This is a Japanese vintage Ichii Itto bori wood zodiac animal carving from the 1960s. This piece was crafted by and signed on the underside by Ryoho, who worked in the Hida Takayama area of Gifu Prefecture. Carving techniques inherited by craftsmen such as Ryoho date to the 5th and 6th centuries, with wood carving in the Hida province being conceived and produced by a group known as the “Artisans of Hida”. At one period in time, these craftsmen were involved in construction work in Kyoto, in which Itto bori-style carving was employed in temple architecture, statue carvings (Buddha), Yatai Festival floats (see image), and decorative figural carving. Today, the wood from the precious Ichii (Japanese Cedar [Jomon Sugi/Hinoki] / Cryptomeria), tree is still used to make items for the Emperor’s coronation ceremony and for important occasions such as the on-going temple reconstruction ceremonies at the Grand Shrine of Ise.
As noted, this piece is made of Japanese Cedar, which is an evergreen yew tree from the mountain areas of the Hida Province. The origin of the name of the tree, “Ichii,” is from a story told concerning the Heiji Emperor. About 800 years ago, when the Emperor was presented with a Yew wood carving, he greatly appreciated the superior quality of material (Ichii) and the exemplary craftsmanship. The wood so out-shined other wood products that the Emperor gave the tree the bureaucratic status called “Shoichii”, the highest title (later its academic name became formally “Ichii”).
At the end of the Edo Period (1868), Sukenaga Matsuda was considered the Japanese Van Gogh because of the sharp cuts he created in his amazing Itto bori-style carvings. Matsuda established the unique craft of Ichii Itto bori (single cut yew-wood carving) in “netsuke”, by using 40-50 different kinds of chisels in which the wood, after carving, was never stained, (only oil-finished), so as to emphasize the unparalleled beauty of the yew grain. Matsuda became a mentor to many wood carvers. His style has been handed down to his successors (one being Ryoho), in an effort to continue the production of such uniquely elegant masterpieces based on the old traditions, as well as incorporating new carving techniques now seen throughout the Hida region, especially in Takayama. Considered the center of Itto bori-styled wood crafts, local artists faithfully carried on the Ichii craft as seen in this zodiac animal carving (The rat’s eyes are inlaid with horn). The cedar wood exemplifies the perfect combination of hardness and oiliness, making the wood extremely easy to carve. The especially fine grain produces an exquisite surface when carved and polished. The wood is reddish in color, at the core, getting paler on the outer layers, which adds extra interest for the carver. This combination of rich mellow color and natural luster of the wood, together with the decisiveness of the cutting and finest detail, gives this piece an exemplary distinction.
Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, carvings that depicted zodiac animals became increasingly popular—to such an extent that today up to half of the most sought-after ivory and wood carvings represent zodiac animals. This carving is in its original marked cardboard box, with a traditional cloth wrapping. 19th/c. Dimensions: 3 ¾”h x 4-0”w x 2-0”d
In addition to the above information on Ichii Itto bori please note:
The Rat is represented by this “Year of the Rat” (nezumi) carving whose Buddhist Patron is Senju Kannon. The Rat being a fixed Water Element, and being the first sign in the Zodiac, is considered an auspicious messenger from Daikoku, the Japanese protector God of Wealth, and the beneficent patron of farmers. The Rat is considered charming, honest, ambitious, and is said to have a tremendous capacity for pursing a course to its end. Rats will work hard for their goals. They are easily angered but maintain an outward show of control. The years 1900, 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020, and 2032 are ruled by this zodiac.
Excellent Condition- In unused, or like-unused condition. No visual or structural or surface wear or damage shown. Pristine. As good as the day it was made.
Great Condition- Appears in slightly used condition but looks "Like New". Some minor wear, but retains the original craft/workmanship. May show minor wear, that does not affect the main design, or associated motif. No cracks, dents, chips or missing elements.
Good Condition- Minor wear which can be restored or repaired; may have surface flaws, like staining or soiling, confined to a small area. The flaw(s) are counterbalanced by another feature, like brilliant color or innovative design. Some fading or the piece may have been altered in some fashion.
Fair Condition- Main aesthetic/design showing damage. Excessive noticeable wear or damage. Worth buying if can be restored/repaired because of its aesthetic or design appeal or rarity. Note: wear/damage consistent with age/use can often enhance the 'Antique' qualities of a piece, giving it a desirable second chance in one's collection