Sword guards and other sword accessories classified as nanban ("southern barbarian") exhibit foreign designs or motifs.
Among these, signed works are scarce. The reasons are probably three-fold. Japan, at the time, was the only culture where sword parts were often signed by their maker, and many of these items were not made in Japan, or by Japanese workers, to begin with. They are what we would call "Asian export sword guards." The ones made in Japan were often copies of unsigned, foreign prototypes. And lastly, many were mass-produced goods of a quality that no maker would sign.
Here follows an overview of a few rare signed examples that help us get a handle on who produced what, and when. But let's begin with the "usual suspects": Hirado Kunishige, the Yagami carvers, Umetada, and Nagasaki Chinatown work.
1. Hirado Kunishige
By far the most famous maker of foreign-inspired styles was the Hirado-based workshop of Kunishige. The first generation Kunishige is thought to have been active around the Kyōho period, (1726-1736).1
The work was usually done in copper alloy, but shakudō and even iron examples are also known. The style of Kunishige reflects the multi-cultural mix that was Hirado. From the 16th to 18th centuries, the island was frequented by Portuguese, British, Chinese, Korean, and Dutch traders, some of whom were granted trading posts on the island. It was also known base for the Chinese pirate armies of the House of Zheng.
One of the few historical mentions of this maker is in the Sōken Kishō (装剣奇賞) of 1781, Volume 4:
"Kunishige (国重) – Signatures with the reference “Hirado-jūnin” (平戶住人, “resident of Hirado”) exist. It is also said that there exist signatures of the type “Keishi Kunishige” (京師国重, “Kunishige, old capital of Kyōto”), but more details are unknown, and it is possible that these signatures are forgeries.
Worked in brass, copper, shibuichi, and other materials. He was the first to engrave Dutch-style dragons and similar motifs. His works can be regarded first-class." 2
The dragons are, of course, Chinese style, but at the time, Dutch style was used as a blanket term to cover most things foreign.
For more information, see my glossary article: Hirado Kunishige.
Haynes H 03650.0.
1. Fukushi Shigeo; Tosogu Classroom. Volume II. Translation by Markus Sesko. Page 520.
2. Inaba Michitatsu; Sōken Kishō (装剣奇賞) of 1781. Translation by Markus Sesko.
2. The Yagami school
The Yagami (矢上) school was located in a suburb of Nagasaki. Starting in the 18th century with first-generation Mitsuhiro, his younger brother as the second generation, and his son as the 3rd generation. They worked mostly in iron which they carved expertly.
Mitsuhiro I was active circa 1750-1800.
Mitsuhiro II lived from 1748-1823.
Mitsuhiro III lived from 1800-1870.
Their designs took inspiration from Chinese dragons and art motifs. The school is famous for its designs with many monkeys, referred to by collectors as "100 monkeys," and works with hares and shrimp are also known.
Haynes H 05200.0, 05201.0, 05202.0.
Hishū Yagami ju
"Resident of Hishū, Yagami"
Below is a rare replica of a Chinese sword guard by Hattori Taira Yoshitsugu, a student of Yagami School founder Noda Mitsuhiro, and the teacher of Onitake Toshiyoshi. He faithfully copied the rectangular seppa-dai and modeled the hitsu-ana as if it was cut open as an afterthought, something that was customarily done on imported guards. Yoshitsugu was also known to have made the 100 monkeys style tsuba and also worked in the Satsuma Oda style.
Haynes H 12231.0.
Published in Joly, Soshankenshu, #189
3. Umetada armillary sphere tsuba
The Umetada school was founded in the late 16th century by Umetada Myōju (埋忠明寿). He was a leading figure in the Shintō sword movement, making blades and fittings in Kyoto. Second in this line was Umetada Tachibana Shigeyoshi, who moved to Nishijin in the north of Kyoto, where he got inspired by European designs and technology. He made several tsuba that depict clocks, European armillary spheres, and European art motifs. One armillary spheres tsuba is dated 1608.1
There is also a sword blade bearing his name and the date 1628.
Haynes H 08573.0.
1. Markus Sesko; Geneologies of tsuba makers. Page 24. The one dated 1608 came from the Henri Vever collection, who purchased it at Sotheby's in 1972. It was then in the Edward Wrangham collection and then sold at Bonhams in 2011, lot 52. Another from the Pabst collection was sold at Christies in 2007, lot 239.
"Resident of Yamashiro Nishijin"
Umetada Tachibana Shigeyoshi
4. Nagasaki Chinatown
Nagasaki was at some point home to some 20.000 Chinese, living in Nagasaki's Toujin Yashiki (唐人屋敷), literally "Tang-man Palace," or Chinatown. They were not sitting still. Signed works are rare but a few have turned up over time.
The work is usually relatively flat plates carved in low relief, with no openwork. Often there is overlay in silver and/or gold, and the execution varies from extremely fine to somewhat coarse. It are the finer ones that tend to be signed. The intended market was probably traders who went into Japan on trade or diplomatic missions, and brought these exotic-looking tsuba as suitable gifts.
James L. McElhinney; Chinese carvers working in Japan during the Edo Period. (Part 1 and 2) Connoisseur's Notebook. 2017.
Pronounced Zhūjiàn in Chinese, meaning “Pearl clam."
N.B.T.H.K. Hozon stating the artist is Chinese.
Pronounced Shèbèi in Chinese, meaning "Mussel"
Published in Fukunaga Suiken; Hizen no Katana To Tsuba, 1974. Volume 1.
Pronounced Yìngqīn in Chinese, meaning the "originator of a string of pearls."
The first character is a little worn, and could perhaps also be 唄亲, Japanese: Baioya, Chinese: Bàiqīn, meaning "chanting ancestor". Another possible reading is 睍亲, Chinese: Xiànqīn or "google-eyed ancestor". I chose 賏亲 as the most likely because all others are shell-related names.
Other signed nanban style tsuba
Here follows an overview of some other signed works encountered in this style. Many are from Hizen province, which contained the trade port of Nagasaki. The capital city of Kyoto in Yamashiro province was also a popular production center.
A treasure ship tsuba with a tiny signature on the rim of the hitsu-ana. Signed: "Hishū Kanesada", Hishū is an old name for Hizen.
Kanesada appears in the Haynes index, H 02535.0. Active circa 1800, he did classic Canton style with facing dragons and a jewel. He also did the Yagami-style 100 monkey designs.
Examples are published in the Furukawa collection, pl. 22, #122. Wakayama; Tōsō Kinkō Jiten, page 122, upper #7. Wakayama; Tōsō Kodōgu Meiji Takei, Vol. III, page 318. Ken'ichi Kokubo; Shinsen Kinkō Meikan, page 68.
Also signed "Hizen-jū Kanesada" (肥前住兼定).1
Haynes H 02535.0.
1. Markus Sesko; Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists. Page 120.
Sold by Mandarin Mansion in 2022.
Hizen, Nagasaki; Yamada Genshō
Rare all-brass Nanban style tsuba signed Kiyo noju Yamada Genshō, where Kiyo is an old name for Nagasaki. This maker is not in the standard literature, however there is mention of a Yamada Ichirohei working in Nagasaki in the second half of the 18th century.1
Not in Haynes index.
1. Okabe Kakuya; Japanese sword guards. Bostom Museum of Fine Arts. 1908. Page 55.
Metropolitan Museum, accession number 2017.737.1.
Gift of James L. McElhinney.
A small tsuba with carved dragon and foliage in low relief, without piercing. It came with a matching fuchi on this o-tanto.
Haynes H 04037.0.
Yamashiro kuni ju
"Resident of Yamashiro"
Came with a Shimosaka o-tantō, sold by Mandarin Mansion in 2022.
Yamashiro, Kyoto; Karaku Naoshige
An unusual, deeply carved piece depicting two facing dragon carp. It refers to a Chinese legend of carp swimming upstream through the mythical dragon gate and becoming a dragon. A story of reward after perseverance against incredible odds.
It is signed "Naoshige, resident of Karaku." Karaku is an area in the east of Kyoto. This maker does not appear in the standard literature.
"Resident of Karaku"
Yamashiro, Kyoto; Ichinomiya Tsunenao
Unusual copper alloy tsuba signed Tsunenao. Student of Nagatsune of the Ichinomiya school in Kyoto. Also signed Sadanaka (貞中).
The style with Western script on the rim reminds strongly of Hirado Kunishige, down to the smaller circles in the O's in the rim. It features the addition of green and red enamel, and a Western year in gold, 1759.
Haynes H 10869.0
Markus Sesko; Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists. Page 577.
Alexander Moslé collection. Published in 1909.
Bonhams 2008, lot 5141.
Yamashiro, Kyoto; Yamashina Sadayoshi
Sadayoshi was also a student of Ichinomiya Nagatsune. The following piece is clearly inspired by the tsuba above or the same template; only the Western date got lost in translation. The reverse appears to be copied directly from a Hirado Kunishige piece. It is executed in shakudō, a rarer material for this style.
Yamashina is in the north of Kyoto.
Haynes H 07905.0.
Offered on eBay, 2022.
Of unknown origin, his only known work is a set of tsuba, kozuka, wari-kogai and fuchi-kashira that was in the Behrens collection. Stylistically it is of the same school as Hirado Kunishige and the Nanban works of some of the Kyoto Ichinomiya school exponents.
Haynes H 00313.0.
Henri L. Joly; The W.L. Behrens Collection. Part III. Page 55 & plate XXIII.
W.L. Behrens Collection
Sold in London, 1912
Iron tsuba with foreign figures, and flowers, decorated with silver overlay, gold damascening, and enamel. It bears a long signature stating Ryūrinsai Tomoyasu, resident of Tokyo. A work dated 1855 is known. Haynes suspects these are 19th-century replicas of much older Nagasaki-style tsuba.
Haynes H 10166.0.
Henri L. Joly; J.C. Hawkshaw Collection. Page 22 & plate XIX.
Pauline and Martin Alexander Collection.
Sold at Sotheby's in 2014, lot 22.
Iron openwork tsuba, notable for being both signed and dated. The maker's name is Masanari and the date given corresponds to 1770 AD.
Haynes index H 04292.0. Shows a personal seal (kao), but no other information is given.
Meiwa nana tora
(7th tiger year of Meiwa)
Provenance: Bonhams, March 2015, lot 3198.
Tamagawa Yoshihisa Saku
Iron tsuba with dragons, signed Tamagawa Yoshihisa Saku. Several generations Tamagawa Yoshihisa were active, starting with the 18th-century retainer of the Daimyo of Mito. Remaining in Mito for the first few generations, the line later moved to Edo where the last Tamagawa Yoshihisa passed away in 1882. Their typical work is shakudō nanako based and so this may be a false signature.
Haynes H 11642.0 - 11646.0.
Tamagawa Yoshihisa Saku
Provenance: Aoi Japan.
Makers in the literature
Apart from the illustrated examples, some others are mentioned in the literature.
Okabe Kakuya mentions production centers in Nagasaki, Kyoto and Yedo (Edo) from the early 18th century onwards.1 Cheap, ready-made goods shiiremono were made principally at Aidzu.2
Generally speaking, we may say that the majority of tlie Namban tsuba, and particularly of the best specimens, come from Hizen in Kiushu and from Nagasaki and Hirado in particular, whilst many shiiremono and some good pieces- were produced in Yecdo, Kioto, Osaka and Sakai.2
Second half 18th century.
Signed "Hizen Nagasaki-jū Hōrinshi" (肥前長崎住鳳林子).
Late Edo, Nanban and Jakushi styles.3
Signed "Shigetsugu horu" (重次彫)
Late Edo, Nanban style. Possibly affiliated to Shigetada (重忠).
Signed "Onitake Toshiyoshi" (鬼武利吉)
Late Edo, Nanban style.
Signed "Muneharu" (宗春)
Late Edo. Nanban style.
Tanaka-Sōbei, early 19th century.2
1. Okabe Kakuya; Japanese sword guards. Bostom Museum of Fine Arts. 1908. Page 55.
2. C.R. Boxer; European influence on Japanese fittings 1543-1853. Transactions & proceedings of the Japan Society, London, Vol 28. Pages 151-178. 1931.
*. Markus Sesko; Signatures of Japanese Sword Fittings Artists.