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.

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.

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:

A Hiko-no

7.12 cm H x 0.50 cm T (don’t know how it got to the bottom of the pile so quickly)

I like coming across these early kinko guards that look like they may have been the inspiration for Hirata Hikozo’s work. The color of the alloy combined with the lacquer along with the fukurin and carving have much the same flavor although Hikozo refined them all and built on it.

I had always thought the tagane were also original to these pieces, but a friend pointed out that they may have been added as an upgrade toward Hikozo’s tagane mei. It’s certainly possible, but I also see them on guards around the same age that I think would really take some imagination to try to pass off as Higo. For example:

7.72 cm H x 4.2 mm T

They’re also seen on some iron Saotome tsuba, but the rest of the work is quite different, so probably no direct connection.

Setting Hikozo aside, note that the surface of this one is not covered with nanako or even worked with a ring-shaped punch. Each circle is made up of a series of tiny punch marks. I wonder if this was a country guy’s imitation of nanako or something original and maybe earlier.

Not nanako, but it had to have been a lot of work. Maybe the nanako punch was developed as a time saver.

In this case the fukurin is needed to finish the three layer construction of the plate. Unlike the typical san mai guard, the shakudo here is only a thin foil. There is (of course) a specific term for this that I’ve forgotten. A microscope view inside the kozuka ana is here:

It appears to be quite a tight bond without signs of solder. I don’t know how it was done. Yes, I labeled the photo incorrectly way back when, it really is the inside of the kozuka ana.