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.

Basho Tsuba
Tsuba with cranes
Basho's Tsuba pendant
Tsuba with cranes silver

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 also very important. 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 sword.

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 was mostly 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 of decor.

Tsuba can be found in all kinds of shapes, both regular and irregular. Artists specializing in the crafting of tsuba have a 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 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 has 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.

Tsuba Jewelry

Tsuba With Cranes Silver

Price: $146 USD

Tsuba With Cranes Gold

Price: $2,109 USD

Tsuba With Ants Silver

Price: $126 USD

Basho's Tsuba Silver

Price: $121 USD

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