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Japanese Traditional Craft Resource Center Category


Japanese Traditional Craft

Craft Category Metal Work
Name Higo-Tsuba

Main Production Site:Kumamoto

Higo-Tsuba is a sword-guard that was produced mainly in the Kumamoto and Yatsushiro City areas of the Higo province (Higo was a Japanese province in the former administrative divisions which lasted until late 19c since 8c. It was situated in the area now known as Kumamoto prefecture, located in the Kyushu region of southern Japan).

The tsuba is an important metal fitting between the handle and the blade of a sword. It protects the wielder’s hands from the opponent’s sword. The Higo-Tsuba possesses a beautiful pattern on iron that arises naturally from repeated welding, and boasts an open-work design that makes use of damascening techniques. With these intricate features, the Higo-Tsuba sword-guard is not only widely popular in Japan but also of high artistic value.

There were four major metalworking schools in the Higo province, namely, Hayashi, Hirata, Nishigaki and Shimizu. These Higo metalworkers produced the various housings and fittings that facilitated the use and carrying around of a Japanese sword, from the tsuba to the fuchigashira (the decorative collar of the grip and pommel) and the menuki (ornaments on the handle)such as sword-guard, pommel and decorative sword hilt.

The founder of the Hayashi school was Matashichi HAYASHI, a gunsmith who came from Owari Province (Owari was a former Japanese province. It was situated in the area now known as Aichi Prefecture, located in Chubu region, which is in the central part of Japan.) In the beginning, Matashichi worked for Kiyomasa KATO, who was the Feudal Lord of Higo from 1587 to 1611. After the Kato family was overthrown and had its territories forfeited by the Edo bakufu (the feudal Japanese government from 1600 to 1868), Matashichi worked for the Hosokawa family, which took over as the Feudal Lord of Higo from 1632 to 1871.

Matashichi was highly influenced by Owari Sukashi-Tsuba (Owari style sword-guard with decorative openwork). He also mastered the damascening technique of Katsuyoshi SHŌ AMI, who was a famous metalworker in Kyoto during the Meiji period and is well-known even today. With these influences and techniques, Matashichi created many masterpieces characterized by a brilliant tetsuiro (literally, the colour of iron, referring to an extremely dark shade of green), elaborate openwork and Nunome-zougan (a method of damascening, which involves engraving fine cuts on the base metal surface, usually iron, and driving gold or silver into the grooves. The method is so named as the grooves on the metal surface, extending both vertically and horizontally, resemble a fabric pattern. In Japanese, “nunome” refers to the pattern of fabrics. Nunome-zougan is also as Kyoto style damascening. )

With the Hosokawa family’s rule that begun in 1632, Hikozou HIRATA, the founder of the Hirata school, moved to the Yatsushiro area together with craftsmen who had been brought along by Sansai HOSOKAWA to Higo from Kokura city. The most distinctive feature of Hirata sword-guards is the use of brass and copper as well as the presence of a decorative collar around the sword guard.

Kanshirou NISHIGAKI, the founder of Nishigaki school, was an apprentice of Hikozou and initially lived in Yatsushiro city. After starting his own business, Kanshirou moved to the craftsman’s town of Kumamoto, where he developed his trade. The Nishigaki school was known for its refined and elegant works created through skillful workmanship.

The founder of Shimizu school, Jinbei SHIMIZU, was Hizokou’s nephew. After Hizokou’s death, Jinbei inherited Hizokou’s residence in Yatsushirofukuro town. Thereafter, Jinbei and his successors identified themselves as “JINGO”. The sword-guards of the Shimizu school are usually made with brass. They are boldly designed and often bear motifs of birds of prey and dragons using the Suemon-zougan damascening technique (Another damascening technique of separately engraving the crest by placing it on top of the decided pattern, before attaching it to the base metal of the sword-guard).

Aside from the 4 major schools above, there are also many other schools of Higo-Tsuba. It is believed that the different schools were influenced by each other and honed their skills amidst a culture of healthy competition. Consequently, we can see common subjects and techniques in their works that transcend the differing styles of each school.

During the Edo period, Higo sword guards were considered top brand-name products in the Samurai community, so much so that it was often said “For the best katana (Samurai swords), go to Bizen (Bizen was a former Japanese province. It was situated in the area now known as Okayama Prefecture); for the best tsuba, look to Higo. Higo-Tsuba is a world-class work of art from Yatsushiro-town and Kumamoto prefecture.

[Kumamoto prefecture-designated traditional craft]
Credits:Yatsushiro Municipal Museum - Forest of the Future Museum-

Reviewed by Mavis.C.

Materials Tamahagane(*1)、Watestu(*2)
Crafting Processes 【1】 Forging
The same steel material used to make Samurai swords is forged repeatedly.

【2】 Design
Designs are drawn on iron material with a more intense iron colour.

【3】 Engraving
Using chisels and other tools, designs are carved on the iron material in accordance with the drawings to create openwork as a finishing touch.

*1(Tamahagane)・・・Japanese steel made from iron sand or black sand.

*2(Watestu)・・・Wrought iron made using the prehistoric “Tatara(Furnace)” iron making method. Japanese steel is heated to a semi-molten state, followed by decarburizing and smithing.
History Higo-Tsuba refers to sword-guards and other metalwork that were produced mainly in the Kumamoto and Yatsushiro City areas of the Higo province since the Kanei era (1624).

There were four major schools that were representative of Higo-Tsuba metalwork. These four Higo-Tsuba schools were founded respectively by Matashichi HAYASHI in Kumamoto, Hikozou HIRATA in Yatsuhiro City, his nephew Jinbei SHIMIZU and Kanshirou NISHIGAKI, who was the disciple of Jinbei SHIMIZU.

In addition, the daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) Sansai HOSOKAWA, who employed and provided guidance to the four founders, also had a significant influence over the development of Higo-Tsuba.

Sansai was known as one of the top seven disciples of Rikyu SEN, the great tea master of Japan. A topnotch intellectual of Japan at that time, Sansai was well-versed in both teaware and weaponry. It is no exaggeration to say that no account of Higo-Tsuba is complete without Sansai HOSOKAWA. It was Sansai’s keen sense of aesthetics that made Higo sword-guards a brand of its own, back during those times.

Having overcome the sad partings with his teacher Rikyu, Oribe FURUTA, fellow tea master who was also one of Rikyu’s disciples, and Sansai’s wife Garasha, who died in 1600, Sansai settled down in Kumamoto in 1632, when he became the Feudal Lord of Higo. There he devotedhis passion to Higo-Tsuba development as the culmination of his art. For Sansai, Higo-Tsuba is "beauty of samurai", "crystal of Rikyu aesthetics", and at the same time it is a traditional graphic design that represents Japan.

◆Exhibition / Showcase
YATSUSHIRO MUNICIPAL MUSEUM - Forest of the Future Museum-
12-35 Nishimatsuejyou-machi Yatsushiro-shi Kumamoto Prf. 866-0863 JAPAN
TEL : +81-(0)965-34-5555 / FAX : +81-(0)965-33-9200 (Japanese Only)

Opening Hours : 9:00~17:00 (Admission until 4:30 p.m.)
Closed : *Mondays(If Monday is a national holiday, the museum will be open on Monday and be closed on the next day instead.)
*New Year Holidays(12/29-1/3)
*Temporary closures at the management's discretion

Admission Fees : adults - 310 yen, high school & university students - 200 yen
*Fees payable during special exhibitions will be announced separately
*Groups of 20 and more are eligible for discounted rates : adults - 240 yen, high school & university students - 160 yen
*Free admission for junior high school students and younger

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