Early Iron Tsuba

Kanji for Hoju Tsuba written by Dr. Torigoye

Hoju Tsuba

For many years, the earliest surviving blades and fittings were treated as archaeological material of no interest and no relevance to the study of the Japanese sword.  Thankfully, recent exhibitions at the Tokyo National Museum and the Sano Art Museum have presented these pieces in the proper context of the history and development of the Japanese sword.  The first iron guards of distinctly Japanese style are represented by the tear drop shaped Hoju tsuba that were mounted on chokuto style tachi with straight blades.

Hoju Tsuba

Hoju style tsuba, mumei, ca. 6th – 7th C

9.1 cm H x 7.9 cm W x 0.2 - 0.7 cm T

Iron with heavy corrosion

Jewel shape

Kaku mimi 

Guards of this type are excavated from the mounded tombs (Kofun) of the period.  The 8 perforations is a typical style of decoration for these early guards.  The shape and number of openings is somewhat variable within this basic type.  Some examples include high quality silver inlay in surprisingly good condition.  This inlay work is also seen on some sword blades.  This example has a hakogaki by Dr. Torigoye.  Go here for more examples of early sword furniture in museum collections.

Tosho and Katchushi Styles

Traditionally the old iron plate tsuba are classified into Ko Tosho (old sword smith), and Ko Katchushi (old armor maker) styles. It is sometimes difficult to justify attribution of a given tsuba to the Tosho or Katchushi category. Generally guards with raised rims or relatively complex designs tend to be assigned to Katchushi. This is basically a convention we follow out of habit and convenience. The idea behind the Ko Tosho label is that a sword smith would forge a simple iron tsuba to accompany his newly made blade. However, chances are good that a skilled sword smith's time was too valuable to be spent on tsuba, so it may be that these works were made by assistants or by others not directly involved in the sword making process. These others could also be generalist metal workers or more likely by specialist tsuba makers.

In Token Kai-Shi part six, Articles by Akiyama Kyusaku, Robert Haynes comments: "…from 1300 to 1400 over 150,000 MOUNTED swords were made in Japan for export alone. This means that over four tsuba a day were made for 100 years. This would mean that at least 3000 persons were making nothing but tsuba, let alone all the other fittings needed to complete these swords. With sword smiths, fittings makers and all the other artists need to complete a sword for export, at least 10,000 sword artists were working together, in any one of these hundred years. I think we can put to rest this silly idea that 'the sword smith made a tsuba as a gift when a blade was ordered.' He was far too busy making blades, at three a day, to have any time to make tsuba. Naturally the above calculations do not include the swords that were made for domestic use, at this same time, which were many thousands in themselves. This great number of swords is the very reason that some tsuba makers began to sign their work. They wished to be known as professional artists, and to have a wider number of buyers for their work."

There is ongoing study of the age of the earliest of these guards, with the most radical position being that taken by the late Sasano sensei.  He pushed the dating back from the conventionally held early Muromachi origin to one in the early Kamakura jidai. Some of these guards were mounted on tachi, but they are generally considered to be katana tsuba used by low ranking foot soldiers.

I suspect that the early iron tsuba were closely related to the nerikawa (laminated leather) tsuba of contemporary or earlier time. Unfortunately, very few early nerikawa tsuba survive. The best-known examples of these guards are preserved on the koshirae of famous swords including the Kogarasu maru, Shishi maru and Oni maru. Just who made nerikawa tsuba is a puzzle. Were the workers associated with armor making shops?  Some Keman (hanging ornaments) in Buddhist temples in the Heian era were made of lacquered hide. Hide working may have been a specialized craft in itself.  Presumably, the use of a light weight leather tsuba vs. a heavier iron one would shift the weight distribution of the sword to a degree that it would require compensation in blade or mounting design.

Ko Tosho Tsuba

The Ko Tosho style of guard is generally a large, thin plate with a simple cut out, negative silhouette design (mon sukashi).

Ko Tosho style tsuba, mumei, ca. Nanbokucho to early Muromachi

9.68 cm H x 9.61 cm W x 0.21 cm T

Iron with tsuchime ji

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku, with tekkotsu

The large diameter and very thin plate are typical of the guards that Sasano-sensei assigned to the Nanbokucho period.  This guard is in excellent condition for its age and retains most of the original surface.  The motif is described as kiri in the origami, but might also be a butterfly.  Hozon to Tosho.

Ko Tosho style tsuba, mumei, ca. Nanbokucho to early Muromachi

9.45 cm H x 9.46 cm W x 0.24 cm T

Iron with tsuchime ji

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku

The classic design motif is a single clove done in negative openwork.  This guard seems to be of the same time period as the above example, although the condition of the surface is not as good.  Hozon to Tosho.

Ko Tosho style tsuba, mumei, early Muromachi

7.35 cm H x 7.20 cm W x 0.35 cm T

Iron with tsuchime ji

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku, highly modulated and with tekkotsu

The sukashi design is of a dragonfly (tonbo or kachimushi), although the three perforations defining the head and eyes are a little hard to read in the image above. Various forms of this motif were popular with the military men of Japan for at least 700 years. With the beautiful iron surface and sensitive cutting of the openwork, this guard has a subdued elegance as fine as any. It has some features in common with the Kamakura period examples illustrated in Sasano and Kremers. This guard may be from that time.  The conventional wisdom is that any kozuka ana must be a later addition if the tsuba is early. I suspect that many are original.

Ko Tosho style, mumei, ca. middle Muromachi

9.0 cm H x 8.9 cm W x 0.2 cm T

Iron with tsuchime ji

Mokko gata

Mimi is covered by an iron fukurin (rim cover)

The sukashi design is of fans or battedore. It may appear to have a dote mimi like a Katchushi style guard, but actually has an iron fukurin. The texture and quality of the iron of the fukurin is somewhat different from that of the plate. The different types of iron may have been a technical requirement, but I suspect that the cover is a later addition. The workmanship required to fit an iron rim cover this tightly is amazing. The mokko shape may have been cut at the time the rim cover was added, but is probably original. This is an elegant old guard that was spared the addition of ana.  NTHK Kanteisho to Tosho.

Ko Tosho style tsuba, mumei, mid Muromachi

8.8 cm H x 8.5 cm W x 0.3 cm T

Iron with tsuchime ji

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku with tekkotsu

This is a classic example for the Ko Tosho category. The iron is very dense and has a good blue-black color. The nakago ana appears to be unaltered and no kozuka ana was cut. The sukashi design is probably of two flowers, with the center "spokes" of the full flower missing. It is possible that there was never a center piece, in which case this might be a blossom in the snow. I suppose that an early flowering plum in snowfall could be a representation of an indomitable spirit, or something along that line. Of course, these look like cherry blossoms, and snowflakes are six-sided, so draw your own conclusion.

Ko Tosho style tsuba, mumei

7.70 cm H x 7.70 cm W x 0.10-0.30 cm T

Iron with deeply hammered surface

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku with much variation

Here is another example that has probably lost part of the flower sukashi.  However, this is a very early plate that needs more study to place the proper date.  It is very likely pre-Muromachi. 

Ko Tosho style tsuba, mumei, mid Muromachi

8.1 cm H x 7.9 cm W x 0.3 cm T

Iron with hammered and somewhat pitted surface

Maru gata

Kaku mimi ko niku

Openwork may be insect (butterfly?) wings, crab claws, a lost mon; we may never know for certain. This guard somehow feels a bit blunt. A relatively common samurai whose position did not bring him into situations where more sophisticated sword furniture would be called for would have worn this sort of guard. They are sometimes called 'country work,' but since we don't know where any of the mon sukashi guards were made, it is difficult to justify calling out provincial distinctions.


Ko Tosho style, mumei, ca. late Muromachi

8.5 cm H x 8.5 cm W x 0.25 cm T

Iron with strong hammer work

Maru gata

Ko kaku mimi

The sukashi design is of flowers, mushroom/pine tree, and leaves. The leaves may be a later addition to the tsuba, in that they are a design sometimes seen on Edo period Katchushi. The ryohitsu (kozuka and kogai ana) are likely original to the plate. Note that as with many of these pieces, the nakago ana shows little modification. This tsuba has no raised rim, but with its complex design, it could arguably be called Katchushi.  Many guards do not conform to the usual classification system.  NTHK Kanteisho to Tosho.

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More old iron tsuba, including the Ko Katchushi style

Small early iron tsuba

Other important early metal work

Modern katchushi replicas

More on Nerikawa tsuba

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Copyright 1996, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004 Jim Gilbert