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.