Return to Tsuba Collective
Provenance:  Skip Holbrook
                                Elliott D. Long
An exceedingly rare Japanese tsuba in both a MINO BORI & EZO style. Very possibly from Michinoku on the North Island dating about ca.1800-1825. Carved in relief with natural scenes with chrysanthemums, leaves, and a large insect on either side done in MINO BORI style and the large branch done in EZO style. All of this covered with yamagane and then fire-gilt. The high spots have worn off, showing patinated copper alloy underneath, now creating added complexity to the design. The insects are probably the Oriental longheaded locust, 'shouryou-batta' in Japanese. Shouryou is the Japanese Buddhist word for 'spirit of the dead' while batta simply means grasshopper. Style-wise the work is also somewhat reminiscent of Mino work, like the Mino Mitsunaka school.

Mino work often depicts gardens and insects, in deep relief, bringing to mind that the world is beautiful, yet risk is ever present.
An iron plate of rounded square shape with gold gilded copper overlays. The fire gilding attaches very well to copper but not iron. The marks or signature on the right side of seppa-dai is worn and unreadable.

In the study of this tsuba, items of note are the 2-3 flower clusters spread around the body of the piece, their shape (slightly oval), the background leaves, the gnarled primary tree branch supporting the flowers, the shape of the hitsuana (large, rounded), and that the entire seppa area is raised due to the down-carving (as in kinko pieces). The body of the cricket is also a style that is found in Mino (Ko- and even Mino Goto) works from the Momoyama through Edo. I am not sure Mino works are commonly associated with iron, but purely in terms of design, I feel there are strong commonalities.

6.40cm x 6.80cm x 0.5cm

Vestages of a signature - unreadable.

The workmanship is thought to be comparatively coarse for Japanese work and is referring to the island of Hokkaido or the Ainu people. Ezo mountings are usually guardless which is why Ezo style tsuba are nearly non-existant. Similar decorative motifs with flowers and insects were also used by Mino schools, who did make tsuba but generally not in iron. Therefore, the study of the vestiges of the signature in hopes of determining the maker.

Here is an interesting take on this guard...."Ezo" sword fittings have nothing to do with Ainu (Ezo) culture. No examples can be found in indigenous Ainu arts to provide an ancestor for these objects. An explanation might be that from Kamakura through Muromachi, "Ezo" was a derogatory word used for unwelcome foreigners. Like the name "Namban". Consider this. So-called Ezo fittings were unknown prior to the Mongol invasions. At the same time they bear great similarity to the decorative objects associated with the Silk Road - even Nara period "Karadachi" fittings. Its possible that in time it will be shown that "Ezo" fittings are based on pre-Sino-Tibetan Central Asian prototypes. They probably were inspired by weaponry captured from the Mongols. Just thinking beyond the received wisdom. (Long)

While ezo fittings are "early" and the idea is that they may be the pre-cursors to ko-mino and ko-goto, I think it important to keep them separate from the other early and more extensively studied styles, such as tachi kanagushi. Maybe because it’s so easy to group them together, that the study of ezo fittings has been overlooked as a very unique and different style from that of the southern court.

Boris Markhasin remarks:

I don’t think anyone can point to a time and place of influence, or for that matter exact paths of migration of style, but I would attribute direct influence to the Mongolian and various far eastern Russian cultural groups. China was far more influential in the southwest during these times. What we can say with some definition, is that from the Kofun, the northeast (Mutsu/Dewa and northern Kanto) were culturally distinct from the Kinai, and integration lasted centuries. The peoples in this area were aggressive/militaristic and contrary to popular belief had developed iron technology and a soft-metals industry. During this long process these areas developed distinct styles, which with the input of imported craftsmen from the Kinai developed to the same level (some would argue surpassing) of Kyoto craftsmanship. This northern style which we now refer to as Ezo, became highly fashionable in the Kinai and Kanto during the mid to late Heian. The military aristocratic families/clans which controlled these regions became fabulously wealthy and powerful (Abe, Fujiwara). Hiraizumi by contemporary Heian accounts rivaled or exceeded Kyoto as cultural and religious center, and greatly exceeded it in wealth, built largely on metal extraction (gold, silver, lead and iron), and secondary trade with Ezo (Hokkaido) and the continent (Parhae etc.). I think it a testament to this influence and power that the military aristocracy continued to patronize the Ezo style for 4oo years following the destruction of Hiraizumi. It is well documented that as Muromachi trade missions went back into the north, they kept encountering preserved very high quality nihonto of the old style. They traded/bought and repatriated them during the 15th and 16th centuries, and I think this is why we see these occasional revivals, where southern artists created a 'fusion' style of koshirae, based on old traditional 'Ezo' characteristics and more modern southern tastes.

In my opinion, comparing Shosoin examples (Asuka to Nara period 6th to 8th c.) to Ezo works is of limited value, despite the Japanese connection. There is clear, documented foreign influence in Shosoin and Horyuji treasures, since many of the items were actually tributary / trade goods imported directly from China, Korea, Parhae and other regional powers. I dont doubt in the same period, that northern trade goods would have showed similar influences, BUT, the percentage of extant Ezo works from this period is so infinitesimally small, it would literally have to be one in a million, and then likely only remaining in Jinja collections, and very very hard to date with confidence. Lets not lose sight that although very rare, the overwhelming majority of Ezo works we have today date no earlier than late Heian/Kamakura. By that time, arguably we would only have been seeing vestiges of original continental influences that may (or may not) have infused Emishi works from Asuka to early Heian. Most Ezo pieces we have were produced in the Kinai (Kyoto/Nara), within the framework of earlier 'northern' styles. If minute points of similarity exist with Persian etc.. it would have been virtually accidental, by virtue of copied designs. Rather than continental influence, I think to appreciate Ezo, you have to look to northern Japanese influence and artistry. This is hard enough to pin-down, without looking for extra-territorial influence.

Hiraizumi as a regional center was created by the Japanese, after expansion into the region had sufficiently derisked the undertaking. Hiraizumi was not an Emishi city which was taken by the Japanese. The points of contact were still strong, and the rulers of the region (Abe and Oshu Fujiwara shoen, among others) had documented direct lineage with earlier local Emishi sovereigns. This was a peripheral settlement, and would have been a cultural crossroads, but the prevalent cultural and political driver was the central Kinai government. There was also a huge Buddhist presence, with temple complexes rivaling Nara. Thus even art produced in Hiraizumi before the sacking would have been strongly influenced by Kinai philophy, craftsmanship and artistry, with the northern element being an overprint or flavor. Thus my point of even the northern influence being hard to pin-down with any certainty. Hiraizumi was all but destroyed during the wars of the late 11th and 12th centuries leading to the establishment of the Kamakura Bakufu. Now only a fraction of the original temple complex remains, and the treasure room was pillaged during the initial sacking.

For the sake of this discussion, let us say that Kyoto was the base of the “Southern Fujiwara School” and Byodo-in was the centre of this movement. We can then say that Hiraizumi was the base for the “Northern School” and Chuson-ji was the centre of this movement.

There seems to be very strong evidence that Silk Road influence was very predominate in the north. Apart from anything else, Silk Road items have been found in tombs around Chuson-ji when the Konjiki-do was being restored in 1962. This leads us back to the Shoso-in and how items there could have influenced the development of Ezo style fittings. I am not saying that I am correct, but I feel that under-estimating the significance of the Silk Road and what the Shoso-in can tell us is a great oversight in the study of Ezo style fittings.

Schools are a relatively recent phenomenon, and I have never suggested Ezo as a school. I certainly don't think it appropriate to call it a school -- or use the term Ezo for that matter, but we are stuck with this terminology. We are speaking about a broad group of works which spanned hundreds of years and a large geography. I suggested an early northern influence, and early links to Mutsu, Dewa and northern Kanto regions. I personally think the earliest examples originated in the general area around Hiraizumi / Sendai, but in craftsmanship were related to Kinai works. I also think that starting from the Kamakura / Nambokucho, these works take on a more southern flavour and were likely produced largely in the Kinai. Some may not have been originally intended for use as tosogu, and I see the possibility of links to armor and other arts of the period. By mid-Muromachi time, they are supplanted by ko kinko and ko Mino works in popularity and then go through a few revivals. There is a large variety within this group of works, as should be expected. I have also said that as we are dealing with pieces of tosogu that could date back 800+ years, and there is a paucity of examples and research either western of Japanese. I have offered my insights and ideas on the subject, and pointed to one of the very few western articles which people could access. I think that Buttweiler's thoughts have merit, and he should be credited for introducing the subject to western audiences. As for opining on the koshirae I have presented, I have not shown them to suggest a commonality, but as what is now taken as the best representatives of this group of works. As for the term Sho Ki Kinko, I personally have always liked this term, and use it often when speaking about early pieces, rather than Ezo, ko- this and ko- that. I will say that it is critical to handle these pieces and compare them. Images simply don't do them justice and miss all nuance.

1: This dating may be more accurate but the Ainu/Emishi connection is no longer held to be realistic at all. The Ainu had no significant metalworking culture and we have no evidence that the Emishi did either.

2: What is this different aesthetic? If a Northern style hasn't been described or demonstrated how can we posit something different to it?

3: I've already pointed out that any categorisation in terms of early, middle, late periods is essentially arbitrary. We simply don't know the stylistic chronology of any of the pieces under discussion. We might embark on a thorough analysis in proper art design terms (with cross reference to armours who's dates we can be more certain of) but this has not been done yet in any meaningful way. Pointing to random bits to suggest links (especially when they are clearly so disparate) is not the way art historians build convincing pictures of artistic development.

During the Tang era Japan traded extensively with China, by way of Korea at times and during hostilities with Silla, which dominated this trade, predominately through Guangzhou and ports along the Fujian and Zhejiang coasts. This was known as the Yellow sea trade. The artisans that created metal ornamentation for armour and swords, I believe, originally came from the group that made metal ornamentation for temples and palaces. This was the time at which the ring pommel sword was transitioning to a newer type of sword 唐代刀 . When we look at relics of these ring pommel swords we can see how the fittings were made of copper and subsequently gilded. The swords of the Tang era were imported into Japan and Japanese smiths then started making them as well. Whether the smiths who made these swords also made the fittings is speculative, but, I believe there were a separate group of artisans we could term kanagushi 金具師, expert in making gilt copper ornamentation. Perhaps these were immigrants from China and Korea, however it would be logical to think local metalworkers soon learned the techniques needed to create these Chinese inspired works of art.

Discussion of Ezo works is encumbered by the term “Ezo”, and shoe-horning these works into a concept of a school. Both of these aspects are unsupportable and ideally should be dropped. The designation of ‘Ezo’ is a terrible misnomer since it equates a group of fittings with regional, cultural and chronologic implications. Emishi should not be used to describe these fittings for similar reasons. The implied idea of an Ezo school is unsupportable, since as I mentioned, ‘Ezo’ works span hundreds of years, and a large geography. These works encompass numerous manufacturing centers, but there is no evidence of a production associated with a non-Japanese ethnic group, that is to say they are not Emishi/Ainu products. These were made in all times, in all areas by Japanese craftsmen. Unfortunately, the term 'Ezo' is used by all collectors and shinsa organizations, and as such is not likely to go away any time soon. For better or worse, I have framed my discussion using this term. While I like Sho Ki-Kinko, or first period kinko, it also suffers from being too vague.

Objection has been raised by my use of the idea of breaking up Ezo into periods, as well as an early northern influence. The assertion is that my comments are unsupportable, or at least difficult to support with available sources. My ideas are based on having collected, and handled numerous individual pieces as well as complete koshirae, and having detailed discourse with their owners. I could claim that early Ezo koshirae have a different shape, construction methodology and a variety of structural and artistic nuances which distinguish them from contemporary non-Ezo koshirae, and I think this may be due to northern association. People could and should insist on an explanation backed by visuals. Unfortunately, this can’t be easily be provided (understandably), since it would involve access not only to the pieces in question, but also to the Ezo comparison group, and predicated on everyone having access to other ‘standard’ period koshirae – which also isn’t going to happen. Not to mention insights from years of review of published and unpublished materials. It comes down to a level of faith, or at least suspension of disbelief, under the premise that I have been thoughtful with the materials, and have nothing to gain by promoting any specific idea.

Purchase this Tsuba by Email to

A Collaboration of Robert E. Haynes and Elliott D. Long

Return To Tsuba Collective
Robert Haynes   Articles -- Tutorial
Email to Shibui Swords