Japanese bronze mirror

Contributed by British Museum

Click on the image to zoom in. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

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This bronze mirror was found in the 'mirror-pool' at the shrine on Mount Haguro, where it was thrown, along with hundreds of other mirrors, as an offering. The back is decorated with two dancing cranes - symbols of long life and marital fidelity in Japan. The other side is undecorated and was polished to create a reflective surface. Mirrors were first imported from China in AD 300. They were associated with the sun-goddess Amaterasu, ancestress of the Japanese emperors, because of their ability to reflect light.

What was Japan like when the mirror was made?

For many centuries Japan was influenced by China. Then, in AD 894, the Heian emperor took the momentous decision to cease contact with China. For the next three centuries Japanese culture developed in isolation. The Heian court during this period became renowned for its style and aestheticism. Courtiers communicated by writing poetry and held incense fragrance contests. It was during this period that the Tale of Genji was written, arguably the world's first novel.

Even today the mirror of Amaterasu enshrined at Isé is the most sacred physical object in Japan

A mirror into the ancient world

Today the mirror is part of the daily routine. Stumbling into the bathroom in the morning, once again we see our own reflections. Cheap, ubiquitous, industrially manufactured, glass mirrors are a product of the past few centuries.

Before that mirrors were rare and expensive objects and their reflective surfaces were perceived in multiple ways in many sectors of society, taking on religious, magical and artistic functions.

The oldest known mirrors date to around 6,000 BC from the site of Çatal Hüyük in modern-day Turkey. Around 3,000 years later the Egyptians made metal mirrors from highly polished copper and bronze, as well as precious metals.

Metal mirrors spread throughout much of the ancient world of Europe and Asia and are found in the graves of Iron Age Britons, Kurgan graves in the Russian Steppes, and as far afield as China and Japan. In Central and South America cultures such as the Olmecs and Moche made mirrors from highly polished stone, for example obsidian.

The first glass mirrors were made by the Romans. The methods of making these convex mirrors changed little until fifteenth-century Venetian glass makers perfected a technique for making larger, flat glass mirrors.

As we are so used to seeing images of ourselves in mirrors and photographs, it is difficult to imagine a world without reflections. Using a mirror meant that for the first time people were no longer reliant on others to tell them how they looked.

Mirrors therefore became important social objects allowing people to monitor physical appearance and apply cosmetics.

In Egypt mirrors were popular with both sexes. Etruscan mirrors on the other hand were associated with women. Often these objects were beautifully decorated. Iron Age British mirrors were inscribed with abstract Celtic art motifs. Chinese and Japanese mirrors were decorated with naturalistic depictions of flora and fauna.

In addition to cosmetic uses, the reflective plate of a mirror acts to extend the realms of ‘normal’ human physical experience. For example, a mirror allows you to see behind as well as in front. In the Greco-Roman world looking backwards was linked to looking into the future or the past and the reflection from a mirror was used in divination. Mirrors were lowered into water and the reflections ‘read’. Alternatively mirrors were used to evoke light or the vehicle of the soul.

Owning a mirror was said to be one of the traits of a ‘magician’ in the Roman world. In other cultures a round mirror was seen as a miniature version of the sun or the moon.
Perhaps these ‘otherworldly’ associations are the source of modern folklores about mirrors – in Britain today we still see breaking a mirror as bad luck.

Jody Joy, curator, British Museum

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 15:20 on 25 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    I?m not so convinced that the cranes are carrying pine needles as an allegory for long life. I?m not convinced because they are the oddest looking pine needles I?ve ever seen. Are you sure your researcher consulted Kew first.
    If you?d ask me I?d have said that the nipple created to facilitate a draw string for the mirror represented the finest opportunity to the master craftsman who made the mirror to demonstrate his appreciation for the sublime sophistication of the society his craft was required for. It is clearly the nest of the cranes. Who are themselves pleasingly and informingly arranged around it engaged in clearing the space the nesting sites these majestic birds always have in attendance resulting from the nest building itself. The allegory, if there is one, is about harmony with nature?.The Japanese idyll no less.
    Paul Johngard writes in his Cranes of the World..? Masatomi (1970-1972) believes that the female probably chooses the nesting site, but both sexes help build the nest, with the male primarily cutting the materials and the female placing them on the nest?.. As the nest is constructed, an open area around it is formed because of the cutting or pulling of reeds and grass. The diameter of this open space may be about 4 to 5 meters, and several paths often radiate from the area out into the reeds, reflecting the birds' movements.?
    Tellingly, there is no mention of Pine tree or needle in his book. On the subject of habitat he writes ?Viniter (1981) similarly estimated that the territories of three pairs ranged from about 4 to 12 square kilometers, and consisted of tussocky cottonsedge marshes mixed with oak-birch islands, these also containing a sparse undergrowth of shrubs and saplings.?
    On the subject of food he writes..? Rather little is known of natural foods of this species. ?Masatomi and Kitagawa (1974) stated that in Japan the natural plant foods so far known include parsley, some water plants, carrot, pasture plants, the young buds of reed, the inflorescence of Potamogeton, acorns and buckwheat. Animal foods?? Be honest, the plants do look rather more like water plants don?t they?
    So has the Master Craftsman cleverly intimated to several activities for which the mirror might be useful. Both formal, informal and even the intimate all at the same time? I think he has. After all a mirror is for preparing oneself to attend or attend to whatever may be the occasion looking immaculate ?as usual?as anticipated?.as expected ?and as demanded ?even in Death itself.
    It wouldn?t surprise me to hear that it was a custom to show the deceased a last reflection of themselves before commencing their funereal ceremony. And the mirror afterwards it would naturally follow that such a person?s mirror, thus containing within it the sum of all the owners? most treasured anticipations reflecting also the final anticipation of a life beyond death itself, should be put beyond use thereafter. What better place to place it than deep in natures? most private abode, in the words of the world?s most memorable hyku - The ?Ancient Pond?. Wasn?t that always the old way of thinking before grave robbing became a nation?s aspiration? ?????plop?

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  • 2. At 08:54 on 26 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    I would like to apologise for leaving such an un-polished comment. I?m afraid it was rather hurried. And just as I dumped it on you, in my hurry to get back to my chores, it also occurred to me that I had missed further symbolism .
    It suddenly occurred to me that one of the reasons Japan may have decided to close its borders to the outside world was to maintain standards of excellence and to protect itself from cheap imports from China. China could no doubt have produced cheaper copies of inferior mirrors to flood the Japanese market. This would have led to a lowering of standards such that it became tempting to substitute the really beautifully crafted Japanese mirrors for cheap imports with their inferior reflective surfaces (or no reflective surface) , thus lowering the standard of a real ceremony to a ritual ceremony.
    Of course this decay in standards might have already begun and this mirror might be one of a consignment of cheap Chinese copies deliberately dumped in protest.
    Or for that matter I hear metals (especially iron) keep much better under anaerobic conditions such as is found in deep, still or boggy water. So they might have been hidden by a merchant who was keen to safe guard them for the future. How could you tell either way?

    Thank you. I am so enjoying your programmes. Sincerely,

    p.s. (Incidentally, I always fancied that a strong practical reason for keeping swords and knives etc. in bogs, under bridges and such like, apart from to hide them, was to prevent their sharp cutting edges from rusting so quickly. Something one imagines becoming a necessity for brigands, fugitives and freedom fighters alike when ownership is outlawed and life is being lived on its edge.)

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  • 3. At 17:53 on 10 July 2010, Sue wrote:

    The Kagami (mirror) lake is at the top of Mt Haguro, whereas the large red bridge (which must be the one built in the early C20th) is at the bottom of the 2246 stone steps. I don't recall any bridge at the top. So the pond must have been drained at the time of the bridge being built, rather than as part of the bridge works.

    Those are definitely pine needles. If in any doubt, try cross referencing them with other depictions of pine in Heian and later Japanese art.

    Very interesting and enjoyable series!

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  • 4. At 21:43 on 17 August 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Hi Sue. It is good to hear from you. Let us ask for a botanical opinion. The British Museum used to pride itself on its botanical collection and was leading the field until it was usurped by Kew. Come on BM. Come on Kew. I reckon the vegitation on the mirror looks nearer to a styalised Water Crow's Foot frond or Japanese equivalent. As for trusting assumtions based on expert opinion based on expert opinion based on expert opinion....we've all been there before. (shades of Iraq WMD might be pitching it a bit strong but... there's no harm in asking for a fresh opinion is there?)

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