by Elliott Long

I cannot say that it was purely aesthetic attraction or intellectual curiosity that prompted me to select tsuba as my object of study and collection from among the many other Japanese weapons and weapon accessories, most of which deserve much attention. As a matter of fact, the biggest influence on my decision towards this study was my new friendship with Robert E. Haynes. When I discovered that Robert was a short-distance of travel from me, I grasped the opportunity to learn from the world’s foremost authority on tsuba.

For a number of reasons, studying and collecting tsuba has not been easy for a person of my age. I achieved little for a long time, reading the material I had and collecting as many fine sword guards as I could. Gradually I became completely captivated by the subject, the more I studied tsuba, the more I became aware of the samurai and the Japanese.

In the Japan of the past it was said that the sword is the soul of the samurai. When they put on their weapons, they did so in such a way that the tsuba was almost directly in the center of the body. Thus, the guard not only ornamented the sword, but also served a similar function for the samurai himself. It added to the samurai’s dignity, and symbolized his personality, education, and family background. Because of this aspect of the nature of tsuba it is only natural that great care and invention went into their design. Among the several kinds of sword guards, the open-work ones (sukashi-tsuba) are the simplest and the most typical of both samurai and Japan. They employ highly sophisticated designs.

Functionally, the sword guard is a subordinate object attached between the hilt and the blade to protect the hand by preventing the opponent’s sword from sliding forward during combat. When the sword is in its mounting, the most conspicuous feature of its appearance is the guard. This was especially the case when the samurai wore his sword, for it was always placed so that the tsuba came at almost the exact center of the body, where it became a major aspect of the pride of the man’s appearance.

As I have mentioned above, the sword is the soul of the samurai. As its principle ornament, the tsuba acted as a focused symbol of the warrior’s personality, dignity, strength, and family background. Naturally, designs employed in sword guards came to be both revelations of the ideas, emotions, and hopes of the samurai and confirmations of samurai aesthetic perceptions. Most of the many different kinds and styles of sword guards are related in aesthetic terms to the basic nature of the Japanese concept of the warrior. And for this reason, the tsuba may be considered a display of the beauty of the way of the samurai.

The late Kyusaku Akiyama, one of the greatest authorities on Japanese tsuba, wrote “in the eye of the samurai no sword guards are as excellent as the open-work Muromachi-period variety” said to have originated in Owari and called Owari-sukashi. Obviously the sword guard, as the most visibly apparent piece of exterior furnishing on the sword, had to agree with what Akiyama called the “eye of the samurai.” The essence of Japanese beauty is sometimes described as pure and bright. Sometimes it is discussed in the more somber terms of the ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’ associated with the refined and subdued aesthetics of the Zen-influenced tea ceremony. But what are the aesthetics that depend on the perception of the eye of the warrior?

The book, Hagakure, says that the tastes, language, actions, and writings of warriors ought to be imbued with “quiet strength.” These words seem to me to epitomize the warriors’ understanding of beauty that surpasses the pure and bright as well as the somber refinement of ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’. Although the Japanese samurai is sometimes mistakenly associated with roughness and ferocity, his true meaning and value cannot be explained in such simplistic terms. On the other hand, the responses of profundity and refinement in “quiet strength” suggest much about the nature of the samurai and his understanding of beauty.

To return to the open-work Muromachi-period tsuba, I would say that perhaps no other sword furnishing so clearly reveal the dignity and profundity that is best expressed in the words “quiet strength.” Open-work iron guards are the product of the samurai aesthetics. Behind these aesthetics is a deeper philosophy involving ultimate questions of life and death. If asked whether any of the many kinds of sword guards belong in the realm of things that have attained unity with the universe, I would have to answer “yes” for these reasons. Although the way of the samurai may have inspired and brought the tsuba into being, in certain respects the tsuba was a main support of the way of the samurai. Moreover, in the beauty of sword guards it is possible to see an ultimate aspect of the warrior’s way.

But perhaps most important from my personal point of view are the things that Robert Haynes and tsuba have taught me. In my efforts to collect fine examples and in learning to appreciate them as they deserve, I have come to understand true beauty and the meaning of aesthetics. At the same time, both have taught me to feel things with fresher emotion and to know more about the nature of human happiness. (LONG, 2011)


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