Stamped Ko-Kinko Tsuba

Continuing on from the last post with a complex early yamagane tsuba featuring stamped decorations, here are three examples with the more typical single plate construction. The first is a small guard with many kokuin.

6.00 cm H x 5.30 cm W x 0.38 cm T
Yamagane with traces of black lacquer

The decoration includes kiri, kiku and hishi mon along with “star” or “snow flake” shaped stamps on a polished ground. Many are incompletely punched or partially erased. Despite the profuse decoration the effect is fairly subdued.

back side, upper left
back side, upper right

My guess is that the original surface was not entirely lacquered but was left in the low spots for contrast. This type of work is also seen in the late Edo period.

This guard has a hako gaki by Sasano-sensei attributing it to Ko-kinko. The inside of the box is below for those interested.

The next guard is much larger and in addition to stamps has colored metal inlay and overlay. The ground also has a tooled texture. While there is also urushi, the overall impression is anything but subdued.

8.87 cm H x 8.29 cm W x 0.38 cm T

Again there are kiku and kirimon with hanabishi and other flowers. Rather than the often seen description of “mon chirashi,” the kanteisho accompanying this guard describes the motif as bukan chirashi meaning something like scattered heraldry. The sukashi motif is not described, but is often identified as a shishi or sometimes as rising smoke.

the reverse
backside top

This decoration is most similar to the first guard. The plate is stamped and lacquer is applied and remains in the low spots. Here the kiku has a thin gold highlight added.

backside right

Here a similar kiku plus a sakura blossom with added gold. The flower at the right is inlaid and carved brass with a gold overlay.

front side top

Another is inlaid in a dark silver-colored alloy.

front top left
front top right

The hanabishi is also in inlaid and carved brass, with the gold overlay getting out of bounds.

At first glance the next guard looks like it could have carved decoration, but it appears to be stamped. I’m not sure about the motif, it looks like a nimbus or sunburst. Some mushrooms have gills that look somewhat like this. There’s also a biological resemblance there that I don’t think was known before the invention of the microscope…

8.45 cm H x 7.87 W x 0.36 cm T

This tsuba is the same shape as the one above and is almost the same size and thickness. The tagane around the nakago ana are also similar. I have to wonder if that’s just a coincidence or these could have come from the same workshop.

Looking closely at the stamping around the kozuka ana suggests that it is not a later addition. There is no trace of the “heads” of the stamping continuing around the seppa dai or any of the “tails” coming from the outer edge.

Front side kozuka ana

There are traces of the gold lacquer on top of the lead plug shown above suggesting that the coloring is a later addition or at least was refreshed at some time after the ana was filled.

Back side kozuka ana

The variegated colors on this plate are interesting and unusual. My guess is that they came with age rather than being the original patina.

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: