Two Kyushu Tosho

Not usually my thing, but two late Edo period swordsmith tsuba came my way recently.

7.94 cm H x 0.43 cm T

The motif is two bats and what I think represents a falcon. While Japan lacks a falcon species that specializes in hunting bats like the Bat Falcon of the new world tropics, the species that are present are known to eat bats somewhat regularly.

Merlin, a medium sized north American falcon, are often seen hunting Red Bats in the early evening here in the northeastern US. Merlin aren’t common in Japan, but are present along with the more frequently seen Eurasian Kestrel, Hobby and occasional Peregrine falcon.

Bats are generally a positive motif in Japan, so I don’t know the implication of this combination if that’s what it is. Falconry was certainly popular among the elite, although game birds were preferred prey. (For example in the US today, hawks that specialize in frogs or snakes are not at all popular birds with falconers.) Maybe there’s a jibe or admonishment here that if you don’t want to catch bats, don’t fly your falcon at dusk… or something like that.

The maker is Hizen Tadamitsu, who according to Haynes (H 09116) was the second son of the 8th generation Tadayoshi. Born December 1836 and a retainer of the Bakufu in 1865, Bob records tsuba with dates of 1871 and 1876.

Hizen kuni ju Tadamitsu saku
Reference example from Wakayama

Another example from the WL Behrens collection catalog:

A small color photo and more information can be found on the Ashmolean musuem website:

And the second guard, from Higo by Enju Kunihide:

8.71 cm H x 0.32 cm T
Hishu ju
Enju Kunihide

Something like an early tachi style tsuba with a thin plate in prominent mokume hada. Kunihide is listed in the Haynes Index as H 03569 and is recorded there as a student of Suishinshi Masahide and a retainer of the the Hosokawa daimyo, passing away in 1830. He was said to carve horimono, which is believable given the style of carving here.

I parted with my sword reference library some years ago, but no doubt there is more information to be had about these smiths in that literature.

Update: Tom Helm posted another similar tsuba by this smith and a lot of information about his swordmaking career here:

As a side note, both of these tsuba arrived with a fair amount of light rust, which in late iron guards cleans up very easily compared to early material. A horse hair brush is enough to remove most of the dusting with only a little additional work with a fiberglass brush required. It’s almost instant gratification compared to the commitment required to take on an old guard that needs work.


Shitahara tōkō, Terushige-ke shoyō, O-tsuba

The box lid reads “Tsuba worn by the family of the Shitahara swordsmith Terushige.”

8.42 cm H x 0.49 cm T, kuwaba and yuki motif

An interesting guard with a motif of mulberry leaf and snow flakes. It has a tokubetsu kicho paper to Owari sukashi. There are no tekkotsu visible and the iron has a bit of an unusual texture to it. It is accompanied by a long hakogaki:

Hakogaki by Murakami Kōsuke

Thank you to Markus Sesko for the translation below.

This tsuba with an openwork design of mulberry leaf and snowflakes was once a heirloom of the family of the Musashi-based swordsmith Yamamoto Terushige. It was also worn for generations, namely on a daishō with a niji-mei signed dai by the first generation Terushige and a goji-mei signed shō by the first generation Yasushige. When the pair was remounted later, this tsuba was given to me as a
gift by Mr. Yamamoto Tajima. At first glance, it looks similar to an Owari-tsuba, but lacks that quality and has a more rustic flair. However, it is truly of classical elegance and may thus be the work of an unknown Musashi-based Shitahara smith who had specialized in the production of tsuba.

First third of May, Meiji 40 (1907) – Kensō [pen name of Murakami Kōsuke] + kao”

A couple of tsuba from the literature with similar but not identical motif:

Kyo sukashi, dry leaf and snow motif, early Edo

The tsuba doesn’t seem quite right for either Kyo or Owari although the date seems about the same as those above. Certainly a variety of signed Edo period tosho tsuba have survived, some of which are very basic and others quite sophisticated in design and execution. This example is well done, but the finishing, particularly on the rim, is a little rougher than usual for the period.

An Adobe Acrobat search of the Haynes Index turns up no names. Has anyone found a tsuba with a Shitahara signature?


A large Ko-Katchushi tsuba in very good condition and without hitsu-ana.

Snow flake and fan paper motif. 9.46 cm H x 0.65 cm mimi, 0.28 cm seppa dai

The rim is fairly high and is a separate piece from the plate. It is slightly rounded. The plate was spared heavy rust and shows almost all of the original surface. Note the seppa zuri showing wear when the guard was mounted. Published in Tagane no Bi where it is dated to mid Muromachi.

Detail view
Choji. 8.74 cm H x 0.77 cm mimi, 0.30 cm seppa dai

This is a very high rim. Between lacquer and corrosion I can’t make out whether the rim is attached or raised from the plate. Some original surface remains to the plate and fortunately the rust was never deep. Note that many ko-tosho and ko-katchushi tsuba today have no original surface remaining. Often the resulting rust pits are described as “bold hammer work.” Published in Sasano and dated there to the early Muromachi period. The kozuka ana has been filled.

Snowflakes. 8.86 cm H x 0.65 cm mimi, 0.38 cm seppa dai

This is a fairly common motif, but not usually seen with such an unusually wide mimi. Here the rim is clearly a separate piece and the lap joint can be seen at the 1:00 position.

Weld in the rim

The other side shows the same where the two ends were beveled and then overlapped. This is a younger guard than the ones above. The kozuka ana is clearly original given its inclusion in the layout of the sukashi design.

Note the irregular shapes of the holes.
Oars and birds. 8.21 cm H x 0.57 cm mimi, 0.36 cm mimi

A ji-sukashi design rather than the usual mon-sukashi. This is probably early Edo period and has an airy, casual feel to the design. The rim is a separate piece.


Myochin Bonji

Sanskrit character sukashi in a large iron tsuba.

8.98 cm H x 0.50 cm T mimi, 0.26 cm seppa dai

The rim is carved from the plate rather than raised or attached. This is late Edo period work, but quite well done. It keeps some of the spirit of early katchushi tsuba, but takes it to an entirely more elaborate end. Nice that hitsuana were not included.

At first glance it looks quite abstract, but it’s not hard to figure out. The bonji at top and bottom are turned ninety degrees. Looking up the particulars of the Buddhist deities named is as they used to say, left as an exercise for the student.

Ko-kinko Sukashi

An early ko-kinko tsuba with kikusui and choji motif.

7.08 cm H x 0.49 cm T
the reverse
waves and droplets with chrysanthemum flower
clustered cloves, slightly offset on the two sides

More openwork than is usual for ko-kinko. The detail in the carving holds up even under a microscope, which is seldom the case. Sophisticated work in design and execution. In this case the ana is a safe bet to be original, if slightly altered. I’m left wondering what the rest of the mounting looked like.

Textbook of Mokume Gane – a review

For once a fittings book that is informative, in English and neither expensive nor hard to get. In fact, you can save yourself some time by skipping my review and just going to Amazon right now and ordering it for $22 to have it in your hands for a weekend read.

This is a 175 page paperback by modern mokume master Takahashi Masaki published in 2018. This is not a style of fittings that I had a particular interest in, but after reading Takahashi I keep coming back to them. This is not a book only about fittings, but covers all aspects of guribori and mokume. It goes back to Northern Song dynasty carved lacquer work, Ming and Qing examples and later sagemono. There are mokume pipe fittings, yatate, bowls, etc., which became staple products for metalworkers at and after the end of the Edo period.

There are illustrations and descriptions of about 20 each of guribori and mokume tsuba, and about the same of fuchikashira, kozuka and other fittings including a few koshirae and one each of mokume and guribori menuki.

Guribori fittings used to be readily available at US sword shows but have become rather scarce in recent years. I hadn’t given them much attention, but Mr. Takahashi has and there is quite a lot there to study.

Many mokume tsuba have gone to the west, and Takahashi has traveled extensively to study and document examples in European and American museums. The catalog he has created with this book would be a must have if it stopped there, but it’s only his starting point. He sets out to describe and reproduce methods that could have been used to create historical pieces.

He goes into detail about the extremely complex layering and twisting process behind the creation of the famous early mokume kozuka by Shoami Denbei.

And provides a sequence of process photos in recreating Denbei’s famous guribori tsuba:

Again, this is not all. There are histories and genealogies of the makers of these fittings (of which Mr. Takahashi is a part) and articles by several guest authors on the techniques behind creating the mokume billets in a variety of materials including recipes for pre-cleaning, fusion processes and patination.

The book ends with a chapter on jewelry which is what sustains mokume production in both Japan and the west these days. Checking the websites of several of the contributors, it seems to have boiled down primarily to wedding rings with none of the interesting pieces illustrated in the Mokume Textbook on display. That makes sense from a business perspective.

I ran across a passing reference to this book online and figured that it would be unavailable or at least difficult to get. I checked Amazon thinking that the chance of it being there would be slim to none, but there it was. The research and devotion to the art of mokume that Takahashi-san has is unequaled and having it in such a well done and accessible book is fantastic. Go get it.

More online at:

Sasano-sensei’s grades

In the April 10, 1997 Sotheby’s catalog the comments preceding the Phyllis Sharpe Memorial collection of early tsuba include the following:

“N.B. Masayuki Sasano always insisted that the ‘grading’ he gave in his hakogaki reflected his personal reaction to the tsuba, and was not an attempt to provide a universal quality rating system. His grades, as mentioned in the text which follows, are: Ka: Beautiful; Shu: Superb; Kei: Masterpiece.

These grades appear toward the bottom of his hakogaki to the right of his two seals.

His highest ranking, masterpiece looks like this:

Kessaku – masterpiece

I don’t know where the reading “kei” in the catalog comes from, the first character is normally read ketsu, or when combined with saku as above kessaku. It can also be translated as greatness or excellence (and can be used sarcastically to refer to “an amusing blunder”).

His middle ranking, superb:

Shusaku – superb

And the “bottom” grade ka:

Kasaku – Beautiful

Although the dictionary definitions of kasaku include “good work” and “honorable mention” which sound somewhat less enthusiastic. I’ve never seen a poor or uninteresting tsuba with a Sasano hakogaki, so I think beautiful is fair enough.

I agree with the catalog notes that this is a personal and subjective system. From what I’ve seen I’d guess that Sasano-sensei was thinking about the tsuba in comparison to others of their type or at least definitely not imposing a hierarchical view where some groups “outrank” others. The kessaku example at top is for a small nidai Akasaka guard, the shusaku is for a very small and simple yamagane ko-kinko tsuba with kiku and other stamps and the kasaku is from the Yagyu tsuba in the previous post.