Since Izanagi's legendary removal of the "Herb- Quelling-Great-Sword" from the tail of the Heavenly Dragon, the sword has been revered as one of the three symbols of the imperial regalia, cherished as a hereditary patrimony and awarded for feudal services in lieu of titles, land, or cash. Therefore, it is not surprising that the sword's various components were of the highest quality and workmanship. The extravagant enrichment of sword mounts was also a means of compensation for the unique lack of personal adornment characteristic of the Japanese warrior.

The guard for the hand (TSUBA) is the largest of the sword's fittings, and offered a convenient area upon which the Japanese metalsmiths could express the full scope of their ingenuity. The incredible skill often employed in the technical treatment of tsuba was matched by the clever designs in which the difficult medium of metal was worked.

The smiths drew inspiration for their themes from folk tales, historical events, religion, heraldry, nature, and the works of the greatest Chinese and Japanese painters. Our appreciation of the difficulty of the guard maker's task increases as one considers the physical limitations of shape, size, and function with which the tsuba challenged the creativity of the maker.

Prior to the 16th century, most of the early tsuba were thick, unsigned, well-forged iron products from the swordsmith's and armor maker's anvil which were provided to customers with the purchase of each blade. Inevitably, as decorative techniques developed requiring more artistic skill, the makers of tsuba became specialists. They in turn were eclipsed by the metal carvers of the later centuries whose creations were considered worthy of contemporary appreciation as objects of art, independent of the sword.

Tsuba are identified as belonging to one of five general shapes: Round - These are the majority with circular variations tending to an elliptical or chrysanthemum form.
Square - These frequently occur with rounded corners and less often in octagonal, hexagonal, and lozenge form.
Mokko - These are four lobed and derive their name from the cross section of the tree melon. There are many Mokko variations.
Aoi - This is a variation of the Mokko shape which takes its name from the four heart-shaped lobes or evenly spaced heart-shaped "Wild-Boar's Eye" (INOME) perforations resembling the leaves of the assarum (AOI) plant.
Shitogi -These tsuba resemble a shinto religious rice cakeoffering shaped by squeezing a handful of boiled rice and were used primarily on ceremonially mounted swords.
In addition to the five general types listed above, tsuba can be found in a myriad of irregular shapes limited only by the imagination of the artist.

It is usually on the Seppa Dai (see diagram) that the artist will place his professional signature and any other information he deems of significance, such as the province or town in which he was living, his age, the date of manufacture or who the guard was made for.

On either side of the central Nakago Ana will usually be found additional openings (Ryohitsu) through which extend the handles of the utility knife (Kodzuka) and skewer (Kogai), often found in side pockets of the scabbard when a blade of less than two feet in length is fully mounted as a short sword (Wakazashi). The opening for the skewer (Kogai Bitsu) is differentiated from the semicircular Kodzuka Bitsu by either its smaller size or trefoil (suhama) shape. The edge of the Ryohitsu of iron tsuba might scratch or cause excessive wear to soft metal handles of the Kodzuka or Kogai and are therefore lined with a similarly soft metal (sekigane). If the tsuba was mounted on a long sword whose blade exceeded two feet in length (katana), the unnecessary opening of the Kogai Bitsu if present, might be filled with a copper or pewter (Sawari) plug (Hitsu Ume) since the Katana was not provided with Kogai and only seldom with Kodzuka.

The Muromachi period (1392-1573) provides many examples of iron Katchushi (Armor maker) and Onin (named after the Onin wars) which are little more than large discs of wrought iron, decorated with small pierced designs (Sukashi) and limited amounts of inlay (Zogan). The production of crude inlays of brass nail heads, wire cable and staples (Mukade Zogan) was encouraged by the influential patronage of the 16th-century warlord, Takeda Shingen (1521-1573). During the continuous civil warfare of the Muromachi and Momoyama periods (1392-1615) known as the "Age of Battles", tsuba remained sturdy, functional and relatively plain, giving rise to only minor variations in shape.

The 17th century opened with Tokugawa Ieyasu established as Shogun in the new capital of Edo (Tokyo) from where he ruled over a unified Japan. Unification brought an end to the "Age of Battles" and ushered in two hundred fifty years of peace. The change in political climate dictated a change in sword mounting style from utilitarian and menacing to a style appropriate for appearances before the shogun or the imperial court.

The tasteful and sophisticated work of the Goto family whose raised relief gold decoration on a quiet back-ground of soft metal was well suited to this new formal atmosphere. The Goto style influenced many offshoot schools such as the Ishiguro and Iwamoto. Iron tsuba and other sword mounts became more elaborate in decoration and delicate in execution, appealing more to the esthetic senses than to the dictates of practicality.

Governmental policies of the late 16th and early 17th centuries restricted the flow of foreign trade permitted to enter Japan. Chinese and "Southern Barbarian" (Namban) merchants from Holland and Portuguese Goa were permitted to enter their goods only through the provincial Hizen seaport of Nagasaki. As a result of new influences exerted on local craftsmen, aroused no doubt by a natural curiosity and fascination in the antics, customs and weapons of the Europeans, such artists as Yoshitsugu of Nagasaki among others, developed a collective style of decoration that combined European elements with Chinese dragonlore and flowery scroll and tendril designs in the distinctive Namban style. They made use of a brittle, fibrous iron, piercing (Sukashi) and overlay (Nunome) to highlight entwined dragons and produce floral filigree, multi-animal designs, beaded rims and decorated rectangular Seppa Dai by which their styles are recognizable.

As the 17th century continued, the expansion of the creative arts was marked by a more decorative phase which, by the 18th century, had taken the form of greater refinement in technique and more colorful and lavish use of precious metals. The exquisite workmanship which thus emerged in the 18th century was achieved through use of more easily worked metals such as gold (kin), silver (Gin) and the specialized copper alloys of Shakudo (30% to 70% gold), and Shibuichi (25% silver). Upon contact with certain pickling solutions, whose compositions were jealously guarded secrets, these alloys acquire a wide range of color from the lustrous blue-black hue of Shakudo to the burnished pewter appearance of Shibuichi.


Questions or feedback? Email me!