An unusual Japanese dragon tsuba | Mandarin Mansion

An unusual Japanese dragon tsuba


The import of foreign sword guards like those from China into Japan through maritime trade gave rise to an entire new genre of Japanese sword guards. Usually, these were of the typical Kwanto-gata or "Canton form" of two facing dragons reaching for an object in the upper center, often a (flaming) pearl. At some point, makers started to develop variations to this theme, resulting in some rather eccentric Canton tsuba.

This example

Height & width: 82 x 76 mm
Thickness: 5 mm
Weight: 117 grams

Origin: Japan
Materials: Iron, silver, gold, copper, shakudao
Dating: Probably 18th century
Use: Has been mounted

This strange Japanese tsuba takes the Canton style another step further. Basically the only thing that was retained from the original concept are the fact that there is a dragon on either side of the tang aperture. Instead of going for a pearl, the dragons seem to be chasing one-another with one dragon actually managing to grasp one end of the bifurcated tail of the other dragon:

The dragons, with slender bodies and bifurcated tails vaguely resemble the Chinese "water dragon". The heads are curious, with a beak-like snout and manes that resemble those common on Higo work. Rare for this type of decor is that the dragons are entirely alone, and in empty space, with no other elements around them.

They are carved in high relief, risen from a roughly finished background. The dragons as well as the raised rim were crosshatched and overlaid with silver. Only the eyes are covered with gold.

It has two hitsu-ana, the kogai-hitsu-ana is plugged with shakudo, a prized alloy of copper and gold.

In the bottom of the tsuba are two small holes. Two main explanations are given for pairs of small holes in tsuba:

1. Udenuki-no-ana, mostly found on older practical guards, are believed to have been holes for a wrist lanyard.
2. Sayadome-ana or "scabbard stop holes", commonly found on mainly Satsuma mounts. These held a strap that held the sword in the scabbard. Cords used where thin, so they broke upon pulling the sword but it prevented "unnecessary drawing of the saber", an important aspect of Jigen Ryu, the prevalent swordsmanship school practiced in Satsuma.1 Presumably, during inspections, they would show who had unsheathed his sword in public.

However, with both udenuki-no-ana as sayadome-ana the holes tend to be spaced much closer together than they are on this example, so maybe we need to search for a third explanation.

There is a signature on the washer seat, unfortunately illegible to me. It would be great to find out which school produced this most unusual piece. Any tips are welcome!

€ 1500,-

Interested? Questions?

1. Markus Sesko; Koshirae - Japanese Sword Mountings. Lulu, 2012. Page 160.

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