A tsuba (sword guard) is a flat metal disc that forms the guard on a sword and serves to balance the sword, as well as protect the hand from sliding up the blade of the sword during use. The blade fits through the central hole of the tsuba and the smaller holes are used to fix the kogai (a skewer-like implement) and the kozuka (a small knife). Tsubas originated in Japan in around the late 14th century during the Nambokucho period (1333-1391), a time when civil war raged throughout the country. Accordingly, there was great advancement in the production of swords and sword mounting, and Japanese swords became recognised as some of the most lethal hand weapons of pre-industrial East Asia.
Along with their practical purpose, sword guards served a symbolic function and were often decorated with a design that had particular meaning to the owner, reflecting their strength, personality and family background. As such the sword guard became an important status symbol to the samurai. The late 1400s through to the mid 1500s were marred by a period of warfare and many warriors, regularly facing death, found spiritual strength in Zen Buddhism. Religious script featured commonly in tsuba inscriptions, offering protection and spiritual guidance to the warrior.
As Japan entered the more peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868), tsuba became increasingly elaborate and decorative in design and function, and their manufacture became highly specialised and technically advanced. Different schools of makers developed their own styles, often influenced by the culture and environment of the region, and the role of the tsuba extended to become an elaborate piece of art. Subjects for decoration included Japanese mythology, history and nature. Since the 16th century, it was customary for the guard to feature the signature of the maker.
Valued for their excellence in design and execution, tsubas today exist as refined pieces of art, and although now only used for state occasions and consecrations, the Japanese sword and its fittings remain a symbol of authority and reminder of Japan's powerful, and at times tumultuous, samurai past.
This collection of tsubas was selected in 1966 from a large collection of diverse objects amassed over many years by the parents of the donor Christian Rowe Thornett (1879-1972).
Bilney, Elizabeth (ed), 'Decorative Arts and Design from the Powerhouse Museum', Powerhouse Publishing, 1991
Irvine, Gregory, 'The Japanese Sword: The Soul of the Samurai', V & A Publications, London, 2000
Richards, Dick, 'Japan: Three Worlds', Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 1999
Robinson, B W, 'The Arts of the Japanese Sword', Faber and Faber, London, 1961
Sasano, Masayuki, 'Early Japanese Sword Guards', Japan Publications Inc, San Francisco, 1972