Sukashi Tsuba in Late 16th Century Kyoto and Owari

Classicism, Cross-fertilization and Decline


Jim Gilbert



The late Muromachi and Momoyama periods are a brief but especially rewarding era in the study of Japanese sword mountings.  This time of political and cultural transition gave birth to new developments in the arts.  The katana and later its shorter companion sword the wakizashi were worn as a pair by men of resources, taste and influence who demanded high quality sword fittings in the latest styles.  While golden splendor continued to capture many eyes, there was also appreciation of the more subdued wabi/sabi aesthetic very much influenced by tea culture.  Objects that embodied these qualities were highly sought after.  We will look briefly at the classic sukashi (openwork) tsuba styles of Kyoto and Owari and consider their possible mutual influences and eventual decline.



Kyo-sukashi tsuba are openwork sword guards named for Kyoto, which was long the capital city of Japan.  While Kamakura in the east had been the seat of the Shogunate and center of warrior (buke) culture for 150 years, it was in decline by the 14th C, with Kyoto becoming the heart of not only the high culture of the court (kuge), but of the buke as well.  By the late Muromachi period, Kyoto recovered from the earlier disruption of urban warfare, and became the political, commercial and cultural center of Japan for the next 100 years.  This combination of court and warrior influences brought an elegant and even delicate design with refined execution to the iron sword guards of the capitol.  These tsuba were probably owned by fashionable, or at least status-conscious bushi of relatively high rank. 

Regarding samurai fashion, Alan Kennedy writes in his Japanese Costume, History and Tradition: “The Keicho kenbunki of 1614 provides an account… related to dress, ‘Not only the great warlords of today but warriors of every class are concerned with beauty, wearing colorfully woven and embroidered fine silks.  The warriors also decorate themselves according to their status, carefully making up their appearance, and spending all their pay on clothing.’” 

While citing a document from just a bit later than our area of focus, it seems likely that the selection of appropriate sword furniture was at least as important to the urban warriors of late 16th C Kyoto as the clothing they wore.  The choice of sword fittings was not only an aesthetic decision limited by finances, but may also have been dictated by what was appropriate to one’s position within the social and political warrior hierarchy.  When we look at the highly decorated examples of the surviving clothing of the top military men of the late Muromachi and Momoyama period Kyoto, these Kyo-sukashi guards are subdued by comparison.  The highly refined carving and sumptuous gold overlay metal work of the Ko-Kinko workers on black shakudo plate (an black-patinated alloy of copper, gold and trace metals), and perhaps Heianjo zogan guards with pictorial brass inlay on iron seem to share the aesthetic of these highly ornamented garments.  Those colorful tsuba may have been what was worn by members of the upper ranks who wanted to show their wealth and position.

Of course the most expensive garments are the most likely to be preserved and handed down, so what remains for us today probably represents the most elaborate work of the time.  Perhaps Kyo-sukashi guards were worn by the upper ranks with their more conservative daily clothing or on occasions when they wanted to emphasize their military role rather than show off their splendor.  Or they may have been owned by a slightly lower rank for whom showy and expensive gold or brass was not appropriate or affordable.  Certainly it is the iron sukashi guards that express what we think of as the ethics and philosophy of the bushi.

The iron plate that serves at the ground metal for Kyo-sukashi openwork guards is very uniformly forged and is relatively soft.  These properties would be required to successfully cut out the fine sukashi designs.  Any void or significant irregularity in the body of the iron would make forming continuous fine lines impossible.  Extra effort in the preparation of a perfect plate would be necessary to avoid days or weeks of wasted work when a problem with the iron was uncovered in cutting the openwork.  Harder iron would also make the cutting more difficult, and would likely result in a tsuba that would be too delicate and prone to breakage in actual use.

The openwork of Kyo guards is in the ji sukashi, or positive relief style.  Here the ground is cut away to leave the design in iron.  This is the reverse of the negative relief, or mon sukashi type of work usually seen in the so-called Ko-Tosho and Ko-Katchushi style guards.  The walls of the sukashi are generally cut quite straight and with crisp edges.  Fine surface carving is sometimes used, and occasionally even three-dimensional relief carving, maru bori, is seen in both very early and later examples.  Decorative inlay is not used.  Design motifs involving plants, mon (family crests), etc. were very popular and were produced with variations over hundreds of years.  Many of these pictorial motifs are also commonly seen in clothing from the late Muromachi and Momoyama periods.

These tsuba are usually round, although variations on mokko (lobed shapes) are seen.  The diameter is moderate with most examples falling around 7.5 – 8.5 cm.  The thickness is also moderate at approximately 4-5 mm.  The rim is squared with some niku (slight rounding, literally meaning “meat”) or is rounded.  There are often signs of shaving or filing on the rims of later examples.  The seppa dai (the central oval surrounding the opening for the sword tang) is narrow and elongated, as are the hitsu ana (openings for the kozuka and kogai to either side of the seppa dai).  Some Muromachi period pieces will have oversized ana to accommodate the mounting of the very large kozuka or kogai that were sometimes used at the time.




Figure 1

Kyo-sukashi tsuba, mumei, late Muromachi

7.7 cm high x 7.7 cm wide x 0.45 cm thick

Figure 1. is a typical classic Kyo-sukashi guard of the period.  The openwork is almost impossibly delicate, to the point that it is remarkable that pieces like these have survived intact after over 400 years. The design is of the eight-planked bridge, birds and water that is known as yatsuhashi from the early literary work Ise Monogatari, however in this case there are no iris.  The bridge can be seen at the top, connected with the rim by two birds.  The water with a plant and one bird is at the bottom.  This is a variation of the often-seen design with curving iris at the left and right rather than the hard verticals tied to the rim by three birds each here. 

The large size of the kozuka ana and the eccentric rectangular shape for the kogai ana are sometimes seen during this period.  The rim (mimi) is rather square and looks like it may have been smoothed down, while the face still retains a slightly particulate quality to the iron. Many Kyo tsuba bear similar deep chisel marks around the nakago ana in specific patters. These are excessively deep when compared to the usually seen punching used to reduce the size of the opening in order to fit it to a smaller sword.  Why make risk making such deep marks on tsuba with delicate sukashi?  Perhaps they are the mark of a tsuba production shop, or that of koshirae fitting (sword mounting) business.  They predate the tagane mei (chisel signatures) seen in Higo works.



Figure 2

Kyo-sukashi tsuba, mumei, Momoyama

8.10 cm high x 8.10 cm wide x 0.45 cm thick

In figure 2 the yattsumokko gata (eight-lobed shape) is unusual, but is in keeping with the feeling of Kyo-sukashi design as is the motif of kiri mon (the flowers and leaves of the paulownia tree used as a family crest) in alternating solid and outline sukashi.  While still quite formal, both the design and the treatment of the iron are more relaxed and organic than in the guard in figure 1.  The solid figures have light kebori to represent the veins of the leaves.  In this case the mimi is rounded.  The hitsu ana are of typical shape, and of medium width for Kyo.  This is of course the style of ana that became standardized in the Edo period.  The elongated and narrow seppa dai is normally associated with the Kyo-sukashi style.  Repetition of patterns in eight is a recurring device in Japanese sword guards.  There is a symbolic resonance with Buddhist iconography and the ancient creation myths.



Figure 3

Kyo-sukashi, mumei, late Muromachi

7.4 cm high x 7.4 cm wide x 0.40 cm thick 

The guard in figure 3 has a seldom seen motif.  It may represent a stone garden path, or back-to-back no theater fans with a pattern of metal foil squares.  Either seems quite appropriate for upper class Kyoto military society.  The visual impact comes from the interrupted density of the rim and the delicacy in the elements connecting it to the seppa dai. This shows the well-forged iron of Kyoto with a meticulous finish. The rim is squared with slight niku and shows subtle tekkotsu, having not been smoothed down.  The kozuka-ana is narrow and elongated to accommodate the very low relief kozuka sometimes used.  The size and shape of kozuka and kogai became rather standardized in the Edo period, but in Muromachi times we see examples that are very large and others that are very small in comparison with average Edo pieces.  The height of the relief carving on the faces of the kozuka and kogai was similarly variable.  The openings we see in tsuba of this period were of course sized to fit the pieces they were to be mounted with.

Owari and Kanayama

Owari sukashi tsuba are named for the old province of Owari near present day Nagoya.  While lacking the elegance and refinement preferred in the capitol, many consider Owari tsuba to be the finest of the iron ji sukashi tsuba, best embodying the samurai aesthetic.  They are strong and direct, which is seen as in accord with ideal bushi behavior. They are known for bold, symmetric designs, hard, well-forged iron with conspicuous tekkotsu (high carbon content metal showing as smooth lumps in the rim).  The metal features in the sukashi designs are typically much wider than seen in Kyo tsuba.  The hitsuana and seppa dai tend to be broader as well.  As with Kyo-sukashi guards, these tsuba do not have metal inlay and are unsigned.  We do not know the names of the makers of any of these early sukashi tsuba.

The work style in Owari is somewhat more variable than among Kyo-sukashi tsuba.  We see guards that are both larger and rather small.  They are generally thicker than Kyo-sukashi guards, but the thickness also shows more variability.  Some thin either slightly or dramatically toward the center, others are of uniform thickness. Many in the West believe that the dished shape is the mark of a desirable Owari guard, but some of the best Owari tsuba in Japan have a uniform thickness. 

The classic description of the Owari tsuba includes bold tekkotsu on the rim, yet many that we find today show little to no evidence of these “iron bones.”  Design motifs also tend to be wider ranging than in Kyo-sukashi.  I imagine that within the capitol, the confines of what constituted good taste and current style were much more narrowly drawn than in the comparatively rustic Owari and Mino area.  There may also have been a more diverse group of artisans producing these guards.  While outside the scope of this article, other guard makers of the Owari area including Nobuie, Yamakichibei, Hoan, etc., also tended to use very strong, dense iron showing tekkotsu.  Some of these makers went even further in simplifying decoration and following “tea taste.” 

Where Kyo-sukashi tsuba depend mostly on the merits of the composition and cutting of the design, Owari area work often relies more on the character of the iron itself.  Where Kyo iron is homogenous and smoothly finished, Owari guards are often given a hammered or in the case of Kanayama, a melted finish with much modeling of the iron from prominent tekkotsu.  This harder, less homogenous iron probably required that wider and less delicate lines be cut.  Kanayama guards mark another step toward further simplification of the sukashi pattern and elaboration of the qualities of the iron itself.  The raw material and technology are completely interwoven with aesthetic solutions.

Figure 4

Owari sukashi tsuba, mumei, Momoyama

8.50 cm high x 8.50 cm wide x 0.60 cm thick 

The kiri mon motif of the guard illustrated in figure 4 is shared with the example in figure 2, but there is little else in common between the two.  Here the kiri are enclosed within a strong diagonal grid that is physically and visually much heavier than anything we have seen in Kyoto workmanship.  Even the carving of the leaf veins is far bolder.  The seppa dai is broad and the mimi is thick and quite square with slight niku.  The iron is very dense and evidence of many folds can be seen in the walls of the openwork.  As with most Owari work, the visual message of this guard is about strength rather than elegance.  Good, early Owari tsuba are relatively rare in comparison with the other types.

Kanayama guards are also from the Owari area, but have a number of distinguishing characteristics.  Most Kanayama tsuba are relatively small but thick, and have simple, often difficult-to-interpret designs. The surface texture of the iron is usually highly modulated and shows pronounced tekkotsu. Some of these tsuba appear to have been finished by slightly melting the surface after forging and shaping. This brings out tekkotsu from the high carbon inclusions in the iron. The surfaces resemble the high-fired glazes of the Mino and Seto ceramic kilns in the area. 

Some of the older references identify Kyoto as the origin of Kanayama tsuba, but Akiyama's work and most subsequent research connects them with the Owari sukashi style and a place of origin in Owari or perhaps Mino. Some early texts refer to Kanayama tsuba as very thin, and being too weak, due to excessive open work, to be functional guards. We have to wonder whether the name Kanayama was used in reference to a different type of tsuba at one time.  What we usually call Kanayama today are among the strongest and most reliable sukashi guards.  It is interesting the Kanayama iron does not seem to be as hard as Owari, but the finished product shows an equal or greater intensity of tekkotsu.  This may be due to the heat treatment process.




Figure 5

Kanayama tsuba, mumei, mid Muromachi

7.5 cm high x 7.5 cm wide x 0.50 mm thick

As sometimes happens with Kanayama tsuba, to describe the guard in figure 5 we have to fall back on schematic terms of concentric circles and cross bars, because it is not clear what the design is intended to represent.  The quality of the tsuba is quite certain, however and is a good study for Kanayama.  The tekkotsu on rim are of both the linear and the lump type and some are prominent enough to be easily visible even from the front in this illustration.  Tekkotsu are also exposed on the face of the guard and in places actually distort the outline of the openwork.  The rotation of the axes of the design relative to the centerline of the nakago ana is typical of the aesthetic of this time period.  The bubbly, distorted surface, the asymmetry and eccentricities are strong in the “tea taste” of the time.  While the design is quite simple, there is a great deal to enjoy in the subtle irregularities of shape and the texture and activity of the iron.

Figure 6

Kanayama tsuba, mumei, late Muromachi

7.00 cm high x 7.05 cm wide x 0.65 cm thick

Both the face and mimi of the tsuba in figure 6 have very strong but natural tekkotsu. They are do not project from the surface as much as those of the previous guard.  The thickness of the rim makes a good canvas for their patterns.  The iron is very dense, making the tsuba surprisingly heavy for its size.  The plate is somewhat thinner at the seppa dai than at the mimi.  The hitsu-ana are joined to the mimi with myoga – ginger shoots.  The curved bars at the top and bottom define lobed shapes of unclear meaning.  This piece may be older than late Muromachi.  It is a very strong guard with a surface reminiscent of a black raku tea bowl.


Figure 7

Kanayama tsuba, mumei, Momoyama

7.3 cm high x 7.1 cm wide x 0.50 cm thick

The outline of the tsuba in figure 7 is in the shape of a peach.  Both the face and mimi again show conspicuous tekkotsu but these are more restrained and not as muscular as the above examples. The slender bottom of the seppa dai against the wide mass of the hitsu ana forms a strong, unique combination.  The four connecting elements in the sukashi design are probably pestles or weights.   This guard depends more on its crisp, direct openwork design than on overpowering iron, which is characteristic of the Momoyama period.

Adoption and cross-fertilization

We see some tsuba of this period that have characteristics of both Kyoto and Owari sukashi.  These guards can have the bold, symmetrical designs associated with the warrior aesthetic of Owari, but are instead executed in the softer iron of Kyoto.  Some simply look like more delicate versions of Owari tsuba.  Other designs use fine sukashi cutting like Kyo, but are finished with more texture and activity to the iron surface than the typical smooth finish of Kyoto work.  Are these Owari style guards made in Kyoto, or was the Kyo influence reaching the tsubako (guard makers) of the country towns?  Of course the fashions that arise in major urban centers usually later spread to the outlying areas, influencing their sense of style.  But was that the case here? 

We know that the ceramic wares of Mino and Seto near Owari were very popular with those practicing the tea ceremony in Kyoto.  Recent urban archaeology in Kyoto has unearthed large quantities of these and other ceramics in the basement storerooms of Momoyama period merchant establishments.  (See Louise Allison Cort’s article “Shopping for Pots in Momoyama Period Japan” in The Arts of Japan, An International Symposium.)  These pots and others from the countryside and foreign sources were highly appreciated and helped define a new aesthetic valuing the rustic and unaffected as much or more than the elegant and refined.  It appears that in at least this case, the capitol was appropriating the country wares and turning them into a fashion statement of their own.

Excavations of period kilns in the hills adjacent to Kyoto yield pottery shards suggesting that wares in the style of the Mino area were produced locally in quantity.  No doubt it was much easier and more profitable to fill the demand for the latest styles from local kilns rather than having to transport ceramics from a distant source.  Whether the original potters or some of the raw materials were brought to the Kyoto to produce these pots isn’t known.  It seems possible that some of these Kyo-Owari style guards were also produced in the capitol, filling the new demand for the “rustic” wabi/sabi aesthetic found in country work.

Figure 8

Owari-Kyo tsuba, mumei, Momoyama

8.5 cm high x 8.6 cm wide x 0.50 cm thick

In figure 8, the squared rim with slight niku, the rounded hitsu-ana and the broad seppa dai appear typically Owari, but the interconnecting elements are somewhat slender.  Based on the outline alone, it would probably still be safe to call it Owari sukashi. However, the iron has the softer, homogenous character of Kyoto, but is not finished so smoothly. It is very dense with a velvet, particulate texture.  This is a very well worked plate showing no flaws. The edges of the sukashi design of birds are rounded over slightly. Is it representative of Kyoto influence in Owari?  Local sources of iron ore, processing and forging techniques were probably slow to change, which seems to make it less likely to be Owari work.  Incorporating a new style of openwork cutting would be easier than changing the quality of the metal from what was normally used.  It is more likely that Owari sukashi design influences were introduced to the tsuba making shops in Kyoto.  As with tea wares, the local production of goods in the style of those that were being imported from outside the capitol may have extended to sword guards. 


Figure 9

Kyo-Owari tsuba, mumei, Momoyama

8.5 cm high x 8.4 cm wide x 0.45 cm thick 

The design motif in figure 9 is of four ken points interconnected by what might be birds but is more likely a Buddhist rosary. The cutting of the sukashi is of course much closer to Kyo than Owari style.  The rim here is slightly more slender and rounded than the preceding example.  The hitsu-ana are a bit wide for Kyo and the seppa dai is broad but still tapers toward the top.  The finishing of the iron shows more modulation and texture than typical for classic Kyo-sukashi, but the iron is certainly Kyoto style. It seems to be a Kyo-sukashi guard that has taken some ideas from Owari tsuba.  The balance of the styles works very well.

Figure 10

Kyo-Owari tsuba, mumei, Momoyama

8.4 cm high x 8.3 cm wide x 0.50 cm thick

In figure 10, the motif is Musashino, the grasses of the Musashi plains.  We can see blades of grass with five dewdrops and two ripe seed heads.  The rim is slightly rounded and is beautifully finished.  The size and shape of the hitsu-ana are similar to the guard in figure 9, but the seppa dai is a bit narrower in Kyoto style.  The texture of the iron is entirely Kyo, but the patina is rather blackish.  The design and overall feeling is Owari despite the delicacy.  Aspects of the sword guards from Owari appear to have been appropriated by a maker in Kyoto, but perhaps there is some other explanation.


The name Shoami is often translated as "one who is skilled in the arts." This term appears to have been in use at the time of the origin of the Ko-Shoami tsuba in the Muromachi period.  The use of the ami kanji implies more than mere skill; it also has religious connotations in relation with Amida Buddha and association with high warrior culture.   We know of many other “ami” serving the shogun and other high status military men of Kyoto -- the Honami sword appraisers, Kanami and Zeami in no drama, Noami, Geiami and Soami in painting and the Koami in lacquer.

Research on the Koami has shown that in addition to producing very high quality lacquer work of their own, they also acted as middlemen for procuring lacquer work of all quality for their high status customers.  They would be a single point of contact in filling their customers’ needs.  When top of the line work was called for, they would make it themselves.  When more utilitarian ware was needed, they would subcontract the work out to others.  We also know that some of the “ami” painters served as artistic advisors guiding the collection of early Chinese and Korean paintings in addition to creating works of their own.

It may be that the Shoami also served in this dual role for high buke customers.  They may have fulfilled orders both by creating fittings themselves and by subcontracting work out to other makers.  If this were the case, it would help explain why the name Shoami figures so prominently in the records of the time.  Robert Haynes comments "Dr. Torigoye in his studies of various daimyo (warlord) records, found that the only family name mentioned, in most cases was the Shoami."  Were the Shoami acting as middlemen for between the high buke customers and the makers Kyo, Owari, Kanayama and other styles of tsuba?  There is nothing about the quality or originality of the work of those other makers that is second to the Shoami, but it is possible that the Shoami held a position above them. 

Another idea that has been advanced is that they were all simply known as Shoami despite the differences in their characteristics that we base our connoisseurship on today.  However, if these were different groups working in different places, calling them all by the same name would only cause confusion, unless there was some common organization or head that was the contact point in Kyoto as hypothesized above.  On the other hand, if they were only group, as some believe, could they really have produced such a diverse body of work?  This idea of everything being Shoami doesn’t seem to hold much promise.

Yet another possibility is that the Shoami were the only independent group of makers and so were the only ones that received mention.  The makers of the Kyo-sukashi tsuba may have been retainers that were simply taken for granted as their output was already secured with a yearly stipend.  Owari tsuba and other goods from that region would have been brought to the capitol by merchants, which were beneath the notice of the daimyo or Shogunate.  Within this idea, the Shoami may well have held a position like the Koami, or may have been strictly fitting makers and not middlemen.  Unfortunately, we have no evidence that allows us to advance a certain theory.

The earliest Shoami tsuba, called Ko-Shoami (ko meaning old, pre-Edo period), were unsigned, like the other sukashi tsuba of the time. In addition to the iron Ko-Shoami ji sukashi guards we are focusing on here, there are both pierced and unpierced plates with colored metal inlay, particularly inlay applied with the nunome zogan technique (a method of attaching patterns in gold or silver foil to a crosshatched surface on the iron plate).  The Ko Shoami are believed to have originated in the Kyoto area.  The later examples with rich gold nunome inlay certainly seem consistent with Kyoto tastes and resources.  However, the early examples of Ko Shoami sukashi tsuba show characteristics of Owari area tsuba in their iron and the handling of the surface.  The designs are usually less rigid than what we see in Owari and the plates are generally thinner.  In many ways they seem to be in the middle ground between Kyo and Owari sukashi, but with designs of their own.


Figure 11

Ko-Shoami tsuba, mumei, late Muromachi

7.65 cm high x 7.50 cm wide x 0.50 cm thick


The guard in figure 11 has a sukashi design of ginger shoots forming the hitsu-ana, which are connected by 4 birds to the vertical and horizontal cross bars.  The workmanship and design is almost a cross between Kanayama and Kyo Sukashi.  The surface has a melted finish that is like a ceramic glaze.  It also has the asymmetry and the rotated axis of the Kanayama guard in figure 5.  We expect to see tekkotsu, but they are not there.  The iron appears consistent with that of Kyo-sukashi guards, yet the method of working it and the finishing seem more like Kanayama.  The sukashi motif has a basis in the simplicity of Kanayama, but is embellished in a loose Kyo style.  The rim has slight niku to it and inside portion is chiseled at a bevel, as we see in later Akasaka and Myochin work.  The marks left by the tool are clearly visible.  Perhaps we should expect to see diverse influences coming together in the center of culture and commerce.


Figure 12

Ko-Shoami, mumei, late Muromachi

6.9 cm high x 6.9 cm wide x 0.50 mm thick


The motif of the tsuba in figure 12 is four long-necked gourds.  The rim is square with some niku and shows linear and low bumped tekkotsu.  The iron is quite dense and has something of an Owari feel to it.  The seppa dai is proportionately broad.  The style of the hitsu-ana suggests that this may be older than late Muromachi.  Again, we see some of Owari and something of Kyoto but the result is clearly something different -- Shoami.


The exact nature of Ko-Shoami guards remains elusive and seems to float near the boarders of the Kyo and Owari styles.  Why was Shoami the one name that appears in the written records of the time?  Who were the makers and what were the connections between them and other contemporary fittings artisans?  Unfortunately we do not know any of their names and it seems unlikely that any documents will emerge to tell us.  While we can separate these guards into Kyo, Owari, Kanayama and Shoami types based on the characteristics of their iron, finishing and style of decoration, we cannot be certain of who actually made a given piece.


The move of the capitol to Edo, the establishment of a stable society, improved transportation and the movement of goods and people quickly changed swords and fittings in many ways.  The pure Kyo-Sukashi and Owari-Sukashi styles continued into the Edo period, but the exciting quality of Owari iron was quickly lost and the strength of the openwork designs faded.  The best of the original Owari qualities disappeared, but various makers continued to make different style tsuba in Owari. 


Kyo iron also diminished in quality during early Edo.  Many of the Kyo-Sukashi style tsuba after that time were probably not made in Kyoto.  While the Kyo style was preserved longer than that of Owari, they became shadows of the earlier tsuba, following conventional designs on mass-produced iron plate.  There was somewhat of a revival of style in the Daigoro work of the late Edo period.


Kanayama tsuba seem to have died out rather abruptly in the early Edo period.  Some have speculated that perhaps a particular type or source of iron ore that lent itself to the production of spectacular tekkotsu may have been exhausted.  A few Kanayama influenced designs can still be seen by the later part of early Edo, but the type of the iron is not the same.  The Kanayama style, along with Yamakichibei, Yagyu and other Owari area products, were revived in the late Edo period when numerous reproductions were made by the Norisuke and others.  These copies are still confusing collectors today.


The Shoami of course were a great success story.  They spread across Japan and we have a long list of regional names for the branches that they established.  The early Ko-Shoami sukashi style did not simply continue without modification, though.  The sukashi guards were decorated with gold nunome and began to show a lot of carving in the round.  Many styles of carved and inlayed pictorial designs were done on iron and soft metal plates as well.  Ultimately, even the Shoami schools were eclipsed by other groups and styles and were finally reduced to mass production of low quality guards in Mito and Aizu.


There is still disagreement about the dating of the earliest Kyo-Sukashi, Owari, Kanayama and Ko-Shoami guards.  Traditional dates were placed around the middle to late Muromachi period.  The late Sasano-sensei’s many years of research led him to establish the earliest guards of each of these groups at the beginning of the Muromachi period.  The current consensus in Japan seems to be toward moving the dates of origin up as far as the 16th C (see for example the Sano museum exhibition catalog Sukashi Tsuba Kofun to Edo Jidai).  Whatever beginning date is correct, a remarkable depth and breadth of expression was developed over a relatively brief but fascinating period.  We can only hope to share in some of what there is to know on the subject and to look forward to future research.