More on the mysterious Luzon jars
C. R. Boxer, eminent historian of Asia, is known to Filipino historians for an anonymous 16th-century manuscript on the Philippines referred to as the “Boxer Codex.” This 307-page handwritten chronicle would not be very different from other travel accounts of the period except that 15 of the 75 illustrations pertain to peoples of the Philippines and comprise some of the earliest representations of our ancestors made centuries before the invention of the digital camera.
I had the good fortune of meeting C. R. Boxer in his home outside London two decades ago, when I asked to see the Boxer Codex. He asked if I knew Chinese or Japanese, which he recommended for any serious research on Asia, and then took out an ancient map of the world I was not familiar with. I was to learn only this year that it was the Bo Bankoku Jinbutsu Zu (Drawings of People from All Over the World), published in Nagasaki in 1645. Like the Boxer Codex, this map was unique for its illustrations of the various peoples far from Japan, like the Americans, who were represented by Indians. One couple were described as “Ruson,” proof that Luzon and its people were known to Japanese map makers as early as the 17th century.
“Ruson” in Japan in the 16th century pertained to jars imported from Luzon that were highly prized because they were believed to preserve tea leaves better than any other storage vessel. In 1594 Naya Sukezaemon, a merchant from Sakai, returned to Osaka from Luzon with 50 Luzon jars that sold for such high prices he made a fortune overnight. Unfortunately, these Luzon jars or “Ruson tsubo” were admired (and later coveted) by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and that is what made a simple story the stuff of legend. Naya Sukezaemon was later known as Ruson (Luzon) Sukezaemon; his story was made into manga or comics, and even became a successful Japanese teleserye in the 1970s.
Shigenori Chikamatsu (1695-1778) compiled many stories of the past and published these in 1804 as “Chaso Kanwa.” The basic story of Ruson Sukezaemon is as follows:
“In the year Mizunoto-Mi of the Bunroku era (1593), a merchant of Sakai in Izumi Province, Naya Suke-emon by name, went abroad to Luzon and brought back fifty tea-leaf jars. The following year he asked the chief magistrate of the town, Ishida Mokusuke, to present Chinese umbrellas, ten candles, and two live musk deer, together with the tea-leaf jars, to Lord Hideyoshi. The lord looked at the jars, and requested Rikyu to classify them and to set a price on each. He had them all exhibited in the room next to his inner reception room, and put on sale for those who wished to buy them. In four or five days all but three jars were sold. Therefore Suke-emon wanted to take the remaining ones home, but he was told they had already been taken for purchase by the lord himself. Since then such excellent tea-leaf jars have come to be called matsubo.”
Recent research has proven that the Ruson Sukezaemon story as quoted above is neither historically accurate nor reliable. Some even say that Ruson Sukezaemon is legendary and might not even have been a real person, but the story of the Luzon jars, true or not, continues to fascinate people.
In Japan these prized jars are capped with silk and further decorated with red silk cords. Poetry is written for or on them and some jars are even given auspicious names. One such jar associated with Hideyoshi was known as “Shoka” (Pine Blossom) and was described as: “a Luzon jar large enough to hold seven pounds of tea leaves, owned successively by Shuko, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi.” Other famous Luzon jars with names are “Renge-O” due to its markings of “O” (King) and lotus (Renge); “Seiko” (Pure perfume), and “Dai Roin” (Great Luzon).
It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that these Luzon jars were worth their weight in gold, but according to an extant bill of sale, in 1594, the Tsuruga merchant Kumiya Jinshiro sold seven Luzon jars in Kyoto for 13.4 mai (around 2.2 kilos or 5 pounds) of gold. Hideyoshi tried to establish a monopoly on the purchase of gold, mercury and Luzon jars that came by ship from Manila; thus, customs inspection was very thorough. Some merchants would throw the jars overboard before they reached the port, and these were fished out later under cover of darkness.
What did these Luzon jars have that made them so expensive? What made these jars so special traders would risk imprisonment, torture, or death just to smuggle them into Japan? Some rabidly nationalistic people would like us to believe that these jars were made in the Philippines. Perhaps the lolos or grandfathers of the coarse, dark “burnay” jars of the Ilocos?
Well, almost all the Japanese sources agree that the Luzon jars were not made in the Philippines and were actually Chinese provincial ware of the Song/Sung (1260-1279) or Yuan (1279-1368) periods sourced from Luzon. These documented jars with a long history are considered important cultural objects or “meibutsu,” and I can only hope to undertake more research and photograph at least one fully documented Luzon jar during my present appointment as visiting professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
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