Early Brass Inlay Tsuba

Brass inlay (shinchu zogan) decoration of iron plate tsuba became popular during the early Muromachi jidai and continued well into Edo times. Starting in the mid 1300s, brass was supposedly imported from Ming China in the form of coins. This early shinchu has a distinctive soft gold color due to impurities in the alloy. By the1500s, Japanese brass of a brighter color replaced the imported metal. This early imported shinchu was shipped to Kyoto where the so-called Onin school workers inlaid it in thin Katchushi-style iron plates. Because of the high value of Chinese brass, these tsuba were probably owned by the particularly wealthy.

The Onin fabrication method involved casting the brass shapes in a mold and inlaying them in carved recesses in the plate. These tsuba are found in two major styles; ten zogan and suemon zogan. Ten zogan refers to those tsuba decorated with arrays of small brass dots, and with thin brass lines (sen zogan) outlining the seppa dai and ana. Suemon zogan refers to larger areas of slightly raised brass inlay depicting various subjects such as plants, animals and mon. Both styles of Onin tsuba are also seen combined with sukashi designs.

Heianjo tsuba are considered to have developed from the Onin work in the early 1500s. They are normally of the suemon type, but the inlay is cut out from sheet metal rather than cast in a mold. Any surface detail on the brass is carved in. Production of Heianjo and Onin styles went on in parallel for some time before the Onin school died out. Some pieces are seen with a combination of cast and cut brass on the same plate. I am not convinced that there is any real distinction between the "school" of Onin makers and the "school" of Heianjo tsubako. As with Ko Tosho vs. Ko Katchushi guards, I believe that we are using these names as a convenient way to classify the work of professional tsuba makers according to various categories of style and age. To take it a step further, it's likely that "Katchushi" tsuba were being made side by side with "Onin" guards. The tsubako would add brass inlay according to the taste and budget of the customer. These can be considered decorated Katchushi, although the plate tends to be of softer iron, perhaps to make the inlay process easier.

The Heianjo style brass inlay tsuba continued to develop into the early Edo jidai. In the middle and late Edo times many inferior versions were made. Unlike the Onin tsuba, there are signed Heianjo tsuba, so at least we do know that they were in production in Kyoto. In addition to brass, various other metals including silver, copper and gold are seen, as is the hira zogan technique (inlay that is flush with the surface of the plate). These features were elaborated in what we know as Yoshiro and Kaga tsuba. Eventually, the style was mass-produced in various parts of the country.

Onin ten zogan tsuba, mid Muromachi

7.7 cm T x 7.6 cm W x 0.3 cm T

Iron plate with brass inlay

Kiku gata

The Onin ten zogan style is characterized by the decoration of small brass “nail heads” and wires on a thin iron plate.  The iron often has a soft, granular texture and seems to be prone to rust.  Unfortunately this rust will undermine the brass inlay and result in the loss of some of the inlay.  This example is in reasonably good but far from perfect condition.  As is often the case the back side is better preserved, with the wire around the seppa dai, kozuka ana and all of the petals still intact.

Onin Tsuba

Heianjo tsuba, mumei, mid Muromachi

7.4 cm H x 7.4 cm W x 0.2 cm T

Iron plate with cast brass inlay of plants and mon

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku

This is the classic style of early Heianjo suemon zogan tsuba. The plate is thin and the inlay is in almost entirely intact. Some early examples appear to have original rim covers (fukurin), but there is no evidence that this one was so mounted. Many, if not most, Onin guards have very irregular ana. I have no idea why this should be so. The inlay figures are seen in many other similar tsuba. Some examples I have seen in Japan have brass that is almost black with oxidation. We in the West don't seem to be able to keep from polishing these things. I wonder how long it will take for them to become beautifully subdued again.

Heianjo mumei, late Muromachi

7.00 cm H x 6.80 cm W x 0.4 - 0.5 cm T

Iron with punched ground and brass inlay of plants and crabs

Maru gata

Slightly rounded off kaku mimi

The brass has a fairly dark patina, but it may have been applied. The kozuka ana has an early shape to it, but has been enlarged slightly at the bottom, cutting into the inlay. The punch marks in the plate appear to follow the outline of the hitsu, so I expect that it is original to the piece. The iron is rather doughy looking and shows tekkotsu in the rim.

Heianjo, Momoyama

7.70 cm H x 7.30 cm W x 0.40 cm T

Carved iron ground with brass inlay of country scenes

Nagamaru gata

Rounded kaku mimi ko-niku

The rim and central area are on the same level and define the boundaries of a sunken area decorated with a series of country scenes as seen through clouds.  On the front there are squirrel and grapes, pine needles and cones, a man in tall grass with insects, a streamside willow next to a bridge.  The back is dominated by wisteria and includes several other plants.  The iron is very good, the overall conception is inventive and the brass is well inlaid and carved.  The kozuka ana is filled with textured lead.  There is a kebori line that follows the border of the rim on the back that is not visible on the front.

Heianjo Tsuba

Heianjo, mumei Momoyama

8.2 cm H x 8.0 cm W x 0.3 cm T

Iron with brass inlay design of vine and leaves

Maru gata

Komaru mimi

The seppa dai is slightly cut out at the kozuka ana. The iron plate is of good quality and the brass shows the bright color of the domestic metal. The inlay is fairly flat, but is still in suemon style. The inlay wraps over the mimi, which is often considered a characteristic of Kaga inlay tsuba. I have seen a tsuba from around Genroku time that has this sukashi design but with the typical Kaga hira zogan in several different metals. This may be a transition piece, again raising questions about exactly who was making what, when and where. NTHK Kanteisho to Heianjo, 76 points.

Heianjo tsuba, mumei, ca. Momoyama

5.7 cm H x 5.5 cm W x 0.4 cm dote mimi, 0.3 cm seppa dia

Iron with brass inlay design of vines and leaves

Maru gata, dote mimi

An unusual tanto-sized example.

Possibly Heianjo zogan, ca. Momoyama

8.1 cm H x 8.1 cm W x 0.45 cm T

Iron with brass inlay and amida yasuri

Maru gata

Shakudo fukurin, kaku mimi

The design is of cart wheels in water, which is a common motif in Japanese art.  With the high quality shakudo fukurin, the black lacquer remaining on the surface, the amida yasuri and the complex brass inlay, this piece stretches the boundaries of the Heianjo style.  This kind of multi-media approach is often seen in Ko Shoami work.  The kogai ana is plugged with copper.

Probably Kaga zogan ca. Momoyama

8.0 cm H x 7.7 cm W x 0.4 cm T seppa dai, 0.2 cm T mimi

Iron with gilded copper inlay

Nagamaru gata

Shakudo fukurin mimi

The iron plate is carved with tomoe and textured with a punch in the areas without inlay.  The fine line inlay is flush with the surface in Kaga zogan style.  The texturing of the plate is unusual for Kaga work.  There is also an Umetada feel to the design, inlay and fukurin.  This guard has a hakogaki by Sasano-sensei to late Muromachi Ko-Umetada.

Kaga Zogan, ca. early Edo

7.8 cm H x 7.6 cm W x 0.45 cm T

Iron with brass inlay


Low maru mimi

A kiri (paulownia) mon in fine line wire inlay.  The inlay is polished flush with the surface in typical Kaga style.  Compare with the guard above.

Copyright 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003 Jim Gilbert

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