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The A. H. Church Collection of Japanese Sword-Guards (Tsuba)

An unpublished catalogue of the A. H. Church collection of Japanese sword-guards (tsuba) by Albert James Koop.

The A.H. Church Collection of Japanese Sword-Guards (Tsuba) by Albert James Koop

Technical terms and processes

An explanation of certain technical terms and processes frequently referred to in the description:

Shapes of guards

Most guards are flat and of moderate thickness, and only exceptions to this rule are noted in the descriptions. The profile is either regular and symmetrical, or of an irregular but compact form determined by the design composing the guard. Of regular profiles the great majority vary from circular (or nearly so) to frankly elliptical (“oval”), and in such cases the shape is not noted, the dimensions being sufficient indication.

The next most common profile is mokkō, the name for an heraldic motive of rounded quatrefoil outline; in guards, however, the four lobes are usually flattened, and the term mokkō may be applied to what is no more than a rounded oblong with the angles slightly re-entrant, or “faint mokkō”, as it is sometimes designated.

A shape not uncommon in late guards is aori, the name for the similarly shaped saddle-flaps used by horsemen in former days. This is a rounded quadrilateral narrower above than below. All other shapes are far less frequent and are noted as they occur.

Front and back

The obverse and reverse of a guard are distinguished by the Japanese as omote and ura respectively, but the English terms “front”and “back” are used here. The front is that face (the word “side” is carefully avoided in this connection) which comes next to the hilt of the sword, and in guards decorated differently on the two faces it can be recognised as that with the more important design (or the more important part of adesign carried over). In asymmetrical designs, too, whether pierced or unpierced, the right side of the front (and conversely the left -of the back) tends to have a greater share of ornament than the other side. In the case of symmetrical designs, where there would otherwise be no choice, the front may be distinguished in two ways as shown in riōhitsu and riōhitsu plugs chapters below.

Edges, borders, and rims

The term rim is confined here to a separate band of metal (usually in one of the “soft” metals”, rarely in iron) fitted round the edge of the guard. The actual edge, in an unrimmed guard, is commonly either flat (“square”) or convex (“rounded”), but it may be variously moulded and sometimes provided with a sharp arris on each face of the guard; this latter feature is described as “wire” edge. Often the edge has the appearance of having been hammered all round (as indeed it has), so as to thicken the guard at its periphery; this is here described as “hammered-up” edge. Especially with later examples, this hammering-up is purposely done irregularly, so that its sharp inner contour, produced by the final rounding-off of the actual edge, is of an irregular wavy character.

A simple edge, whether “square” or is to be understood as being plain unless specially noted as being decorated. This applies also to the border, usually comparatively narrow, which often confines the design of a guard, whether this be solid or in openwork. A border, especially a narrow one, may be described as “square” or “rounded” with reference to the formation of its actual edge.


The centre of each face is occupied by a space called the seppadai, literally “stand for the seppa”, the two elliptical washers separating the front of the guard from the hilt and the back from the scabbard-mouth. This is centrally pierced with the tang—hole, a wedge-shaped slot, narrow end uppermost, for the tang of the blade to pass through. The ends of this slot are frequently found plugged with rough pieces of copper, to reduce the size when the guard has been refitted to a narrower blade. Or else, to fit a thinner blade, the sides of the tang-hole may be found roughly dented or sometimes ornamentally punched, and this is always confined to (or at any rate most prominent on) the front of the guard. Some late guards have the plugs actually fitted from the start and neatly formed or even specially decorated, the artist evidently recognising the truly attractive appearance of bits of patinated copper at these points.

The seppadai, if specially marked out (which may not be the case in a solid guard), is normally of elliptical outline, with the major axis, of course, vertical. It is also normally plain, except for the signature or kindred inscription. Exceptions to both these rules are noted as they occur—they become almost the rule in the Namban guards (Group xxviii).


Most guards have either one or two perforations abutting on the long sides of the seppadai. Together these are known as riōhitsu (literally “pair of compartments”), singly as hitsu. In an openwork guard the riōhitsu, one or both, may either be provided by suitable gaps in the design (and in that case their shape will probably be irregular), or they may be specially bordered by narrow strips reserved in the metal. (In the descriptions the term riōhitsu or hitsu often refers to these borders only.) The purpose of these holed is to accommodate the handle-tops of the two implements, kodzuka and kōgai, roughly ‘knife and “skewer”, which are housed in the scabbard of certain types of sword, and to permit of these being drawn without having to draw the sword itself. They are commonly about five-eighths of an inch long, and if, as is usually the case, one of them, intended for the kodzuka, is of oval shape, while the other, for the kōgai, is trifoliate, it is practically certain that the latter will be on the right when the front of the guard is being viewed. If there is only one hole, it will probably be oval and on the left. Sometimes, even in a solid guard, especially those of the Higo Schools (Group XIII), the riōhitsu are of extra large size and of abnormal shape.

Riōhitsu plugs

In a guard that has been refitted to a sword not provided with kodzuka and/or kōgai one or both of the hitsu may be found plugged with metal, rarely with wood, leather, or other material. These plugs are most commonly of shakudō (a black copper alloy described later) and quite plain, in which case they are not specially noted in the descriptions. But occasionally they are of other metai (lead is not uncommon in old or archaic-looking guards) and worked with striated or punched patterns or otherwise decoratively treated. Indeed, where the plugs are of especially attractive appearance one may expect the guard to be of unusually good quality. Some modern guards will be found to have had the plugs fitted from the beginning and thus made to take their part in the general decorative scheme, even sometimes to the extent of having the design of the guard actually carried over them! In some late guards, again, part of the encrusted design will overlap an unplugged hitsu or may even (say in the form of a plant-stem, a snake, or what not) pass through it to the other face of the guard- thus entirely defeating the presumptive purpose of the hole.

Udenuki hole

The name udenuki-ana (literally “arm slip, i.e. armlet, holes”) is given to a couple of small perforations found close together in the lower part of certain guards; they are usually circular and of different sizes. There is no definite rule as to the kind of guard on which they may be found and much mystery surrounds the exact purpose (other than that of sheer ornament) for which they exist. The usual explanation- by no means a convincing one- is that they are to hold a sword-knot.

Signatures, etc

The maker’s signature, rarely found on guards earlier than the 18th century, is normally engraved columnwise on the seppadai; instances where it occurs on the field or even the edge of the guard are specifically noted. There seems to be no rule as to whether it shall be placed on the front or the back; but in any case it is usually found to the left of the tang-hole if consisting of no more than a single column of writing. If longer and possibly supplemented by the date or other piece of information, it will probably begin on the right and either finish on the left or else be coninued on the other face of the seppadai.

The reading and interpretation of signatures, etc., demands special study, even for most Japanese themselves. But considerable proficiency in the task may be attained by digesting the preliminary chapters of Koop and Inada’s Janese Names and how to read them, (Eastern Press, Ltd., Reading). In transcribing the signatures and any other inscriptions in the present collection the ordinary standard forms (kaisho) have been used, whatever the forms employed in the original, and repetitive transcriptions and explanations have been avoided where clearly unnecessary. Many signatures, for instance, end with the words or phrases [Japanese text] saku, [Japense text], kore wo saku [Japense text], tsukuru, [Japense text] kore wo tsukuru, all meaning the same as “fecit,” and these, though transliterated in the descriptions, are not further explained. (Many similar phrases may be found in Chapter VI, on “Typical Signatures,” of the above-mentioned work.) A signature, again, often closes with a kakihan (literally “written seal”), that curious unreadable flourish or paraphe, to use a French term, which to a Japanese [person] is of far greater importance than his actual signature. Sometimes a guard is signed with a kakihan only, generally low down to the left of the tang-hole, wheie it would be likely to occur if preceded by two columns of signature. All kakihan have been noted and transcribed in the catalogue.

Sometimes a “seal”, usually inlaid in gold wire, follows the signature. This, unlike the kakihan, is readable, or is at any rate intended to be so, and contains as a rule one or more of the.artist’s names, often repeating those already given in engraving and ordinary script.


The commonest material for the body of a guard, especially in the older specimens, is iron, usually of fine quality and having a good “ring.” The other metals employed—commonly termed by collectors “soft metals”—indude silver (somewhat rare), bronze and brass (not common and mostly in archaic examples), pure , and the three special copper alloys, shakudō, shibuichi and sentoku, which are strictly peculiar to Japan and are described below. Guards in solid gold were a feature of the luxurious age of the third Tokugawa Shō-gun, Iyemitsu (1623-1651), and continued to be used by the aristocracy and wealthier commoners until a very necessary edict against such extravagance was issued in 1830. Few of such guards, however, if any, have survived, though the smaller sword-mounts in gold are not uncommon. Non-metallic guards in leather, ivory, wood, and even pottery, are to be found, but must be regarded as abnormal and freakish.

Shakudō is an alloy of copper with a small proportion of gold; shibuichi is an alloy of the same with a greater proportion of silver; sentoku is a variety of brass. But none of these, any more than unalloyed copper, attains to the beautiful coloration which gives it its peculiar charm unless it has been treated to a special pickling bath, the result of which is to give shakudō a lustrous raven or violet-black hue, shibuichi a wide range of shades from a rich deep olive-brown to a pale tint resembling oxidised silver, sentoku a pleasing chrome-yellow colour, and copper itself a fine subdued foxy-red tone quite unlike the sharp metallic gleam of the untouched substance. All these colours, the budding collector should be warned, are but skin-deep, and, though practically permanent, are so only so long as they are not subjected to scratching or injudicious rubbing, which will rapidly destroy them and reveal the ugly raw metal below.

Pure iron in its bright state seems to have been anathema to the Japanese, who without exception preferred it treated with a surface varying in colour from a russet chestnut tint to the deep violet-black (magnetic oxide) characteristic of guards by the Kinal (Group XVI). Unlike those in the copper alloys, iron guards showing bright patches where rubbed or scratched can without much difficulty be restored to something like their pristine colour. Some methods of doing this are detailed in a chapter by H.W.Nichols in Miss H.C.Gunsaulus’s interesting handbook Japanese Sword-Mounts in the Collection of Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

Attention should here be drawn to what is described as “grained iron,” exactly corresponding to “watered” or “damascened” steel, but with the surface etched so as to throw the grain” into relief. A number of guards in this material, with or without further decoration, are grouped together near the end of the catalogue, others being found here and there among the earlier sections.

Occasionally, especially in late work, a guard is of a different metal on the front and back or in the central and outer portion; while some interesting combinations of two or more metals or alloys to form the body of a guard will be found described under “Mokume” and “Guri” in Group LVIII.

Methods of decoration


Unless specially indicated, the surface of a guard is understood to be more or less smooth and polished, the more recent examples (especially those in iron) being given a minutely granulated gloss by means of etching.

The general term ishime (‘stone-grain”) is applied to any surface finished with a regular punched pattern, which may range from the minutest stippling with a round-headed tool to the bolder varieties of punching with stellate (“chrysanthemum”) or other devices, including what is aptly described as “broken-headed” punch. But the most characteristically Japanese treatment of a ground is a close assemblage of tiny granules known as nanako, literally “fish-roe.” In this each single grain is formed by a blow from a cup- headed punch, guided solely by hand and eye and producing in the best work a ground of absolutely regular rows, curved or straight, of perfect hemispheres, uniform in size and free from any intervening burring of the metal. Nanako is most commonly found on shakudō, but it is applied to other soft metals and occasionally even to iron. It seems to have been introduced, at first no doubt in a less skilful and finished form, by the Gotō (Group XXXIII) as early as the 15th or 16th century, but it was employed in later times by masters of many other schools.

Piercing and openwork

On examining a collection of guards it will become obvious that the terms piercing and openwork may cover a very wide range, from one or more perf orations of simple geometric or conventional form in the solid guard, to a complex design of which the details are represented entirely in the round, of course with the solid oval seppadai in its centre and frequently also a moderately narrow border confining the whole. Between these extremes will come piercings depicting definite natural or artificial objects, at first in what is termed “negative silhouette,” then in “positive silhouette”, that is, like a piece of fret- work with the edges left square. This fret-piercing may be diversified by having a “slight engraving finish,” i.e., a few engraved lines to represent texture, plumage, foliage, leaf-venation, and the like. Next we may proceed by imperceptible stages, beginning with the gentle rounding-off of the edge of the silhouette, to an increasing degree of what is here described as “modelling” (the term is convenient, if perhaps inaccurate), until the complete marubori, literally “round carving,” is attained. It must be stated, however, that a very large number of the guards described as having designs “in openwork” stop definitely short of-the full marubori, even when allowance has been made for a certain necessary flattening of a represented object whose rendering in the full round would thicken the guard unduly at that point.

Relief modelling etching

 Carving or modelling on a solid guard, again, may vary from the boldest of relief (in Japanese, takabori, “high carving”) down to what isknown as nikuai (or shishiai-) bori, literally “complexion carving,” in which the flat relief is actually below the general level of the surface. Especially with the latter variety, use is very commonly made of katakiri engraving (see the next section) for various details.

Ordinarily the chisel (tagane) and file (yasuri) are employed for relief modelling, whether on iron or on a soft metal. But the process of etching with acid is also used, and a special group of etched work will be found near the end of this catalogue; while the guards of the Jakushi School (Group XXX) have their low reliefs regularly produced in this manner.

Engraving, katakiri, nekogaki

Designs may be produced by linear engraving on the (usually) polished surface of a guard, and the process ma be either kebori (“hair carving”), in which the lines are of unvarying width, or, as far more commonly, katakiri (“one-side cutting”), a method whose invention is aoribed to the Yokoya (Group XL), but which was adopted by workers in many other schools. Katakiri is done by a graver of V section, driven by a, mallet and held with the left leg of the V upright, so that the deeper the tool bites into the metal the wider is the resulting cut. The process is capable of reproducing to the full the varying width of line which gives a brush-drawing its peculiar charm and vigour- indeed, it might not inappropriately be termed “brush-stroke engraving.” It is often combined with a certain amount of flush inlay of other metals (see next section) to give an effect of colour.

Nekogaki, “cat-scratch,” is an apt name for a method of engraving in short lines with the burr of the metal not re moved, but allowed to remain as a little excrescence at the end. It is not often used- chiefly on riōhitsu plugs as a mere formal decoration, but occasionally to represent, with a fair degree of naturalism, the stamens of plum-blossoms and other flowers.

Incrustation, inlay, nunome, iroye

The general term zōgan is applied by the Japanese to any added decoration of other metals or alloys to that forming the body of a guard, and three distinct methods are commonly employed for this purpose, or, to speak more accurately, three different effects are produced, namely, taka-zōgan (“high z”), hon- or hira-zōgan (“original, i.e. flush” or “flat z”), and nunome-zōgan (“cloth-grain z”).

Of these the first two require the cutting of shallow pits in the metal of the guard, of the desired shape and having their edges slightly undercut. The added metal is laid in and spread by means of light hammering so as to be firmly held down by the undercuts, this result being often helped out by further hammering round the edges of the pits. If the zōgan is then rubbed down flush with the surface, It is termed hon- zōgan (hira-zōgan), or in these descriptions “inlay”; if in any degree raised, it is taka- zōgan, here called “incrustation” (verb, “to encrust”)

In these two varieties, any one or more of the metals and alloys described in Materials chapter above may be applied to a guard of another metal, with the proviso that iron is very rarely used as added decoration, except on itself, when the term zōgan is of course out of the question. It should also he pointed out that what looks like, and is for convenience usually described as “incrustation of gold” is more often than not an economical substitute in the form of copper-gilt (occasionally silver-gilt), or even merely a plating of the precious metal on the actual substance of the guard.

The very convenient word iroye (“colour picture”) is frequently made use of in the descriptions, especially of the later groups, to cover any combination of three or more metals used as “incrustation” or “inlay.”

The third type of zōgan, for which the Japanese word nunome is retained in the catalogue, is rather different from the other two, both as to method and as to effect, though it is sometimes not easy, even on close examination, to decide whether a line, say of gold, has been applied by the inlay or the nunome prcess. In nunome the surface is first roughened by a fine cross-hatching with a chisel- whence the name, literally”cloth grain”; next, gold or oilver (rarely copper, copper-gilt, or shakudō), in the form of wire or foil, roughly cut to shape, is laid in place and lightly hammered so as to key it into the hatching; it is then finished by cleaning up the edges of the applied design. By skilfully varying the thickness of the foil, nunorne of gold is capable of giving the effect of a wash drawing, and much use is made of it, chiefly on iron guards, to enhance the high lights of a design.


Other processes and technical terms of less frequent occurrence are noted and explained as they appear, either in the descriptions of individual pieces or in the introductory matter preceding the various groups. In the case of certain extensive groups, where most of the examples are treated on an identical plan, some economy of description has been effected by a general reference in the group introductions. Otherwise the remarks on each guard are as full as it is possible to make them within reason. This applies also to the technical terms, symbolism, and references to the historical and legendary episodes occurring in the subjects represented.

The dimensions given are those of the vertical and horizontal axes (or, generally, the greatest height and width), and are quoted in decimals of an inch to the nearest twentieth below (.05”), this being more convenient than using vulgar fractions.


[The contradictions, "sd." and "rh.", will in future be used here for seppadai and riōhitsu respectively.]


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