It has been determined that a great many sword guards were produced outside of Japan and imported by Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese merchant mariners, making it improper to label them Japanese. They were produced in places such as Thailand, Vietnam and China, where Japanese swords were highly prized, and often imitated. With correct study, one can easily notice the difference from Japanese copies. Therefore, let those known to be exports be identified as Asian Sword Guards.

The ASIAN SWORD GUARD group are those produced in China, India, and Monsoon Asia, and imported from the end of the 16th century for Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese merchants; primarily for use as art objects, business and diplomatic gifts.
The terms that could be used for guards that can be assigned to a specific location are:
Mandarin: pronounced hushou or pan hushou. Pan = plate. Hu = to guard. Shou = hand.
Cantonese: pronounced wusau.
Vietnamese: pronounced ho thu.
Kiyou Tojin: Sword guards made by Chinese artists in Nagasaki.
In all other instances it makes perfect sense that foreign-made sword-guards formerly known as 'Nanban tsuba' be reclassified as 'Asian Export sword guards'. Because 'Nanban tsuba' is a term that would only have been known to Japanese makers, let it apply exclusively to their work.

Further Notes:
'Kanton' is a corruption of Gunagzhou, China's largest seaport. In the first ten years after the opening of Chinese maritime trade by the Kangxi emperor in 1684, hundreds of Chinese 'Tosen' merchant ships arrived at Nagasaki. The Chinese inhabiting Nagasaki's 'Tojin Yashiki' (Chinatown) grew to almost 10% of the city's population, versus a dozen Dutchmen living on Deshima. The term 'Kanton' may refer to the Qing merchants who first imported sword guards to Japan. The Dutch were known to have used tsuba as gifts in their dealings with the Japanese. They are also known to have purchased gifts from the Chinese in Nagasaki in years when no ships arrived from Batavia (Jakarta).

TOJIN-YASHIKI   Sword Guard   $2500.00

"Large rectangular sword guard. Iron with gold wire inlay. The manner of execution represents a high degree of artistic hybridity, suggesting that this piece was made along maritime trade- routes, where artisans had access to decorative arts from around the globe. The indented corners, pointed Shitogi-gata seppa-dai, smooth- skinned dragons and almost caricature drawing- style points to Indochina, perhaps Tonkin. In his book Nanban Tsuba, Yoshimura Shigeta illustrates a similar piece on page 10. The caption reads, “Nagasaki-he gairai-shita Chukokujin no saku…” (Made by a Chinese person who came into Nagasaki)." (J. McElhinney)
8.15cm x 7.50cm x 0.40cm

CHINESE / HIZEN   Sword Guard   $3000.00

From a Japanese family in Hizen, an heirloom. Momoyama to early Edo period.
Appears to be Chinese, modified to Japanese use as evidenced by the hitsu-ana. The nakago-ana has been modified as the original shape was rectanglar which would conform to the cross-section of a Chinese pei-dao tang. The kozuka-histu appears to have been added later, because it is delineated by a metal band inserted into the aperture cut through the design. This most likely being performed by someone trained by the Yagami school. That technique seems to be one of their specialities. It seems that Nagasaki was the port of entry for most of these imports, and Hizen the center of "Nanban" fittings production. It seems that the market was driven by the Dutch need for diplomatic and greeting gifts, and the demand of gifts and souvenirs (miyage) by graduates of Rangaku and Chinese medical training (in Nagasaki).
6.80cm x 7.50cm x 0.40cm (seppa)

"Design motif of two herons is from ceramic origin. The top and bottom symbols are perhaps very stylized 'tama' jewels or lotus buds. The seppa-dai is of a shape that is neither Chinese or Japanese. Silver nunome on the edge of the seppa-dai, very faint. The hitsu is a later addition upon its arrival in Japan. Momoyama age, ca.1600." (E. Long)
7.60cm x 7.65cm x 0.55cm

"An iron guard made in China, adapted later to Japanese use. This piece exhibits strong Sino-Tibetan influence. The gilded 'jewels' at twelve, three, six, and nine o'clock are a purely Tibetan design, and very rarely on occasion are intact with actual jewels. The roundels positioned in the design at compass-points NE, SE, SW and NW represent that they once held pieces of coral or turquoise. The number eight is very auspicious in Buddhist symbolism, and associated with good luck." (E. Long)
8.60cm x 8.50cm x 0.45cm

"A Chinese guard, possibly made in Nagasaki by Chinese carvers for the Chinese market, or for the Dutch gift and Japanese Rangaku-Omiyage market. The rectangular shape of seppa-dai confirms early to middle Qing in Sino-Tibetan style for use with Chinese tang. This dates to ca. 1750. At a later date, the Higo-style punch marks could have been done in Higo when adapted to Japanese use." (E. Long)
6.90cm x 7.65cm x 0.45cm

SOLD - Reference Only
"A Monsoon Asian guard of water dragons frolicing in a tangle of interwoven tendrils representing waves (known as 'loukong' in Mandarin, 'karakusa' in Japanese), chasing a flaming jewel. The seppa-dai in a shitogi pattern confirms China or Monsoon Asia dating ca. 1650-1700." (E. Long)
6.70cm x 7.70cm x 0.50cm

QING   Guard
"Qing guard employing design tropes found on Qing imperial dragon-robes. The web is a tangled openwork of interlacing tendrils that represent moving water. The topic of the design is the carp becoming a dragon by leaping over the dragon gate on the Yellow River in China, signifying accomplishment.
The gold inlay is intact and in finely worked nunome zogan. The rim is rounded (maru mimi). The hitsu-ana and sekigane were added when adapted to Japanese use." (E. Long)
7.65cm x 7.75cm x 0.70cm

"Imported Sino-Tibetan style Qing tsuba of iron with gold highlights. Incredible complex design of dragon-koi's or 'chilong' swimming in turbulent water, rendered as loukong interlacing. The dragon-koi represents the excercise of positive force. Legend has it that when the koi swimming upstream overcomes a waterfall, it becomes a dragon. These creatures are rendered at the moment of transformation, an inspiration to those after some kind of loss, or in a period of transition. The surface decoration of lotus blossom, flaming jewel on top and pagoda on the bottom are for visual appeal.
The rectangular shape of the seppa-dai is to be expected on Qing guards. The carving crosses over and under and the kogai & kozuka hitsu-ana are original to the piece. The rim is gilt beading and majority of the gold remains." (E. Long)
6.6cm x 7.0cm x 0.35cm

A design combining Chinese-Tibetan and Indochinese elements, such as this composite creature with the head of a lion and a serpentine body. The flowing mane is pointed, like the forelock of a Mekong Phaya-naga.The pointed shitogi-gata seppa-dai, pierced with a prefabricated nakago-ana to accommodate multiple tang systems suggest Monsoon Asia as place of origin--probably made to order for the VOC. Note how the bending tangle of Loukong interlacing seems to anticipate the kozuka-ana, which is inset as a metal band--a technique used by the Yagami Mitsuhiro school. Multi-system nakagao-ana seem to be associated with guards made for the Dutch, who being in Nagasaki could surely have ordered guards from local metalworkers. (E. Long)
7.4cm x 7.5cm x 0.45cm

CHINESE   Sword Guard   $750.00
"Rounded square iron guard with very thick and heavy rim. The shape might allow us to date it to early Qing period (1644-1700) during which this shape was popular. The design consists of paired chilong (water dragon) in openwork tendrils at top and bottom, and two peculiar features located at both sides. The two features could represent ritual objects used in tantric Buddhism. Just under the thick rim appears gold inlay on a variation of the double rim found on some early imperial Qing saber guards. The copper sekagane confirms being adjusted for Japanese use." (E. Long)
6.6cm x 7.0cm x 0.5cm

"There are two indications that point to Indochinese origins for this guard. The first are the serpentine dragons, similar to Mekong Phayanak, or protector river-serpent. The second are the lotus flower buds at the top and bottom of the design. The "Loukong" interlacing shows loyalty to the taste of the Qianlong court. Unlike many Chinese guards, it is formed not by carving but by drilling holes through the plate, heating the metal and bending it. The interpretation of the mythical beasts is almost childish, having a folk-art feeling, unlike the kind of obsessive workmanship one finds in Japanese "Kanton" guards. The hitsu-ana are impractical, added to give the piece a Japanese flavor." (E. Long)
7.10cm x 7.00cm x 0.40cm

MONSOON-ASIAN   Sword Guard    $800.00
"Iron sword guard with traces of gold and silver inlay of symbols and Chinese characters. Unusual pointed, octagonal seppa-dai. Lead-filled hitsu-ana are a later addition, not integral to the design. The thin plate has a rich patina suggesting significant age, late Muromachi period. This seems to be the work of a Monsoon Asian metalworker adapting Japanese design to local weapons production. This is a very interesting piece for several reasons. The shape is almost perfectly round. The excavated areas are not finished with the same care as the inlayed surfaces have been. Cross-hatching covers the pointed octagonal seppa-dai and dominant ring of designs around it. It is possible that the lower areas were carved out roughly to accommodate possibly enameling, which is now lost, along with much of the inlay." (E. Long)
8.79cm x 8.74cm x 0.35cm

MING   Sword Guard   $1200.00
"Iron Asian Export-style sword-guard. Dote-mimi, with Taoist symbols executed in taka-bori on ishime-ji. The ura is identical to the omote. Almost circular form, raised rim and distribution of designs is reminiscent of Chinese mirrors. The presence of Taoist symbols alone should lead one to question the assumption that this piece might be Japanese. The elliptical formation of the seppa-dai might lead one to believe this is Japanese, but one must bear in mind that other countries, notably Vietnam, produced sword handles with oval cross-sections. In all likelihood this guard was produced in China, or one of these foreign enclaves. Seems to date to early pre-1640. The piece was awarded a Tokubetsu Kicho paper by the NBTHK in 1974, with an attribution as Nanban." (E. Long)
7.99cm x 7.98cm x 0.56cm

"Subject of dragons chasing jewels (tama) in waves and clouds. Copper (Suaka) Usuniku-bori (sunken relief) with Katakiri-bor (direct line engraving). The rim is decorated in katakir-bori in a Greek key-pattern. Signed "Hirado no ju Kunishige" (H 03650.0). Many small tsuba of this kind were produced on the island of Hirado as shiiremono (ready-made goods) used as business gifts or status symbols. Japanese physicians are said to have worn Nanban tsuba as a way of proclaiming their possession of Rangaku (Hollander learning); Western science and medicine. There appears to be more than one generation signing "Kunishige". The shodai (first generation)may have been a designer, metalworker or both. This piece combines Chinese and European design elements with Japanese workmanship." (E. Long)
7.2cm x 6.9cm

Excerpts from 'Nanban Tsuba and Asian Export Sword Guards' by
James Lancel McElhinney.


The Nanban group of tsuba are reproductions of Asian Export sword-guards made by Japanese artists, and by Chinese artists working in Nagasaki.
In 1987 Ogawa redefined the group, introducing a radical simplification and several defining characteristics. The presence of 'Nanban tetsu' is irrelevant. It may or may not be a costituent of some of the tsuba in this group, but there is no reliable way of identifying its presence. The definition of the group is based upon the presence of some of these characteristics;
- undercut scrollwork, which may incorporate dragons with the tama jewel or other creatures;
- they are almost always of iron;
-gold nunome or overlay is a frequent feature;
- hitsu-ana are a later modification;
- many have decorative seppa-dai, although these may appear on tsuba as an example of Nanban influence;
- decorative mimi are common;
- tsuba of this group are very rarely inscribed.

Consider this.....It is very likely that the term "Nanban tsuba" is going to be retired. Aside from its derogatory meaning, it is too vague a term to mean anything specific and thus is mostly useless. Current research has now been able to identify guards made in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, Nagasaki by Chinese carvers, and of course tsuba made in Japan styled or inspired by Asian Exports. Research has also re-established Joly's connection between "Kanton" tsuba and Tibetan saddle plates. What he did not know, and researchers do, is what changes in Qing military regulations affected tsuba design. Researchers are prepared to argue that there is no such thing as "Nanban tsuba", and that the term seems not to have been used in reference to sword fittings until the 20th century.


Enjoy this excellant article about Nanban Trade.

An excellant paper about The Iron and The Style of Nanban written by Henri L. Joly

Read about Foreign Influence from 'Jaspanese Sword Mounts' by Helen C. Gunsaulus.

Picture gallery of Excellant Nanban Tsuba for study and appreciation.

Nanban   in ASIAN EXPORT style.
Accompanied by a Hozon certificate number 447408, issued by the N.B.T.H.K., dated Heisei 17 (2005).
"Edo period, ca. 1700. Tetsu-ji with decoration of uri zu (gourd). Patina is in great original condition. A excellant example of technique: nada-kakugata, sukidashibori, kin-gin nunome zogan, Sukinokoshi dote-mimi, Ryo hitsu ana (shakudo ume). This piece can be considered nearly top quality making it an excellant example of Nanban tsuba in Asian Export style." (E. Long)
8.0cm x 7.8cm x 4mm, nakago size: 2.8cm x 9mm.

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