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Tsuba (sword guard) with chrysanthemum and butterfly design


Artwork Details

Tsuba (sword guard) with chrysanthemum and butterfly design
18th century
iron with gold inlays
3 9/16 in. x 3 in. ( 9 cm x 7.6 cm )
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert T. Weston

On Display



Tsuba are intended to protect the user’s hand, first by shielding it against a blow from the opponent’s blade, and second by preventing it from slipping onto the razor-sharp edge of the weapon being wielded. Until the early seventeenth century, simply designed iron tsuba were dominant, as seen in the example here bearing a mushroom motif. When the Tokugawa regime required samurai warlords to travel regularly to the capital, Edo, and mandated that their wives and children reside there, considerations of urban fashion became more influential than battlefield practicalities in samurai attire and accessories. The tsuba became more an object of display than a functional item—a trend that further intensified when affluent merchants were permitted to carry swords in public and also began to demand attractive tsuba.
As is well represented by this collection, there was great artistic creativity at play in tsuba-making during the Edo period. The newly developed shakudô (a copper–gold alloy of a lustrous purple–black color) was used to create relief designs. Openwork chiseling was a versatile method for creating dramatic representations of family crests or light, airy, and elegant plant motifs.
(Label for UMMA Japanese Gallery Opening Rotation, March 2009)

Subject Matter:

Tsuba (sword guard) is inserted between a sword handle and blade to protect hands from sharp blades. The center hole is where the sword is placed. A smaller hole on the left is to place an ornamental stick, kozuka. Another hole on the right is to insert kougai, spatula-like sticks which are said to be used for itching hair underneath hats or helmets. Butterflies, chrysanthemums, autumn grass, and rock are popular motifs in Japanese decorative arts; the combination of chrysanthemums and grass suggests that this is an autumn scene.

Physical Description:

The flat iron plate with quatrefoil design. It has three holes: one for blade (middle) flanked by oval-shape hole (for kougai) and oval with bump shape (for kozuka). Chrysanthemums, autumn grass and a rock are carved on lower-right side; a butterfly is descending toward the flowers. Gold inlays are applied to the flowers, grass, part of the rock, and butterfly. The surface is finely granulated by etching (“ishime-ji”).

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