A tsuba is the hand guard of a Japanese sword. It served several purposes. The tsuba balanced the sword. And it protected the hand of the sword holder from an attack by an enemy as well as from gliding into the sword blade. The third purpose was a more refined one. The Japanese tsuba developed into a kind of a status symbol for the sword owner.
Thus the Japanese sword tsuba became an elaborate piece of art - far beyond its practical use. During the Muromachi period (1333-1573) and the Momoyama period (1573-1603) feudal lords and powerful clans fought fierce battles against each other. Therefore the functionality of the sword tsuba was more important than its decoration. The Edo period (1603-1868) brought an uninterrupted period of 256 years of peace to Japan. Now the Japanese sword tsuba rapidly developed into a refined piece of art.
Most tsuba’s were made of iron. However a wide variety of other materials can be found as well, including 'soft metals' such as copper and its alloys (shakudo, shibuichi, brass, bronze and others); silver, gold and leather. In its simplest form a tsuba can be a plain, undecorated plate. Most however are embellished to some degree with surface texturing, cut-out openwork in positive and negative silhouette or inlay/overlay of various metals. The style of work varies with time, region and the imagination of the maker. Decorated or not, a good tsuba must first satisfy the basic demands of function. The subjects for decorations on Japanese sword tsuba were taken from religion, history, Japanese mythology and nature. Dragons and forms from nature like leaves are often to be found on Japanese tuba. Early decorations were Buddhist prayers.