|By Larry LeMasters
In December 2018, I visited Jerusalem. While meandering through the narrow streets of the Old City market area, I stopped at a Muslim antique and oddities booth set up near the Barakat Gallery, and there, I saw my first tsuba.
The booth owner, in broken English, explained the tsuba was from the Muromachi Period of Japan and cost $1,200. I later discovered this might have been an excellent buy since many Muromachi tsuba are offered on eBay for $1,500 or more.
Sword collectors know tsuba, pronounced “tsuba,” is the Japanese word for the hand guard found on Samurai katana (swords). One field test for whether a Samurai sword is a modern-day reproduction intended as a decorative mounting or a well-worn battlefield weapon is the tsuba. Tsuba guards served four practical purposes—properly balancing the weapon; preventing a Samurai’s hands from sliding down the handle onto the blade when the sword was swung and hit resistance; when fighting, Samurai used the tsuba to lock their swords together and push, trying to gain a better fighting position from which to strike their opponent; and tsuba were sometimes seen as status symbols that properly communicated the social status of the Samurai. Lack of a tsuba (guard) rendered a Samurai sword dangerous or useless, so no Samurai would carry a sword into battle without a proper tsuba attached.
Historically, tsuba guards are mostly round (some are oval or square) and were made of a variety of metals and alloys, including primitive wrought iron, steel, leather, bronze, brass, copper, gold and silver. While gold and silver were used as inlay metals on tsuba, there are only a few tsuba that were made of gold and these, for the most part, date to the Edo period (1603-1868) when Japan was at peace for nearly 256 years and weapons were made for show or ceremony. The earliest tsuba were mostly made of wrought iron or hammered steel. Two unusual alloys used to make tsuba are shibuichi, a silvery gray metal (consisting mostly of sliver, copper, tin, zinc, or lead) and shakudo (a dark pickled metal consisting mostly of copper, gold and other “filler” materials).
In their simplest form, tsuba are plain, unembellished plates that are necessary parts for a sword, but collectors generally love tsuba for their famous ornamentation. An owner’s rank, title, or social position often dictated how much ornamentation craftsmen gave a tsuba. Many tsuba had ornate designs of dragons, octopuses, and other marine life. Some tsuba decoration themes were taken from Japanese mythology, nature, and religion. Both Christian and Buddhist designs are commonly found on vintage tsuba. Some tsuba are also bejeweled with precious stones such as rubies and emeralds; although, these tsuba are probably more decorative than functional.
Many tsuba are found without their swords. They were generally made from materials that outlasted steel, which would rust and deteriorate. Swords would literally rust away, making the tsuba the only thing left to keep.
Collectors enjoy owning tsuba since no two are alike. Each tsuba was hand wrought by artisans who specialized in only making tsuba guards. For artisans, making beautiful or functional tsuba guards was as important as making the sword’s blade, since the blade was useless without a tsuba.
The most popular tsuba to collect come from the Edo Period in Japanese history since this period represented nearly three centuries of tsuba making and examples of Edo tsuba are still readily available for collectors with deep pockets. Most Edo tsuba range in price from $1,500 up to $10,000 or more, making the collecting of Edo tsuba a rich man’s sport. Some collectors seek less expensive tsuba, even new decorative tsuba, since the prices are cheaper and the collections are still unusual and beautiful.
For centuries, tsuba have been considered family heirlooms because a father, with Samurai roots, often passed down his swords or collected tsuba, sometimes for generations.