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
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:
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
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.