Tsuba (sword guards) are used to protect the hand from sliding onto the blade of a Japanese sword. They are art works in their own right and are widely collected. Some koshirae (sword mounts), mostly tanto, were made without tsuba (aikuchi koshirae). Tsuba were mostly made by specialized kodogu and tosogu (sword fittings) artists (see schools of tsuba artists), although some sword makers produced tsuba (tosho tsuba) as did armour makers (katchushi tsuba). Some tsuba artists also made fuchi-kashira and menuki. In some cases the maker used a forged, folded plate; in other cases a homogeneous plate was used. Many tsuba are signed by the maker on the seppa-dai (area around the nakago ana). When mounted, the tsuba seppa-dai is covered by seppa (metal spacers) and the signature (mei) is not visible. Occasionally tsuba will be found with two small holes near the base of the tsuba. These are udenuki-ana which represent the sun and moon and were likely used for threading a leather wrist thong to prevent dropping the sword in battle.
Tsuba are commonly divided into two types; iron (tetsu) and soft metal (kinko). The kinko tsuba may be made of a variety of alloys; most commonly either shaduko (blue-black colored copper-gold alloy), sentoku (brown colored copper-lead-zinc alloy), shibuichi (gray colored copper-silver alloy), brass or copper. Both iron and kinko tsuba may have various carved and/or applied decor and/or cut-out designs (sukashi). Tsuba with extensive cut-out designs are commonly referred to as "sukashi tsuba". Depending on the style, the sukashi may depict designs in either positive or negative silhouette. See more examples of various styles of tsuba.
The most common shapes of tsuba are round (maru gata), rounded-square (kaku gata) and four lobed (mokko) with many variations within each basic design. The patina (surface coloration) gives the tsuba its beauty. Never clean tsuba or any sword fitting with metal polish, it will remove the patina and destroy the beauty and value of the item. Be aware that there are many modern replica and reproduction tsuba of varying quality on the market. These are excellent for mounting on martial arts swords, but are not considered collectible.
In addition to origami by the NBTHK, NTHK and others, tsuba and kodogu (sword fittings) makers are commonly rated using the Kinko Meikan by Masumoto and Kokubo (translated by Yumoto and Harvie). This reference uses the following ranking scale:
During the late Edo, Meiji and Showa periods there were many cast copies of early tsuba made for the export market. These should not be confused with earlier originals. Cast copies will generally have casting flanges on the inner edges of the hitsu-ana and/or sukashi regions and bubble pits visible on the flat surfaces. There are antique cast iron (kettle caster) tsuba, although it is debated if such ever existed, and antique cast copper/bronze (kagamishi) tsuba; however good, authentic examples are rare.
There are also numerous modern made fake tsuba and copies of old tsuba on the market today, many coming from China / Hong Kong / Shanghai and sold on various online auctions. The collector must be aware of these modern copies and fakes. Do not confuse them with the real Japanese tsuba. The same guidelines apply to fake tsuba as with fake swords.
Nihon To Koza Vol VI, Kodogu Part I, translated by Harry Afu Watson
Kinko Meikan by Masumoto and Kokubo (translated by Yumoto and Harvie)
Tsuba, An Aesthetic Study by Kazutaro Torigoye and Rebert E. Haynes
See the books page for more books on tsuba.
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