Heianjo Shigeyuki, Japan
1590, Momoyama period
3 in. x 2 in.
Gift of Julie Seagraves and Richard Kimball, 1986.466
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Sometime around the year 1590, the artist who made this object, a metalsmith, chose to include a tiger lurking in a grove of bamboo into this sword guard. During this time in Japan, not all artists were allowed to sign their work. Because this artist signed his piece, we can assume that he had a certain amount of skill and was respected for his craft. The artist mastered the technique of using more than one metal and of mixing metals to get alloys that were different colors. The dark grey area on this sword guard is made of iron; a reddish gold metal is used to outline two of the holes in the sword guard; and a gold colored metal is used to emphasize the tiger’s narrow stripes, eye, and tongue. It takes knowledge and experience to understand how work with each different metal alloy. Each alloy, for example, may melt at a different temperature. Each metal alloy has different amounts of strength. Each metal is a different color and the artist was creating a small sculpture on different colors metals to delight the eye and imagination of the person who might buy and use this sword guard.
What Inspired It
The artist was probably paid to make this sword guard, or tsuba [tSOO-buh], so the inspiration would have come from both the artist and the samurai who wanted it for his sword. This tsuba is made for a katana blade, which is a long samurai sword (samurai traditionally wore two swords, the other was shorter). The purpose of a sword guard is to protect a samurai warrior’s hand from the blade of an enemy sword during battle, as well as to give the warrior’s own sword balance in his hand.
Sword guards are an important part of what might be thought of as the “clothing” of the sword (often called “sword fittings”). Often, a samurai would carry an old sword blade handed down through his family, but would “dress” the blade with new sword guards and other small details in the handle to make more fashionable. The Bamboo and Tiger sword guard balances a ferocious subject—the tiger—with the delicate details used in the animal’s fur and face. The balance between these two components mirrors that of the samurai themselves. The samurai were renowned for their ideals of faithfulness, loyalty, and dedication. A samurai was not merely a warrior; he was expected to excel in the art of civilized life as well. “Practice the arts of war on the right hand and the arts of peace on the left,” went a famous samurai saying. In addition to being skillful warriors, samurai knew poetry, calligraphy, and the intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony. The samurai who owned this sword guard probably enjoyed the skill of the artists and all the small details created in various metals.
A sword guard is part of a sword’s fittings. The fittings included the hilt (handle), the scabbard (blade cover), the tsuba (sword guard), and menuki (grip enhancers).
A diagram of a samurai sword’s fittings:
Another sword guard in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
Two examples of grip enhancers in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
The tiger is located in the bottom left corner of the sword guard. His tail curls up and to the right of the center hole. Tigers symbolized courage and power. They are not native to Japan, so artists used their imagination and drew upon what they had heard about tigers, as well as things they had seen in other artists’ images of them. The result may not be totally realistic. Try comparing this tiger to a real one.
Bamboo trunks and disproportionately large leaves fill most of the available area. Bamboo is an incredibly strong and fast-growing plant. Because bamboo can correct itself after being bent in a storm, it symbolizes the ability to weather difficult times, acting as a constant friend and warrior.
This is hole where the blade of the katana sword would fit. Because the blade must fit tightly against the sword guard, each sword guard was custom-made for a particular blade.
There are the two holes located to the side of the center hole. They fit around the handles of the samurai’s utility knife and hair pick. When the sword is inserted into its sheath, only the handle of the sword and the sword guard remain outside. On either side of the sheath there would be small pockets that held the hair pick and knife. These two tools would slip through the sword guard and their handles would sit alongside the handle of the sword.
The artist’s signature is incised beside the central hole. It is likely that this side of the sword guard is the front (the side that faces away from the samurai when he wears it) since it contains the artist’s signature, and the side that would be seen most by others, friends or enemies.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Look at the image of the Tiger or the Bamboo. The tiger represents power and invincibility. Bamboo represents strength of character. What thoughts come to mind when you think of tiger or bamboo? Have students write about a tiger or bamboo and create an illustration to explain their writing.
- Ask students why the creator of the sword guard used symbols like the Tiger or Bamboo. Have them create an image(s) of symbols that that they like or represent qualities they might see in themselves.
- Incorporate the idea of Yin Yang (harmony) in the lesson. The sword and the sword guard represent this harmonious relationship. Have students think of other ways Yin Yang is represented in everyday life.