As the largest fitting on a Japanese sword, the sword guard or tsuba offered the designer and metalsmith a convenient area upon which to express his skill and ingenuity. The selection of tsuba on display here show a range of designs and techniques. The imagery is drawn from classical literature, folk tales, historical
events, heraldry, and the natural world. The incorporation of the design or motif with the various sizes and slightly modified shapes of the tsuba produces an interesting variety of resolutions. The use of different types of metals, including bronze, brass, copper, and silver as inlay, or the perforation of the iron base further adds to the visual impact of the examples.
The blade or tang of the sword passes through the central opening (nakago ana), which the design must accommodate. On the back side of the tsuba the artist often engraved his professional signature. On either side of the central opening are usually found smaller openings (ryohitsu), through which extend the handles of the utility knife (kodzuka) and skewer (kogai). These are found in the side pockets of the scabbard when a blade of no less than two feet in length is fully mounted as a short sword (wakazushi). If the tsuba was mounted on a long sword whose blade generally exceeded two feet (katana), the auxiliary knives were rarely used and sometimes the holes were plugged with a soft metal such as copper. Tsuba were usually designed to be mounted in matched pairs for long and short swords. Swords were normally worn thrust through a sash tied around the waist, the edge uppermost and the hilt to the fore. The principal design of the tsuba was shown to the fore, to be seen by someone facing the wearer. The tsuba design often continues on the back, which faces the blade and may thus be damaged in combat.