This is just a rather general introduction to the symbolism of these tsuba, as I understand it, based on a number of years of desultory research and mulling it over. The illustrations are drawings I did to illustrate a few of the more significant motifs – photos can be found here and there, but there is surprisingly little on the web. Mind you, determined searching has turned up some quite interesting examples.
Symbolism in classical martial arts falls into several categories – when interpreting these symbols we should bear in mind that a number of different interpretations may be plausible, and some of these may be what the symbol was originally intended to convey. Others may be ‘correct’ in that they represent the present teachings of the school (though whether these are still close to the art as it was practiced several hundreds of years ago is not always easy to ascertain), or they may represent concepts or metaphors that are entirely accurate and consistent with the teachings of the schools but are the result of personal insight on the part of the instructor, and were not necessarily passed on from previous generations. Then there are guesses. Some of these may be very good, but some of them may be way off.
Yagyu tsuba incorporate a number of motifs which are familiar to those involved in the martial arts and which relate to the principles of Yagyu heiho. Many of the designs include a combination of symbols in a single image – the symbolism may be composite, or it may contain references which are not apparent to those unfamiliar with the teachings of the ryu. Some of these may be interpreted broadly, but, of course, someone who has undergone extensive training in the Yagyu tradition is likely to have a more subtle understanding of the concept as it is embodied in the ryu. I believe that some of the symbolism operates on several levels, so even a relative beginner in the style may be able to associate certain motifs with the names of kata or techniques, but an advanced practitioner will be able to attach a deeper meaning to the same design.
Categorising the motifs
The designs can be categorised in several different ways – some of the names appear to relate directly to names of kata or concepts which are mentioned in writings of the Yagyu family, while for others I can find no direct written references, but seem connected to concepts that are important in Yagyu heiho. Some of the motifs seem quite obvious at first glance, while others are more abstract, either in terms of the conection to heiho, or in the design itself. Finally, there are those which are merely illustrative.
Another way of looking at the designs is to consider the degree to which the treatment of the motif is related to its meaning. For example, is the way bamboo depicted telling us anything important with regard to heiho, other than the fact of it being bamboo? I believe that the answer is yes in some cases – the repetition of the sinuous line in the water motifs is repeated in well ropes clouds and cords – it is tempting to believe that this has something of the quality of movement employed in Yagyu swordsmanship. Other designs have a symmetry that conveys force and balance…. very different from the wave designs, but perhaps also illustrative of imporant atributes in swordsmanship. Some of the more decorative tsuba from other schools also depict water, waves,bamboo and any number of motifs, but in none of them do I have the feeling that they are connected in any way to swordsmanship beyond the choice of motif itself.
I have never heard any reliable estimate of the total number that exist – I have seen something like fifty or more different designs, and I am sure there are more.
What do they mean?
Perhaps the most distinctive motif is water. This recurs in a number of different designs, but in each, sinuous ripples and waves fill the tsuba We can imagine Renyasai discussing the design and saying, “Yes, it should be like this.” In terms of heiho, this may relate to the relationship between a swordsman and his opponent, where the superior swordsman, with no pre-planned strategy, responds naturally to the moves of his opponent, slipping into the gaps that appear in his opponent:s defense, flowing around his attacks, filling the empty spaces, just as water does. Though water may not have its own shape, it does have a characteristic movement, and this is what is depicted.
The water motif is perhaps most commonly depicted in ‘The moon in the water’ (suigetsu), which is well known through its connections with Zen Buddhism，although it has older antecedents and connections to other schools of Buddhism and the Confucianism of Chu Hsi. Even outside its martial context you can see different interpretations, depending on what aspect of the relationship between the moon and its relection are being highlighted. I have seen it discussed as referring to the aim in Yagyu swordsmanship of reflecting the opponent’s movements in the same way that water reflects the image of the moon: that is, akind of melding with the opponent’s movement without the intervention of the conscious mind. This interpretation usually lays stress on the calmness of the water as a pre-requisite for accurately reflecting the image of the moon. Similarly, it is said, the swordsman’s mind must be calm. Interestingly, the water in Renyasai’s tsuba is anything but calm, having the same sinuous lines as in his other designs. This reinforces my feelings about the quality of movement that is required, but also makes me think that the specifics of ‘the moon in the water’ are not so easily explained.
Even within the Yagyu school, we can see there are different explanations for suigetsu, and without being personally taught, I think it is difficult to appreciate the precise meaning of the phrase, and the way in which the different descriptions relate to the imagery of the concept. Suffice to say, despite its derivation from philosophy, it is not a theory, but the title of a technique or skill, but one that I think is properly categorized as mukei – shapeless (or not dependent on specific moves or positions).
Visually, there is, of course, a moon in the top of the design, and its image is reflected in the waves at the bottom – although it is sometimes hard to see.
Another well-known design is one known variously as ippon take, take kirikabu and dōsasa, which shows the base of growing bamboo with twigs and a few leaves. This is an important design, as it was the one Renyasai had on his own sword, Kagotsurube (well basket – suggesting a well bucket made of woven bamboo… obviously not very efficient in drawing up water). The typical image of bamboo as a symbol in the martial arts conjures up images of pliability, bending to release its load of snow, unlike the more rigid trees which eventually break under the weight. In this case, it is clearly being referred to somewhat differently. I have not seen an explanation which strikes me as being entirely correct (perhaps someone with personal experience of this could put me right, but I have my own ideas). I have seen it related to the first technique, itto ryodan, (cutting in two with one stroke) of the first set of Shinkage-ryu kata, but the relationship is not immediately clear. On reflection, I think it probably refers to the importance of the roots and base of the bamboo, which allow the rest of the bamboo to display its characteristic flexibility. This blend of strength and pliability is important in swordsmanship, and similarly, it is the strength of the hips and legs that allow the freedom of movement in the sword and the upper body.
On the subject of itto ryodan, this is also supposed to be the inspiration for the design called tsurube-nawa (well rope), which shows a pair of well buckets and the attached rope. You have to look carefully to make out the buckets – it took me quite a while to see them (that was before I checked the title). If you are familiar with double-bucketed Japanese wells, the symbolism is fairly clear. If you let a full bucket go, it would immediately drop back in to the well, bringing the other one up. Of course, they pass each other on parallel paths, very much like the itto ryodan technique. It is easy to see how this relationship and the immediate descent of the bucket, acting entirely unconsciously, can be applied to the movement of the sword. Likewise, I have seen it applied to raito (lightning sword), a shinkage-ryu technique from a jodan position, which is, I believe, a variation or closely related to itto ryodan.
Also interesting are the motifs that have a theoretical rather than pictorial basis. These include sangaku (three learnings) which is also referenced in the first chapter of Yagyu Munenori’s Heihokadensho, The Shoe Offering Bridge, which came down from Yagyu Sekishusai. They are posture, limbs, and sword. This triangle motif, and the related mitsuboshi (three stars) are repeated in a variety of combinations. This is probably a clue to a deeper meaning – in Legacies of the Sword, Karl Friday describes it as ’code’ for ‘sangaku-no-en’ denoting the way in which the motion of the sword is. or contains a spiral motion built on three points – a triangle within a circle. Also quite common are the square and diamond shapes. These appear to refer to the ability to be centred and maintaining a kamae that has no deviation one way or another – it is facing all four sides. The wheel is another common motif – it occurs in various technique names and the design known as namiguruma (waves and wheel) or suisha (waterwheel) was used by Renyasai for his wakizashi, Sasa-no-tsuyu (dew on the bamboo grass). It relates directly to various techniques and the ‘wheel’ kamae but in a deeper sense, to the kind of movement that inspired names such as suisha, hana-guruma, oni-guruma.
Lastly, for the moment, there are two motifs linked to some key concepts of the school: marobashi, which relates to the freedom to move in any direction, like a rolling ball, and jumonji, (cross), the meaning of which is better left to those who actually train in shinkage-ryu. (I gather no-one is particularly happy with the translations/explanations that have been given in published versions of Heihokadensho).
I would be glad of any comments or information from shinkage-ryu practitioners (or anyone else, for that matter) who can shed any more light on this fascinating subject.