As an enthusiast for interesting, beautiful, forgotten thingamagigs, I’ve made many small discoveries. I’ve learned things. One overarching lesson has been that when searching out hand-made objects of any kind, especially those of ancient origin, one can always look East, specifically to Japan, to find the kind of obsessive attention to detail and devotion to craft that elevates damn near anything to a masterpiece-spawning artform. Today, as example of just this principle, I offer a cursory glance at the tsuba.

A tsuba is the small metal guard at the end of a sword’s grip, which sits between the hand and the blade itself… and that’s it. A humble object basically. Shaped by 14 centuries of Japanese sword culture and metalworking, however, you’d never know it.


Quote: “The tsuba served as the most important functional fitting and, due to its size and location, also had the greatest symbolic importance. It protected the hand, helped to balance the sword, and was the most visible decorative object when the sword was worn. Inasmuch as the samurai usually wore two swords at all times, and would not be seen without them, the kinds of tsuba worn often depended upon the day’s activity. One might, for example, prefer an iron guard for battle and a highly decorated soft metal guard for court use. although these distinctions were not invariable. The samurai usually owned several tsuba and matching fittings for each blade, and changed them to suit mood or occasion. -From the Introduction of the exhibition catalogue, Tsuba, put out in 1980 by The Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

The tsuba  evolved with advances in technology and to accommodate the needs of changing forms of warfare. The earliest examples were disks made of bronze or copper. In the 12th century plain iron disks, patinated to a “pleasing black color,” or allowed to rust slightly prior to stabilization to achieve a redish tint, were the norm. Inlayed, gold leafed, chiseled, complexly perforated, carved soft metal, and other decorative forms evolved later.

The perforations, punched or forged, visible in many tsuba began as a purely functional consideration. Iron tsuba could be made lighter with a few well placed perforations. Over time these perforations became more and more decorative in nature, to the point that functionality actually suffered. Some of the most ornate and complex examples were almost certainly used for formal or ceremonial occasions only.

Quote: “The use of alloys such as shakudo, shibuichi, as well as copper, brass, bronze, gold and silver together allowed color and contrast to become an overiding factor in decorative techniques toward the end of the fifteenth century.” —


Quote: “When peace came, however, tsuba making was carried out by rapidly proliferating schools of technically expert artisans whose production was seldom intended for use in warfare. The decorative styles of eighteenth-century tsuba matched their peaceful use; ornamentation of the tsuba became an end in itself and the art deteriorated. Although a few individuals and schools maintained the high standards of previous eras and produced magnificent works even in the twentieth century, a general conversion of art to artisanship continued until the wearing of swords was banned by Imperial decree in 1871, and the blades and fittings largely passed into the province of the scholar and collector.” -From the Introduction of the exhibition catalogue, Tsuba.

The images in the post (which were adapted and placed in my own desired groupings) were taken from the following sources-
George’s Tsuba Pictures
Nihonto Kanji Pages

All of those sites feature a wealth of tsuba for your viewing, and in most cases, purchasing pleasure, and these are only the tiniest sampling of what’s available out there. Beautiful stuff.

Hope you enjoyed.

03.13. filed under: art. design. history. 8