by Elliott Long (June 2012)

A tsuba must fulfill two functions. It must, by its very essence be an effective, practical guard on a weapon. Secondly it must have a beauty of design that goes beyond the mere fact that it may be made of precious metal as this may be accomplished in mere iron, indeed many would say that both these criteria may be fulfilled better in iron than other materials. It is iron tsuba that may be fully appreciated as the eye is unencumbered with glitter and may go straight to the 'heart of the matter'.

The following relates what I have learned about some of the greatest makers of tsuba from my studies with Robert E. Haynes:

The name Kaneiye was not widely known in Japan until the latter part of the 18th. century. It is thought probable that this was due to the emergence of the Kinko artists of the early middle Edo period which gained popularity of the masses, whilst the earlier iron works of people such as Kaneiye and Nobuiye, although still appreciated by the nobility faded somewhat. It was not until the later Edo period, probably with the patronage of those infamous rich merchants, who realised they were prized possessions of the upper classes, that they once again gained popularity. The demand for this style of tsuba created the Tesunin and Saga Kaneiye school revivals, directly sponsored by the merchant classes. The name Kaneiye refers to two masters. The artist referred to in the Soken Kisho published in the Temmei era (1781-1789) published by Inaba Tsuryo refers to the first Kaneiye (Yamashiro Kaneiye) but he is now known to be the second. Inaba Tsuryo thought that Tetsunin and his school were the second generation. This was challenged by a certain Akiyama Kyusaka in the early part of the 20th century. He made an extensive study into Kaneiye tsuba, during which he found three pieces that he was certain were by the same master, but older and of better quality to those attributed to Meijin Shodai Kaneiye, previously known as Kaneiye I. These three were signed 'Joshu Fushini ju Kaneiye'. These tsuba changed all existing theories on Kaneiye tsuba, and the above mentioned Joshu Kaneiye is now considered to be the Dai Shodai Kaneiye (First Great Kaneiye). The work of Yamashiro Fushini ju Kaneiye is now thought to be the second master of this name. He is referred to as Meijin Kaneiye (Masterful First Kaneiye) or simply as Yamashiro Kaneiye or Kaneiye II.

The Joshu Kaneiye mentioned above lived in the village of Fushimi and worked in the Momoyama period, probably about 1558-90. Fushimi was a small village, south of Kyoto. It was serene and remote with many temples and had a strong atmosphere of religion. Kaneiyels work reflected this, and he signed his work as a resident of Fushimi, in Joshu (Yamashiro province). It was at FUshimi in 1592 that Hideyoshi built a magnificant castle, which may explain why Kaneiye took up residence there. . The castle was destroyed by Tokugawa ieyasu in 1600 and the entire city was reduced to ashes after Sekigamara. It is still a tourist attraction and many romantics still visit Momoyama Hill, from which the age took its name. It may. be due to the fact that so many disasters struck the area that there are so few examples of Kaneiye's work in existence. It may also be that he did not start work until late in life. Only five works are known. From these may be seen strong : influence from the Katchushi or KO-Shoami schools and of the Hoju and Onin schools. It is reasonable to assume that he 'combined the best of these styles and synthesised his own style. He used landscape subjects combining relief carving with the use of inlay with various metals. The plate is of the Oroshigane type (smelted sand iron) and forged to perfection in the two fold method of the Katchusbi style. The colour of the plate varies between a deep reddish block to a rich red-brown. Ills iron resembles that of the old Katchushi style with mixtures of Heinnjo-zogan and Ko-Shoami inlay blended into a style of his own depicting nature and the pervading religious atmosphere of the Momoyama period.

Both the first and second Kaneiye's work etc. are very similar. Some schools of thought think that because of this similarity, and because of the fact that their total output of work was so small, they may have been one and the same persons. Both Kaneiyes work was of the same subject matter, landscapes and religious themes. This would not be surprising as even if they were different people, they both lived in Fushimi. The main difference between the two was in signature. The signature of the first master was always 'Joshu Kushimi (no) ju Kaneiye' whilst the second signed always 'Yamashiro (no) Kuni Fushimi (no) ju Kaneiye'. The signature of the second will be known to members, it having been forged many times in later years and used on the work of the Saga school.

The famous Miochin armourer named Nobuiye who worked at the end of the Momoyama period is not thought to be the tsuba maker of the same name. There is some evidence to suggest that they may have been related, although probably not directly and they were both working at the same time so may well have known of each others existence. A comparison of signatures of Nobuiye that are considered genuine, may be an indication that, like the Kaneiye theory in reverse, there may have been more than one man working. There are eleven distinct signatures using only the two characters Nobuiye. They may be put into two distinct groups and probably represent two generations. The signatures of the first generation are light, gentle and tasteful, while those of the second are bolder and thick. The style of workmanship in both generations is very similar. The colour of the iron ranges from dark brown to deep blackish grey with a wet or glazed appearance. A great variety of surface textures and engraving is evident with designs including tortoise shell patterns, torii gate, seals, ho birds, and in relief designs of plum tree, cherry blossom and pine needles. The work of the second generation Nobuiye, like the signature, is bolder and slightly more crude in feeling. His work is generally of a lower standard than the first, but a few works are of equal quality. Towards the end of the Tokugawa period there was a demand for Nobuiye's tsuba and it was of course catered for by the forgers. There was, however, a conscious attempt to revive the style and most fell well short of their "target". The best reproductions were by Iwata Norisuke the first and second, father and son, the son was rated higher than the father.

Umetada Myoju must have been some kind of genius. He is known for his horimono work on swords, sword appraising as well as being a great tsuba maker. He worked as a retainer of Ashikaga Yoshiaki, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Hideyoshi's son Hidetsugu." He was also called Shigeyoshi and Kikojiro and was a member of the Umetada family. It is not known what Myoju's position in the family was. Umetada work before Myoju is known as Ko-Umetada and there is work of very high quality by a maker named Mitsutada. The work of Mitsutada is slightly older than that of Myoju and he is thought to be an uncle or great uncle of Myoju who may have received some instruction from him. Mitsutada conveniently bridges the gap between Ko-Umetada and Myoju.

Myoju was skilled at working in all metals but preferred iron, brass or copper. His iron tends to be of medium hardness but some have softer plates in order that they may carry certain soft metal decorations. The tempering is very fine as would be expected from someone known as the father of the Shinto style and founder of the Hizen school. He signed his work Umetada Myoju or simply, Umetada, although many pieces are unsigned.

His designs are varied, but he did not use relief inlay in his work as did other Umetadas, nor did his designs include landscapes. His work shows his ability as a painter with his engraving style called tagare bashiri (moving chisel) meaning that it was fluid. He used gold, silver, shakudo, shibuchi and copper in his inlay. He was particularly brilliant at hira-zogan and in numone. He was considered superior in both decoration and the making of the plate to all of the Kinko workers of the Tokugawa period.

Yasuchika was born in 1670 (Kanbun 10) in Shonai. Up to the age of 34 he studied under the master Chinkyu of the Shonai Shoami school. He married the daughter of his master and had one son, but he left them nine years later. His father, Karenon had gone to Edo and Yasuchika followed him, hoping to find fame and fortune. There he studied under Tokimasa where the pupil soon overtook his master.

At the age of 34, during the Kyocho era (1211-36) he became a retainer of Matsudaira Daigaku-no-kami Yorisada, a powerful lord, who allowed Yasuchika to develop his skills. Yasuchika seemed to wander and in his search for fulfilment left his services and began to work in the Nara style. Although Yasuchika did not gain fame in the Nara style during his life, he is now known as one of the Nara San Saku (three great Nara masters), the other two being Suguira Joi and Toshinega. Most of his life was spent in financial straits which may well have affected his work. Simplicity was forced on him and he had to use a minimum of elaborate decoration and only occasional nanako work.

Besides being a great tsuba maker, Yasuchika is known for making small fittings, netsuke and inro. His styles varied greatly. Basically a Shonai Shoami worker, he also employed designs of Edo and Bushu as well as being a master of the Nara school. He liked landscapes, animal and human figures, historical and mythological subjects and executed these in a variety of styles. Although he did not always reach the heights of perfection attained by Kaneiye, Nobuiye or Myoju, he was one of the greatest of the Tokugawa period tsuba makers. He died at the age of 75 in 1744 at his home near the Kanda Myojin Shrine.

Hikozo became a Hosokawa retainer for a reputed 100 koku of rice. It is not known from whom Hikozo learned the skills of making tsuba but it is apparent that he was strongly influenced by the Tachi-Kanaguchi school, although the best work of this school does not measure up to that of Hikozo. Similarities are that they both use the Yanagane or brass plate and the rim of the tsuba is often of shakudo or silver.

Very often the tsuba of Hikozo are oval, mokko or nadekakugata (rounded square shaped) and the plates are of Yamagane, pure copper, shishu and occasionally shakudo and iron, patinated and coloured with Hikozo's own processes. His techniques include, shishia bori (sunken relief carving), katakiri, and shigare-yasuri (intermittent broken radial lines). One particular speciality, peculiar to this man is Okina-yasuri, which looks like an old man's beard made up of broken, curved concentric circles. The masterful use of these techniques, coupled with his superb plate making produced some great tsuba, combining the best of metal working techniques with some of those of the master painter.

Born in 1613 (Keicho 18) in Owari Province, Hayashi Matashichi was variously known as Shigeyoshi, Shigeharu but was famous as Matashichi. His family lived in the town of Kasuga and at first he studied to become a gunsmith. Hayashi Matashichi's father was a retainer of the famous Lord Kato Kiyomasa and they moved to Kamamoto castle in Higo province. After Kiyomasa's death he remained in the service of his son Tadahiro until his banishment in 1632. At this time he moved to Higo where he became a retainer of Lord Hosokawa where he worked until his death in 1699 (Genroku 12) at the age of 87.

The fact that Matashichi lived in Owari province in his earlier years had a great influence on his tsuba making after he had turned from gun making. Many good tsuba were at this time being made by the Owari-Sukashi school of which Matashichi's iron work bears a close resemblance. Unlike the abstract geometrical designs of the Owari school, Matashichi's designs were more symetrical and the subjects naturalistic, with added nunome and hira-zogan (gold' filigree type) which added richness to the design. The use of cherry-blossom, paulowina, drops of water and kiri features were in his designs regularly.

Shimizu Jingo's real name was Nibei and it is thought that the previously mentioned Hirata Hikozo was his uncle. He changed his name to Shimizu and all later generation were known as Shimizu Jingo. The first Shimizu was famous for rustic or heavy tsuba. The ironwork was very good but thick and heavy with an undulating textured surface. Most often they were of a squared round shape, a squared mokko or aoiri gata (trapezoidal), round tsuba being rare. These tsuba look the heaviest and strongest of all Higo tsuba. This is partly due to the shape, partly due to the irregular texturing of the surface of the plate accentuated with strong suemon inlay (large portions of inlaid metal). His subject matter is completely at one with this style of plate. The use of designs of an eagle on a branch, a large rooster, a turtle etc., executed in a heavy bold manner illustrate this point. Later generations often lack the power and control of the first master although some are quite well rated. The nunome-zogan in gold and silver often gives the appearance of being worn or ribbed on Shimizu tsuba. This, however, is intentional and not a sign of deterioration or misuse. The nunome-zogan work that Shimizu Jingo did is considered to be surpassed by later generations but his bold brass inlays were never bettered. He died, still in the service of Hosokawa, in the year 1675 (Empo 3).

The shodai Nishigaki Kanshiro is believed to have been a priest in Tanba Province until he joined Lord Hosokawa in Higo Province. He seems to have been influenced to some degree by several other artists, including Hirata Hikozo from whom he learned the methods of Kawarigane (soft metal) tsuba, by Hayashi Matashichi who influenced his Sukashi work and also by Shimizu Jingo. He managed, however, to produce work that was unique and totally different from these others.

A favorite subject was the depicting of waves in brass, executed with a few chiseled strokes. This subject, as with many Kanshiro Sukashi tsuba were often copied by contempories and many are very good imitations. The quality of his iron work and the economy of strokes in his chisel work are the mark of the master.

The second Nishigaki Kanshiro, son of the first master, was also an artist of great repute. His work tended to be somewhat more refined and delicate than that of his father whose bold and powerful designs had a different appeal. The diversity, creativeness and variety of these two men, influenced the styles and methods of many of the later Higo workers. The first Nishigaki Kanshiro died in 1693 (Genroku 6) at the age of 81.


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