This Tsuba, otherwise known as a hilt or Japanese sword guard, would have sat nestled between the handle and blade of a lethal Uchigatana sword. Tied inextricably to its minimal beauty as an object is its function as an essential facet in a weapon, meant to end the life of an enemy in a single stroke. As one gripped the sword, the wide, rounded shape of the iron Tsuba would offer protection for their hand as well as an acute register of the sword’s movement, its metal weight allowing heightened awareness of the blade’s every subtle tip and tilt through space. In this way, it speaks as much to the elegant restraint of its own design as it does to the rigorous and spiritual art of Japanese warfare.
As the nature of Japanese combat changed, the sword and the Tsuba changed with it. This particular Tsuba was forged in Japan’s Muromachi-period (1336 - 1573) after the bitter conflict of the Onin-war (1467), which pitted two families of samurai against each other in a nationwide civil battle. Prior to the war, long and cumbersome Tachi swords with highly curved blades were the dominant style, inherited directly from design for Chinese horseback combat. However, the unprecedented hand-to-hand violence of the Onin conflict necessitated a change in sword design, through which the Japanese took the Chinese Tachi and shaped it into an object with the essence of Japanese sensibility. Thus, the Uchigatana, with the brutal force of its thicker, shorter blade, and the efficient spatial mechanism of its Tsuba, was born.
This Tsuba, forged in iron by a Tosho (sword smith), holds no unnecessary ornament or inscription, unlike the highly decorative and collected Tsuba made by artisans during the peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868). Removed from the brutal demands of war, Edo Tsuba were defined by decoration, rather than the acute purpose of functional design that can only be instilled by a weapon maker. Instead, the Tosho Tsuba does not call attention to itself. In fact, perhaps the only flourish this sword smith allowed in the meticulous hammering of the Tsuba was to skillfully form its four delicate “petals”, giving a subtle floral shape to the cold, raw power of the metal. As one wraps their hands around the curved edges of its elegant thin body, it is as if they can feel the latent potential of the grace and power it once allowed as an instrument of battle. To handle this Tsuba is thus to understand its profound and exquisite contradiction: of utter quietness and turmoil, weightiness and airiness. It recalls the famous Jisei-no-ku (death poem) of a samurai written underneath a cherry tree moments before death in battle; its belief that a warrior must be stoic and ruthless in conflict, yet attuned to subtle grace and repose of the natural world, hard and soft at once. Through its fusion of subdued form and lethal function, this Tsuba embodies the poetic.
In the midst of the utter violence of the Onin War, the placid form of this Tsuba was born. Its refined beauty recalls the words of Japanese author Hideo Kobayashi, who wrote, "the human being seeks for the presence of mind, order, and culture (beauty), whatever may happen, wherever one is, or however means it requires. It is a necessity in life.” It is fitting then, that as an object created out of the necessity to end life, the Tsuba serves as a final testament to the simple beauty of order forged out of the depths of chaos.