A long, curved, single-sided sword used by the samurai of feudal Japan is known as the katana. In the West, the katana became a generic term to designate most Japanese swords.
Apart from its use as a deadly weapon, these swords were also considered quite a work of art. The samurai adorned the katana with decorations to exhibit their prosperity and stature. These decorations could be seen on the handle and on its tsuba. The tsuba is the guard around the handle of the sword where the blade starts and the handle ends. While the sword is held in a fight, the tsuba helps keep it balanced, while at the same time, it protects the swordsman from cutting his hand on the blade. In many instances, it can also block the incoming slash from an opponent’s sword.
During the Muromachi period lasting from 1392 until 1573 and the Azuchi-Momoyama period lasting from 1573 to 1603, the tsuba was created mainly for functional instead of artistic reasons. During these medieval times of war in the history of Japan, they were designed from hardened metal to ensure the protection of the holder in fierce combat.
However, during the peaceful Edo period from 1603 to 1868, the states within the Japanese empire became unified under shogunate rule. Tsuba during that period of time were created for more ornamental, ceremonial and pageantry purposes and were therefore designed from softer metals such as gold. Whenever a samurai and his lord showed up at the shogun’s court, the tsuba was something much more of a thing to be proudly displayed.
The Tsuba Consist of Two Types
There are two basic kinds of tsuba: one is created from iron and is known as tetsu; the other type, known as kinko, uses various softer metals such as gold, copper, silver, and alloys. Both the tetsu and kinko can be found as cut out and/or adorned with all manner of carvings and other decorations.
Tsuba seem to exhibit all manner of designs. Some can be extremely detailed and lavish while having both symmetrical and asymmetrical designs and patterns. There is no limit to how mischievous, unpredictable and erratic the artists specializing in the forging of their designs can be! Nearly all are cut out in various ways with numerous holes, or often with at least two holes cut through each side, and sometimes at least one hole or no holes at all except of course for the knife in the middle. Many can be valued as high as thousands of dollars each.
There are four general forms of tsuba listed:
Maru gata – The Maru gata or round tsuba are the most common form, of which many varieties exist. Rather than being perfectly round, many can be slightly oval or elliptical. Some can be similar to the outline of flowers.
Kaku gata – The Kaku gata tsuba is square with rounded corners. Other geometric shapes such as octagonal, hexagonal or even trapezoidal can be found.
Shitogi – The shitogi tsuba are practically always used with ceremonial swords. They look elongated in the direction of the blade with one loop in either side, making some of them look like a very old-fashioned keyhole.
Mokko gata – The Mokko gata has four lobes making it look like a slice of a melon or gourd, especially with the holes inside it. There are various types of mokko gata all with delicate patterns.
The Modern Tsuba
Because the samurai class of warriors are no longer with us in today’s world, tsuba are now forms of art and craftsmanship independent of the katana. Many art collectors take special interest in the tsuba and many schools of tsuba craftsmanship exist in Japan.
Various methods of tsuba craftsmanship have existed for generations. Those families having samurai ancestors often posses heirlooms, handed down to them from previous generations, with family insignias, seals and mottos in decorative patterns.
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