Early Soft Metal Tsuba

In addition to iron, early guards were made from alloys of copper and other "soft metals." While these materials were widely used by kinko workers during the Edo period, the aesthetics of these early guards have more in common with iron guards of the period.

A variety of sukashi, carving and inlay techniques were used. The results range from the sophisticated to the nave to the downright crude. Occasionally large plates of 8 or 9 cm diameter are seen, but most surviving examples are relatively small.

Kanji for Hoju Tsuba written by Dr. Torigoye

Hoju Tsuba

The soft metal hoju guards appear in the same shapes and sukashi styles the iron ones, but are much thinner. Raised rims, which are not seen on the iron examples, are common and were probably needed to give rigidity to the plate. It is tempting to assume that these gilded tsuba were for formal wear and the iron ones for use, but who knows if our reaction to these metals is the same as that of the people who made them 1500 years ago. At the time, gilt bronze was also used extensively in horse trappings and later in Buddhist objects. The metalworkers that produced these objects may have also produced sword fittings, or kodogu making may have been a specialty on its own. The quality of this early metal work is as high as anything that came later.

Gilded Hoju Tsuba front Guilded Hoju Tsuba back

Hoju Tsuba ca. 6th C

5.9 cm H x 3.9 cm W x 0.3 cm T at mimi

Bronze (?) with gilding and copper corrosion products, traces of iron oxide around nakago ana on one side

Jewel shaped

Uchikaeshi mimi

The thick rust visible around the nakago ana in the image at the left presumably came from an adjacent hilt fitting. While swords and other bronze and iron objects had been imported from the continent for hundreds of years, and produced on the archipelago by continental craftsman, these hoju guards of the 6th C mark the beginning of an indigenous style of Japanese sword mounting.

Kanji for Kagamishi

Kagamishi Tsuba

Kagamishi tsuba are cast from a bronze alloy. The name suggests that they are the work of mirror makers, but the work is usually rather different from what is seen on mirrors. The dating of these pieces ranges from Kamakura to Muromachi. Kagamishi tsuba are seen with regular geometric designs and with more organic motifs. There are not many examples to study in the US. It would be worthwhile to compare an analysis of the metal of Kagamishi tsuba with that of mirrors from the same time period.

Kagamishi Tsuba

Kagamishi Tsuba ca. mid Muromachi or before

6.1 cm H x 6.0 cm W x 0.2 - 0.3 cm T

Bronze alloy cast in a design of plants and animals. Traces of lacquer coating.

Maru gata

Flat dote mimi

A nice small piece with a design of plants and animals with a good patina. It isn't immediately obvious that this is a representational rather than abstract motif. The tsuba had kozuka and kogai ana cut out and then filled later. The filling is modeled so that it continues the lost design elements. The "worm eaten" rim seems to show up fairly often in this style of tsuba. There are few complete koshirae mounted with Kagamishi tsuba in the late Muromachi. I'd like to see how these guards were used when they were made. NTHK Kanteisho.


Kagamishi TsubaKagamishi Tsuba

Kagamishi Tsuba ca. mid Muromachi

7.7 cm H x 7.2 cm W x 0.5 cm T

Bronze alloy cast with a flowering plant and bird / tortoise shell and bird design

Hachi mokko gata

Shakudo fukurin

This guard is made of three metal layers held together with two pins through the seppa dai. This hon san mai style typically requires a fukurin to produce a finished edge. Multiplate construction is sometimes seen in early shakudo guards. In that case the use of a thick plain copper filling plate would require less expenditure of gold than a would solid shakudo tsuba. Many low quality three-plate tsuba were made in mid Edo times to imitate Mino and Goto styles. These guards have very thin outer plates done in repousse rather than carving.

In this case, we have three equal thickness copper/copper alloy plates joined together. It isn't obvious that this would result in any significant cost savings. It may be that the outer plates were taken from actual bronze mirrors or other cast objects. The central copper plate may only be to add thickness or otherwise facilitate the joining of the outer plates. It is clear that the seppa dai was formed by flattening the existing design elements, and that these patterns are also cut by the kozuka ana. This further suggests that the outer plates were not originally designed for use as a tsuba.

Note that the designs of the outer plates are clearly cast and not carved or repousse. There are traces of black lacquer remaining on the surfaces.


Kagamishi Tsuba

Kagamishi Tsuba ca. late Muromachi

7.3 cm H x 7.3 cm W x 0.3 - 0.4 cm T

Bronze alloy cast with a textured surface and cloud sukashi.

Maru gata

Raised rounded mimi

This is a more free form style than is seen in most Kagamishi guards. The sukashi and seppa dai have been altered to create ryo hitsu. The side illustrated has a circular element in the design at the top that could represent the sun or moon. The reverse side has a complete circle at the bottom and two partial circles at the left and right positions. The repetition of these three similar circles on the same side suggests that something other than a sun or moon was intended. Here the heavy rim again shows eroded patterning. In natural light the patina has a rich red - brown color.

Copyright 1996, 1999, 2000 Jim Gilbert


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