The sword required numerous accessories, but the most important, and the most visible, when the sword was held, was the hand guard - or "tsuba". The tsuba is a metal plate that can have various shapes, sizes and thicknesses. It serves to protect the hand but also indicates the sword owner's social rank.
Until the 17th century, tsubas were mainly made by armourers (kachusi) and swordsmiths (tosho). Initially, the tsubas were iron disks with a conventional geometrical or openwork design.

After the 17th century, the tsubas were made by goldsmiths and reflected a growing taste for decorative and elaborate designs and a wide variety of techniques, along with the typically Japanese fondness for miniaturization. Thus, tsubas soon became veritable jewels made from precious alloys with a radiant sheen and richly ornate surfaces.

The subjects represented on the tsubas are numerous and cover all aspects of the Japanese culture. From the myriad of depicted themes and subjects, tsubas illustrating animals are particularly sought and prized by collectors.

NATURE REPRESENTATIONS

Numerous species of animals, insects, birds and fish are represented on tsubas, either alone or in their environment; at rest or in a characteristic activity. The most recurring animals are the tiger, the monkey, the horse, the snake, the crane, the eagle, and the carp.

The monkey is one of the twelve signs of the zodiac. The only monkey species dwelling in Japan is the macaque. Other species are copied from Chinese paintings (long-armed monkeys).

The tiger, which is another animal of the zodiac, does not exist in Japan and its very conventional representations copied from Chinese paintings are more reminiscent of large cats.

The elephant, which does not exist in Japan either, was often depicted on tsubas and copied from the famous Yasuchika tsuba that commemorated the gift of a white elephant to Japan by the king of Siam in the Kioho period (1716-1735).

SYMBOLIC REPRESENTATIONS

Often, the depicted animals are symbolically associated with plants, elements, or with each other.
For instance, the deer and the maple tree symbolize autumn. Together, the crane and the pine tree symbolize longevity, and so do the crane and the turtle. This latter association originates from Taoist doctrines whose two main principles constitute the essence of the universe: the celestial principle and the earthly principle which are respectively represented by the crane and the turtle.

The monkey is often illustrated trying to catch the moon's reflection in the water. This symbolic representation depicts both stupidity and the illusion of the desire for material possessions. The carp, swimming against the current, symbolizes determination and perseverance.

In its most common representation, the tiger fears the storm and seeks protection under the delicate bamboo.

The hare is most often represented contemplating the moon. It symbolizes longevity. In western cultures, one sees a face in the moon; in the Middle East, one sees a hare preparing the elixir of life.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF FABLES AND LEGENDS

As in all other cultures, Japan is replete with fables and legends, but their value in art is greater than in other societies.

A tsuba displaying a bee attacking a monkey and, on the other side, a crab, illustrates one of the popular Japanese children's story: "Saru Kani Kassen" (The War of the Monkeys and the Crabs).

A classic process used in Japan to illustrate a complex story by a simple image consists in depicting only a few elements selected from the story's most characteristic features. What is not depicted is filled by one's culture and imagination.

REPRESENTATION OF MYTHICAL ANIMALS

Eastern folklore and mythology are rich with mythological animals which almost all belong to the Chinese folklore. In many forms of art, these animals have a considerably more important role than real animals. There are several categories of mythological animals:
Animals with an ordinary exterior aspect, but having extraordinary powers: a fox that could transform into a woman, a badger that could change into a teapot, turtles that live for thousands of years, an so on...
The animals could have extraordinary sizes and proportions, or could have more than the usual number of limbs and appendages: foxes with nine tails, monkeys with four ears, pigs with two heads...
Composite animals, inspired from Chinese lore, are the most important and include the dragon, the Ho bird, and the kirin.

The Ho, which is akin to the Western culture's Phoenix, is represented by a combination of the pheasant, the peacock and the bird of paradise. It's rich five-coloured plumage represents the five main virtues: humanity, decency, wisdom, loyalty, and love. Associated to the kiri's branches (paulownia), it symbolizes the imperial authority. In China, the Ho was the symbol of the empress and was often represented with a dragon, which was the emperor's symbol.

The dragon is the most depicted subject in all Far Eastern art in general, and on tsubas in particular. The imperial dragon has five claws, the princely dragon has four claws, while the commoner's dragon has only three claws. The dragon has many powers and is recurrently and richly depicted. It" is often represented along with the tiger. The tiger is frequently illustrated huddled in a cavern or concealing itself in a bamboo field, with the dragon appearing in clouds illuminated by lightning. Together, they symbolize the power of the elements over all earthly animals. The dragon climbing Mount Fuji symbolizes success in life.

To close on this overview of the subject, animal art in the design of tsubas is much more complex than it appears. Aside from the technical difficulties, it is an exercise in style which consists in depicting a wide variety of subjects on a tsuba which much also keep it's practical function. This art is also constrained by the technical restrictions imposed by the manner the sword must be held, so that the main subject remains concentrated on the most visible part of the guard (omote).

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