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.


During a discussion with a reader about the appearance of Yagyu iron compared to other groups I started putting together this post.

6.95 cm H x 0.58 cm T

The motif is yomogi ni shobu – a mugwort leaf flanked by iris leaves. In an a article accompanying the NBTHK American Branch exhibition of Yagyu tsuba at the 2005 San Francisco token kai I wrote the following about a similar guard (illustrated later):

“I don’t know the specific meaning within the Yagyu ryu, but the combination of these two plants figures in the Japanese tradition as offering protection from evil and bringing good health. The yomogi is also an herbal treatment to staunch bleeding and the leaves of the shobu rather resemble sword blades.”

References to these two plants together goes back to the 7th century as both medicine and talisman. In Merrily Baird’s Symbols of Japan:

“Heian aristocrats also viewed the fifth lunar month as particularly dangerous, and at that time they both wove mugwort and sweet flag into the thatch of their roofs and produced medicine balls (kusu-dama) of mugwort and sweet flag, which were then hung outside their homes.”

and “…traditional Japanese belief that mugwort and sweet flag are toxic to oni, the demons held responsible for spreading disease and maliciously attacking people.”

This motif appears twice in the Yagyu design books:

Hand copied by Robert Haynes during his studies in Japan in the 1960’s

A closer look at the iron and finishing:

On earlier examples the ground typically has a slightly sandy texture, sometimes described as cloudy. There generally are not sharp edges – while the designs are not blurred, they tend to be smoothed over. Most will show some linear grain in the rim, but it’s usually fairly subtle:

This gets lost in later examples, often certified as kodai (later generation) Yagyu, but then comes back in force in the late Edo period where the copies made by the two Norisuke and their followers have prominent masame in the rim and even on the faces that look like a fine pastry dough. While the designs are faithfully followed, the overall appearance is quite different.

This guard is published in Eckhard Kremers’ Sukashi Tsuba in eurpaischen Sammlungen and has a hakogaki written by Sasano Masayuki.

composite view of the inside and top of the box lid. Edo zenki.

This is the guard mentioned above that was part of the 2005 international exhibition:

According to my notes this one had similar linear forging visible in the rim.

And another published in Owari to Mikawa no tanko:

“no later than the second period”

At the bottom edge of the first guard in this post:

Not done recently…