Hollow Kagamishi Tsuba

Happy New Year! Here is is a rare and interesting sub-style of the so-called mirror maker tsuba. The motif is tortoise shell on the rim and lightning/thunder spirals on the web.

9.04 cm H x 9.15 cm W x 0.67 cm T mimi x 0.42 cm seppa dai
Yamagane with urushi. Kikko mon ni kaminari mon.

At first glance this looks like one of the tsuba made by taking two small bronze mirrors and mounting them back to back together after removing the central knobs and finishing off the rim with a fukurin. One of the nicer examples of that type is here:

A literal mirror made tsuba. Note the outline of the removed mounting knob in the center.

In this case the plates are pinned together within the seppa dai. I owned a smaller one of these that did not use pins, and was actually made up of three plates. The outer pieces were repurposed hand mirrors on either side of a central plain copper plate. In any multiplate construction a fukurin is usually applied to finish off the rim, and in the case of that tsuba it was all that kept the plates together. When handling that type of guard of course it feels like a completely solid piece despite some small gaps between the plates.

The first tsuba above though clearly sounds hollow in both the rim and the plate and feels extremely light. A look inside the nakago ana shows that there are two pieces there, but the construction is more complicated than that.

Inside the nakago ana

This section shown above has a loose fit typical of multiplate tsuba, but the rest is quite tight, but with no sign of solder, etc., used.

Microscope view inside the nakago ana

Before going deeper into the weeds on possible construction, here are the other examples of this type of guard I’ve found in the literature.

Yamagane ji 8.9 cm

Yamagane ji 9.4cm

Where noted, these are similarly sized yamagane tsuba that appear to share construction and decoration methods. It would be handy to examine them all, but since there’s only the one here I’ll continue with the details of that starting with the rim.

One side of the mimi
Same spot viewed from the other side

This isn’t the typical construction seen in either a fukurin or a dote mimi. The overlapping joint is at one edge of the rim, something like fitting a lid on a jar. At one point there is some damage to the rim that shows a bit more of what’s there:

Clearly the metal is very thin, and tapping on it makes a hollow sound about as you’d expect if there is nothing else in there.

The kikko mon tortoise shell pattern appears to be stamped in first, with the raised knobs being punched from the back afterward. The stamps are mostly well aligned, but there some that overlap.

microscope view
The bumps were presumably formed after the stamping was done. 70 on one side, 83 on the other.

On the side of the tsuba shown in the first photo at the top of the post it is hard to say if the rim is of one piece with the plate because there is a layer of lacquer all the way around.

But there is some working there that would suggest that it’s not one piece.

The central spiral designs also appear to be stamped showing variations in the strength of the hit, overlap and rotation. That the spirals are cut off at the edge of the plate is also likely consistent with it being a separate piece.

The above image is from the other side at around 7-8 o clock, and it shows another part of the story. This is adjacent to the part of the rim that is damaged and it appears that the impact may have broken loose the lacquer layer to reveal that the rim and plate are not made of one piece, at least on this side. An angle view shows the gap:

Going to the microscope, here’s a view of one end of the break:

At the bottom left there are some tool marks that may have been from working the joint between the plate and rim. The center looks typical of the lacquer all around the other side and the top right shows where it has gone missing.

Changing the angle of the microscope light to look into the gap it appears to be hollow. Checking the other, intact side of the plate with the microscope there are a few spots where the lacquer is starting to crack:

So while that is not conclusive I suspect that there is a joint there as well, and all of the rest above suggests that both sides are made the same way with two outer rings joined to two central plates. All of it is very thin. The guards from the literature show a similar looking line between the web and mimi pieces. The nested friction fit and crimping of one half of the rim over the other seems to be what is is holding the whole thing together.

On my example the web sounds hollow all the way up to the nakago ana, yet the photos of that at top show that it should be two solid ~2 mm thick plates. This would suggest that the edges of the thin plate are turned down at 90 degrees there, or maybe that there is a ring of that full thickness metal around the nakago ana to add strength. I’d like to have a look inside the hitsuana of the two guards above that have them to see what the edges look like.

Solid yamagane tsuba with stamped decorations and partial lacquer coating are fairly common, so why go to the trouble of making something this complicated? It is certainly much lighter than a solid plate, although when mounted on a sword I’m not sure how significant that difference would be. It definitely is a different look and we do tend to go out of our way to achieve that, but it seems like there may be more to this story.

If this guard looks familiar to those who have been around for a while it may be because it is the first example in the 1994 Masterpieces from the Randolph B. Caldwell Collection catalog. It is described there as being cast yamagane from the Fujiwara/early Kamakura period and as being accompanied by Tokubetsu Kicho certificate number 930 from 1969. The attribution given on that paper is not mentioned, but there is a recent tokubetsu hozon certificate describing this as Kagamishi.

Metallurgical cross sections are usually conclusive in determining cast vs. forged construction (or a combination with a piece being hammered after casting) which is not going to happen here, but it is hard to see where casting was a part of the process in the creation of the thin sheets used to build this tsuba. Aesthetically the result is similar to the kagamishi tradition, but of course there is no evidence that the single-piece cast tsuba of that type were the work of actual mirror makers. Still a useful term in discussion.

Shoami Shigekatsu / Tetsujin

I saw this tsuba in an online auction and while it’s not my usual sort of thing the signature looked interesting.

7.97 cm H x 7.94 cm W x 0.33 cm T

The nunome zogan is fairly typical of Kyo-Shoami, etc. and there is sukashi of a plum blossom and kumade (bamboo rake). The condition is good but not perfect, as this kind of inlay work rarely is.


The front is signed Tetsujin, or as some sources read Tetsunin. This group worked in Saga Hizen and elsewhere and made Kaneie style work as well as guards with mon sukashi designs. These tend to be uncomplicated, but are often more sophisticated than here.

The back has a longer inscription including the name Shoami Shigekatsu.

Shoami Shigekatsu on the left…

Haynes lists two Shoami Shigekatsu working in Aizu as H08296 and 7, one working in Bushu as H08298 and an Iyo Shoami man at H08299 . The earliest is described as working in Kyo-Shoami style nunome zogan ca. 1650-1725 and the next as a later generation of the first ca. 1750-75. Either of these is a good fit given the inlay work on this tsuba.

The Bushu Shigekatsu is described as working in Myochin style, which doesn’t sound like a likely candidate, but I will return to him with another related tsuba later on. The Matsuyama Shigekatsu is said to work in later Choshu style, so the less said about him the better.

So, what about that right-side inscription? I couldn’t tell what it might be in the online photos, but as far as I can tell now it’s “koyo zogan iri.” I lack anything like Japanese language skills, but my guess is that it means something like “old use, inlay added.” As in “I took an old tsuba by Tetsunin and tarted it up.” I’ve shown this guard to a couple of people who might know better and got shrugs and “I guess so.”

The sukashi design didn’t strike me as typical for Tetsujin work, which is usually not this static, but it’s hard to say how many people might be working under that name and how inspired they may have been. It does look like the signature chisel is wielded differently on the two sides, but hard to say what really went on. So, one of those projects that go on the back burner.

Recently browsing through the massive “elephant book” book that is Tsuba Shusei I came across the above. The arrangement is slightly different, but clearly there were unadorned Tetsujin version of this tsuba, and that one of them was in fact later decorated by Shigekatsu seems much more likely.

I wonder if the alteration to the kozuka ana was not just functional, but also by way of switching it to a shape usually associated with a kogai ana the later guy was marking his territory as being the new front side.

As always I am interested in other interpretations.

Now, back to that Bushu Shigekatsu… I also found this guard, also not in perfect shape:

Shoami Shigekazu

This would seem to fit with Bob’s H08298 man working in Myochin style, but comparing the signatures on the first guard and this one, they are very similar.

Shigekatsu and Shigekatsu

I suspect it is the same person, but no idea on the reported Aizu vs. Bushu locations. Maybe this shows he was better at nunome zogan than he was at making tsuba.

Japanese Sword Guards, decoration and ornament in the collection of Georg Oeder of Dusseldorf 1916

This is a quick review of the 2017 partial reprint and translation of the famous Oeder collection catalog.

There are a number of print on demand versions of early fittings books available these days including this one from Blurb. Oeder put together one of the better early European collections and his original catalog is one of the hardest to find.

The cover of my original, tape repairs by a previous owner. A user rather than book collector copy.

I haven’t seen an original catalog come up for sale recently, but the last I heard they were into four figures. There is a 2011 facsimile edition that I also haven’t seen recently, but they used to sell for around $200. That version reproduces the entire original book with text in German.

This 2017 book is not a facsimile. It leaves out the kodogu and focuses only on the illustrated tsuba. The original catalog has descriptions of many tsuba that are not illustrated. This one is a bit of a trade off, but it would have been more work to translate those entries and more paper to print them. Most collectors will probably not miss reading about the unseen guards.

A portrait from the 2017 book.

The collection was auctioned after Oeder’s death. I’m not clear about the details, but it was then known to be in Berlin until it disappeared at the end of the second world war. A mystery.

From the 2017 book

There are 214 tsuba illustrated and the images are about 2.5 inches wide on the page. The paper quality is typical of POD and there is some show through of the images on the opposite side of the page, although it is not as noticeable in use as it is under the lights here. The bent text is because I did not squash the binding for the photo. The quality of the images is quite good and the translations read well.

Here are a couple of the same illustrations from the original edition:

The 1916 source page

The page layouts don’t match exactly because the content is different, and this is not a problem. The original illustrations are a bit sharper as expected. The original text is not hard to navigate, but the translation is certainly nice if English is your language. The binding of my original is quite fragile and it sheds particles and threatens to fall apart whenever I use it, so I find myself using the new version for casual browsing instead. I’m glad to have access to the original when I want it for the missing material or more detailed images, but I’d be hard pressed to argue for why it’s a must-have now that this reprint is easily available.

In addition to the catalog images there is an introductory essay that is a good read, but pretty typical of western material of that time. There is also a second mini-catalog at the end:

Speaks for itself, I think

If I heard of this sale catalog before, I forgot about it, but the provenance is beyond impressive. The pieces aren’t at the same level as the Oeder collection and the photos are apparently upscaled from small originals, so the image quality isn’t great:

Page from the second catalog

Annotations by the editor help to make the descriptions more informative. It’s an interesting piece of history and maybe someone will find out that he has a piece once owned by Archduke Ferdinand. Hope you have better luck.

So, bottom line for the student of tsuba – an absolute no brainer purchase at the $30-40 prices found on eBay. Even better, right now there’s one new copy for sale on Amazon for $4.09 and a few others at around $15. I don’t know about the internals of this business and don’t have a stake in it, but seems like a good opportunity to add much to the library for very little.

“Proto-Kamakura” Dragons

8.93 cm H x 8.67 cm W x 0.35 cm M x 0.37 cm SD

A large iron guard with a carving of a rather abstracted dragon’s body topped by a strange head with a mane and a single dot of brass for the eye’s pupil. The design on the back is the same. Similar guards in the literature are split between attributions to Kamakura-bori and Katchushi. They seem to me to have more to do with the Kamakura style, although there is an example with a Saotome signature that I will introduce later on.

A nearly identical example to the first with the addition of a kozuka ana. The shape of the ana looks early whether original or not. Note that in both examples parts of the dragon at the top and bottom of the nakago ana would be covered by the seppa.

Described in the text as Kamakura tsuba with dragon motif

Again, very similar. This time the kogai ana interrupts the design but the seppa dai does not. The bodies of all of these do look like the more abstract style of dragon horimono seen on swords, but the heads are unusual.

The most “primitive” style attributed to Kamakura-bori are those guards carved with concentric rings and sometimes waribite. It seems like the type of carving here could be a pictorial elaboration of that style, but both are still quite different from the carving approach and motifs seen in typical Kamakura style tsuba. It’s hard to say if these predate the classic pieces, are a sideline style or something unrelated. I have seen both this dragon style of guard and the ring types attributed to Kamakura in recent NBTHK hozon kanteisho.

Also described as Kamakura, dragon motif

It’s a bit hard to see what’s going on in the original photo, but it appears to be a variation on the theme. Two shinchu ten zogan eyes are visible here. The iron plates seem similar in these pieces and is probably within the range of what was used in more conventional Kamakura work. Relatively few of the latter have refined and smoothly finished surfaces. More are a bit more rustic and similar to these dragon guards. Many are rough and dull.

8.4 cm W x 0.3 cm T

Lot 2 from the first Walter Compton sale at Christies, attributed to “Kamakura style” where other more conventional examples in the same sale were called Kamakura-bori. The raised rim appears original and is a katchushi-like feature. The nakago ana appears to have been flipped at least once. It was published the other way around in the catalog.

Attributed to Katchushi

Another variation with a more dragon like head and two eyes. Hard to say if the mokko shape is original. It looks like it impinges on the carving in some spots, so perhaps a later modification. The rim looks slightly raised. The flame-like carving near the bottom is a new addition.

Also described as Katchushi

The head here looks more like a bird, or at least something with a beak. The rest of the workmanship appears consistent with the examples labeled Kamakura elsewhere.

Saotome Ienori

It’s difficult to make out in the original photo, but it appears to be similar to the ones we started with. The signature is even harder to see, but it would interesting to know if it is original to the piece. We do see the occasional older guard with added Saotome or Myochin signature in addition to the legitimate examples. Haynes lists a Saotome Ienori at H 01798 working ca. 1800. That would seem at odds with the apparent age of these tsuba, so it would be interesting to see this one in person. Most authors date these to late Muromachi to Momoyama, although as usual there is little to back this up.

Another even more unusual variation. This is pretty far from work in the mainstream Kamakurabori style. The “flame like” features reappear.

And maybe a much later copy of the same idea. The plate and carving are quite different and not particularly attractive.

So, are these proto-Kamakura tsuba? They have more in common with that style than they do with work typically assigned to the katchushi category. Even if there is no relationship with the main body of Kamakura-bori work, the term “proto-Kamakura” is a useful enough tag in discussion of these carved early tsuba.

Update: Reader David Stiles provided photos of an interesting tsuba with attribution to Higo by the NBTHK. The motif is described as rain dragon, written with the more complex character for dragon.

We know from Tom Helm’s article referenced in the previous post that the Higo swordsmith Enju Kunihide made a guard in the “proto Kamakura” style with ring and waribite/drawer pull carving.


In this case the rim is quite different than the other examples above and does have something of a Jingo look to it. Overall it also appears to be a bit later. I wonder if as with Tom’s example there might one of these with a Higo signature.

I don’t have photographs of the reverse sides of the guards from the literature, but the first guard shown has the dragon in the same orientation on both sides as this one does.

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.