Owari Nobuie

period:Muromachi/Momoyama (ca. 1580)
designation:NBTHK Tokubetsu Hozon Tosogu
dimensions:7.95 x 7.45 cm
raised mimi:6.25 mm
thickness:3 mm
price:$18,500 $15,000 reduced!

It's clear that there has been a need for sword fittings ever since there were swords. But it's not until the end of the Koto period that we start to have names of makers and schools that we can really put our finger on, and single out as individuals from the anonymous craftsmen of the past.

In the Muromachi period, probably the three individuals who come out of the darkness first are Nobuie in Kiyusu of Owari province, Kaneie in Kyoto of Yamashiro province and Goto Yujo also in Kyoto. Others include Hoan and Yamakichibei. The first two were tsuba makers working in iron, and of course the Goto school has its roots in the small fittings in soft metal that Goto Yujo made.

Nobuie and Kaneie together are considered the top two makers of iron tsuba of all time. While soft metal fittings would go on to become extremely sophisticated in appearance, iron tsuba reached their height in the Momoyama period with these two makers. Possibly because the material and the aesthetic and mentality of the time are all in perfect harmony. Today their work is still held in very high regard by lovers of iron tsuba. The work of Nobuie has been ranked Juyo 48 times, Tokubetsu Juyo 4 times, and there is one Juyo Bunkazai as well as Juyo Bijutsuhin tsuba that exist. Kaneie has 16 tsuba at Juyo, 4 of which are Tokuju, and another four Juyo Bunkazai as well as some Juyo Bijutsuhin. Their work is not common to find, especially signed, and these rankings speak for themselves. Price tags on these kinds of items have been known to go into six figures.

The allure of these pieces is in the quality of the iron, the patina they take on and how they respond to age. The shapes to the uneducated eye may seem to be slightly rustic but this was the intent of the makers. This belies a sophistication and detail in the construction which is easily overlooked. We see similar approaches in the manufacture of items for the tea ceremony, where the great artworks in this field approach the viewer with a dignified humility rather than a regal presence. The complexity of the work is a puzzle for the viewer or student to unravel, and it was made to the tastes of the warrior elite of this era who were part of sweeping changes in the political landscape. Basically, these were serious items, for very serious men who were dealing with large scale death on a daily basis. By its nature then these works needed to retain some kind of grounding and not reach for an effete perfection, but to stay true to the principles of a warrior.

Nobuie worked for Oda Nobunaga initially, who is the first of the three major warlords (the others being Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu) who was involved in the unification of Japan. There is a picture that was made of these three warlords that is a metaphor. It's based on an old saying, that Nobunaga pounds the rice cake, Hideyoshi kneads it, and Ieyasu eats it. This relates to their roles, where Nobunaga did the lion's share of the unification work in waging war and defeating daimyo, but died by seppuku when he was betrayed by one of his generals, before the task was complete. Hideyoshi took over what he started and finished the job but died very soon after. When sides were taken amongst the regents he left for his young son, Tokugawa Ieyasu rose to prominence and won what was basically a short civil war which then ushered in the Edo period.

Nobuie was succeeded most likely by his son and second generation, though there is some disagreement about this. The NBTHK does not try to assign generations as a result, but they do tend to classify the signatures into groups, “Hanare-mei” because the characters are a bit separated and “Futoji-mei” which is a powerfully chiseled mei and aligns with what is thought to be the second generation. The first generation is likely peaking in his work around 1570 and the second generation after this into the Momoyama period.

During Nobunaga's conquest of Japan, the eventual inheritor of his mantle, Hideyoshi, rose from the peasant class to become one of his top generals. After Nobunaga's death, Hideyoshi took power and completed the first unification of Japan. One of the changes he instituted was the establishment of the samurai class and their sole right to bear katana, and went about collecting swords from the general populace (using an excuse that the iron was required to make a great statue of the Buddha). Nobunaga and Hideyoshi both were great admirers of the Soshu tradition, and at this time too the Honami rose to prominence as Honami Kotoku worked for them both in sorting out the best Soshu blades by Go Yoshihiro and Masamune. The tradition of the Three Great Smiths of Japan (Masamune, Go, and Awataguchi Yoshimitsu) comes from the time of Hideyoshi's reign.


Hideyoshi's Mausoleum (with Kiri mon)

Hideyoshi never gained the title of Shogun, but he was pronounced Imperial Regent (Kampaku) of Emperor Ogimachi and Emperor Go-Yozei. In older times this position was the real power behind the throne, with the Emperor being a figurehead, and with Hideyoshi's rise to power this came true again. After he conquered the last few provinces in Japan that were not under Nobunaga's rule, a period of peace and prosperity quickly came in and Momoyama culture flourished. When he died in 15980 he wrote a death poem which reads:

My life came like dew
and vanishes like dew
All of Naniwa
was a dream of a dream

It refers to his humble beginnings and implies that his death brings him back to the humble origin. Life coming like dew in the early morning, to vanish under the sunlight and not even last for a day is a statement of the briefness of our existence. Naniwa was the capital he built capital, which is now Osaka city. And he says it too is ephemeral: all the riches and power and majesty he collected there were impermanent. They were wondrous but ultimately insubstantial in the face of time.

When Hideyoshi died, and his son's regents fell out and began a civil war. The victor of course was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who capped things off by a siege of Osaka castle. During this time, many of the great swords that Hideyoshi had collected were damaged in fire. After Ieyasu's victory and Hideyoshi's death poem being made true, these great swords were carted off to Ieyasu's center of power, Edo. They never arrived there however, due to some bad omens foreseen by a priest. Instead they went to the Kishu Tokugawa branch and afterwards Echizen Yasutsugu worked hard at re-tempering them. Even today these blades remain famous and are many of the blades in the Kyoho Meibutsu Cho, some of which are now National Treasures of Japan.

Owari Nobuie Tsuba

This tsuba is the work of the first generation Nobuie and shows the Hanare-mei that is associated with him. This puts the date around 1570, plus or minus some years. The shape is mokko-gata in one of his typical styles, and the design is of various family mon.

On the signature side at the top is the kiri mon of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and directly to the left is the Kiku mon of the Emperor. To the right I can't quite make it out. But under this flanking on both sides is the Mitsudomoe mon (three comma shapes) which is became associated with Hachiman, the god of war and is found on shrines to Hachiman throughout Japan. These mon repeat on both sides, with some additional Kiku on the ura.


In later years the Kiri mon was in use by many families but at the time of Hideyoshi's supremacy, this was his mon. His as well has an extra set of blossoms. So I think from this we can also understand that this is work done during the time of Hideyoshi, after Nobunaga and before Ieyasu's rise to power after Hideyoshi's death. The fact that the Hideyoshi's mon is shown superior to that of the Emperor also indicates I think a statement of de-facto power and illustrates he was in control of Japan at the time of its manufacture. This would have been someone in his circle who was entitled to wear his mon, I wouldn't dare to presume it was Hideyoshi's but it was likely one of his retainers who wore this tsuba.

There are additional varieties of these mons as you go around the cicle on this tsuba. The Kiri mon on front is circled, and the first Kiku mon is circled, but after that the circles as missing. So they may be references to Hideyoshi and the Emperor directly and then the others lower ranked vassals. Some additional flowers are in here, maybe balloon flowers and periwinkle but it would need more study to determine. So we have some hints at the overall meaning but it will require a true student in this subject to study this one over the long haul and see if there are any secrets to unlock.

The flip side of the tsuba bears the number 62, and I can't guess at this point what this means.

The mei is clearly that of the first generation Nobuie, but the second character has seen a bit of damage, which is unfortunate. The tsuba has obtained Tokubetsu Hozon papers from the NBTHK which validate the signature and set it amongst the legitimate great work of the first generation Nobuie. Iron tsuba naturally degrade with time due to what the material is, and the bit of fading of the detail we see in old iron tsuba, is in keeping with the spirit of of their times.

For a serious tsuba enthusiast, this is a good opportunity to acquire a rare authorized work of one of the very top fittings makers of all time, and a great historical artifact that connects to the days of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. With the historical setting in mind and the death of Hideyoshi illustrating a desire to connect to simplicity and humility even at the very pinnacle of power, we can see that the form and tradition of these Muromachi tsuba were very much in keeping with the warrior mindset of the Sengoku Jidai. As such when we view something like this, these are the thoughts that we should be having, of the vast struggles and hard men fighting. Of a peasant warrior rising to general, conquering and ruling the country, and having the Emperor as his guest. And in dying, letting it go and calling all of it just a dream.

For more information on Nobuie, I refer you to Markus Sesko's blog entry on Nobuie. Of particular interest is the Nobuie at the end featuring water wheels and skulls, with Kano Natsuo (the greatest soft metal worker of all time) adding gold plugs and signing them. This shows well I think the respect in which he was held.