Yushusha Isshi, Japan
Edo period, 1800s
2.938 in x 2.625 in
In celebration of Isabel Marie Conversano Seibert by Elizabeth P. Seibert, 1997.16
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This sword guard—called a tsuba [SUE-bah]—was made by Yushusha Isshi [you-SHOO-shah EE-she] during Japan’s Edo period. At the age of 15, Isshi became part of the Goto school. When a craftsman became a part of a “school” like the Goto school, it meant that he was trained by craftsmen who had experience creating pieces in the style of the Goto family. As the official group of craftsmen to the most powerful samurai leader in Japan, the Goto family made various items that were part of a properly outfitted sword, including sword guards. Under the guidance of Goto Ichijo [GO-toe ee-CHEE-joe], who is considered the last great craftsman of the Goto family, Isshi learned the Goto family’s secrets to working with metal and helped the head of the school craft pieces for customers.
Sword guards were originally made by the same artisans who made sword blades, but by the Edo period, many of the pieces that accompanied the blade were made by a separate specialist or group of specialists. By the time these sword guards were made, Isshi had mastered the ability to work with different metals and combine them in a single object. He used an inlay technique to create this sword guard, which involves embedding a soft metal, like gold or silver, into a harder metal. His skill at working on a small scale is evident in the details seen on this sword guard.
What Inspired It
Sword guards served as both functional and decorative items. They were initially created to be hand guards that separated the blade of a sword from the handle. A sword guard prevented the warrior’s hand from sliding onto his blade as he thrust his sword forward. It also could protect his hand from an enemy’s sword .The guard also balanced the sword’s center of gravity and gave the warrior greater control over his weapon.
The Edo period (1603–1868), when this sword guard was made, was largely a time of peace. During this time sword guards became much more ornamental as opposed to functional. Artisans developed new styles of carving and inlay, and used special materials like gold, which was less practical than the iron that was used previously because it is a softer metal. The guards were often the most decorative part of a sword and reflected changes in fashion. Expensive and beautiful sword guards showed wealth and good taste. A samurai warrior often owned several sword guards and would change them, along with the other fittings, based on the occasion. He wore his sword with the guard placed at the center of his body, making it visible to others.
This sword guard is decorated with flower blossoms on one side and snowflakes on the other. Falling blossoms shown at the end of their life are often a symbol of what the Japanese call mono no aware [MOE-no no ah-WAR-ay], which means “the sadness of things.” This concept indicates a sensitivity to the fleeting nature of beauty. The short life of the blossoms has often been associated with mortality, and is sometimes thought to mirror the life of a samurai warrior. The snowflakes may be another reference to something that lasts only a short time.
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 flowers could be either plum or cherry blossoms. Both types of blossoms are significant in Japanese culture. Plum blossoms are associated with the start of spring and often serve as a protective charm against evil. They are traditionally planted in the northeast portion of a Japanese garden because that is the direction from which evil is believed to come. The Japanese eat pickled plum to prevent misfortune. The cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan. Though the blossoms are no more beautiful than those of other flowering trees, they are highly valued because they usually disappear within a week of first blooming. They are often seen as a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life and are frequently depicted in art. They are an omen of good fortune and represent love and affection.
Four single petals seem to float randomly around the blossoms. Imagine how easy it is for the slightest breeze to tear a delicate petal from a flower and carry it away. These falling petals emphasize the short life of the blossoms.
Snowflakes do appear in Japanese art, but not as often as flower blossoms. Using an inlay technique, Isshi embedded silver to create the snowflakes on this sword guard. They are similar to real snowflakes in that they all have six arms and are all unique. However, the arms of a real snowflake are all about the same length, while the arms of the snowflakes on the sword guard differ in length. This causes us to wonder: Did the artist actually examine real snowflakes when making this sword guard? We are not sure how to answer this question because although some characteristics of a real snowflake are portrayed correctly, others are not.
You can see the signature of the artist on the side with the flowers. The artist made the signature by cutting into the metal—a technique called incising. In many cases, the side with the signature is considered to be the front of the sword guard. The front faces away from the warrior carrying the sword; it is the side that others see.
The body of this sword guard is made from shibuichi [she-boo-EE-chee], which is an alloy (mixture) made of 75% copper and 25% silver. It is sometimes called “dusky silver” because it is not as shiny or bright as pure silver. If you look carefully you can see that some parts of the snowflakes and blossoms are brighter, which may mean a more pure form of silver was added to the surface of the dusky silver in these areas.
Gold is used to form the stem of the two-blossom group as well as the centers of the flowers. There are tiny gold dots that look like gold dust scattered around the flowers on one side and around the snowflakes on the other. The broken clouds on the side with the blossoms reveal a crescent moon that is also made of gold. Gold is not very durable, so seeing it here tells us that this sword guard was made to be used during times of peace, almost as a piece of jewelry, rather than as a functional hand protector.
Sword guards can be any number of shapes, but they are usually round or oval. This sword guard is not quite oval; its edge is somewhat wavy, creating four lobes or projections.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Ask students why the creator of the sword guard used symbols like Blossoms or Snowflakes. Have them create an image(s) or symbols for the seasons.
- Write about the seasons represented on the sword guard.
- 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.