Late Muromachi Ko-kinko

A return to the more elaborate end of the early soft metal tsuba spectrum with another small shakudo nanako example made with very different technique from the recently posted early Muromachi example.

6.82 cm H x 0.55 cm T Autumn flowers and grasses with both inlaid and overlaid metals
The reverse. The kozuka ana is original, but presumably enlarged into the seppa dai.
Jakago motif mimi, seen later on Umetada tsuba

Update: Reader question about jakago. See photos by Satomi Grim below. Its use as a purely decorative motif probably has a bigger life than its literal meaning, but it started as a sort of basket weave construction used to hold rocks in place to stabilize river banks (enthusiastically replaced by concrete in modern Japan). In this tsuba it might imply that the plants are growing along a river bank or may just be there for its own sake. The same form is used in domestic baskets, packaging, etc., as well.

Jakago じゃかご - Stone Basket

(end of update…)

detail view with suaka zogan

Both sides of the seppa dai have small patches of what would at first just appear to be wear, but looking closely are metal overlay.


Occasionally on early kinko guards there are a few rows of nanako sown on the seppa dai that appear to be a test to get a feel for the material before starting in on the main part that will be seen. This isn’t the same, but might it be something related?

Going through Mr. Lundgren’s book recently I came across a very similar tsuba I had forgotten.

Lundgren tsuba at top

It looks very likely to me that it by the same individual. That is interesting enough, but note that on the backside seppadai there is also a “test patch” but in a color that relates to metal on that tsuba. The front side seppa dai has been modified to the point that it’s hard to say if it also has one.

Could this have been a final check of the preparation work to ensure that the adhesion of the iroe to the ground would be good before proceeding with the main work? That was a relatively new technique at this time but would soon replace uttori zogan.

It would be interesting to compare the two in person… any ideas?

Early Ana

A large Kagamishi tsuba with early style hitsuana.

8.82 cm H x 0.42 cm T, hachi motif
the reverse

A very simple design that would work equally well in either orientation. It appears to me to be cast, but a previous owner’s label attributes it to ko-kinko. In some cases it can be difficult to say whether a piece is cast or carved.

Not much to see on the rim, but for the record.

And a detail view with traces of black lacquer remaining.

A similar guard with likely later modification.

source unrecorded

And a not so similar guard from Sasano-sensei’s Kagamishi book that combines similar decorative motifs.


Another early soft metal tsuba with botan motif, with a comparatively subdued execution in kusarakashi .

7.35 cm H x 0.95 cm T mimi, 0.22 cm T seppa dai
The other side, with inome sukashi

This tsuba is published in several places, but most are not in color.

Traces of red lacquer are visible in several spots around the guard.

In b&w photos it looks like there could be a raised edge around this opening, but in a closer look it appears to be lacquer and maybe a bit of pitch rather than part of the plate. Perhaps it was plugged at some point.

Some of the original decoration of the rim is visible here.

And here.

The similar example from the Kurokawa institute collection below appears to have the rim decoration entirely intact:

This guard formerly in the Lundgren collection shows another variation.

This one also appears to have irregular raised borders around the hitsuana. A monochrome view of the same guard here from Dr. Torigoye’s Toso Soran:

Also a different name describing the motif.

Another variation, also with what may be raised borders around the ana.

The inner wall of the rim appears to have a bit of a bevel to it, but otherwise quite similar to all of the above. One ana is filled and the other enlarged a bit into the seppa dai.

Lastly the one we started off with in black and white, also from the Kenzan Taikan.

There are many other variations on mokko gata tachi tsuba with inome sukashi, quite a few of which still have o-seppa associated with them, others have lost them but the decoration of the plate follows an outline that makes it clear that they were originally present. I don’t see any wear pattern or design of the decoration that suggests that they were ever present on the above guards.

These were all the examples of this style of construction with very thick rim and “pipe collars” around the inome sukashi style that I found in my library. It’s interesting that if they are tachi guards that were later modified for uchigatana use they all received the same style of hitsuana.

Early Muromachi Ko-Kinko

Continuing the micro-theme of early and opulent, this time in shakudo nanako with uttori zogan. This guard is rather small, but extremely thick and obviously was mounted on a robust blade.

6.46 cm H x 1.07 cm T
The reverse
Again- over 1 cm thick with an undecorated rim. No sign it has been cut down or mounted with a fukurin.
Once again, that botan motif in a different technique

It would be interesting to know what this was mounted on. Was it this thick for weight alone, for aesthetics and/or conspicuous consumption (it’s solid shakudo)? A published description speculates that it may have been a tachi guard converted for koshigatana or uchigatana use, but if so in its original state all of the floral motifs would be growing upside down and the water would be in the sky.

The small size, thickness and shape do recall some early tachi guards, and while I don’t think it was one, there may have been some allusion there. Was it mounted on a koshigatana that was worn paired with a tachi?

In any event, a good opportunity to study some of the better early Muromachi period nanako and uttori work on a guard that has it all turned up to 11.

Update: A reader mentioned that it may be that the guard was mounted on a tachi or kodachi in the present orientation. Given the large sekigane and heavy work on the seppa dai it is possible that the original nakago ana pointed the other way and that its original outline was lost in later remounting on a much thicker blade. If it originally had no hitsuana, it is very fortunate that none of the original decoration was cut in half when they were added.

Onin suemon zogan

Here’s another Onin tsuba for comparison to the one in the previous post.

9.91 cm H x 0.42 cm T mimi, 0.18 cm T seppa dai

Large, thin and unusually intact, it’s one of the nicer ones to have survived. Clearly the hitsuana are original. Without inlay, it would be a good ko-katchushi guard.

Occasionally some styles of early iron tsuba are found in versions with no inlay, with hira zogan or with nunome zogan that would be attributed to Tosho/Katchushi, Heianjo and Ko-Shoami respectively. It seems unlikely that these were actually the work of different “schools” but were various options available on the base model. I’ve wondered if all of the work was done “in house” on these, or if the inlay work was subcontracted out to an specialist.

In any event, the customer opted for maximum opulence in this case.

The plate surrounding the kiri mon and kiku shows the clearest signs of having been worked to hold the shinchu suemon inlay in place.

The kiku here, particularly on the lower left show some brass exposed outside of the design that wasn’t buried under the iron. It’s not as pronounced as in the previous example with the botan inlay. I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing. Also interesting is how the brass tendrils are fitted together – definitely not obvious without magnification.

The kiri mon on the back side shows a little more “flange” to it. Perhaps not quite as carefully done as the front.

Given how often brass inlay tsuba from the Edo period are missing pieces it’s remarkable that one this old was worked carefully enough to hold on to even the thinnest elements. In guards with some losses it’s usually possible to see the undercutting of the iron plate done around the edge of the missing inlay to hold it in place. I’ll keep an eye out for one to photograph.

Interesting inlay

Another tsuba from the Chicago show is one that I’ve admired from my earliest collecting days. It appears in the second Haynes auction catalog from 1982 (about ten years before my time, with tsuba anyway).

8.42 cm H x 0.38 cm T Botan motif, shinchu suemon zogan

Lot 2, from the catalog: “Very rare and important Onin example”

“Iron rounded aori shape with raised carved rim, to resemble a rim cover, with good iron bones in the edge. The plate is inlaid on both sides with four peony branches of cast and carved brass, the edges secured by working the iron plate over the cast flange. The brass is the classical very rich color of the Onin period, circa 1450. The inlay is intact on both sides, but some of the flanges have pulled away from the plate. Ht. 8.4 cm., Th. 3 mm. (Note: it is rare and fortunate that riohitsu were never added at a later date.) (Est. price 500-750)

Ex. Jack Paras sale, lot 2, May 26, 1981″

Here’s a closer look at the inlay. The exposed flanges are particularly visible on the far right leaf and the bottom middle one.

I’ll have to make a closer inspection of other Onin guards to see if that is present but just not as obvious. There are some other places where the inlay is slightly lifted as Bob mentions, but here it appears tight to the plate and was probably never covered. The rest of the surrounding iron does show signs of being moved over the brass. Obviously enough was done to hold the inlay in place.

There are similar guards published, but not with enough detail visible to say for sure, but I don’t see that here.

Shishi Botan from Hyaku Tan
Shishi Botan on copper alloy ground. Source unrecorded

Many thanks to S for sending it my way after keeping it carefully for all these years.

Dated, not signed

I came across an interesting tsuba at the Chicago show last weekend. It’s nicely made and has an unusual texture to the iron. Design-wise it’s hard to say to who and where it might belong. It would very likely draw a Shoami attribution at shinsa if uninscribed, and I can’t see how this inscription would change that.

8.38 cm H x 0.49 cm T, suhama mon on left and matsukawabishi mon on right with ken, possibly enclosed within sacred jewels

The rim has a bit of activity to it, although it’s not quite tekkotsu. There is some texture and reflective patches. The guard has a pretty high pitched ring to it for its size.

We have few dated iron ji sukashi guards, so that is the first thing that makes this one interesting: Genroku junen ushi hachigatsu hi. 8th month of 1697.

Date left, non-signature right

So, the other side “should” be signed, but it isn’t. It seems to say “ha tetsu o mote kore o tsukuru.” The middle kanji on the right is the tough one. The rest is pretty standard, but it’s hard to say if that is “ha,” and if it isn’t then what is it? Any ideas?

If that is what it says, it’d be “made of cutting edge iron.” Notations about the type of steel are seen in sword signatures occasionally, but this one would be redundant on a blade. On a tsuba it makes me wonder if this was the work of a swordsmith or a tsubako. Edo tosho tsuba are well known, but they’re usually relatively simple.

If this was the work of a professional tsuba maker then why isn’t it signed? There’s room for it. Is it possible that this guard was delivered with a newly made sword, so date and material were worth noting, but signing the tsuba would be repetitious or unimportant? If the former, it was especially meticulously made by the swordsmith, if the latter it was subcontracted out to a tsubako who didn’t get to put his name on his work. In either case I’m guessing it was made from metal reserved from forging the blade.

The tsuba doesn’t appear to ever have had sekigane and the only signs of adjustment are two tiny strikes at the top front side of the nakago ana. So probably fitted to a sword, but only once. Maybe made for a sword. One with a fairly large nakago. It’s not exactly in the height of Genroku period fashion, so who knows if it was used at all.

As usual, more questions than answers. Thanks to G&N R for helpful consultation.