The time has come to bid farewell to most of what once were known as Nanban tsuba. These objects have not disappeared, but as many have been revealed to be not of Japanese origin, they are no longer subject to Japanese authority. Now released from Japanese authority, these objects are likewise liberated from Nihonto jargonese.
Japanese scholars never did the diligence to decipher these objects. Perhaps it was because these pieces were deemed to be foreign, and thus inferior. If today a shinsa (appraisal) team is presented with an unsigned sword-guard of foreign origin, it is judged to be Nanban tsuba. If the same shinsa team is presented with a Japanese copy of a foreign guard, it too will be given the attribution of Nanban tsuba. The question one must ask is this. If the shinsa team cannot tell the difference between a foreign sword-guard, and a Japanese tsuba in a foreign style, then what else does the shinsa team not know? If the shinsa does possess the capacity to tell the difference, then why apply the same term to both foreign and domestic products? If they insist on doing so, then why use a term that makes no sense?
Because no historic carvers or group of craftsmen ever identified themselves as Nanban, the existence of a Nanban “school” is pure fantasy—like the nativist myths promoted by right-wing imperialists, whose spectacular failure in 1945 should have discredited such tall tales.
As described in a previous article, government-sponsored desinicization programs following the first Sino-Japanese war standardized phonetic writing systems, replaced the first character of karate from kara (Chinese) to kara (open), and renamed as Nanban sword fittings formerly known as Kanton, Kwan-to and Kannan (Chinese). The term (Southern Barbarian) was originally devised by the Chinese to belittle the Vietnamese. The Japanese in turn granted this pejorative epithet to Portuguese merchants, arriving from the south. In a stunning feat of leger-de-main, militant Japanese nationalists reclassified something Chinese as something Portuguese. Promoted by scholars like Shinkichi Hara, some European aficionados like Henri Joly embraced the new terminology. Captain Francis Brinkley, an adviser to the Meiji government, used the old terms Kwan-to and Kannan in his writings. Charles Boxer in 1931 questioned the usefulness of the word Nanban, in relation to sword-furniture, on grounds that most of these guards were imported to Japan after the expulsion of the Portuguese (Nanban-jin). So. What to do?
A solution is at hand. Let all unsigned sword guards which cannot be shown (not presumed) to be of Japanese origin be reclassified in the lingua-franca of diplomacy and business (English) as “Asian Export Sword Guards”. Those sword-guards that can be shown (not presumed) to have been produced in Japan might be identified by shinsa-teams in a new way, perhaps as Ikoku-eikyo (“foreign influence”).
Terms related to non-Japanese (Asian Export) sword fittings would be given in English, not Nihongo. Mimi instead of “rim”. Seppa-dai instead of “washer-seat. Histu-ana become “bye-knife holes” and nakago-ana becomes “tang-aperture”. It will be meaningless if old-school Nihonto adepts cling to obsolete rhetoric, when the rest of the world discards it.
The term ‘nanban’ used in relation to swords and fittings, gave certifying entities a facile way out of a difficult conundrum, which was how to classify something about which they had too little information to make a well-informed attribution. ‘Nanban’ meant ‘unknown foreign sword-guard maker, or unknown tsubako working in foreign style’. As we now can identify without question certain guards as Chinese, for example, those guards should be recognized as such. Those for which no evidence exists that they are Japanese, and not just presumed to be, should be classified as ‘Asian Export’, a widely recognized term among museums and scholars. These distinctions are necessary because, like with the postwar triage of sword-blades, one must be able to separate the historically significant pieces—those used in trade by Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese merchants—from those produced in Japan at the end of the Edo period for the western market as curios.
James L. McElhinney