Edo Period Mirror Restoration: The Polishing (Stage 2)

Project 15, part 3 – First Under Heaven (Part 1, part 2 here)

The bag my mirror came home in! It’s a work of art all by itself!

Welcome back to the Edo Period mirror restoration project! This week I finished up the polishing and preservation/oxygen exclusion process on my mirror, and it was SUPER COOL. 😀

Originally, I had planned on a similar process taken by Hans, the YouTuber I mentioned in my last post – use very fine grit automotive sandpapers (because they’re meant to be used wet, and are typically finer than woodworking sandpapers), and then increasingly fine rubbing and polishing compounds to buff out all the scratches and restore the mirror to a smooth and gleaming surface. After discovering that the plating on the mirror side is extremely worn down, I changed my plan to just two stages. First, a polishing compound with a handheld buffer (thanks, husband!) to gently remove the last bits of tarnish without wearing through the plating, and then a very fine polish with uchiko powder and choji oil.

He has asked me to note that this Black and Decker buffer sucks, but he also didn’t need a high-quality buffer so the price point was the deciding factor here. 😀

My husband kindly set me up with an automotive polishing compound and his buffer – I went outside, of course, and wore a mask during the whole process because I was still just a little dubious about what metals might have been used on my mirror! SO MUCH GROSS came off the mirror! Ack! Black tarnish everywhere. I actually wasn’t able to finish the process right away due to an appointment, so he sprayed the mirror with WD-40 to exclude oxygen until I could get back to work.

I don’t know why I ended up using only pink towels for this project, but here we are.

The next day I wiped the WD-40 away, and tapped uchiko powder on the mirror. Uchiko is a very fine powder made from ground polishing stones – I use it along with choji (clove) oil to clean my shinken (my antique – and very sharp! – katana) so I figured it would be safe to use on my mirror as well. I used shop towels for this stage which was the right call over my expensive washi paper since this brought up a quite a bit more black tarnish! Once I was done, I covered the mirror side in paste wax and buffed it until it shone. The cast side I just polished with choji oil and left the oil as my oxygen excluder on the bronze. (I did use paste wax on the rim and the flat areas of the kanji, though!).

I learned that it’s a lot harder to buff this out if you leave it for, say, half a day. Oops!

Honestly, I was astounded by how well even this somewhat half-baked process worked. As you can see, my mirror reflects really well! The cast side glows and shimmers in the light, and the reflecting side is good enough to do my makeup in!

Pictured: me taking a picture of myself.

Speaking of the kanji, you might be wondering what they say! The tiny string down the left-hand side is the maker’s mark. I’ll be honest, I was having a difficult time reading them past the first three, so I headed over to r/translator on Reddit and asked for assistance in making them out. (Then I paid it forward by explaining some lyrics in Japanese for another poster!) The kanji read: 天下一清水河内守藤原宗次 (Tenkaichi Shimizu Kawachi no Kami Fujiwara Munetsugu). The first three (天下一),”Tenkaichi,” was an honorific commonly given to bronze mirror makers (and swordsmiths), and means “first under heaven.” It’s possible that this means my mirror is much older than I thought:

[Tenkaichi was] a title given to masters of various industrial arts by the authorities, from the Azuchi-Momoyama period to the early Edo period. It was also awarded to Noh mask makers (Men-uchi). Toyotomi Hideyoshi granted the title to Suminobō (Wakasanokami) and Zekan.

In the Edo period, KawachiYamatoYūkanTōhaku, and Ōmi all claimed to be Tenkaichi. Masks made by these makers were often marked with the branding “Tenkaichi” on the reverse side. Because the title became abused as self-proclaimed Tenkaichi thrived, the Edo government prohibited its use in 1682, making it impossible for mask makers to declare themselves Tenkaichi.

Seriously look how good this is. Even leaving all the scratches and corrosion marks it’s so reflective!!

清水, Shimizu, is a family name (what we’d call a last name in the US) and means “pure water”. It can also be read as Kiyomizu (such as Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto). 河内守 is a title. “Kawachi no Kami,” or “Guardian/Governor of Kawachi (a province in what is now Osaka Prefecture),” was a title conferred by the Imperial Court (for a fee, naturally), and by the Edo period was mostly honorific (since the Tokugawa bakufu actually ruled the country). “No Kami” was the highest level of these honorary titles – in descending order they were:

no Kami 守 (governor, title of the kokushu)
no Suke 介 (vice governor)
no Jō 
no Sakan 
no Shijō 史生

They could be awarded for things such as merit in battle, or exceptional skill as a craftsperson, and the holder didn’t actually govern the province in question (as there could be several “no Kami” at one time). 藤原 – Fujiwara – is a clan name. The Fujiwara were extremely powerful during the Heian period, and still retained political power and influence in the Edo period (and even into the modern era – two Prime Ministers have been from the Fujiwara clan!). Finally, 宗次, Munetsugu, is the personal name of the mirror maker. Tsugu was a very common component in names of artisans during the period – in Hizen province there were eight generations of swordsmiths named Munetsugu, and a friend of mine has a mirror signed by a Yoshitsugu – so it’s likely that this was an “art name,” take when he became a craftsman, and was not necessarily what his friends or family called him. If you were reorganizing this all into English, you’d probably say: “Munetsugu Shimizu of the Fujiwara Clan, Guardian of Kawachi, First Under Heaven.” …I really need to improve my name now. 😀

This dictionary is over 800 pages by the way. It’s not the easiest thing to use but it really came in handy today!

The two large kanji I was able to sort out on my own, thanks to my calligraphy dictionary! Yes, that’s a thing – not all Japanese people can read heavily-stylized kanji, and certainly this American woman can’t! I had some fun tracking these down, actually, so here’s a peek behind the curtain of Mukashi no Sewing and my crazy research process! I noticed while I was researching my mirror in general that the two characters on my mirror are not uncommon ones (more about that in a hot minute). So I did an image search, and refined it until a reasonable amount of similar mirrors came up, then clicked through every link until I found a site that actually mentioned what they meant. (I also found two other mirrors made by Munetsugu!) Armed with the knowledge that, roughly, they meant “good luck” and “longevity,” I hit the calligraphy dictionary and checked every variant of those kanji until I found the two I was looking for!

Glorious!! And apparently, there are still some people crafting mirrors in the traditional fashion today!

(fuku) is the one on the left, and it means good fortune, great blessings, and a happy event. 寿 (juu) is the one on the right, and technically it means longevity, but it also implies praying for a good outcome, or an auspicious occasion.

The detail on this is bonkers. These were actually done with sand molds?!?!

Put that together with the motifs on my mirror, which include cranes (long life and marital happiness), turtles (long life), bamboo (flourishing descendants and finances), and pine (long life and…wait for it…marital bliss), and it’s pretty clear that my mirror was part of a bridal trousseau. In fact the motifs on my mirror (especially the twin pines) are typically referred to as “takasago” motifs, after the Noh play of the same name that features a pair of married pine tree spirits. It’s such a good-luck play that it’s recited at the New Year as well as at wedding receptions!

…I don’t think I’ll ever understand calligraphy lol.

This is oddly perfect, as I was recently given the INCREDIBLY generous gift of a bridal furisode and uchikake by a dear friend of mine (along with some other things you’ll be seeing here in the future). I guess it was just meant to be! ❤

Sneak peek of one of the sleeves. Spot any motifs you recognize from my mirror? 🙂

Next up is building the frame for it – I was waffling on what kind to build, but knowing it’s a bridal piece made the decision for me, and I’ll be modeling the stand on one from the trousseau of a Tokugawa princess. 🙂 If you haven’t already, please subscribe below to get a notification each week about my latest post, and I look forward to seeing you next week here on Mukashi no Sewing! ❤

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3 thoughts on “Edo Period Mirror Restoration: The Polishing (Stage 2)

    1. Ahhh, thank you so much! I totally agree – if I buy a modern mirror chances are all I’ll know about the maker is that it was “made in China.” The personal connection to a craftsperson is so important to me! (Also sorry for approving/de-approving your comment haha – WordPress made me switch to a new app and the interface caught me out! 😅)

      Liked by 1 person

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