Tsuba - Samurai Katana’s Sword Guard
Zen symbol of “The Diamond Sword”
The katana, which is the generic term
the West has adopted to refer to most Japanese swords, is undoubtedly an object
of functionality. The samurai who were the only ones allowed to own and
to wield this sword obtain only the best katana available, crafted by the best
sword-smiths around. The life of a samurai depends on the quality of his
sword. The steel must not break during battle, or the samurai would have
to pay for choosing a blade of low quality with his life.
That is an emphasis on the functionality of the katana. But since samurai
show off their wealth and status with the adornments on their swords, the case
for the katana as a work of art is quite strong. These adornments on the
Japanese sword are found in its hilt and handle, as well as on its tsuba.
What is the Tsuba?
The tsuba is the katana’s sword guard. Its function is to keep the
sword balanced as it is held in a fight, and to prevent the wielder from slipping
his hand across its blade and injuring himself. In a lot of sword fighting
techniques, the tsuba is also used to block an incoming slash from the opponent’s
During the medieval period of Japan, particularly the Muromachi and the Momoyama
periods, which lasted from the 1300s to the 1600s, the tsuba is designed more
for functional rather than for aesthetic purposes. They are made of hard
metal to ensure the sword wielder’s survival in a fight in these ages
of war in the history of Japan.
By the time of the Edo period, however, the tsuba became ornamental rather than
functional on a sword. This is because the Edo period is a period of peace,
when the states under the Japanese empire became united under shogunate rule.
The tsuba is made for ostentatious display when a samurai and his lord appeared
at the shogun’s court.
The Form of a Tsuba
The tsuba can be of two types. One type is made of iron and is called
tetsu. The other type is created using softer metals like gold, copper
and silver, or alloys. This other type is called kinko. Both the
tetsu and the kinko tsuba can be adorned with carvings, cutouts or other kinds
Tsuba can be found in all kinds of shapes, both regular and irregular.
Artists specializing in the crafting of tsuba have license to be as whimsical
as they wish on their work. Nonetheless, the tsuba can be grouped into
four general shapes. These four shapes are:
- Maru gata. This is the round
tsuba, which is its most common shape. Some round tsuba can be elliptical
or oval rather than perfectly round. Some mimic the shape of flowers,
such as the chrysanthemum.
- Kaku gata. The square tsuba,
often with rounded corners. The kaku gata can also be hexagonal or
octagonal or even trapezoidal.
- Shitogi. The shitogi tsuba
looks like the type of rice cake that is offered during Shinto rituals.
Katana with shitogi tsuba are almost always ceremonial swords.
- Mokko gata. The mokko gata
has four lobes and look like the surface of a cut melon. There are
many sub-types under the mokko gata and all vary their intricate designs.
The Tsuba Today
Since the samurai class is now gone and obsolete in this modern era, tsuba have
come to exist separately from the katana as objects of art. There are
art collectors who specialize on the tsuba and there are many schools of tsuba
craftsmanship in Japan, with each school using methods that have been handed
down for generations. Some families in Japan who have ancestors in the
samurai class often hand down tsuba as heirlooms depicting family mottos, seals
and insignias in stylized designs.