It has been determined that a great many sword guards were produced outside of Japan and imported by Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese merchant mariners, making it improper to label them Japanese. They were produced in places such as Thailand, Vietnam and China, where Japanese swords were highly prized, and often imitated. With correct study, one can easily notice the difference from Japanese copies. Therefore, let those known to be exports be identified as Asian Sword Guards.

The ASIAN SWORD GUARD group are those produced in China, India, and Monsoon Asia, and imported from the end of the 16th century for Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese merchants; primarily for use as art objects, business and diplomatic gifts.
The terms that could be used for guards that can be assigned to a specific location are:
Mandarin: pronounced hushou or pan hushou. Pan = plate. Hu = to guard. Shou = hand.
Cantonese: pronounced wusau.
Vietnamese: pronounced ho thu.
Kiyou Tojin: Sword guards made by Chinese artists in Nagasaki.
In all other instances it makes perfect sense that foreign-made sword-guards formerly known as 'Nanban tsuba' be reclassified as 'Asian Export sword guards'. Because 'Nanban tsuba' is a term that would only have been known to Japanese makers, let it apply exclusively to their work.

Further Notes:
'Kanton' is a corruption of Gunagzhou, China's largest seaport. In the first ten years after the opening of Chinese maritime trade by the Kangxi emperor in 1684, hundreds of Chinese 'Tosen' merchant ships arrived at Nagasaki. The Chinese inhabiting Nagasaki's 'Tojin Yashiki' (Chinatown) grew to almost 10% of the city's population, versus a dozen Dutchmen living on Deshima. The term 'Kanton' may refer to the Qing merchants who first imported sword guards to Japan. The Dutch were known to have used tsuba as gifts in their dealings with the Japanese. They are also known to have purchased gifts from the Chinese in Nagasaki in years when no ships arrived from Batavia (Jakarta).

KIYOU-TOJIN   $1800.00

"Large rectangular sword guard. Iron with gold wire inlay. The manner of execution represents a high degree of artistic hybridity, suggesting that this piece was made along maritime trade- routes, where artisans had access to decorative arts from around the globe. The indented corners, pointed Shitogi-gata seppa-dai, smooth- skinned dragons and almost caricature drawing- style points to Indochina, perhaps Tonkin. In his book Nanban Tsuba, Yoshimura Shigeta illustrates a similar piece on page 10. The caption reads, “Nagasaki-he gairai-shita Chukokujin no saku…” (Made by a Chinese person who came into Nagasaki)." (J. McElhinney)
8.15cm x 7.50cm x 0.40cm

"A Chinese guard, possibly made in Nagasaki by Chinese carvers for the Chinese market, or for the Dutch gift and Japanese Rangaku-Omiyage market. The rectangular shape of seppa-dai confirms early to middle Qing in Sino-Tibetan style for use with Chinese tang. This dates to ca. 1750. At a later date, the Higo-style punch marks could have been done in Higo when adapted to Japanese use." (E. Long)
6.90cm x 7.65cm x 0.45cm

"A well-hammered iron plate with a dark chocolate patina and decorated with a pair of phoenixes. The very thin plate and rich patina suggest considerable age. Made in China during the Ming period, ca 1600 or earlier. Upon arriving in Hizen, adapted to Japanese use.
On the omote face are very artistic representations of two fenghuang (phoenix). One of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, the phoenix is a Chinese symbol of honesty, as well as physical and moral fortitude. From the Jiaqing era (1522–66) of the Qing dynasty onwards, a pair of phoenixes was differentiated by the tail feathers of the two birds, typically together forming a closed circle pattern—the male identified by an ood number of long serrated tail feathers (odd number being a masculine, or yang number) and the female by what appears to be an even number curling or tendrilled tail feathers (even number being feminine, or yin number).
On the ura appears six seal script figures, an archaic form of Chinese. Usually these inscriptions are prayers or axioms of some kind." (E. Long)
9.40cm x 9.30cm x 0.25cm

"Round iron plate with very fine silver nunome zogan of two PiXiu - a mythological Indochinese creature. In Indochina (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) they have leonine heads with long forelocks. These represent the great Naga King of the Eastern Sea, master of storms and all things marine. On the reverse are various Indochinese symbols all done in very fine silver inlay. The entire motif is not Japanese, but based on the nakago-ana, hitsu-ana and pipe-like circular (chukushiki dote mimi) rim, this was produced in Hizen.
Accompanied with NBTHK Hozon Certificate dated Nov. 23rd, 1962." (E. Long)
7.85cm x 8.0cm x 0.65cm (rim), 0.35cm (seppa)

SOLD - Reference Only
"Design motif of two herons is from ceramic origin. The top and bottom symbols are perhaps very stylized 'tama' jewels or lotus buds. The seppa-dai is of a shape that is neither Chinese or Japanese. Silver nunome on the edge of the seppa-dai, very faint. The hitsu is a later addition upon its arrival in Japan. Momoyama age, ca.1600." (E. Long)
7.60cm x 7.65cm x 0.55cm

KANTON    $1300.00  

Iron guard carved in a Sino-Tibetan style. Two water dragons chasing a flaming jewel set in a tangle of interwoven tendrils representing waves. This design originates in ancient Mesopotamia. A stylized Qunshan (mountain peak) appears at the bottom of the design which paired with the wave design represents the protection of the people by the emperor. The highlights of gold inlay on the crosshatched areas is very well done.
7.10cm x 7.00cm x 0.4cm

Chinese QING Style   Guard   $700.00
"A Qianlong style iron guard, finely carved in openwork, with traces of gold false damascening. The floral/foliate decoration is inspired by Tibetan and Central Asian saddle plates or Monsoon Asian textiles. This is clearly not Japanese. The mythological creature on the right side with its pointed forelock is reminiscent of the Mekong Phayanak. The other three creatures appear to have wings and tail feathers.
The condition of this guard is excellent and shows that it was adapted to Japanese use. The highlights of gold inlay on the crosshatched areas is very well done.
An exceptional handguard of great quality." (E. Long)
7.50cm x 7.80cm x 0.50cm

QING   Guard   Reference Only
"Qing guard employing design tropes found on Qing imperial dragon-robes. The web is a tangled openwork of interlacing tendrils that represent moving water. The topic of the design is the carp becoming a dragon by leaping over the dragon gate on the Yellow River in China, signifying accomplishment.
The gold inlay is intact and in finely worked nunome zogan. The rim is rounded (maru mimi). The hitsu-ana and sekigane were added when adapted to Japanese use." (E. Long)
7.65cm x 7.75cm x 0.70cm

QING Dynasty    $1400.00  

A Qianlong style iron guard, finely carved in openwork, with traces of gold false damascening. The floral/foliate decoration is inspired by Tibetan and Central Asian saddle plates or Monsoon Asian textiles. This is clearly not Japanese. The mythological creature in the lowest part with its pointed forelock is reminiscent of the Mekong Phayanak - river serpent.
7.50cm x 7.80cm x 0.50cm

CHINESE-QING    $2000.00  

A Qianlong style iron guard, finely carved in openwork.
The seppa-dai identifies the area of manufacturer.
The inner rim has design of a key or fret pattern.
The shape of the seppa-dai reminds one of an hour glass. Compare with the shape of Hosodachi guards, so-called shitogi-gata, from the Heian period. Obviously it copies a mainland (Sino-Korean) prototype that predated the development of the common discord guard we see today.
The condition of this guard is excellent and shows that it was adapted to Japanese use.
7.50cm x 7.80cm x 0.50cm

"Imported Sino-Tibetan style Qing tsuba of iron with gold highlights. Incredible complex design of dragon-koi's or 'chilong' swimming in turbulent water, rendered as loukong interlacing. The dragon-koi represents the excercise of positive force. Legend has it that when the koi swimming upstream overcomes a waterfall, it becomes a dragon. These creatures are rendered at the moment of transformation, an inspiration to those after some kind of loss, or in a period of transition. The surface decoration of lotus blossom, flaming jewel on top and pagoda on the bottom are for visual appeal.
The rectangular shape of the seppa-dai is to be expected on Qing guards. The carving crosses over and under and the kogai & kozuka hitsu-ana are original to the piece. The rim is gilt beading and majority of the gold remains." (E. Long)
6.6cm x 7.0cm x 0.35cm

CHINESE   Sword Guard   $750.00
"Rounded square iron guard with very thick and heavy rim. The shape might allow us to date it to early Qing period (1644-1700) during which this shape was popular. The design consists of paired chilong (water dragon) in openwork tendrils at top and bottom, and two peculiar features located at both sides. The two features could represent ritual objects used in tantric Buddhism. Just under the thick rim appears gold inlay on a variation of the double rim found on some early imperial Qing saber guards. The copper sekagane confirms being adjusted for Japanese use." (E. Long)
6.6cm x 7.0cm x 0.5cm

CHINESE CAST GUARD     Reference Only
"A cast iron guard of Chinese origin. The broken areas and missing bat head indicate the iron being very brittle. The casting line can still be seen on the inside confirming it’s made of cast iron. The rendition of the bats is rather Chinese in form, in a way you also see them on porcelain of the 18th and 19th centuries. The bat is a symbol for luck in Chinese, both being pronounced “fu” in standard Mandarin. The fact that it’s cast is quite unusual. Generally, in China as in Japan, guards tend to be forged." (E. Long)
6.85cm x 7.20cm x 0.55cm

"There are two indications that point to Indochinese origins for this guard. The first are the serpentine dragons, similar to Mekong Phayanak, or protector river-serpent. The second are the lotus flower buds at the top and bottom of the design. The "Loukong" interlacing shows loyalty to the taste of the Qianlong court. Unlike many Chinese guards, it is formed not by carving but by drilling holes through the plate, heating the metal and bending it. The interpretation of the mythical beasts is almost childish, having a folk-art feeling, unlike the kind of obsessive workmanship one finds in Japanese "Kanton" guards. The hitsu-ana are impractical, added to give the piece a Japanese flavor." (E. Long)
7.10cm x 7.00cm x 0.40cm

VIETNAMESE or HEIANJO    $2000.00  

Here is a stunning guard that would immediately be classified as "Heianjo tsuba". But what if we had comparables from elsewhere? History relates that from 1635 to 1853 Japan was a closed country with one way in and out - Nagasaki - and there, only by Dutch proxies, in their dockside confinement of Dejima. Not realistic.
Satsuma traded with the nearby counties via the Ryukyus. Hirado continued to trade with Joseon. There was a large nihonmachi at Hoi An, Vietnam, and others scattered across Monsoon Asia. After 1684 Chinese merchants flooded Nagasaki. Within a few decades the Toujin-Yashiki (chinatown) was home to 10% of the population.
This guard could very well be Vietnamese. Please note the photo by Peter Dekker of Tromp's Weapons Rack at the Rijksmuseum. Those Japanese-style swords were produced in Tonkin ca. 1660-1680.
8.22cm x 8.22cm x 0.48cm

VIETNAMESE    $700.00  

Early Vietnamese/Southern Chinese guard in Ming style. The subject of foliate designs appears on the verso, while four lotus flowers appear on the recto. The floral motif appears to have been inspired by textile designs. The design of four lotus flowers confirm that this is not a Japanese tsuba. Four of anything in Japanese is 'chi', meaning 'death'. The rendering of the imagery is bold and the execution is excellent. All inlay is done in silver of which a fair amount is missing due to age. The hitsu-ana appears to have been added at a later date.
7.95cm x 8.00cm x 0.35cm

MONSOON-ASIAN   Sword Guard    $800.00
"Iron sword guard with traces of gold and silver inlay of symbols and Chinese characters. Unusual pointed, octagonal seppa-dai. Lead-filled hitsu-ana are a later addition, not integral to the design. The thin plate has a rich patina suggesting significant age, late Muromachi period. This seems to be the work of a Monsoon Asian metalworker adapting Japanese design to local weapons production. This is a very interesting piece for several reasons. The shape is almost perfectly round. The excavated areas are not finished with the same care as the inlayed surfaces have been. Cross-hatching covers the pointed octagonal seppa-dai and dominant ring of designs around it. It is possible that the lower areas were carved out roughly to accommodate possibly enameling, which is now lost, along with much of the inlay." (E. Long)
8.79cm x 8.74cm x 0.35cm

MONSOON-ASIAN   Sword Guard    Study Piece
"Minor traces of a Celadon shade of green lacquer appears in negative spaces. This technique, which filled the negative spaces carved out of the plate, is known as 'champleve' (lifted field). Basically, fusing the color to the base metal with heat. This guard is clearly not of Japanese origin, but has been adapted to Japanese use, the hitsu-ana and shakudo fukurin were later additions. Vestiges of gold and silver inlay appear both sides.
Iron is an inferior substrate for enameling. Hirata Donin is said to have learned enameling from Koreans, some say in Hirado. Hirado also traded with Korea well into the Edo period." (E. Long)
7.80cm x 7.30cm x 0.40cm

SOUTH-ASIAN   Sword Guard    $900.00
"Champleve sword-guard of iron originating in Southern Asia.
The technique of filling negative spaces carved into the solid plate, is known as "champleve". It seems that the negative spaces were never filled with colored vitreous enamel. The level figures left after carving the recesses are representations of seal script, an archaic form of Chinese. Usually these inscriptions are prayers or axioms of some kind. These have very fine inlay of gold. The opposite face is completely blank and smooth.
This guard is not of Japanese origin but was later adapted to Japanese use. The original tang-aperture is too wide for a sword tang, and with the washer-seat being almost round, indicating that it was probably first mounted on a polearm. When it was fitted with sekigane, the hitsu-ana were added. And later yet the hitsu-ana were filled with shakudo plugs." (E. Long)
8.00cm x 8.00cm x 0.35cm

MING   Sword Guard   SOLD
"Iron Asian Export-style sword-guard. Dote-mimi, with Taoist symbols executed in taka-bori on ishime-ji. The ura is identical to the omote. Almost circular form, raised rim and distribution of designs is reminiscent of Chinese mirrors. The presence of Taoist symbols alone should lead one to question the assumption that this piece might be Japanese. The elliptical formation of the seppa-dai might lead one to believe this is Japanese, but one must bear in mind that other countries, notably Vietnam, produced sword handles with oval cross-sections. In all likelihood this guard was produced in China, or one of these foreign enclaves. Seems to date to early pre-1640. The piece was awarded a Tokubetsu Kicho paper by the NBTHK in 1974, with an attribution as Nanban." (E. Long)
7.99cm x 7.98cm x 0.56cm


"A small copper sword guard with Daoist symbols on both sides.

On one side are representations of the 'Eight Trigrams' of the I-ching, known in China as 'bagua'. This is one of the oldest classical texts, believed to have been written in the Western Zhou of the 8th to 10th century B.C. The trigrams symbolize eight changing states in the world through Yin and Yang.

On the other side are very artistic representations of two Roosters (fenghuang). One of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac, the Rooster (or Phoenix) is a Chinese symbol of honesty, as well as physical and moral fortitude. From the Jiaqing era (1522–66) of the Qing dynasty onwards, a pair of phoenixes was differentiated by the tail feathers of the two birds, typically together forming a closed circle pattern—the male identified by five long serrated tail feathers or "filaments" (five being an odd, masculine, or yang number) and the female by what sometimes appears to be one but is in fact usually two (an even number) curling or tendrilled tail feathers (even number being feminine, or yin number)." (E. Long)
4.60cm x 5.00cm x 0.30cm

"Originally cast by Chinese mirror makers possibly dating to the Muromachi period, 1336-1573. Chinese design of two dragons chasing the flaming jewel on the face and the representation of the five mountains of China with two representations of animals. Traveled from China by way of Korea to Hirado being a trading port for Korean goods. After arriving in Hirado, the tang aperture was modified to fit a Japanese katana and the hitsu ana with pillows were added." (E. Long)
7.90cm x 7.60cm x 0.50cm

"Subject of dragons chasing jewels (tama) in waves and clouds. Copper (Suaka) Usuniku-bori (sunken relief) with Katakiri-bor (direct line engraving). The rim is decorated in katakir-bori in a Greek key-pattern. Signed "Hirado no ju Kunishige" (H 03650.0). Many small tsuba of this kind were produced on the island of Hirado as shiiremono (ready-made goods) used as business gifts or status symbols. Japanese physicians are said to have worn Nanban tsuba as a way of proclaiming their possession of Rangaku (Hollander learning); Western science and medicine. There appears to be more than one generation signing "Kunishige". The shodai (first generation)may have been a designer, metalworker or both. This piece combines Chinese and European design elements with Japanese workmanship." (E. Long)
7.2cm x 6.9cm

Excerpts from 'Nanban Tsuba and Asian Export Sword Guards' by
James Lancel McElhinney.


The term ‘nanban’ used in relation to swords and fittings, gave certifying entities a facile way out of a difficult conundrum, which was how to classify something about which they had too little information to make a well-informed attribution. ‘Nanban’ meant ‘unknown foreign sword-guard maker, or unknown tsubako working in foreign style’.

In 1987 Ogawa redefined the group, introducing a radical simplification and several defining characteristics. The presence of 'Nanban tetsu' is irrelevant. It may or may not be a costituent of some of the tsuba in this group, but there is no reliable way of identifying its presence. The definition of the group is based upon the presence of some of these characteristics;
- undercut scrollwork, which may incorporate dragons with the tama jewel or other creatures;
- they are almost always of iron;
-gold nunome or overlay is a frequent feature;
- hitsu-ana are a later modification;
- many have decorative seppa-dai, although these may appear on tsuba as an example of Nanban influence;
- decorative mimi are common;
- tsuba of this group are very rarely inscribed.

Consider this.....It is very likely that the term "Nanban tsuba" is going to be retired. Aside from its derogatory meaning, it is too vague a term to mean anything specific and thus is mostly useless. Current research has now been able to identify guards made in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, Nagasaki by Chinese carvers, and of course tsuba made in Japan styled or inspired by Asian Exports. Research has also re-established Joly's connection between "Kanton" tsuba and Tibetan saddle plates. What he did not know, and researchers do, is what changes in Qing military regulations affected tsuba design. Researchers are prepared to argue that there is no such thing as "Nanban tsuba", and that the term seems not to have been used in reference to sword fittings until the 20th century.


Enjoy this excellant article about Nanban Trade.

An excellant paper about The Iron and The Style of Nanban written by Henri L. Joly

Read about Foreign Influence from 'Jaspanese Sword Mounts' by Helen C. Gunsaulus.

Picture gallery of Excellant Nanban Tsuba for study and appreciation.

Accompanied by a Hozon certificate number 447408, issued by the N.B.T.H.K., dated Heisei 17 (2005).
"Edo period, ca. 1700. Tetsu-ji with decoration of uri zu (gourd). Patina is in great original condition. A excellant example of technique: nada-kakugata, sukidashibori, kin-gin nunome zogan, Sukinokoshi dote-mimi, Ryo hitsu ana (shakudo ume). This piece can be considered nearly top quality making it an excellant example of Nanban tsuba in Asian Export style." (E. Long)
8.0cm x 7.8cm x 4mm, nakago size: 2.8cm x 9mm.

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