Past Treasure of the Month – January 2008

Japanese Tsubas

During the month of January, the Rosenberg Library displayed an assortment of Japanese tsubas, or sword guards, from the museum collection. These tsubas are fashioned from iron or brass, and many are beautifully decorated with intricate silver or gold inlaid designs. The tsubas were collected by Mr. George Sealy II and were donated to the library in 1940.

A tsuba is the protective hand guard plate of a Japanese sword. The tsuba served several functional purposes. First, it kept the blade and the hilt of the sword in balance. Second, it prevented an opponent’s blade from injuring the sword holder’s hand. Third, the tsuba helped the warrior guide his weapon back into its scabbard.

Tsuba assortment

Tsubas were also means of communicating a warrior’s social status. The designs chosen often signified one’s clan, school, or belief system. Tsubas were made by skilled artisans whose sole vocation was the crafting of these sword guards. Often tsubas were lavishly ornamented and were passed down as heirlooms by one generation to the next. Sometimes a family crest was used as part of the design on a tsuba. Other motifs that appear on tsuba are animals, plants, mythological figures, or religious images.


In its simplest form, the tsuba was a plain, unadorned plate. Many tsuba were quite a bit more embellished and featured surface texturing, elaborate openwork designs, and decorative inlay or overlay. Styles were primarily determined by the time period, region, and the artist who fashioned the tsuba. The oldest tsubas date back to the 14th century Japan when fighting between feudal lords and powerful clans was a regular occurrence. Tsubas from this era were usually made of durable iron and had very basic designs. By the 19th century, however, tsubas were mainly used for personal adornment and were decorated with precious metals like gold or silver.