by Masayuki Sasano

The making of open-work sword guards began in the middle to late fourteenth century and continued until the imperial edict forbidding the use of swords (1871). Many direct and indirect influences to which sword guards were subjected over so long a period of time caused changes in their forms and aesthetic nature. The guard, as part of the most important symbol of the samurai, underwent changes commensurate with the alterations in social conditions and the growth and development of the samurai code. From the standpoint of aesthetic style, the tsuba passed through three periods of change.

The 1st period of change corresponds to the troubled historic age called the Period of the Northern and Southern Courts. During this period the open-work tsuba was used on simple weapons of the lower ranks of samurai whose simple and pure approach to the way of the warrior found expression in its design.
The 2nd period extends from about 1392 to about 1573 middle to late Muromachi period when the open-work tsuba was used on the one-handed uchi-gatana of upper class samurai. During this age of revolution and strife, samurai were greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism. The designs of open-work tsubas of this time reveal the effects of Zen teachings.
The 3rd period covers the Momoyama and Edo eras (1573-1867). Open-work tsubas were attached to the katana, and their design reflects the influence of Confucianism, which was the officially sanctioned guiding philosophy after the final unification of Japan.

The ko-sukashi guards of the late Kamakura period especially the Ko-tosho and Ko-katchushi reflect the contradictory mental state that these warriors must have felt. In comparison with ji-sukashi guards of the following historical period they are much more emotional in design. They inspire an awareness of the famous Japanese sense of the sadness of things (mono-no-aware) and the compassion of the samurai, both of which are part of the way of the warrior in its purest and simplest form.

In the mid-Muromachi period warriors of higher status began to use the uchi-gatana, and with this turn of events sword guards of suitable quality came into demand. It was as a result of this requirement that better tsubas Kyo-sukashi, Ko-Shoami, Kanayama, and Owari began to be designed and produced. Naturally, all of these styles reflect the spirit prevailing in their period, but the Kanayama and Owari tsuba virtually symbolize the way of the samurai in the Muromachi era.
Warriors of the age faced death daily, and their sole source of spiritual strength was found in the teachings of Zen Buddhism. They viewed life and death as one; they therefore elevated warfare to the level of religious experience. The culture born of the Muromachi warrior way and of the Zen ideas that underlay it found expression in the beauty of the Muromachi-period ji-sukashi, open-work tsuba. Especially in the early Kanayama and Owari tsuba it is possible to see the absolute experience, or enlightenment, taught by Zen and given visual form. The appeal of these works is less interpretative and more terse; it goes directly to the heart. The tsuba are replete with a sense of immovable stability and fulfillment.

In the Momoyama period (1573-1615), samurai began wearing the paired swords (diasho) consisting of the uchi-gatana and the wakizashi. This custom continued throughout the Edo period to end only in 1871 with a government edict forbidding the wearing of swords. Throughout these three centuries, makers of open-work tsuba developed many different styles, methods, and variations, but it is possible to trace some things common to all tsuba of the age.

Changes in the samurai code during the three periods above manifested themselves in the art and culture of the times. The design and manufacture of sukashi-tsuba was one of these manifestations. And alterations in the spirit of the warriors commissioning these works become very clear when one compares the Kanayama and Owari tsuba of the Muromachi period with the Higo and Akasaka tsuba of the Momoyama and Edo periods. (Sasano, 79)

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