//, Objects/Ōnin suemon-zōgan tsuba with design of birds, plants, well, and family crests. Muromachi period.

Ōnin suemon-zōgan tsuba with design of birds, plants, well, and family crests. Muromachi period.

Iron tsuba of round form profusely decorated with brass inlay of plants, birds, well, and family crests (mon) in suemon-zōgan technique and occasional brass dots (nail-heads) or ten-zōgan. Seppa-dai and kozuka-hitsu-ana outlined with brass inaly, possibly repaired: rope-shaped wire here and there replaced with flat wire. The plate is very thin, with remnants of lacquer.

Ōnin school.

Size: 75.8 x 75.2 x 2.3 mm. Weight: 77.5 g.

On the front side (omote) motif includes the following elements (from 12 o’clock, clockwise):

  1. Water plantain (a.k.a. arrowhead, or omodaka): “a perpetual plant of the water plantain family, was also called shōgunsō (victorious army grass). Because of this martial connotation, it was a design favored for the crests of samurai families” [see: Family Crests of Japan. // Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007; p. 63].
  2. Heron (sagi): “…considered an emblem of longevity, and from China comes the practice of regarding the bird as a mount of the gods and the Taoist sennin. […] heron also reflects an inauspicious connotation, for the word sagi is homophone for ‘fraud’ and ‘false pretenses’.” [see: Merrily Baird. Symbols of Japan. Thematic motifs in art and design. // Rizzoli international publications, Inc., 2001; p. 112]. Some may say, that this is not a heron but a crane (tsuru). It’s very possible, and in this case the negative connotation is lost, but the reference to longevity and allusion to sennin remain.
  3. Pampas grass (susuki, or obana): as per Merrily Baird, p. 95 and John W. Dower, p. 66, pampas grass is one of the Seven Grasses of Autumn. When combined with flying wild gees, conveys strong autumnal mood.
  4. Plum blossom (ume): according to Merrily Baird, the flower has a vast variety of symbolic meanings, including longevity, and a reference to the Chinese Taoists. It is used in 80 family crests [see: Japanese Design Motifs: 4,260 Illustrations of Japanese Crests; Compiled by the Matsuya Piece-Goods Store; Translated by Fumie Adachi. // Dover Publications, Inc., 1972.] Plum is “celebrated for its sweet perfume, delicate blossoms, and habit of blooming at the end of winter”.
  5. Tree flying wild geese (kari): “Wild geese arrive in large flocks in southern regions during the autumn months, and following their migratory instincts, head back north in spring” [Family Crests of Japan, pp. 85-86]. “The importance of geese in Japanese art was further secured by stories of several military heroes who had achieved victory in battle when a sudden breaking of ranks by flying geese signaled an ambush. The protective role of the birds led to their frequent use in decorating sword furnishings and possibly also their adoption as a family crest motif.Finally, the goose in Asia plays a role in religious traditions” [Merrily Baird, pp.111-112].
  6. Hikiryō (line, or bar, or stripe) – a symbol which consists of one, two, or three horizontal or vertical stripes in a circle. “In wartime, Japanese generals […] surrounded their encampments with huge cloth curtains. Usually these were made of cloth sewn together horizontally and varying in color […] to distinguish the individual general and his followers. The stripe thus assumed strong martial connotations, and became a mark of identification on personal military gear as well. In the early fourteenth century  the heads of the Ashikaga and Nitta, then the two most powerful clans in Japan, both adopted stripe patterns as a family crest”. [See: Family Crests of Japan, p. 111 and John W. Dower. The elements of Japanese design – A handbook of family crests, heraldry & symbolism. // Weatherhill, New York, Tokyo, 1985, p. 144].

On the reverse (ura) motif includes the following elements (from 12 o’clock, clockwise):

  1. Hikiryō, see above.
  2. Pampas grass (susuki, or obana), see above.
  3. Bellflower (kikyo): One of the Seven Grasses of Autumn. “As a crest, it have been adopted among the warriors around the thirteenth century, primarily because of it’s beauty” [John W. Dower, p. 48].
  4. Four flying wild geese (kari), see above.
  5. Weeping willow (yanagi): “It is commonly represented with water, snow, swallows, or herons.  A branch of willow (yoshi) is one of the attributes of the Buddhist deity Senju Kannon (Thousand-Armed Kannon), who is said to use the branch to sprinkle the nectar of life contained in a vase. [Merrily Baird, pp. 66-67].
  6. Lone plum blossom in a well frame/crib (igeta, izitsu): “Well crib was one of the most popular motifs in Japanese heraldry”.  As a crest it may stay simply for the first character (i) of the family name, however, with a flower inside the well frame, and together with the other symbols present, it may aggravate the sense of autumn-ness. The ten-zōgan dots in this particular case may represent the snowflakes or autumn stars.

The beholder may imagine a high-ranking samurai resting near a river or lake after the battle. Surrounded by clusters of pampas grass, he’s watching a flock of geese flying in the skies; it is late in the autumn, and the occasional snowflakes hover around; heron is walking amidst the arrowheads, hunting for food. The last lonely plum blossom floating in a well…

According to Gary D. Murtha, this type of tsuba “could be considered as Onin or as early Heianjo work. The brass trim around kozuka hitsu-ana and the seppa-dai are characteristics of Onin work [see: Japanese sword guards. Onin – Heianjo – Yoshiro. Gary D. Murtha. GDM Publications, 2016; p. 27].


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Marc Israel Lepelletier

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