Nobuie Tsûba

By Jim Kurrasch.
from the October 1998 Nanka Token Kai Newsletter

The three best tsûba makers in history are Kaneie, Nobuie, and Umetada Myôjû. Nobuie’s rustic manliness was considered the best in the times of the samurai. Since then Kaneie has moved to the top.

Nobuie tsûba are one of the most confusing areas concerning the study of fittings. And I am even more confused about them then most people. Why is there all of this confusion? Well to start off with there was a Myochin armor maker who used the same name, and worked about the same period (end of Kôtô). He tended to sign Myochin Nobuie. There were multiple generations of the Nobuie tsûba-ko that normally signed nijimei. There were students of Nobuie who signed the same name. There were other makers who used the same name, and copied the Nobuie style. And there were numerous forgeries of these pieces. This all caused there to be a very large number of Nobuie tsûba available. Telling the good from the bad is fairly easy. But telling just who did the good pieces brings confusion (there are better things to bother with then just whom did the bad work).

One thing that currently appears to be certain is that the armor maker Nobuie (the 17th generation Myochin Master), and the tsûba maker Nobuie were separate people. There is an additional problem with this statement since many of the master Myochin armor makers occasionally made tsûba. But the shôdai tsûba-ko appears to have been involved mostly with tsûba. He is thought to have been the second son of the 18th Myochin Master Sadaie, and thus related to the armor maker Nobuie. His tsûba are much thicker then what would be expected in an armor maker’s tsûba. But they show characteristics that do lead one to believe that he came from an armor making background, such as the two fold construction, and the finish.

An example of the shôdai Nobuie tsûba owned by Mr. M. Hagihara
Approximate size 8.5 cm., (H) X 8.2 cm. (W)

On our recent trip to Japan we were able to handle and study several examples of Nobuie tsûba. Without doubt Mr. M. Hagihara owns the best. This is an example of the first generation of Nobuie and one of the finest, noblest tsûba I have ever seen. Its theme is a kebori = fine line carving of a dragon in the clouds. There are some iron bones, but not to an extreme, and the finish is yakite shitate. The first generation Nobuie is called Gamei = elegant mei, or Hanare-mei. His was probably the most copied / forged of the Nobuie tsûba.
The nidai Nobuie was of similar skills as the shôdai. His tsûba show many of the same characteristics except his mei is called futo-mei = fat signature, or katchû-mei = helmet signature. His lines are cut wider and bolder, and he has more iron bones on the mimi of his tsûba. The second Nobuie tsûba that we saw was by this man, and it was also owned by Mr. M. Hagihara. Its design is also kebori but of flowers.

An example of the nidai Nobuie tsûba owned by Mr. M. Hagihara
Approximate size 8.7 cm., (H) X 8.4 cm. (W)

There were several Nobuie deshi = students. These men appear to have worked in the Nobuie factory using the Nobuie designs, and iron. They also signed their tsûba Nobuie, and they were sold legitimately at the shop. However there are some differences in the signature. There appear to have been about seven different signatures considered to be authentic. There was also a change in signature as the master aged. And Nobuie moved around somewhat, so he may have added location names to his signature. There is a rather famous Nobuie tsûba with a kebori design of a tiger, signed Geishû jû Nobuie (Geishû is the modern Hiroshima). This is felt to have been by the nidai Nobuie. However as everything else that has questions about it.

The next tsûba that we studied was the kebori design of the tortoise shell pattern. It has been papered by both the NBTHK and the NTHK as a Nobuie tsûba. I am not sure which one. Its iron bones tend to make one think more of the nidai, than the shôdai. However the signature makes me think more of the shôdai. But as I said I am confused about Nobuie, so who am I to say anything about their kantei. An East Coast Collector owns it. Another interesting point about this tsûba is that there appears to be a sword cut into it that must have been done when it was off of the sword, possibly prior to patination.

A Nobuie tsûba owned by an East Coast Collector.
Approximate size 8.2 cm (H) X 8.0 cm. (W).

Now we get into the confusing part of Nobuie tsûba, those called by R. Haynes “Late Nobuie Tsûba”. These tsûba are the ones that most collectors will get to see, and maybe purchase. In the mid-Edô period Nobuie tsûba became well known, well respected, and very desirable. So many copies were made. There were several tsûba-ko of the mid-Edô period who took the name of Nobuie, and copied the style. Their work however as a whole just was not up to that of the shôdai or nidai. Since the early Nobuie were known to have students who legitimately signed Nobuie, and since the early Nobuie were known to travel maybe some of these pieces were made by their former students.
Sometimes the late pieces were signed with the location that they were made in. Since they were made fairly openly and honestly they are not considered to be gimei. And they can be papered! While in Japan I purchased a Nobuie tsûba for a reasonable price (and thus this article). This came with a “Kansan Sato” hako-gaki, and a Tokubetsu Hozôn paper from the NBTHK. I must make it very clear here that I am not complaining, nor am I unhappy with this deal. Actually I am very happy with it, and consider myself fortunate for having purchased this tsûba. I feel that the papers and hako-gaki were done openly and properly. As was the sale to me! Nobody represented this as work of ‘The Nobuie’. There is nothing wrong at all with what happened, however there is a great possibility that someone in the future may be burned severely by one who is less honest, or just knows less about this. So please beware.
What has happened here that “most” buyers / dealers will not realize is that Kansan Sato in his hako gaki stated that this piece was by a man in Kaga. The NBTHK after stating that the signature is “Nobuie” states in parenthesis “betsu-jin” = “another man”. And if one does not have an excellent ability to read kanji (which I do not), and maybe even if they do they will not see the ‘Kaga’ or the (betsu-jin). And that can be very expensive.

A Kansan Sato hako-gaki for a Nobuie tsûba.

The description on a Tokubetsu Hozôn paper for a Nobuie tsûba.

A Nobuie tsûba owned by the author.
7.8 cm (H) X 7.2 cm. (W) X 0.40 cm (T. by the web)
The above tsûba has a good color to it, and has some iron bones on its mimi. The rustic style is there, as well as a certain artistic balance. However it is no masterpiece. What it is an excellent copy, and a good study piece for those of us who can not afford the real thing (yet).
In the front of the Robert Hayes, LTD Auction catalog # 7, of September 25, 1983 it is stated that there were several of these artists, and they are described as the Joshû Nobuie, the Kashû Nobuie, the Akasaka Nobuie, and the Ôwari Nobuie. Since Kansan Sato stated that this was by the “Kashû Nobuie” I can have no real argument against that. But R. Haynes’ description of each smith better describes the “Akasaka Nobuie average size…. Line carvings and openwork of hatchet or other tools are used repeatedly….”. In Nihontô Kôza the photograph of the mei of the “Akasaka Nobuie” is closer to that on my tsûba. Haynes describes “Kashû Nobuie… Most are average size with line carving and small openwork.”
Nobuie tsûba number 5 is a smaller piece, but it is a bit thicker then any of the other examples here. It has good iron bones. The design is tortoise shell, like tsûba number three, but the actual cutting of each hexagon is simpler. The papered piece has another set of lines around each hexagon. I feel that it follows what R. Haynes called the “Ôwari Nobuie” style. This he described as “small sizes predominate. The iron plate is quite hard. The surface is rough with low relief carving.”
Another problem with understanding Nobuie tsûba is the “real gimei”. In late Edô a man named Nakamura wrote a book about Nobuie tsûba, and they became the rage, and of course expensive. Some of the best tsûba-ko took up making copies of them. These are considered to be out right fakes. They were made to be confused with the real tsûba, and sold as that. Some of the tsûba-ko who did this was Ishiguro Masayoshi, Naokatsu, and some Myôchin. Probably the best at this was Iwata Norisuke especially the nidai.

A unpapered tsûba signed Nobuie.
6.7 cm. (H) X 6.3 cm. (W) X 0.43 cm. (T by the web)
After studying this subject about all that I can say that if any of you now go out and pay full price for an unpapered Nobuie tsûba you are a braver man than I. The only tsûba that I would feel confidence in buying unpapered was the first example. When looking at it I had the feeling of excellence that I seldom feel.