The String of​ 90 Ojime

Ojime are beads used to cinch up a Japanese object called sagemono, strung and hanging from the obi, the waist belt, worn with kimono. Kimono have no pockets, so carried objects like writing kits, tobacco paraphernalia, medicine pouches, identification seals were strung from the waist. The object itself; the writing kit for example, hung on a silk chord with the familiar netsuke used to hold the ensemble from slipping through the waistband. The ojime tightened the whole gizmo together. The most exemplary are from the time of the Shoguns, 1603 to 1868 — The Edo Period. In a series of sumptuary laws, the Shogunate, ordering class identity via dress, forbade ostentatious clothes. If you were a farmer you dressed as a farmer. A Samurai as such. But as a money class developed, wanting to signal taste and success, the sagemono became some the most highly developed art objects the world has ever known.The most familiar and widely collected, Netsuke, was the object tucked through the waistband. The Inro, the multi tiered medicine and seal box is my favorite. It’s part of an art form that includes the box, the netsuke and a bead to draw the ensemble together. Maki-e, lacquerware with dusted-on precious metals that float into the wet lacquer dry into a storm of glitter is the most usual material. The materials also include cloisonné, inlay of ivory, wood, mother of pearl and more.

And what did they look like? An ivory egg carved from the toothy tusk of the walrus crawling with black ants swarming toward a dead yellow jacket, the ants are carved of course, slightly 3D and lacquered to a shiny black—all the tiny legs gives them a look of scurrying—as ants do—sounds a bit creepy but when you think of it, when was the last time you peered at ants busy at work and were fascinated by them? How do they know what to do? Reverence for nature was the core, shinto wabi sabi, the thing you glimpse out of the corner of your eye and suddenly take notice is the core of the Japanese Aesthetic. The world becomes a bit wider; looking at something so tiny referencing not only that bit of natural history but,  say a story out of the folk tale repertoire. Telling a story everyone knows like the ANT and the Grasshopper.

I would class Japanese art with a couple of other very strong coherent cultural traditions—The art of Ancient Egypt and NW Coast First Peoples. In Japan the combination of formality coupled with a relaxed appreciation for the natural, coupled with deep craft made objects I would class as the best of human ingenuity.

I first saw these objects, these Ojime, at the Met Museum in NYC in January of 1974.  I was just out of graduate studio art studies and with few prospects, working as a laborer in a lumber yard in the Bronx. We were finally out of Vietnam but looming inflation was the price being paid. Gasoline prices doubled overnight. We were cheering Nixon’s impending demise but it really was an economically awful time. Taking the train down to the Met, I hoped for some relief from the dread, nausea, depression…I was feeling pretty worthless. Such a looser. I had left art school…rushing my MFA through to follow my life as a communard, a back to the lander, a DIY hero. As all drugs have side-effects, LSD gives you the sense you really know everything and in the mind of a 26 year old, some wrong turns are inevitable.

Art had been my polestar, the spindle around which my life wound up to that point, but seeing all that fully formed masterpiece-y wonder at the NYC Met, only served to drive me deeper into despair. But then, at the museum I rounded a corner and stepped into Maki-e of the Edo Period—mostly centered on the sagemono. So small, so jewel-like. So much the best things I had seen all day. Complete works of art. Was it my doldrums skewing things or just the wonder of the exhibit? Whatever… but I have seldom felt such a swift uplift. These tiny objects held myth, seasonality, narrative, craft. It’s Almost Like Being in Love. OK, I will continue…Looking into a vitrine I saw “A String of 90 Ojime” a collection, each bead smaller than a quarter. OK, I went home and began my real life as an artist.

In 2004, thirty years later, I began my writing life. As an exercise, like playing the scales as it were, I thought I’d write 90 little pieces, to see if I could develop some craft at writing and so I began to write a kind of praise-book, an homage, a string of my own 90 Ojime—little vignettes of things happening in the natural world, things seen, reminders of the mythic world. Blessings on the Japanese sensibility that brought me home to art.

Objects from “The String of 90 Ojime.

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