Asian export sword guards are sword guards that were made across Asia, specifically with export in mind. The target audience seemed to have been mostly Japan, as the general design of most of these guards follows Japanese convention. However, the style and workmanship of these pieces is often decisively non-Japanese. We believe that most of these were made so that they could serve as gifts during trade missions to Japan, which is where the majority of them have turned up.
It probably started with ready-made guards from other cultures that were introduced into Japan by Dutch and Chinese merchants who used them as a gift to trade partners and dignitaries. At some point, maritime traders probably commissioned more exotic looking pieces, specifically for this purpose, from other ports they frequented.
An assortment of mostly Asian export sword guards.
Japanese craftsmen also started to take inspiration from imported styles, and sometimes even attempted to create entirely foreign-looking guards. Those are today known as nanban tsuba or "southern barbarian sword guards".
Among Japanese arms enthusiasts and even expert institutions like the NBTHK there is now an erroneous consensus that all foreign-looking sword guards were made by Japanese craftsmen and are thus nanban tsuba.
This is a widespread misconception, stemming from the fact that Japanese arms experts typically do not study neighboring cultures and will not recognize the workmanship of these cultures.
Centers of production
Because these items were often intentionally made to look foreign and exotic, it is often hard to determine where they were made. We know for a fact that some were made in China, Tonkin (northern Vietnam) and Sri Lanka. There was also production by Chinese craftsmen in Nagasaki Chinatown. Other possible production centers were Batavia, and probably also other port cities frequented by maritime traders.
Sub-genres of Asian export sword guards
Here presented the three main categories of Asian export sword guards, each illustrated with an example.
A. "Native guards” from other cultures that made it to Japan
Most were subsequently altered for Japanese use, some with even added expensive shakudo elements, showing that the Japanese appreciated a taste and appreciation for them.
A Chinese sword guard of the 17th century, modified for use on a katana.
Japanese modifications include alterations to the tang aperture and the addition of a hole, called hitsu-ana.
B. ”Export sword-guards”, originating outside of Japan
With clearly Japanese features, these were most likely produced with the Japanese market in mind.
Chinese sword guard signed 康煕未歳長楽交造 / 南京寓長楽交造 or
"Kangxi, year of the sheep. Made by Zhǎng Lèjiāo. / Resident of Nanjing. Made by Zhǎng Lèjiāo."
(Year of manufacture could be 1667, 1679, 1691, 1703 or 1715.)
This guard follows Japanese convention with two hitsu-ana incorporated into the design and is also aesthetically very Japanese.
If it had been left unsigned, it would undoubtedly be classified as Japanese.
C. "Kiyou-Tojin Tsuba" guards made in Nagasaki's Chinatown, by Chinese makers
A term coined by James McElhinney, based on his extensive research.2 These craftsmen were probably catering to foreign traders like the Dutch or Chinese merchants or directly to Japanese.
Asian export sword guard signed Xiànqīn (晛亲), probably a Chinese artist’s name.
Nearly identical in style and workmanship to a guard signed Zhūjiàn (珠見) or Shubai in Japanese.
Listed in Haynes H.08805.0 as an “artist from China” ca. 1650-1700.
Yoshimura Shigeta illustrates a similar piece in his book Nanban Tsuba, page 10.
The caption reads, Nagasaki-he gairaishita Chukokujin no saku or
"Said to be made by a Chinaman who came to Nagasaki"1
Fluidity of the genre
Although we have clear examples of each category to justify the division made above, piece for piece it’s not always clear to which group a specimen belongs. We are dealing with a highly complex and fluid maritime culture. Some factors to consider:
-In many cases a maker was trying to create something deliberately exotic, executing his work in a style, workmanship and sometimes even a combination of materials that was not typical for his own culture. Sometimes, the mixing of ideas resulted in designs not attributable to any one traditional culture, these are truly the product of a melting pot of ideas and cultural backgrounds.
-Some overseas craftsmen were making sword guards that were intentionally Japanese in style and workmanship, while at the same time Japanese makers started to make nanban tsuba that intentionally looked foreign and exotic as if they were made abroad.
-There were sizable communities of Chinese and Japanese in Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia (Batavia), and other places, many of whom craftspeople. Some 200.000 Japanese are believed to have left Japan in the late 16th to early 17th century who settled across Southeast Asia in so-called Japan-towns or nihonmachi. Around 1700 there were about a 100.000 Chinese working in Batavia (Jakarta). These groups may have produced guards in either their own tradition or adopted foreign or cross-over styles.
-Masterless samurai who fled Japan were known to work as mercenaries for the Dutch. In the 16th century, Chinese coasts were raided by large bands of "Japanese pirates", many also Chinese but trained in Japanese weapons and tactics and were said to use predominantly Japanese style swords. What did their equipment look like, long after they left the homeland?
-Some surprisingly foreign-looking pieces bear Japanese maker’s names, while there are also examples of very Japanese looking work signed by Chinese makers. The unsigned majority of pieces need to be judged by craftsmanship and style, which is not an easy task.
-Lastly, Japanese martial culture had a great influence on sword making of Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. As a result, some Japanese-looking guards may not have been made for a Japanese market after-all but would cater to a local market for such goods. We now put them under category 1 a. but perhaps this group justifies its own category altogether.
1. Shigeta, Yoshimura; Namban Tsuba: Yearning Design, Tokyo, 1998.
2. James L. McElhinney; Chinese carvers working in Japan during the Edo-period. Part two: Kiyou-Tojin Tsuba. Connoisseur's Notebook. 2017.
I owe much of my understanding of this genre to my collaboration with James L. McElhinney who is preparing a book on the subject. For regular updates on his research, see his Facebook page Asian Export sword guards and Nanban tsuba.
He recently wrote an excellent introduction to the subject: Symbols of Status and Artistry: Asian Export Sword Guards and Nanban Tsuba, Orientations Magazine, Volume 50, August 2019.