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Tsuba: A Guide on Japanese Sword Guards

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: June 9, 2022
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

An essential part of the Japanese sword, the tsuba or handguard protected the samurai’s hand. Tsuba artisans soon produced ornamental styles, which became family heirlooms. Most of these designs reflect the mythology, legends, customs, religion, and artistic side of Japan.

Today, the Japanese tsuba are now collector’s items in their own right. Knowing the history and distinctive characteristics of these sword guards may inspire you to build your collection or personalize your Japanese sword for training.

Characteristics of the Japanese Tsuba

Mounted between the handle and the blade, the tsuba protects the user’s hand. Without it, the sword loses much of its efficiency. A Japanese tsuba must be crafted from high-quality materials with good design and craftsmanship.

Metal and Structure

Originally, tsuba makers created handguards by welding together steels of different hardness, then twisting and deforming them in various ways. The material should have the strength to withstand impact, and the most commonly used alloys are shakudo and shibuichi.

Shakudo

Sword Guard (Tsuba) With Pine Motif
Sword Guard (Tsuba) With Pine Motif ( Source)

A term that literally means black gold, the shakudo is a copper alloy that contains small amounts of gold, at least 4 percent. The metal combination gives a jet black color or a blue-black color, sometimes known as crow’s gold, referring to its resemblance to the bird’s plumage. 

Shibuichi

Sword guard (Tsuba) With Flower Basket Motif
Sword guard (Tsuba) With Flower Basket Motif ( Source)

A harder alloy than shakudo, the shibuichi contains silver about a quarter of its weight. Its composition varies and usually contains copper, lead, zinc, or tin. When treated, its surface can have a brown to bright gray color.

Size and Shape

Most of the time, the Japanese tsuba are disk-shaped and elliptical. Some have a rectangular shape, often with rounded corners and slightly curved sides. On the other hand, the mokko is a four-lobed shape handguard. The tsuba ideal for battle or training must have the appropriate size and shape to protect the hand.

Design and Craftsmanship

Early 19th century Tsuba
Early 19th century Tsuba ( Source)

On the artistic side, we have to consider the beauty of the design, including its surface texture and color. Tsuba artisans created sword guards using precious metals, like silver and gold, and colored stones. Sword guards with elaborate cut-outs are called sukashi tsuba, which feature designs in either positive or negative silhouettes.

However, some designs are the least functional and purely decorative. A handguard with colorful stones or high relief carving may be great for collection but is not the best for battle or training.

Parts of the Japanese Tsuba

The Japanese sword guard is both decorative and functional. Here are the main parts of tsuba and their functions:

Seppa-dai

The washer seat called seppa-dai is the oval outline at the center of tsuba. It is not always present, but if it is, usually left unadorned. The washer or spacer called seppa covers the area, and placed on each side of the sword guard to ensure a tight fit. Some handguards feature their artist’s signature or mei on the backside.

Nakago ana

The nakago ana is the hole at the center of the tsuba that accommodates the sword tang. For the Japanese katana or wakizashi, which warriors slung on the belt with its edge facing up, the nakago ana often aligns, so the edge also points upwards.

Hitsu-ana

Some sword guards will have at least one of these smaller openings, but others have none. Tsuba artisans usually crafted matching small and large handguards for the pair of swords called daisho. The sword guards were not necessarily identical, but they often had the same theme.

For the short sword wakizashi, its tsuba generally features two hitsu-ana—the kozuka hitsu-ana on the left and the kogai-hitsu-ana on the right. The former is the opening that accommodates the kozuka or the handle of a utility knife, while the latter is the hole for the pin-like accessory called kogai. However, the katana tsuba rarely featured the holes as a long sword would not need an auxiliary knife.

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Hira

The surface of the tsuba is called hira, which usually has a hammered or polished finish. Most iron tsuba used smooth plates and relied on decorations, from carving to inlays or openwork. Also, the patina or surface coloration gives the sword guard its beauty.

Mimi

The rim of the tsuba is called mimi, sometimes folded or raised. The thickness of the rim may vary, and some may feature subtle patterns inlaid in gold.

Facts About the Japanese Tsuba

Unlike other sword fittings that are purely ornamental, the tsuba on Japanese samurai swords is essential. Here are the things you need to know about the sword guard:

The tsuba was the earliest fitting used in Japanese swords.

The first sword guards were simple, commonly thin steel plates for utility. Soon, the makers began to vary the surface textures and edges by skillful hammerwork. The sukashi tsuba that features cut-out designs is also the earliest artistically decorated sword guard.

The samurai often changed their sword mountings, especially the tsuba.

The Japanese blades are removable from the rest of the sword. So, the samurai often reset them in new sword mountings, consisting of the tsuka or hilt, the tsuba, and the saya or scabbard. Many of them have several designs in reserve, which allows them to personalize their swords each day of the year. Hence, there was also a lively trade in Japanese sword parts, including the tsuba.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, sword guards became too delicate or elaborate.

Some tsuba designs were good, but others were unsuitable for use. Tsuba artisans used several techniques in their works, such as inlaying colored stones, pearls, amber, and ivory.

Some tsuba artisans also crafted menuki and fuchi-kashira.

The elaborate mounting called koshirae even featured other metal ornaments like the kashira, a pommel cap at the top of the hilt and the fuchi, a collar at the base of the handle. Also, the menuki is a metal ornament on the side of the handle. However, some koshirae for tanto dagger had no tsuba.

The Japanese tsuba is an artwork on its own.

As the most notable sword fitting, the tsuba allowed artisans to express their skills. The Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai or NBTHK evaluates the sword guard and provides origami, or certificate of its value and quality. The Kinko Meikan also rates the tsuba or sword fitting makers, from Ryoko, meaning a good artist, to Meijin, a superior master.

History of the Japanese Tsuba

Early Japanese tsuba designs were relatively plain and only became more decorative later. When the manufacture of sword guards became a separate profession, schools for tsuba-making emerged and tsuba artisans were able to produce very characteristic guards.

Early Designs of Japanese Tsuba

Early Design of Japanese Tsuba
ca. 3rd century–538 ( Source)

During the Kofun period from 250 to 538 CE, the toran-kai tsuba, sometimes called inverted egg tsuba, were common. The earliest tsuba was iron-made, found in the 8th-century burial mounds and earlier.

Three tsuba in tachi-mokkō-gata
Three tsuba in tachi-mokkō-gata ( Source)

By the Heian period from 794 to 1185, the classic hollyhock-shaped tsuba called aoi-gata emerged. Westerners often describe these sword guards as having a heart shape in each corner. This handguard style was not uncommon on tachi swords throughout history.

From 1185 to 1333, Kamakura-period tsuba featured pierced designs, in which early makers paid attention to the edges to create effects. Some of them were sword makers, armorers, and even mirror makers.

Schools of Specialized Tsuba Makers

During the Muromachi period, around 1392 to 1573, the Japanese tsuba featured carved and inlaid designs. Tsuba artisans like Kaneiye, Nobuiye, and Umetada crafted distinctive iron guards. Kaneiye was the first to inlay sword guards with silver, gold, and featured figures or landscapes in his designs. Schools of specialized tsuba makers also started to emerge.

The Goto School

Sword Guard (Tsuba) 19th century Inscribed by Gotō Mitsuakira
19th century, Inscribed by Gotō Mitsuakira ( Source)

The Goto family began its work in the 15th century but only crafted sword guards until much later. Their earlier works were limited to bronze and gold ornaments. Eventually, they developed the fundamental methods and techniques of working metals and inspired several decorative sword guards done by later tsuba artisans.

The Nara School

Sword guard (Tsuba) Depicting Hanshan and Shide
Sword guard (Tsuba) Depicting Hanshan and Shide ( Source)

One of the offshoots of Goto was the Nara school in the early 17th century. The school portrayed pictorial subjects in less conventional ways than the Goto. Toshinaga Tahei was a very skillful chaser in high relief, while Sigura Joi did outstanding designs in low relief and engraving.

The Soten School

Sword Guard (Tsuba) Depicting Guo Jù
Sword Guard (Tsuba) Depicting Guo Jù ( Source)

Their designs depicted figures full of individuality and highlighted the scenes from the civil wars. Unfortunately, the popularity of their style resulted in low-quality imitations, which gave the school a bad reputation.

The Yokoya School

At the end of the 17th century, Soyo I founded the Yokoya School. As a tsuba artisan to the Shogun, he was one of the most celebrated Japanese artisans. The school produced both elaborate and functional handguards.

The Kinai Masters

Sword Guard (Tsuba) 18th century
( Source)

From the 17th to the 19th century, the Kinai masters popularized delicate pierced carving with little or no gold inlay, and the Kinai dragons were their best work.

The 17th-Century Nanban-Style Tsuba

Sword Guard (Tsuba) Depicting Biting Lion Heads (Shikami) and Arabesques
Sword Guard (Tsuba) Depicting Biting Lion Heads (Shikami) and Arabesques ( Source)

Today, the Japanese tsuba that shows strong foreign influence is referred to as nanban tsuba, which means Southern barbarian sword guards. At some point, the Japanese acquired a taste for imported Chinese saber guards called dao hushou, so they eventually used them on their swords.

When the Japanese started to craft their tsuba, many featured a strong Chinese influence. Some Japanese craftsmen crafted nanban tsuba, but some originated outside of Japan. Most sword guards feature Chinese motifs like dragons, phoenixes, and scrolling plant patterns.

Edo-Period Japanese Tsuba

Tsuba 19th century Inscribed by Ishiguro Masayoshi
Tsuba, 19th century Inscribed by Ishiguro Masayoshi ( Source)

As Japan entered the more peaceful Edo period, from 1603 to 1867, the tsuba became more of an artwork rather than functional tools of war. Without battles to fight, the samurai favored more elaborate designs inspired by mythology, nature, and religion. In this time period, the most complex and ornate sword guards were produced bv and tsuba artisans also started to sign their works.

Conclusion 

Designed to protect the warrior’s hand, the Japanese tsuba originally had utilitarian designs. Today, these sword guards are artworks in their own right and are widely collected. Many collectors value the antique tsuba, but several modern replicas can be functional for training swords.

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