some Questions and, I hope, some Answers

Q: Any tips on how you produced the tsuba photographs?

A: All of the images shown on this web site were produced by placing tsuba directly on the glass of an HP4c and later a HP 6300c flat bed color scanner. They were captured in sharp color mode at 100% size and saved in jpeg format. At the 75 dpi screen resolution, scanning from photographs doesn't offer any advantage that I can see. If you need to produce good tsuba photos, a macro lens is a must and a copy stand with good lights is a big advantage.

Q: I've recently begun to study and collect iron tsuba. While most of my tsuba are in relatively clean condition, a few came with spots of red rust & as I live in the wonderfully humid south, I'm afraid more rust may/will develop. Any suggestions as to preventative measures? I figure there's always Turtle wax, but ... Also, any ideas on how to remove spot rust without destroying the patina of the entire tsuba?

A: Most tsuba should just be left alone. Any tsuba that is already in good condition should absolutely be left as is.  The need to leave our mark shows itself in the habits of collectors who routinely over clean, polish and in the worst cases actually strip the guards they encounter to bare metal in order to apply a new color of their own liking.  Remember that the supply of genuine old tsuba can only get smaller.  After surviving actual use and hundreds of years of storage, we don’t need to lose any more tsuba to “good intentions.”

So, if you're looking at an iron tsuba with obvious crud and/or red rust, here is a path you can take. Please be very cautious. Go slow. Don't take shortcuts. Ask me if you have any questions.

The simplest and safest first step is to wash your tsuba in mild soap and water.  Use hand soap, not detergent or cleanser.  Over years of careless handling a tsuba can pick up quite a bit of plain old dirt.  After you’ve washed the piece, be sure to dry it thoroughly.  Once it’s relatively clean, take a careful look at the piece in good light - sunlight if possible.  You’ll probably see plenty of red rust.  You may also see various surface coatings of modern to antique origin – wax, shoe polish, paint, old lacquer, etc.  If you are not sure what you’re looking at, show the tsuba to someone familiar with old guards.  My preference is to leave old lacquer in place, unless it is associated with serious corrosion. 


Dealing with crud that won’t come off with soap and water can require a couple of different approaches.  The most straightforward method for an iron guard is to boil it in distilled water for 20 minutes or so.  This will remove most films without altering the metal or removing any lacquer that may be present.  I don’t recommend adding any chemical agents to the water.  The more aggressive the cleaning solution the greater the risk of permanently damaging the guard.  Boiling water is good enough.

When the tsuba comes out of the water, the good news is that all of the oils and waxes that were hiding rust will be gone.  The bad news is that you are likely to be looking at a very ugly, dry, rusty plate at this point.  You may wish that you had just left things as they were, and frankly, if you’re not willing to go through with the very time consuming and finger-tiring next step of rust removal, you should have left well enough alone.

Rust removal is a mechanical process of dealing with two slightly different iron oxides.  The idea is to rub off the active red corrosion (anhydrous ferric oxide) while leaving behind the slightly harder protective black magnetite patina.  I have tried bone, antler, ivory, bamboo, etc., and all are good for certain aspects of the job. I find that ivory (old piano keys are a good source) works best.  If it isn’t available, get a section of dense bone. The typical beef “soup bone” is good.  Get one that has all of the grease cooked out and use a hammer and chisel (wear your safety glasses) to break the bone up into a number of variously shaped and sized chunks. You’ll find that one of the assortment of sharp and dull surfaces and angles should do the job.

Whatever the tool, you're looking for something harder than the red rust and softer than the patina.  Never use steel, iron, glass, sandpaper, or anything else harder than the patina.  DO NOT try chemical rust removers - they will remove the patina and damage the iron. In fact don't try chemical treatments of any type - including boiling in tea or anything of the sort. Also, don't put your tsuba in a fire despite what Robinson's “Arts of the Japanese Sword” says!   Some people will use chogi oil at the start of the process to loosen the red rust.  I haven’t found this method to be much help.  It certainly won’t harm the iron, but it is fairly tricky to keep the oil from soaking into the rust inside any sukashi openings and darkening it to an unnatural color.

The surest method is to just take your bone, antler or ivory and gently scrape away at the red rust. Periodically wipe off the red dust to see how you're doing (a damp cloth removes the dust better than a dry one).  It’s usually best to work slowly in a small area.  Quickly rubbing over a large area is ineffective.   Avoid the temptation to find a faster way, because if you do, you will also have found a way to take the patina off.  I can't stress this enough.  In your inevitable attempt to get the job done faster, you will be tempted to use brass or copper, but it's much too easy to wind up damaging the patina this way.  Even if you're successful (this time), you'll have to find a way to get the ugly brass residue off.  Lots of patience and tired fingers is the only way.  Depending on how severe your rust is, in hours to weeks you will eventually remove the red and just leave the nice black.  Go gently and slowly and check your work constantly.  Too much scrubbing even with a soft tool will eventually remove the patina. 

If you think you've got the rust under control, take your tsuba out in the sunlight and have another look.  Most artificial lighting hides red rust somewhat, but sunlight will reveal all.  You will probably find that there is still more rust there, but don’t get carried away with trying to remove every trace.  Don't over do your cleaning.  The idea is not to make a 500-year-old tsuba look new.  Older tsuba can have quite a lot of oxide build up that is best left alone.  The idea is to remove any active corrosion and restore the beauty of the surface, not to alter fundamentally alter it.  An over cleaned tsuba is always worse than an under cleaned one.  If you overdo it and damage the patina, you're in trouble.  You won't get it back any time soon. There are people who repatinate iron tsuba, but the only one in the US that does good work is no longer taking orders.  Many people who claim to do restoration will destroy your guard.  Unfortunately, even the best repatination cannot recreate the original aged surface.

Also, NEVER clean the inside of the sukashi.   Cleaning the inner walls of the sukashi is like polishing the nakago of a sword – a bad idea.   However, do remember to clean the rim as well as the web of the plate.

Once you have the rust down to the point that you're satisfied, get out a piece of cotton cloth and just rub the tsuba.  As you keep this up you'll find that the color will darken and the surface will take on a soft luster.  The cloth won't do much to remove red rust, so if you find that you missed some rust, go back to more boning.  Just go slowly.  Once the tsuba is clean, you may want to carry it in your pocket for a few weeks in addition to rubbing it with the cloth.  The idea is not to polish the guard to the point that it shines.  Also, avoid rubbing the guard on carpeting or synthetics that can leave a greasy finish.

I prefer to stay away from oil on a finished guard.  The oily sheen is not as attractive as the natural finish and it will tend to attract dust and lint over time.  It will eventually dry out, and can then actually promote a new layer of rust under the dry oil film.  By the way, a coat of oil is often used as a “quick fix” to make red rust look dark.  This may seem like an improvement in the short term, but really just winds up making the tsuba look like oily dirt.  Also, a coating of black shoe polish is a frequently encountered “magic patina.”  Watch out for these dirty tricks when buying tsuba.

There's no substitute for spending a lot of time with bone and cloth to get a rusty tsuba into shape.  Once you've conquered rust, store your guard in one of the wood boxes made for tsuba. Compared to the cost of all of the work you've just done, the box is cheap. After a fresh sword polish, who would leave that blade out on the shelf, or wrapped up in paper, rather than pay for a shirasaya?  Be aware that most of the tsuba boxes you will come across have the center post attached by two very sharp nails coming up from the bottom of the box.  Transporting tsuba in this type of box will eventually cause the center post to come loose from the weight of the tsuba moving around on it.  Once that happens, the tsuba will rattle around on top of those little nails and scratch up the seppa dai.  Always transport tsuba in cloth bags.

Periodically take your tsuba out and give it some light rubbing with the cloth. Try to keep your fingers off, since you risk starting more rust this way.


When I was discussing the initial cleaning, I mentioned that there are a couple of alternatives to consider.  In the case of a guard already in good condition, free of rust, etc., but simply covered in wax, it is usually possible to safely remove the wax by rubbing with some isopropyl alcohol. 


Additionally, you will occasionally come across a guard that has been coated in polyurethane or some other tough, modern finish.  For these, there is a commercial stripper called Strypeeze that will not harm the iron or patina.  It could harm you, though, so wear gloves and work with plenty of ventilation and/or a solvent respirator.


Other problems that you can encounter include fire scale, a depatinated plate, cracks and breaks or other serious damage.  Unfortunately, these will require professional care.  Experimenting with home treatments will generally result in further damage to the plate.

Q: What are tsuba boxes?

A: Tsuba boxes are made out of kiri wood (also known as pauwlonia). Supposedly this wood has the property of being open-pored when dry, allowing some air circulation through it, but then closing up when the humidity goes up. I don't know how true this really is, but that's the story. Anyway, it's pretty clear that this is just what you would want for storage. Given Japan's humidity, I figure they have probably worked out a pretty good solution over the years. Kiri looks and feels sort of like balsa wood, but is a harder. These boxes come with a little silk liner that the tsuba sits on and a post that takes the place of nakago to hold the tsuba in the center of the box. In addition to the environmental protection, they are good because they keep your tsuba from banging into each other and causing wear and damage.

One thing you need to watch out for is the two little nails that hold on that center post. The post can come off and then the nails are sticking up to scratch up your tsuba. I've never had this happen with a box I bought, but I've seen it on other ones that have been beat up. I think the problem comes when people use these boxes for transport. The weight of the tsuba knocking back and forth probably breaks the post loose. I use cloth bags when I transport tsuba. Supposedly you can get better boxes that don't use nails for the center post, but they don't seem to be readily available in the US. There are boxes with the bottom pad cut out to custom fit the shape of an individual tsuba so that the center post isn't needed. Also, you can modify a regular box to hold the tsuba in place with a small cord and toggle to avoid the nail problem entirely.

Q: I have been talking with the guys in my area and one topic seems to generate lots of questions and that is the proper identity of Iron handled Kozuka as opposed to the soft metal types (assuming no signatures). The opinions here, totally unsupported, is that Iron is older and less common.

A: I can agree that iron kozuka are less commonly found than those made of soft metal, but are by no means rare. I can't agree that they are generally older. (BTW, the kozuka IS the handle, or the kozuka and blade as a unit. The blade is a kogatana.) Iron kozuka and fuchigashira were popular in Higo, Hizen and elsewhere. I've seen various Nara, Hamano, Shoami, etc., kozuka made in iron all through the Edo jidai. I have seen a Heianjo style iron kozuka that probably dated back before 1500, but most of the old kozuka (jidai Goto, Ezo, etc.) seem to be in soft metal. The work style and quality really tells about when and where. I don't think that we can get too far from just knowing if it's iron or soft metal. Iron can be old or new, good or bad, North or South.

Q: While I was fussing over a couple of my tsuba the other day a question arose. I've seen numerous Nihonto blades with fighting sword cuts in the shinogi-ji or on the shinogi or mune - marks of honorable use in combat. But, I don't recall seeing any sword cut marks on tsuba. I'd expect to see a few over the years. The tsuba is supposed to be basically a hand guard isn't it? Why so few sword cuts on them? I understand that most schools of sword fighting taught blocking with the blade and that a cut on the tsuba was a last ditch defense, probably from an improper block. Have I just not been paying attention to sword cuts on tsuba? Are they there? If not, why not? If one finds a tsuba with a sword cut, is it a mark of honor like on a sword or does it detract from the value of the tsuba?

A: I agree that expecting a tsuba to stop a sword cut is a last ditch proposition at best. Probably one that could easily result in the loss of fingers. Probably the first thing to remember is that many of the tsuba you see were made and carried during a time when there wasn't much sword fighting going on. Your expectations for seeing sword cuts has to be restricted to tsuba used during times of battle.

I have seen quite a few tsuba with "sword cuts" that are still quite shiny inside. I expect that these were added recently in this country by the usual cast of yahoos. I have seen several that show cuts that are dark along the inner edges.

Bob Haynes' second auction catalog , lot 56, is a tsuba that shows a cut that has gone from the edge right through to the nakago ana. I can believe that this is a true sword cut, and not a happy one for whoever was unfortunate enough to be holding that sword at the time. Bob's comment is "A classical Nobuiye style work with probable sword kizu. The well forged sand iron plate has a fine rim and very good iron bones. The kebori carving... is very well done. The signature was probably added later. The kizu has been closed (by hammering) but not welded shut. This seems to be the only example so treated. ca. 1600"

Also, in "The Soul of the Samurai, A selection of Sword Guards from the Vancouver Museum," catalog number 31 is described as an iron Ko Shoami tsuba ca. 1450, showing "...the sword cut mark, broken bars left side of face, a genuine 'Kizu.'"

So, there are tsuba out there that do show real sword cuts, but not as many as one might expect from history. I suspect that most battle tsuba were considered disposable. If they were damaged they were discarded or recycled into new tsuba. This is pure speculation, but perhaps some of the cut down tsuba we see out there done as a rework to save a tsuba with a damaged rim. I expect that only tsuba that were held in very high regard would have been preserved in a damaged state. If believed to be authentic, a "Nobuiye" could be just such a tsuba.

Is this damage desirable? Not really. It's more a question of how good is the tsuba and how much does its appearance suffer? Just like a cut in a sword, it doesn't alter the quality built into the piece by the smith. It does tell you that someone whacked it with something hard and sharp at some point. A cut in the mune of a sword is no big deal. A big chip taken out of the ha is. A mediocre sword with bad damage is worthless to most people. A great one with the same problem can still be useful as a study piece. The story is the same with tsuba.

More on this topic from the early 1900's journal "Token Kai Shi" part four, Articles by Akiyama Kyusaku Translated by Henri L. Joly, Annotated by Robert E. Haynes:

(referring at first to Yagyu tsuba and the story about them having been tested by pounding in a mortar prior to use) "As to the mortar story. It is very doubtful, for what use was there in pounding them up? Is this the proper way to test a tsuba? There are certain methods in trying weapons, if one wishes spoil anything by rough usage. One might smash even a Myochin armor or a Bizen sword. To pound tsuba is the same. Mr. Yagyu is the man known as the best fencer and a clever man appointed by the 2nd or 3rd Shogun Tokugawa. If so he would not dare to play such a foolish game. This opinion must be taken from tradition of Yagyu people, or storytellers' jokes. Since I was a young man I have seen may thousands of tsuba, but only two or three with sword marks (kizu). So that we must think whether tsuba were struck by the sword in actual fight. In real fighting it is a question of a moment whether to kill or be killed. Why should one prefer to cut an arm rather than a head, which would not kill. After examining many blades a tsuba, not only with sword marks, almost no mark is seen on the habaki moto, but generally near the boshi. The mementos of the fighting period: Kamakura tsuba are very thin, Kanayama as well, especially the later ones have large piercings, which made them look very dangerous for real fighting, besides, the work of Kaneie I, Myoju, are thin, especially that of Myochin. Not only are they thin, but even made of shakudo, copper, or brass, and those soft metal tsuba are not thick. All these facts suffice to kill the story of pounding tsuba in a mortar. Some people might say that most of the tsuba made by armor makers are thick, that proves that they were made for defense. So that Yagyu's mortar trick was not so foolish. That opinion at first sound reasonable, but I can't agree with it, as my idea is that the thick heavy tsuba was intended to give weight to the hand, so as to give a greater strike (momentum) to the hand."

Note that Akiyama was born in 1843 and was at age 9 named a page under lord Yamanouchi Yodo Toyonobu of Tosa. Akiyama was not only an authority on sword fittings, but also grew up wearing swords.

Q: Bones? That is not something that I'm familiar with. Could you explain that a bit? Thanks!

A: Bones, or tekkotsu, are lumps of higher carbon content material seen in the rim (mimi), or even the face, of some styles of tsuba. I think that the term came from something like the appearance of the knuckles under the skin of a clenched fist. Bones come in various shapes and sizes. They can be long and ropy, bean shaped, pimple shaped etc. They can be quite subtle or can appear in high relief. When a tsuba is in good rust free condition, the bones will sometimes appear slightly blacker than the surrounding metal. Owari and Kanayama tsuba are particularly associated with having bones. Many different tsuba will have them to one degree or another. Generally, the mid - late Edo factory iron does not show bones. They are most commonly seen on Muromachi period tsuba, and also some very exaggerated tekkotsu are seen on revival work in the very late Edo. For example some of the Iwata Norisuke copies of Yamakichibei tsuba have much more pronounced bones than does the real thing. Also to look for in the mimi are signs of multi plate construction. This will be seen on some Akasaka tsuba. It can look sort of like a pastry crust in extreme cases. These are called senkotsu. By the way, all of this can be a bit like seeing some of the details of activity in a blade. Some people see it right away, others need to have it pointed out to them, or may take years to see it on their own. Ask someone knowledgeable to point them out to you. By the way, many good, early tsuba do not have them.

Q: One of our members referred to a tsuba I have in my collection, and I'm hoping someone can offer some information or thoughts on this piece. The tsuba is made of iron, and he shape is round, with slightly flattened edges, the rim is slightly rounded, and the "accessory holes" are "lobed" on the outside edge, as I have seen on only one hole in most tsuba. The center of the tsuba is slightly raised and flattened to support the seppa. The piece is worked to appear to be a piece of old or rotting wood, and the metal is worked into peaks and valleys and includes a knot-hole to give it a "warped wood" look. The surface of the metal is tiered to represent the wood's grain, and a top view gives one the impression of a topographical map, with the elevation lines representing the wood grain. Thanks for any help.

A: These "rotten wood" style tsuba are always classified as Shoami. I really have never seen any reliable source information on them. They often have spider webs inlayed in gold. Some have spiders as well. I believe that they are of mid to late Edo period manufacture. While made of iron, these pieces are definitely of the kinko aesthetic rather than that of the tsubako.  I have recently seen one or two examples with Shoami signatures.

Q: I recently bought a tsuba that shows right on the edge of the nakago ana what appears to be a stamped or punched chrysanthemum. Can a tsuba actually be signed other than by kanji? I looked at your website where you might be refering to this by "Kakihan", a stamped or carved artist's seal. If this is the case, have you ever seen a seal like this, or even know which tsuba maker or province, period or school this tsuba might relate to ? Any info on this topic is greatly appreciated.

A: Kakihan and kao are generally in the form of more or less stylized kanji inscribed on the seppa dai. Some of the later Umetada workers signed their tsuba with a plum blossom in the place of the ume kanji in an otherwise normal signature. The stamps on your tsuba are from a decorative punch used to adjust the size of the nakago ana. I see these flower-pattern punches fairly regularly, although they are not particularly common. They appear on the sekigane more often than directly on the iron plate. I also wonder who used these in place of a plain punch. There are a number of distinctive nakago ana punching styles that turn up regularly, but I have never run across anything that would link them to a particular region or time. I suppose that they could be a sort of signature for a koshirae fitting shop -- yet another area ripe for study.

Q: I am curious about an ito-maki no tachi. It has a kind of funny look to it - like a gussied up gunto. Any ideas about that? Why the saru-te?

A: Sarute appear not only on gunto, but on earlier tachi koshirae all the way back to at least the Kamakura jidai. Take a look at the Illustrated Catalogue of Tokyo National Museum Sword Mountings that came out in '97. Copies of that are still in circulation at the shows and are for sale at Ueno park, but most any book on koshirae should do. The gunto koshirae is based pretty closely on earlier forms. That style of mounting has been made for hundreds of years.

Q: A neophyte's question: Many tsuba I have seen on ebay, aoi art, etc., appear to have carve-outs or punch marks in the area of the seppa dai, around the nakago ana. Do such marks result from removing long-adhered seppa from the tsuba? If so, was it uncommon for a long-time owner/buke to remove the tsuka/tsuba etc. from nihonto in times of old? Thanks in advance.

A: The punch marks that you describe were put there intentionally and are not the result of wear. Some types are original to the tsuba and served as a signature or trademark of the maker. Others were made later in moving metal to reduce the size of the nakago ana to fit it to a particular blade during mounting. There are also those that don't seem to be either of the above -- I wonder if they might have been made as a trademark of the shop fitting the koshirae.

Occasionally, seppa wear is visible on tsuba that were worn for a long time. It shows up as a faint depression in the plate around the perimeter of the seppa. It would probably be hard to see on a web site graphic, particularly the ones on commercial sites.

Q: How do you tell which is the front side of a tsuba?

A: The front is the side facing the tsuka (handle) of the sword. It is the side that faces the world when the sword is worn (not when drawn). For non-tachi tsuba, when the narrow end of the nakago ana is pointing up, the kozuka ana is on the left, and the kogai ana is on the right, this is the front. Usually, punch marks made in fitting the nakago ana to a sword will be on the front. Sometimes when there is punching on both the front and back, there will be more on the front. Tagane mei, when used, are on the front. Most, but not all, signatures are on the front. The front of the plate sometimes shows more wear. If it is not an "all-over" type of design, the main part of the sukashi or inlay figures will normally be on the right side of the front (away from the body when worn). Except when I show both sides of a tsuba, all of the illustrations on this site are of the front.


On a Ko-Tosho or Ko-Katchushi example with a simple mon sukashi, the front will be the side that places the sukashi design on the side away from the wearer's body (the right side) for katana or wakizashi tsuba.  If the piece has sukashi decorations all around, usually the more heavily decorated portion will be on the right.  If the sukashi is uniformly or symmetrically distributed, you have to look for other clues.

Guards that saw a lot of use are sometimes slightly more worn on the front side, probably from contact with the user's hand.

You will usually see the heaviest punching to resize the nakagoana done on the front side.  The front is the side that faces the tsuka.  My guess is that deep punching was avoided on the back (blade) side to give maximum structural support under the habaki against the pressure from a thrust.  I don't know if that's really why, but you usually do see it either only on the front, or if on both sides, heavier on the front.  Of course, there are exceptions.

Other clues are kozuka ana on the left and kogai ana on the right (ha side of the nakagoana pointing up).  Again, there are exceptions since you will see some early guards with a kogai-shaped ana on the left.  If the hitsuana are of the same shape, the left ana will sometimes be slightly taller or wider when looking at the front.

More elaborate decoration will tend to be on the front for non-sukashi guards.  Most guards are signed on the front, although Kinai people liked to sign on the back a lot.  Again, exceptions.  Guards were sometimes flipped, which can be confusing. There are some guards that offer nothing to justify picking a front side, but not many.

Q: Can the signature be on the right side of the seppa dai?

A: Nijimei (two character signatures) are usually on the left side of the seppa dai, but they can appear on either side.  With longer mei, information other than the province name can appear on the right side, although Jim's rule below is probably the most frequently seen.  Signatures can extend to cover both sides of the seppa dai on both sides of the tsuba.  Occasionally a signature will be placed on the plate outside of the seppa dai.  Any other variations?  I've seen inscriptions on the mimi of tsuba but I don't think I've seen a mei there.  Mei can be seen on the edges of kozuka and menuki at times.

Q: I just got a tanto size sukashi tsuba that looks like it might be owari or perhaps shoami. Nicely shaped… but it is cast!! Obvious casting flanges on the inner most sections. It doesn't matter to me if it was made yesterday or not, but I was wondering if any of the sukashi schools did any significant casting of tsuba or is that strictly recent, tourist stuff (of course I know kettle caster tsuba, but this isn't like that). Just wondering, thanks for any info.

A: I don't know of any legitimate cast "classic" sukashi tsuba. I've never done or seen any physical tests, but the cast tsuba I've encountered do not have good enough iron quality to pass for "real" tsuba. I think that a lot of the casts are late 19th-early 20th C. I have seen a couple of castings that even reproduced the tekkotsu on the rim. Kind of a weird experience to be looking at "bones" while holding something that doesn't feel much more dense than aluminum. These tsuba have certain characteristics that will stand out in even a poor photo. The surface sometimes has a greasy look to it. There are often file marks on the seppa dai. The volumes look rounded, but poorly defined.

I don't know if kettle caster tsuba really exist. It's a nice story for the auction, though.

More on recognizing cast tsuba:

Some things to look out for on bad/fake cast tsuba...


- A "blurry" quality to the details of the features, surface, signature, etc.


- If iron, the metal is less dense (lighter) than a forged tsuba


- The seppa dai may be dished or sunken, due to shrinking of the metal on cooling


- The seppa dai may show file marks made in correcting the above


- The face or rim may show file marks that don't fit in with the design


- There may be remains of casting flash visible inside openings


- There may be file marks visible to correct the above


- There may be some trace visible where the sprue(s) were removed


- The patina can have an odd greasy/shiny look to it


- The metal or patina color looks "wrong"


- There may be "popped" bubbles visible on the surface, or other casting flaws


- Overlay metals if present may be of an unusual color, usually flat and garish


- Overlay metals may run over the edges of features where they should be distinct


- Features that would normally be done in inlay are part of the plate


- Sekigane that are actually part of the plate (cast in rather than applied)


- The thing just looks fishy

Q: I have been wondering about the differences between Aizu Shoami and Nara-Mito tsuba. What distinguishes Aizu-Shoami from Nara-Mito?

A: To start at the beginning, there are Nara tsuba, the early examples of which have quite good iron plates and fine quality irogane. I'm sure that you know the style; fairly empty on the front side with some sort of figure down in the lower right quadrant. Very empty on the back, usually with just a couple of small plants or rocks, or some sort of reference to the design on the front. Anyway, this is what was copied in the Mito Shoami mass production. There are good, original Mito Shoami tsuba, but there is a far larger body of low quality, mass produced ones that define the type. The imitations tend to cheapen the original work.

Early on, the Aizu Shoami were a legitimate group that produced some good work. The iron is dense and well worked, and the inlay used good quality shakudo, etc. Apparently the family in power in Aizu didn't lend any financial support the local artists, and left them to produce whatever they could sell. Unfortunately, before long this resulted in the Aizu Shoami producing copies of popular styles. This further degenerated into outright mass production. As with Mito Shoami, the huge output of junk has made Aizu synonymous with poor tsuba.

So, if you're looking at the later tsuba, which are very common on the market, there probably isn't much to back up an attribution either way. When you're dealing with mass production and copy work, there isn't a lot of individual character.

While Mito Shoami is a close second, I am most often asked for information about Soten tsuba. Here is information from Bob Haynes' translation of Dr. Torigoye's "Tsuba Geijutsu Ko."

The first Soten lived at Kyoto in his early life. Later he moved to Hikone in Omi Province, and worked there about the Kyoho era (1716-36). He received many orders from Kyoto and was obliged to travel back and forth between the two cities. No matter which city he worked in, he would sign as a resident of Hikone.

The first Soten had many students who helped him produce Soten style tsuba, In fact, during his lifetime, the demand for his style of tsuba became so great that he and his school could not keep up with the orders. In Kyoto, the Hiragiya school, and in Aizu, the Shoami school, made Soten style tsuba to help fill the orders for the many requests received from all parts of the country.

There are several opinions concerning the number of generations of the main line Soten masters. Some say there were two, or that there were three, or even more. The most logical number would seem to be two.

The first Soten signed his early work Shuten. The second generation used only the name Soten, In addition to these two artists there are at least twenty five well known students who signed their work with their own names, and innumerable students who signed with the name Soten, or did not sign their work at all. A student of note is Soshu, an above average worker, but the most famous student is Nomura Kanenori it his best work is about equal to that of the second Soten.

There are slight differences between the signatures of the first and second Soten. The first signed with kanji of about average size. The second used kanji slightly smaller than the size of the first. There are other differences in their work, such as, the designs of the second are more picturesque and detailed. The surface of his plate is very busy and brilliant, the design covering the majority of the area of the web. The first also used small figures in the designs but he did not cover as much of the web area with his decoration. He did not use as much inlay of gold and silver. From the style of carving used mainly by the second Soten this school has come to be called the Hikonebori school, (see note I)


Shape: round or oval in most cases.

Plate Metal: the first used iron plate. The second used iron, and In some cases shakudo plate.

Thickness: average thickness but sometimes a little thicker than average.

Carving: nikubori, shishiai, and kebori.

Designs: human figures, landscapes, flowers and birds, historical subjects of either Chinese or Japanese derivation. The inlay is usually gold, copper, silver, and shakudo. Human faces will be either silver or copper inlay. Both masters used pure silver for their inlay.

Signature: Goshu Hikone (no) ju Soheishi Nyudo Soten sei. He also signed with a very long signature;

Goshu Hikone Nakayabu (no) ju Soheishi Nyudo Kitagawa Soten sei

Summary: The first and second Soten were splendid at their chosen style. The iron is of good quality but the tempering in quite common. The nikuoki is inferior. He tried to cover this fault in the iron quality by making a good edge and using fine decoration. Although their work is usually on iron plate, the plate is subordinate to the decoration. Their work should be judged on the quality of the carving, inlay and designs.


The majority of the work in the style of this school in but a poor imitation made by shiiremono makers in the late Edo age at the docks of Yokohama. These imitations account for more than ninety five per cent of all Soten tsuba extant. Even the best work of the students, though not common, is usually only slightly better than the shiiremono examples. The work of this school was so corrupted that a true idea of the real Soten tsuba is almost impossible to obtain. It is unfortunate that the best work of this school has come under the same pale of suspicion that surrounds the common work of the imitators. Had the work of this school been less popular the true work of the first and second Soten might be regarded with more respect than it now receives.

(Note I)

The term Hikonebori, means the original style of carving of the Soten school. It is a combination of low relief, line carving, some shishiai, detailed iroe inlay and elaborate openwork. In reality it is but one type of ubuzukashi, and is found very rarely in the work of the first and second Soten.

Q: I am an aspiring tsuba collector and particularly interested in Ko-tosho, Ko-katchushi, Owari, Kaneyama, Kyu-sukashi, Yagyu etc. I wonder whether you could help me in locating great tsuba which are for sale?

A: Finding good tsuba is something that a lot of us try hard to do. It isn't easy. There are some good tsuba available at the sword shows in the US. The major auction houses Christies and Sothebys are good sources. Klefisch in Germany also has good tsuba occasionally. Building contacts with other private collectors is another good way. It seems that great iron tsuba are rather scarce in Japan these days, and most that are available change hands privately. When I was last there in September, I was told that many of the collectors are switching over to kinko because that is what is available. Still, it can't hurt to check with the major dealers. If you check my "links" section, you'll be able to access Richard Stein's and Gavin Hougham's sites, which both have links and information for various dealers. Indeed from all of these places, great tsuba will not come cheap, and they should not. Good luck in the hunt!

Q: Is there any possibility to create a manual that describes a step by step methodology for studying tsuba? What comes first, metal, shape, design, how do you proceed?

A: I certainly wished for the same thing when I was starting out. Now I'm not sure whether such a system would help or hinder study in the long run. Roughly, I think that the problem is much like studying swords. Identify when first, then where, and if possible who. Look at the quality of the iron. Look at how it was forged and finished. Look for signs of the lamination on the edge or inside the openwork. Estimate the hardness of the iron. Does the tsuba seem heavy or light for its size? Learn to see the various forms of tekkotsu (iron bones). Always pay careful attention to the shape of the mimi (rim). Then, look at the style of hammer work and the method of cutting the openwork. Are the walls straight, chiseled, beveled…? What is the shape of the seppa dai and hitsu ana? Next, maybe the style of the design. All of this is relative and requires a lot of looking. Try to look past the surface and understand the iron itself. See as many tsuba as possible.

Q: I've noticed that many of the Kinai tsuba bear a striking resemblance to Choshu tsuba. Is there a connection? The Famous Kinai form of three aoi leaves is very similar to the second Choshu in your section. Coincidence or connection?

A: Kinai and Choshu tsuba were certainly being made at around the same time in mid to late Edo. Choshu was in Nagato no kuni, which is at the SW tip of Honshu and is on the Sanyodo. Kinai was is Echizen on the North coast of central Honshu, which is fairly far away and on the Hokurikudo. Reading through the genealogy of each school I can't find any mention of exchange between the two groups. Now of course during this time there was enough movement of people and products that these two groups probably did get to see some of each other's tsuba.  Kinai tsuba can be problematic because most of the examples in the West are poor mass production pieces, but the real main line work can be excellent. The quality and color of the iron is quite different between Choshu and Kinai, as is the feel of the carving and design. I would have to say that I can't see a strong connection between these two groups, but I'm fairly sure that they would have been aware of each other's work and influenced by it to some degree.

Q: Can anyone describe the characteristics of a Heianjo tsuba? What differentiates it from say a Sukashi etc.?

A: Sukashi just means openwork, and so applies to a wide range of tsuba (Tosho, Katchushi, Kyo, Owari, Kanayama, the Higo groups, etc.).  The name Heianjo refers to Kyoto.  What is usually called Kyo sukashi these days used to be called Heianjo sukashi.  Some authors apply the Heianjo name to a sub set of older Kyo sukashi guards.  Others claim that the two began as distinct groups, but later merged into a single style.  In any event, this type of guard is characterized by well forged, homogeneous, relatively soft iron with a smooth surface finish and perforated with fine, elegant open work

Usually when you hear the name Heianjo today, it is in reference to brass inlay work.  The old name here is Heianjo shinchu suemon zogon, which is basically brass inlaid tsuba from Kyoto.  This group of guards appear to be an evolution of Onin zogan work.  These are relatively thinner plates, also fairly soft, but not usually as well refined as the iron used by the Kyo sukashi workers.  These guards may or may not have sukashi decoration in addition to the brass inlay.  The brass (or sometimes other metal) is generally cut from sheet and inlaid in a groove in the plate with a "dove tail" cross section.  The vast majority of "Heianjo" zogan guards seen in the US are mass production work from the mid to late Edo period. 

Both of the above styles of tsuba originated in Muromachi times and continued strong into the Momoyama.  In early Edo the work begins to decline, but the styles remained in production through Meiji.

Q:  Is there a story behind the squirrel and grapes motif?

A: I don't know of any textual reference, but squirrel and grapes is a very common kodogu motif.  People in the US often mistake the squirrel for a fox. I can understand that, since Aesop’s fable of the fox and grapes is more familiar in the West.

The squirrel and grapes motif probably entered Japan in the Nara period by way of Tang China via the silk road.  It may have originated in Greece.  It’s a popular decorative motif, but has additional connotations for sword fittings.  The squirrel and grapes motif is a visual pun for perfection in military achievements.  The Japanese word for grape is budo, and that is of course a homonym for "way of the martial arts."  The word for squirrel, rizo, is also a homonym with the kanji that mean something like "setting high ideals."  Once you figure that out, it's pretty easy to understand why it was such a popular "picture."  It was very common in late Muromachi - Momoyama Heianjo zogan work and remained popular at various times through the Edo period.

Q: Can you say anything about the origins of “Nanban” tsuba?

A: The first nanban wave came in the late 16th C through early 17th C, but there are very few of these tsuba around.  Some of the ones that I have seen in person were done in brass.  Some of these early brass guards have the "VOC" logo of the Dutch trading company worked into the design.  These few first guards were presumably of actual foreign origin.

There is one very unusual iron piece illustrated in the Boston Museum catalog (pp 354-5, item number 354) that is signed by Ch'ang Lo-chiao, resident of Nanking and dated 1667.  Ogawa-san mentions that there is another similar tsuba signed by the same individual.  Assuming that they are valid pieces, at least some of these "nanban" guards were made in China.

We know that paintings, ceramics and other foreign goods were imported into Japan from around SE Asia, and that these goods had a major impact on Momoyama period style.  For example, it did not take long before domestic potters were turning out tea ware that was heavily influenced by exotic and sought-after foreign pots.  (See the paper by Louise Allison Cort in "The Arts of Japan, an International Symposium," published by the Metropolitan museum in 2000 for a nice summary of some archaeological findings related to this.  By the way, a lot of what she has to say about the fashion and trade in pottery probably applies to kodogu.)

So, I imagine that a relatively few "real nanban" guards served as the prototypes for the huge number of later 18th and 19th C Japanese guards that we see in the US.  Most of these later tsuba are of very poor quality iron, but there are some good ones, too.  The detailed carving is often pretty amazing despite the rough iron.  We probably tend to attribute an early date to the better pieces, which may or may not be valid.  I suspect that many of the very latest/worst examples were made for export.  There are many of these in the US that show no signs of mounting and very small nakago ana.  I suppose it is possible that a huge but brief nanban fad in the could have had "everyone" in the late Edo period mounting small wakizashi with newly
made nanban fittings and then disposing of them to foreigners shortly afterward.  Made for export seems more likely.

One more addition to this already long note - Stone's Glossary illustrates a Chinese weapon called a "Tau-Kien" on page 608.  The guards on these weapons are very similar to the early brass "nanban" guards.  This weapon has a square tang.  I have seen a couple of early nanban guards that clearly had an original square "nakago ana" that was later modified to the usual Japanese shape.  I suspect that these may be altered Tau-Kien guards.

The reverse modification is also seen:  the original Nihonto nakago ana was punched out to accommodate a square tang, traditionally said to be for use on a European small sword.  By looking at the details of the design and construction around the nakago ana it's easy to see which opening was the original and which is a later modification.

As always, judge each piece on its individual merit.

Q: When was shakudo first used?

A: Patinated alloys of the same type as what we call shakudo were used in Egypt and Mycenae in the 15th C BC.  The paper by Giumlia-Mair in the Bulletin of the Metals Museum vol. 27, June 1997 claims a date as early as the 19th C BC from an Egyptian and a Palestinian object.  Later, "shakudo" was used throughout the Roman empire and in India and Iran.  "...the date of its appearance in China as well as the question if in Japan there was an independent development of this technique or a diffusion from the West are still to be investigated."   Also see vol. 20, November 1993.  The Metals Museum of the Japan Institute of Metals is in located in Sendai, Japan.

Q: Were Ezo style fittings used by Ainu?

A: I don't know who started the idea that the so-called "Ezo" kodogu is Ainu, but in any event it isn't correct.  I have seen several Ainu koshirae in museum collections.  There is one on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC in a diorama on the Ainu.  There are a couple of swords illustrated in "Ainu - Spirit of a Northern People."  This was published in 1999 by the Arctic Studies Center at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian).  The ISBN is 0-96734290-2 (soft bound) or 0-295-97912-7 (hard bound).

I have never seen the blades inside the mountings, but from what I have read they are generally typical Japanese swords.  They usually seem to be wakizashi length.  The koshirae often incorporates "normal" Japanese kodogu as well.  For example, the one on display in NY has an iron sukashi tsuba. The distinctive Ainu features are almost always the saya and tsuka which are
usually of un-lacquered/un-wrapped wood carved with typical Ainu decorative/symbolic motifs.  Sometimes the tsuba is also carved wood.  The sword hanger is woven in Ainu style and was worn over the shoulder.

I have seen some old Japanese paintings of Ainu wearing swords mounted entirely in Japanese style, with the exception of the hanger, which was Ainu style.  I'd speculate that many of these swords were originally acquired fully mounted in Japanese style and were modified to accommodate the Ainu style of carry.   As these mounts wore out they were replaced with Ainu-made
components.  Obviously the saya and tsuka would be among the first to be replaced.

Flipping through the book I mentioned above I noticed a women's necklace that was collected from the Sakhalin Ainu in 1898.  It has a Japanese iron tsuba as a pendant.

Q: Were all habaki copper before gold and silver were used?

A: When I visited Oyamazumi, nearly every Koto on display was fitted with an iron (or steel) habaki.  Many of these habaki have texture and color identical to the nakago of the Heian and Kamakura jidai swords they are mounted on.  Apparently most of these swords entered the shrine directly from use, as-is and in their period mounts, so I suspect that the original habaki of this period, at least for fighting swords, were in fact iron.

A quick check of my notes from Oyamazume yields 28 swords with iron/steel habaki, 4 where I did not note the habaki (perhaps displayed without one) and one Heian naginata with a double yamagane habaki.  I thought that I remembered one shakudo habaki, but my notes don't confirm that.

Most of the iron habaki on swords were extremely thin - I'd estimate a millimeter or two.  Some were much shorter than "modern" habaki – maybe 1-1.5 cm, and others were quite long.  Some naginata also had thin iron habaki, but others were almost as thick as a more recent soft metal habaki.

Obviously most old swords that have been in circulation have been polished and/or remounted and had the habaki changed at some point over that vast time span.  The fantastic thing about Oyamazume is that so many of the swords have just been left alone.  Athough I can't imagine that a rusty iron habaki is particularly good choice from a conservation standpoint, prior to
my visit they were something I had read about more often than seen.

Note that most of the many koshirae on display are fitted with nerikawa tsuba - a topic for another day.

Q:  What does the attribution “Kyo-Kinko” on papers mean?  Is this the same as Ko-Kinko?

A:  I have seen papers from the NTHK, NBTHK and the Tosogu Bijitsukan with attributions to Kyo Kinko (and Edo Kinko, etc.).  For example, they're often given to mumei shakudo nanako fittings or gold menuki in Goto style.  My understanding is that they're saying that this is the work of any one of a number of kinko working in Kyoto, but there is nothing about the work that allows a more specific attribution.  This is not a surprising conclusion when you're talking about an unsigned work either copying a famous style or with no specific attributes tying it to a known maker.

A similar fitting made before the Edo period would be attributed to Ko-Kinko.  So Kyo-Kinko indicates Edo period manufacture.  Ko- Kinko, Ko-Mino or Ko-Goto all apply to work made before the Edo period.

Q: I was just wondering when the tsuba makers switched from folded plates to single plates (factory plates)?

A: The easiest path to take is probably to talk about the outward appearance first and then try to figure out something about the processes responsible for the appearance. 

Iron tsuba up through the late Muromachi and Momoyama tend to show obvious characteristics that we associate with hand forging and inhomogeneous iron. There are surface textures, visible laminations, iron bones, etc.  The iron tends to be quite dense and shows a great deal of richness, not just to the surface, but "into" the plate.  [Note that some, like Kyo sukashi are very well-mixed and tightly forged.  This is probably to allow cutting their very fine sukashi designs w/o hitting openings, hard or soft spots.  The iron quality of pre-Edo Kyo sukashi tsuba is still very different from those that come later.]

As we move into the early Edo period some of this continues, but tsuba in general start to move to a more restrained surface texture.  Often the iron is still very good quality, but rather plain.  Decoration of the surface with inlays and overlays becomes more widespread and prominent.  Some groups started to move to iron that was almost completely without character, the
so-called factory plate.  After about 1700, most (not all) iron tsuba used these bland plates and relied on decoration by inlay, carving and openwork to carry off the piece.  This iron is not very dense and shows no signs of working or inhomogeneity.

There are certainly groups that continued to use forged plates during this time, but even those usually don't have the same character as the earlier work.  In late Edo, as with swords, there was something of an attempt at the revival of the old ways in iron tsuba.  You see copies of Nobuie and other Owari area groups, Katchushi style work, Myochin pieces with elaborate
mokume patterns, etc.  Most of these fall well short of the older pieces, but some are quite good.  They're at least more interesting than "factory iron."  Some, like the Norisuke's copies of Yamakichi tsuba, go completely over the top with iron bones that are bigger and more numerous than the original pieces.

Exactly what these factory iron plates are is a little less clear to me. You hear a lot about sand iron vs. factory iron.  The raw material for iron smelting is no doubt a big factor, but even the "factory" iron was probably sand iron.  As we know from swords, the production of iron during the Edo period became centralized near the major population centers and the regional
characteristics were lost.  Most would say that the quality suffered as well.

Certainly this "factory" iron could still be forged and folded, although some of the effects that were achieved with the older iron sources and processing was probably no longer possible (also probably true with swords). I imagine that the introduction of borax flux probably had effect on tsuba making similar to what it had on sword making.  Between a more homogeneous
starting iron and a move toward emphasis on decoration of the plate, there probably was not a lot of incentive for tsuba makers to spend a lot of time forging and folding their iron plates.  It wasn't really getting them anywhere.

I don't know of any evidence for rolling mills and the like being used in Edo period iron manufacture.  So, I assume that someone had to do some hammering to produce iron sheet.  I imagine that this could be done more cost effectively at the iron works or by some middle man than by the tsuba maker or someone in his shop.  The tsubako probably initially got rough sheet that he would cut to shape and forge (but not fold) as needed to the desired thickness and/or surface texture.  Eventually, as with today, they could probably get whatever thickness plate desired and could simply cut, polish and decorate the plate as is, or give whatever superficial surface texture was desired.  My guess is that this is the process behind we refer to as a factory iron tsuba today.


A few years ago I had an interesting discussion with a contemporary Japanese sword maker who also makes some nice Ko-Tosho and Ko-Katchushi style tsuba. Of course the fact that his methods work for him today doesn't prove that
they were the same methods used 400+ years ago, but based on his research he believes that what he is doing is accurate.

I asked him if tamahagane was needed to make these tsuba.  He said that he sometimes uses the low carbon part of the tamahagane and sometimes regular iron.  He said that he can definitely tell the difference while working them, but that there is no outwardly visible difference in the finished product.  He said he never uses steel.

He mentioned that he folds his tsuba 5 or 6 times for either Tosho or Katchushi style tsuba.  He uses the same flux that he uses for swords.  He does not use any yakiiri or other hardening of the finished plate.  They are just hammered iron and "not very hard."

Q: How are the fine spokes on Saotome kiku tsuba made?


A: I would guess they were done by drilling, chiseling and filing.  If you look closely, most of the tsuba of that type have one spoke carved from the plate and then two spokes inlaid as separate pieces, one carved, etc.  I had one early one that appeared to be all carved from the plate, but after a little cleaning I could see that some of the spokes were inlaid.  There are supposedly ones that are entirely carved from the plate, but I wonder if the inlay is just well hidden.


I've seen some guards (not of this type) that clearly show chisel marks in the sukashi, but most guards seem to have been filed after cutting.  Later examples were probably sawn.  Abrasive sawing (thread and grit) predated toothed saws.


While on the subject, some of the hairline saw cuts you see on Bushu Ito and other Edo period work aren't cut as finely as they at first appear.  If you look inside the cut you can see that it was actually made wider and then was hammered shut at the face surfaces.  Clever trick.  On the other hand, some of them really are cut that finely.  Lots of time and skill.

Q: Can you comment on the revival works signed Nobuie?


A: Some of the legitimate late Edo revival work after Nobuie (stuff not intended to deceive) was signed by the real maker.  That work can be quite beautiful.  The iron is dense and the carving good.  A lot of them seem to have a blacker patina than the real thing.  Many are a little awkward in the design and/or execution compared to the real thing (not surprising).  They
lack the usual signs of age you'd expect to see in a 400+ year old piece. Of course the real Nobuie guards have been very well cared for, so I'm not talking about bad condition.  Also the tekkotsu on some of the copies are overstated compared to what's seen on the old ones.  Others have no tekkotsu or real character to the iron, but are just carved to look like they do.

Most of the late Edo fakes in circulation have very poor iron, wrong color patina, light red rust, poor carving and bad design.  You don't need to worry about the signatures, they're just not in the same universe.

The two Norisuke made some very nice fakes and a lot of less believable ones.  Their own signed works can be very good, so you have to wonder whether some of their best their very best forgeries might have slipped by.

Q: What is the seppa dai?


A: I used to think of the seppa-dai as a raised area, probably because of the literal reading of dai.  But, I found that it's a confusing mental model.  Relatively few tsuba (at least in my area of interest) have a raised seppa-dai.  We most often have a reason to talk about seppa-dai when we're talking about kantei of ji-sukashi guards.  Most of these have seppa-dai at the level of the web and rim.  Some Owari and Kanayama guards are "dished" such that the seppa-dai is well below the level of the rim.  None of the classic ji-sukashi groups have a raised seppa-dai.  So I don't see "raised" as being a necessary part of the definition of seppa-dai.


So, moving on, there are plenty of guards with no sukashi, kebori, inlay, etc., to specifically delineate the seppa-dai.  Still, you'll find that the decoration of these guards respects the seppa-dai as an excluded zone.  There may be no hard line, but you see the seppa-dai as a negative space free of ornament.  I think that these guards do indeed have a seppa-dai.  The maker was conscious of it when he designed the guard.


We all know that guards are signed on the seppa-dai, whether it's delineated by part of the design or not.  It's another indication that the tsuba maker was aware of the seppa-dai as the region that will be covered by the seppa when his guard is used.


When I see one of the unusual exceptions like a Nishigaki tsuba with carved or sukashi elements that enter into the seppa-dai, it's a slightly shocking visual experience.  Obviously the seppa-dai isn't now some irregular shape defined by whatever is inside the kebori line.  The seppa-dai is an oval space that the maker intentionally penetrated for a novel effect.  We know he's carving into the seppa dai and he did too.


So, I don't see how a real tsuba can be without a seppa-dai.  Even if it is not delineated, the seppa-dai is there in the mind's eye of the maker and in that of the viewer.


John Yumoto's statement did appear in print in one of the JSS journals when they were running a series of Yumoto aphorisms.  But, I don't know if it's a captures his idea correctly and there was no context.  Still, just that statement makes perfect sense to me.  If there's something sticking up in the area that the seppa need to go, there is no seppa-dai.  It is not a tsuba.  We've all seen those Meiji/Taisho export pieces (and modern Chinese junk) with high relief inlay all over the space where the seppa would have to go if the piece was to be mounted.  Not tsuba.


I never had the chance to meet Yumoto-sensei, but I think it's obvious that he was NOT claiming that any guard that did not have the seppa-dai delineated by some sort of carving or inlay was not a real tsuba.  He must have believed that the seppa-dai was the area covered by the seppa.  If a guard had some protrusion that would get in the way of the seppa, it did not have a seppa-dai.


Even if there are no marks made to stake out the perimeter of the seppa-dai, the seppa-dai is still there.  It's a necessary feature of a real tsuba.

Q: Can you give us some pointers about Edo period Shoami copies of Heianjo tsuba?


A: The later "Heianjo style" guards are usually much thicker than the early true Heianjo.

The iron plate lacks character like the typical "factory iron" of the mid to late Edo period.

The brass on the later guards is very bright and yellow.  The older brass is more subdued and has a darker color.

The rim is often outlined with a thick "rope pattern" carved inlay.  Early guards will sometimes use the rope pattern outline inlay, but the brass is much thinner and the carving finer.

The later guards have rather crude inlay and carving compared to the early ones.  The inlay designs are very stereotyped with little imagination or variation.  The same style of tendril and leaves is often seen.

The inlay isn't well attached and is often partially missing.  Older guards can of course also have missing inlay, but given their age they seem to be holding up better than the newer ones.

The later examples are often found in a tachi mokko gata shape with inome sukashi. (Of course tachi weren't mounted with kozuka and kogai.)

Most of the above characteristics are typical of shiiremono in general -- inferior materials, mediocre workmanship, stereotyped designs.

The Tosogu Bijutsukan was attributing these later "Heianjo style" pieces to Shoami.  True Heianjo work seems to have lost popularity after Momoyama and died out in the early Edo period.  (Yoshiro and Kaga brass inlay work continued, though.)  The later Heianjo pieces seem to start up again in the late 18th C.  I'm not aware of any signed examples among these, but the Shoami are given the blame.  I don't know what attribution the NBTHK gives to these guards, if any.

Q: What is the starting size to qualify the tsuba as katana size?


A: I'm not aware of a quantitative rule for tsuba size like the one we have distinguishing katana from wakizashi by length.

It was the style to mount rather small tsuba on katana at times, and of course there are famous katana koshirae with no tsuba at all.  At other times larger tsuba were the style.  It's a katana tsuba when it was mounted as part of a period katana koshirae.

For the Edo period, my general sense is that most katana tsuba were at least in the low 8 cm diameter range.  I think that a 3" (7.6 cm) tsuba like yours was likely for a wakizashi.

Some groups made a lot of tsuba in the mid to high 7 cm range and relatively few over 8 cm.  Were they making mostly wakizashi tsuba or were smaller guards the style in their area?  Not something I've studied, so I'll keep a closer eye on tsuba size for period koshirae.

Q: Would a katana and tanto tsuba in the same design still be considered a daisho?


A: Collectors today usually apply the term daisho tsuba to guards that were made together as a pair, either matching or with some explicit relationship in the style and motif.  So, I suppose that a matching katana and tanto tsuba (or a katana and tanto in matching koshirae) would be considered a daisho.  Most tanto aren't mounted in wakizashi style, though.

Many daisho - referring to the long and short swords worn together – were not mounted with matching fittings.  The relationship between the fittings was created when they were mounted and worn together.  I suspect that most katana-tanto "daisho" were of this sort rather than the everything-matching type that screams daisho to collectors today.  I don't think that the concept or term daisho was applied to a tachi and tanto or katana and tanto in the days before wearing a katana-wakizashi daisho with matching tsuka and saya became the style.

BTW, when looking at early katana-wakizashi daisho koshirae, it's not unusual to see similar or related tsuba that appear to be of significantly different age.  These were presumably "put together," perhaps by having a sho made to match an existing katana tsuba.

What is or isn't a daisho depends on the context.  Fittings or swords worn together vs. manufactured together.

Q: What are the characteristics that distinguish Mito Shoami from Mito shiiremono? Are we talking two different schools - Mito (any) vs. Mito Shoami?


A: Easiest to start with Mito Shoami shiiremono.  We see lots of these guards. They have a plate that appears to be well worked at first glance, but is actually poor quality.  The density of the iron is surprisingly low.  The metal has a dull, flat brown finish.  The surface texture is all just punched in to the plate.  It's a surface imitation of the qualities occurring naturally on well worked plates.

The inlay metal is also poor quality.  Rather than true iroe, you see gold wash over copper and low quality metal and patina imitating alloys like shakudo.  The carving is not crude, but it's not well done.

The composition of the decoration is completely standardized.  The motifs themselves are lifeless.  They were just copied from "flash" books.

For some reason these guards are mostly mokko shape.  Everyone has seen these guards.  They're the fake Rolex watch of tsuba.

Sometimes you see Mito Shoami guards of the same general type, but with better quality iron plate, pretty good quality iroe, more inventive composition and unique decorative motifs.  They don't appear to be shiiremono.  They may or may not be custom order work, but they are at a higher level of quality than the junk.  There are also examples that are clearly older than the run of the mill shiiremono types.  So, I think that there are some "legitimate" Mito Shoami works.

Next comes Mito work that is not Shoami or shiiremono.  While generally not to my taste, there were a lot of very high quality later fittings turned out in Mito, no doubt to fill the needs of the Mito Tokugawa and their followers as already mentioned.   They did quite a few different things, so it's tougher to pin them down with a few paragraphs.  A book came out a few years ago on Mito swords and fittings, so I'll have to find my copy and see if I can make any generalizations.  As I mentioned before, as I recall the Compton sale had some real over-the-top Mito kinko tsuba on red copper plate that are worth checking out if you have the catalogs. 



Mito Shoami copied Nara work if anything.  Mito is different from Mito Shoami.  Mito Shoami didn't copy Mito makers as far as I'm aware.  Yes, I think that they are separate groups.  It's a shame that the Shoami name is connected with Mito Shoami shiiremono.


Q: Of the traditionally mounted blades with complete koshirae seen in the US today, what percentage is authentic period pieces (150 or so years old or older), and what percentage is more modern marriages? 


A: I don't know the quantitative answer to your question, but in my very limited experience intact early koshirae are rare.  At this September's NY shinsa the NTHK judged 56 koshirae and passed 43.  Most of the failures were modern examples, but some were legitimate koshirae that had gimei tsuba and/or fuchigashira.  Of the 43 that passed one was mid Edo and one was Momoyama. The latter was an exhibited and published koshirae.  Intact early koshirae are rare.

Anyone with an intact koshirae should preserve it as is.  No swapping fittings, no refinishing saya, no rewrapping tsuka.  Anyone with an intact koshirae that dates before the late Edo period should cherish it.  Koshirae from early Edo and older are often exhibited and published in Japan with half of the tsukaito missing because preserving what is original is that important.

Q: My late Edo koshirae is near mint apart from the ito - is it a real sin to rebind it?


A: Preserving older wrapping is a higher priority than preserving late Edo work, but even late work isn't getting any younger.  If the ito is literally crumbling, you may not have a choice.

I visited the sword museum to see the latest koshirae and kodogu that had passed Juyo shinsa.  One of the (juyo) tachi koshirae had an incomplete wrap that was preserved under a plastic sheet.  An incomplete original wrap is closer to "mint" than a redone one is.

I can't think of an area of interest other than nihonto where radical alteration (i.e., polishing) is acceptable in restoration.  Generally a refinished object is not valued as highly as an original in even rather poor condition.  There are obvious reasons for sword polishing that wouldn't apply to other fields.  I wonder if our attitude toward a "mint" polish creates an expectation that we should restore koshirae to "mint" condition as well.  It seems to me that with koshirae we often cross the line from restoration into re-creation.  I don't know if it's a sin, but it's certainly a shame to see old work destroyed because it's no longer in
perfect condition.

As usual it's a case-by-case decision as to whether a given piece is better off being stabilized and preserved with its imperfections or restored gently or entirely redone when it's too far gone to be saved.  It's your koshirae and your decision to be made according to your taste.

Q: Among all the schools , it appears to me that the Soten school seems to come out from no where.  Are there any " prototype " to the Soten school Hikone-bori ?


A: The depiction of human figures seems to be based on Kaneie and Goto figural work.  The sukashi landscape backgrounds seem to come from Kyo Shoami. Being in Kyoto, the first Soten would no doubt have been exposed to these. I think that Soten's combination and elaboration of the two was original to him.  I can't think of any "proto-Soten" guards.

Q: I come across this term " stacked iron construction " in tsuba. What is stacked iron construction ?


A: It's a phrase that gets used a bit loosely.  It seems to be best applied to guards that were not simply folded from more-or-less homogeneous iron, but were made from several layers of iron of different composition.  For example, some early Akasaka guards were made of a three layer "stack" with harder iron plate on the outside and softer in the center.  Welding flaws can sometimes be seen in the sukashi walls.  Traces can sometimes be seen in the rim as senkotsu, a "bone" that forms in places along the weld. Corrosion can bring out the layers clearly.

Other guards were "stacked" to the point that the mimi does look like masame, but I suspect that this is from folding and then acid etching rather than from stacking many thin plates.

Q: I have an Kyo Sukashi style tsuba with a hairline crack through the mimi.  Would a crack like that significantly lower the value or is maker, type and other factors more important? 


A: Condition is always important and a crack is not good.  A crack through the rim is worse than one somewhere in the web sukashi.  I suppose that a nice old Kyo-Sukashi with a cracked rim is more desirable than Mito shiiremono for example.  I have a hard time overlooking that kind of damage on fittings though.


Back to the Tsuba home page