It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Buddhist temple of Todai-ji in Japanese history. With the building of what was in effect a state cathedral in the country’s first permanent capital of Nara, Japan found itself with a magnificent new edifice that symbolized its rise from backward nation to highly advanced one. At the heart of the huge temple stood the iconic 15-meter-tall Great Buddha, which was completed in 752 and served as the centerpiece for the biggest consecration ceremony ever held in Japan. The original building housing the statue is no more, but the Buddha still stands as grandiose as ever. Though relatively small amounts of tin, mercury and gold went into shaping the 500-ton colossus, it is largely composed of the ductile metal known as copper.
Long before Todai-ji made its mark, the reddish-brown metal fulfilled a more practical role in Japan. Copper is the prime constituent of bronze, an alloy that usually contains admixtures of tin. And the Yayoi period, which lasted from around 300 BC to AD 300, is sometimes referred to as Japan’s bronze age. This was the era when bronze and iron implements entered the country from China and Korea, and wet-rice agriculture became widespread. Though originally imported, such bronze weaponry as swords, spearheads, daggers and arrowheads became produced domestically. During this period, striking bronze mirrors, cast as round disks with one side smooth for reflection and the other elegantly decorated, also began being crafted in Japan. With the Yayoi period appeared the mysterious, intricately designed bronze bells called dotaku. Many hundreds of dotaku have been unearthed, and despite their elongated bell shape many dotaku clearly could not have been played as instruments. Dotaku are usually found on isolated mountain slopes far from habitations and graves, often buried with mirrors and swords. They obviously served some ritual function, though its actual nature is anyone’s guess.
It was the discovery in 708 of a large deposit of native copper that provided the means for the casting of Nara’s Giant Buddha. So significant was the find that the name Wado (Japanese copper) was given to the era from 708 to 711 to celebrate the auspicious event. In later centuries, other major copper deposits came to be discovered and mined such that by the time of the Edo period (1603–1867), Japan ranked as one of the world’s top copper-producing countries.
A name inseparable from the development of Japan’s copper industry is Sumitomo, which began as a merchant house before evolving into today’s huge enterprise grouping. An adopted son of the Sumitomo family applied the advanced European technique for refining copper by extracting its silver content. Of even greater importance though for Sumitomo’s business was the discovery of the massive Besshi Copper Mine in Shikoku in 1690, which the merchant house acquired, and thereafter Sumitomo became the official purveyor of copper to the government and a major exporter of the metal. Sumitomo’s prestige with the commodity did, however, suffer more than a dent in 1995 when its chief copper trader was prosecuted for rogue trading and illegal manipulation of the copper price. Thus, Sumitomo found itself ruefully regarding what was then the biggest trading loss in global history.
At the financially lower artisan level, copper offers Japanese craftsmen the chance to display their expertise by giving the stuff a damn good beating. Tsubame in Niigata Prefecture is renowned for its copperware, whereby metal workers can turn a single sheet of the metal into a three-dimensional object simply by judicious striking with a hammer. Most remarkable are Tsubame’s kettles, where the spout is integrally—and ingeniously—beaten from the same sheet of copper as the rest of the vessel.
Up until the early part of the last century, the coppersmith was an essential figure in Japan’s local communities, for whom he made such everyday items as kettles, pots and tools out of copper. Unlike in today’s throwaway world of planned obsolescence, people then had to take greater care of their possessions, and so they turned to the coppersmith to prolong the life of their prized implements. And effectively repair them he did: he was after all dealing with the most obligingly workable of materials.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.