San Diego Tsuba

At sword shows I’ve seen the occasional puzzled expression at the use of the phrase San Diego tsuba in conversation. It’s a shorthand used by a few for the types of guards seen in an interesting group found at the bottom of the ocean.

The three guards from upper left to center bottom measure 6.5 cm H x 0.2 cm T, 7.0 x 0.25 and 7.3 x 0.25

The Spanish galleon San Diego was sunk just before 3:00 in the afternoon of Thursday December 14, 1600 off the coast of the Phillipines. The wreck was discovered in 1991 and over the course of two field seasons 5,262 objects were recovered.

“Undoubtedly, more than four hundred men crowded the decks – Spanish sailors, natives and even Japanese mercenaries whose presence is attested by their weapons and personal belongings. Twelve hundred pieces of blue-and-white porcelain have been recovered, indicating that the vessel was carrying a rich cargo of china tableware.” (Treasures of the San Diego, c 1996, Association Francaise d’Action Paris, Fondation Elf Paris and Elf Aquitaine International Foundation, New York)

I have an English language copy of Treasures, but if you happen to look for one note that most copies around are in Portuguese. It’s a great book covering the history of the period, details of the ship, its sinking and the European and Asian artifacts recovered. There is a section covering weapons including articles on small arms, artillery and one titled Japanese Warriors by Catherine Delacour. She gives an overview of Japanese history and activity in the region in the 16th C and in the Philippines in particular. Near the end of that century there were around 1,500 Japanese living in Manila including bushi working for Spain, some of whom shipped out on the San Diego and left behind various personal effects when it went down.

No iron artifacts survived submersion, but the group of copper alloy tsuba pictured above were recovered from the wreck. Two of these have fuchi and seppa stuck in place with corrosion and two have just seppa. We find guards like these in circulation today. They’re relatively small with simple but varied decorations. Given that they only have kozuka ana they were probably mounted on wakizashi. It’s interesting that the kiku-gata tsuba has an opening large enough for an o-kozuka. I don’t see any mention of kozuka or kashira being recovered from the wreck. Metal (or any) kashira may not have been used.

So while none of these tsuba have dates, we do know that they weren’t made after 1600, a useful data point. Whether these guards were all brought from home or some made outside of Japan would be interesting to know.

Update: Excavation of an early Edo period archaeological site in Nara yielded casting crucibles and molds including some that would have produced tsuba very similar to the above.

a still captured from the Sankei News video

Note that the lower right object is a clay impression taken from the mold to its left. The video is below:

Thanks to Markus Seksko for his blog post from a few years ago. More detail can be found here:

2 thoughts on “San Diego Tsuba”

  1. Hello,
    Great article. In the Treasures book is there any mention of the exact materials or composition of the copper alloy Tsuba?


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