today, people's homes not infrequently double up as their place of business, and this is the decorated end of a roof-beam, advertising the trade of the house. The trade itself (a cooked meal delivery service) is still flourishing, and it is not uncommon to see people with specially-adapted little motorbikes taking pre-ordered cooked meals to people's doors, or to see the used bowls and bentou boxes washed and left outside people's doors to be collected. The custom of decorated roof-beams to advertise such trades was at its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, though it survived locally for quite a bit longer.

I particularly like the gleeful expression of the tradesman (left) as he goes on his way to deliver a large covered dish (with a fish's tail sticking out from under the cover), evading the large dog that is lying in wait, hoping to win a free meal (below), depicted on the obverse side of the beam.

This piece stands some 24 cm. (9.5 inches) high and measures about 7 cm. (2.8 inches) thick at its thickest point. The style of clothing and the artwork, as well as the mischievous sense of humour, suggest the 18th century, but I could be wrong about that.





This is a gunpowder flask, probably for military use. It is about 13 cm. (5.5 inches) in diameter, with a coral-coloured lacquer. The spout is made from bamboo, and the cap from a larger piece of bamboo. I haven't been able to track down exactly when this kind of flask was in use, but it precedes Japan's wars against China and Russia in the 1890s, by which time Japan had a fully modernised army, and probably belongs to the late Edo period.


RBIJ main page     home     next     contact me