Katana Tsuba Definite guide to understand this sword part

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The Definite Guide On The Japanese Sword Tsuba(鍔)

Tsuba The Handguard of Katana

Table of Content

1) What is Tsuba (鍔) 

2) Anatomy of Tsuba

3) Tsuba Types & Design 

    --Types of Tsuba Shapes

    --Types of Tsuba Design

4) Frequently asked questions about Tsuba

What is Tsuba (鍔)

Tsuba is the hand guard of a Katana sword. Tsuba is usually in circular or triangular shapes, located in between the blade and the tang (Nakago). It protects the wielder's hands from slipping onto the blade and harming themselves. The Tsuba is not mounted alone, it is fixed by placing a fitting called a "Seppa" (切羽) that act as a spacer between it.

The surface of the Tsuba often features various patterns and designs, reflects the era and region of the Tsuba maker (Tsubashi 鍔師), as well as the preferences of the sword owner when they customize their katana

Tsuba has evolved into an ornament over time. You can see Tsuba with intricate designs made from precious metals like gold. In fact, some designs were so elaborate that they became unusable in battle.

Purpose Of The Tsuba

The primary purpose of the Tsuba is to protect the hands. The Tsuba sits right at the between the blade and the handle, it prevents the swordsman’s hands from slipping onto the blade, and it shields the hand from an opponent's strikes.

Not only that. The Tsuba also helps in balancing the katana weight. This helps to make the sword more stable. Therefore, the wielder will have more control over it. Tsuba also facilitates the quick drawing of katana out of the Saya

The design of the Tsuba is important to both the katana and its owner, as it is the most visible part of the sword when sheathed. This makes the Tsuba not only a functional guard but also a key element of the sword's aesthetic and personal expression.

During war times when katana were still widely used as weapon, Tsuba design often features gods and Buddhas to pray for victory in battle and the safety of the owner. After the peaceful Edo period, Tsuba design adopts more decorative engravings, such as scenes from stories or real historical figures, many craftsmen started making Tsuba with more premium materials and precious metals. 

Anatomy of Tsuba

Tsuba parts:

Tsuba Parts

Here is the list of each parts on a Tsuba:

  • Nakago-ana (茎穴 / Tang Hole): The central hole in the Tsuba through which the Katana tang (nakago) passes.
  • Seppa-dai (切羽台 / Seppa Platform): The area surrounding the nakago-ana where the seppa (spacer) is placed to secure the blade. The craftsman's signature is often inscribed here.
  • Kōgai-ana (笄穴 / Kōgai Hole): A state-shaped hole on the right side of the seppa-dai for inserting the kōgai (a hair arranging tool).
  • Kozuka-ana (小柄穴 / Kozuka Hole): A semicircular hole on the opposite side of the kōgai-ana for inserting the kozuka (small utility knife).
  • Sekigane (責金 / Metal Collars): Metal fittings above and below the nakago-ana that prevent the blade from wobbling.
  • Ji (地 / Surface): The main flat surface of the Tsuba. When the narrower side of the nakago-ana is oriented upward, the state-shaped kōgai-ana is on the right and the semicircular kozuka-ana on the left.
  • Mimi (耳 / Rim): The outer edge of the Tsuba.
  • Mei (銘 / Signature): The name of the maker, typically engraved on the left side of the seppa-dai.

Tsuba Common Size and Material

Tsuba Common Size

The most common diameter for a Tsuba is approximately 8 cm (about 3.15 inches), which suits the overall size of a katana well. For smaller swords, like the Tanto(短刀), the Tsuba are typically smaller, usually around 5 to 6 cm (about 1.97 to 2.36 inches) in diameter.

Common materials used for Tsuba include iron, copper, gold, silver, brass, and their alloys. Often, these materials are combined to enhance both durability and aesthetics. Gold and silver were typically used for plating, adding decorative elements, especially during the Momoyama period when high-purity gold was also used to make solid gold Tsuba. These, however, were mostly ornamental and not suited for practical use.

From the Heian to the Sengoku periods, materials like leather (練革 nerikawa), hardened with lacquer or glue, were used mainly for Tachi swords. Some shorter swords, like Tanto and Wakizashi, which traditionally did not have Tsuba, often featured hilt rims made from animal horn, particularly cattle horn, serving both functional and decorative purposes. However, these non-metal materials were generally less durable compared to iron.

Front and Back Side

The Tsuba has two sides: a front "表" and a back "裏". When the Katana is worn, the side that faces up, near the handle, is the front. This side usually has more detailed and colorful designs than the back.

Difference between Tachi Tsuba and Uchigatana Tsuba

The main difference between Tachi (太刀) Tsuba and Uchigatana (打刀) Tsuba lies in their orientation and additional features:

Difference between Tachi Tsuba and Uchigatana Tsuba

Tachi Tsuba: Used with Tachi swords, which are worn with the edge facing downward. The central hole (nakago-hitsu) of the tsuba narrows toward the bottom (the direction of the blade). Tachi tsuba typically do not have any other holes besides the nakago-hitsu.

Uchigatana Tsuba: Used with Uchigatana and Wakizashi (脇差) swords, which are worn with the edge facing upward. The nakago-hitsu in these Tsuba narrows towards the top (the direction of the blade). Uchigatana Tsuba often comes with additional holes on one or both sides of the nakago-hitsu, they are called 'kogai-hitsu' and 'kodzuka-hitsu', intended to prevent other sword fittings in the scabbard from hitting the Tsuba.

Tsuba Types & Design 

In modern times, the Tsuba is not only a functional part of the Japanese sword, the design of Tsuba reflects the samurai's wishes for success in battle and the well-being of their families. Tsuba is an independent art piece for appreciation, and we will talk about its design in details:

Types of Tsuba (based on making schools)

Tōshō Tsuba (刀匠鍔): These Tsuba are crafted by swordsmiths using leftover iron from sword making. Typically thicker and simpler in design, these are mainly round or mokkō-shaped and often bear minimal decorations such as simple punch-outs of cherry blossoms or radishes near the blade hole. They show hammering marks and are mainly for practical use, evolving over time into less ornate, more functional pieces meant for actual combat.

Tōshō Tsuba (刀匠鍔)

Tachi Kanagushi Tsuba (太刀金具師鍔): Originating from artisans skilled in the metalwork of Buddhist altar equipment, these Tsuba were made by "Tachi Kanagushi" – metalworkers who started crafting sword fittings as a side business. They are known for their elaborate designs, including intricate carvings and inlays of gold, silver, and alloys, often not meant for practical use but rather for ceremonial purposes. These Tsuba are decorative, featuring detailed patterns of flora and fauna, and often use a combination of engraving techniques to create high-relief and openwork designs.

Katchūshi Tsuba (甲冑師鍔): Crafted by Japanese armor makers, these Tsuba are distinguished by their practicality and subdued aesthetic, appealing to higher-ranking samurai who desired more elaborate designs than those typically provided by swordsmiths. They are usually larger and thinner than those made by swordsmiths and feature refined surfaces and detailed edges. Over time, these Tsuba became more intricate, incorporating elevated reliefs and detailed engravings that often include auspicious symbols and protective deities, reflecting the spiritual and protective concerns of their samurai users.

Kamakura Tsuba (鎌倉鍔): Featuring techniques from Kamakura lacquer work, these Tsuba often have motifs of landscapes and flora in shallow relief.

Owari Tsuba (尾張鍔): Originating from Owari Province, these Tsuba are known for their practical design with strong, simple patterns suitable for warriors.

Mino Tsuba (美濃鍔): Known for their intricate designs, these Tsuba from Mino Province feature detailed inlays and sophisticated metalwork.

Heianjō Tsuba (平安城鍔): Characterized by complex inlay work using brass and sometimes other metals, often creating elaborate patterns.

Shoami Tsuba (正阿弥鍔): Varied in style, these Tsuba can feature deep carving and elaborate inlays, showing the diversity of the Shoami school.

Kyō Sukashi Tsuba (京透鍔): Known for their elegant and artistic designs with intricate openwork, made by artisans in Kyoto.

Heianjō Sukashi Tsuba (平安城透鍔): These are decorated with openwork designs, often featuring themes from nature and mythology, also linked to artisans in the Heianjō area.

Ōnin Tsuba (応仁鍔): Named after the Ōnin War, these Tsuba are characterized by intricate designs and use of expensive brass inlays, reflecting the turbulent times of their creation.

Nobuie Tsuba (信家鍔): Created by the Nobuie school, these are known for their strong, utilitarian designs with minimal ornamentation, often featuring simple geometric patterns.

Kanai Tsuba (金家鍔): Renowned for their aesthetic appeal and sophisticated craftsmanship, these Tsuba often include detailed landscapes and scenes inlaid with gold and silver.

Umetada Tsuba (埋忠鍔): Known for their elegant and refined designs, these Tsuba were made by the Umetada school, which was prominent in Kyoto and linked to the imperial court.

Yoshiro Tsuba (与四郎鍔): These Tsuba are notable for their use of openwork and sophisticated inlay techniques, often featuring cultural and religious motifs.

Imono Tsuba (鋳物鍔): Made by casting rather than forging, these are generally considered less durable and valuable but were widely produced due to their lower cost.

Nanban Tsuba (南蛮鍔): Influenced by European and Chinese aesthetics during the period of contact with the West, these Tsuba often feature exotic designs with inlays of foreign motifs.

Types of Tsuba Shapes

Types of Tsuba Shapes

In ancient Japan, the craftsmen chose Tsuba shapes not just for their design, but more importantly, for the auspicious meanings and personal wishes they represented. Here we will introduce the major types of Tsuba shapes and meaning behind them:

Round Shape (丸形, Marugata) The round shape is the most commonly used for tsuba. "Round" implies completeness and is universally favored because it has no corners, symbolizing positivity.

Quince Shape (木瓜形, Mokkō-gata) Named after the cross-section of a quince, this shape is preferred for its resemblance to a fruit-laden tree and a bird's nest, symbolizing prosperity and the continuation of descendants. Varieties include four-quince (四つ木瓜), five-quince (五つ木瓜), and eight-quince (八つ木瓜).

Saddle Flap Shape (障泥形, Aorigata) Origin from the part of the saddle used to protect against mud, this shape was familiar to samurai and used in Tsuba design. It features a stable form, typically wider at the bottom than at the top.

War Fan Shape (軍配形, Gunbaigata) The war fan has been used in rituals to ward off evil spirits and summon divine power, symbolizing guidance towards victory and favorable outcomes.

Chrysanthemum Shape (菊花形) Since the Edo period, the Chrysanthemum Festival on September 9th has been celebrated, where chrysanthemum wine is drunk for longevity, making this flower shape an auspicious symbol for the Japanese.

Octagonal Shape (八角形) In ancient Japan, eight was considered a sacred and extremely auspicious number. It represents all directions and balances, indicating a stable and balanced shape.

Types of Tsuba Design

Types of Tsuba Design

Animal Designs (動物)

Animal designs in Tsuba carries a reverence for the vitality and raw power of animals, nurtured by nature. These designs often reflect a desire to emulate or harness this strength.

Typical Animal Designs:

Geese (雁, がん/かり): Representing migration and remarkable natural instincts, geese symbolize bonds and teamwork in military contexts, appealing to samurai ideals.

Rabbits (兎): Associated with agility and advancement, rabbits symbolize prosperity and rapid progression, often used to represent perseverance and upward mobility in life.

Boars (猪): Emblematic of brute strength and fearless charging, boar designs are favored for their representation of valor, crucial in battle contexts.

Quails (鶉, うずら): Traditional subjects in Japanese art, quails paired with autumnal plants like susuki (pampas grass) convey a symbol of good fortune and are cherished in military settings for their auspicious associations.

Dragons (龍): Symbolizing power, strength, and good fortune, dragons are prominent figures in both mythology and tsuba art.

Phoenixes (鳳凰): Represent rebirth and fire, often paired with dragons to symbolize marital harmony and imperial virtue.

Tigers (虎): Convey courage and protection against evil spirits, commonly used in martial symbolism.

Lion (獅子): Protective creatures that guard sacred spaces, symbolizing strength and security.

Plant Designs (植物)

Plant motifs in Tsuba design not only showcase the resilience and beauty of flora but also symbolize health, longevity, and prosperity.

Typical Plant Designs:

Chrysanthemum (菊花): Symbolizes longevity and rejuvenation, particularly celebrated during the Chrysanthemum Festival.

Pine (松): Represents endurance and eternal vigor, often seen as a sanctified emblem in various cultural artifacts.

Bamboo (竹): Known for its rapid growth and flexibility, bamboo is a common symbol of resilience and integrity.

Plum (梅): Early bloomer known to withstand the harsh winter, symbolizing perseverance and renewal, often associated with the bravery of warriors.

Geometric and Symbolic Designs ( 文様)

These designs incorporate abstract and symbolic elements that convey various cultural beliefs and teachings, often carrying deep spiritual or philosophical meanings.

Typical Geometric and Symbolic Designs:

Spirals and Circles: Often used to represent the concept of infinity and the cyclic nature of life.

Crests and Heraldry: Include family crests (家紋), which are deeply personal and indicate lineage and status.

Auspicious Symbols: Such as the endless knot or the swastika (卍), which denote prosperity, longevity, and myriad blessings.

Personages and Narrative Designs (人物・物語)

Personages and narrative designs on tsuba incorporate characters and stories from classical folklore, literature, and historical tales. These designs often serve to inspire, educate, or reflect the virtues and aspirations of the samurai class.

Typical Personages and Narrative Designs:

Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師): Designs might depict this famous poet-monk, who is revered for his poetry and the spiritual journey reflected in his verses. Imagery could involve scenes from his travels or his interactions with nature, illustrating his profound connection with the transient beauty of the world.

Famous Noh and Kabuki Scenes: Scenes from traditional Japanese theatre like Noh and Kabuki often find their way onto tsuba, capturing dramatic moments or iconic characters from well-known plays. These designs are appreciated for their theatrical and aesthetic richness.

Mythological Figures like Ryūjin (龍神, Dragon God): Designs include dragons or other mythic creatures, often symbolizing power, protection, and cosmic balance. These creatures are frequently depicted in dynamic, swirling forms, interacting with the elements.

Historical Warriors and Battles: Images of famous samurai or iconic battles that shaped Japanese history. These designs not only celebrate martial prowess but also the strategic and honorable aspects of the samurai ethos.

Lore from the Manyōshū (万葉集) or Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集): Illustrations that visualize poems from these ancient anthologies, often reflecting on nature, the seasons, or human emotions. The imagery might be subtle, using symbolic elements to convey the essence of the poems.

Interest Tsuba Design

Tsuba is the most noticeable part when a katana is sheathed, many anime will use it to symbolize a character's abilities and personality. For example Tanjiro's Katana Tsuba is crafted from black metal, with patterns resembles a stylized sun with flames radiating outward, reflecting Tanjiro's use of the Sun Breathing technique. Giyu's katana has hexagonal shape Tsuba, colored in a dark shade, reflecting Giyu's use of the Water Breathing technique.

Frequently asked questions about Tsuba

Should all Katana has Tsuba?

Not necessary, while most traditional Katana does include a Tsuba, there are some exceptions. For example many Tanto (Yes Tanto is a type of Katana) use "合口拵" (Aikuchi koshirae), this type of Koshirae (sword fitting) doesn't feature Tsuba. 

When Katana is store in Shirasaya, they don't need Tsuba as well. 

In ancient Japan, lower-quality, disposable katana often did not have Tsuba or had only small ones.

What are the holes on Tsuba for?

There are 3 holes on a Tsuba (excluded the ones for ornamental purpose only). They are:

Central Hole (中心穴, Nakago-ana): The largest hole, it fits the sword's tang (nakago) to secure the blade to the handle.
Kozuka Hole (小柄孔, Kozuka-hitsu): A smaller, often rectangular hole for attaching a kozuka, a small utility knife.
Kogai Hole (笄孔, Kogai-hitsu): Similar to the Kozuka Hole but typically on the opposite side, for attaching a kogai, a skewer-like grooming tool.

Is the Tsuba fixed to the sword?

No, Japanese sword blades are detachable. And the Tsuba, along with the mounting mechanism, can be replaced.

What’s the best Tsuba material?

Brass, copper, silver, and bronze work great for the Tsuba. These are solid metals and don't cost that much, either. But you can use gold as well. However, they can get pretty expensive

How thick is the Tsuba?

Tsuba are generally 0.5cm thick. They weigh about 95g. Most katana Tsuba are similar in weight and size.

Wrapping Up

The Tsuba is a fascinating piece of the katana sword. It serves as an essential functional aspect of protecting your hands. However, they can be used as an ornamental or decorative piece as well. Perhaps it’s the part of the katana with the most history behind it. If you are interested, don't forget to check our katana anatomy to learn more.

1 comment

  • Posted on by John Combettes
    I have a rare stone tsuba from the 16-17 century . I was told that stone wasn’t common .

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