A few weeks ago, I skimmed through a Japanese blog post and briefly had to halt at an expression, a kind of a tongue-twister, because I was sure I have read that somewhere before but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now after clearing a few things off my desk, I checked my archive, and as it is quite well organized, I did indeed find the very expression, and this is the whole background for this article.
Now some of you may have wondered about what the symbolism of the openwork design (sukashi, 透かし) of some very early tsuba, e.g. Ko-Katchūshi (古甲冑師) or Ko-Tōshō (古刀匠) might be. Well, in books, also in my own books as well as in some of my articles, these plain motifs, appearing to depict things from everyday life, are usually described as reflecting the then mindset of samurai facing uncertain times, death on an everyday basis, and all of that filtered through period Zen-Buddhism etc., you get the idea.
This is still all correct and in this article, I just want to take a closer look at one, or rather two of these simple early openwork designs, like I tried to shed more light on another, a similar aspect five years ago here. As it initiated the whole article, I want to start with the sickle, Japanese kama (鎌), as an early openwork design. Now the sickle is often depicted on early tsuba in combination with the gorintō (五輪塔), the five-story Buddhist pagoda usually seen along temples and in cemeteries. In short, and leaving out Buddhist and other context that you can find here and here, the gorintō may be equated with a gravestone. So, such a gorintō on a tsuba is associated with death. Imagine a medieval knight having his armor decorated with gravestones. There is not much range of interpretation as this is a pretty straightforward symbolism, and this is how a gorintō was understood in medieval Japan.
Back to the sickle. When someone was killed by a sword or edged weapon, people made comments like: “Toki-koto rikama no gotoki” (説き(利き)こと利鎌のごとき), which, when you try to read it out loud and fast, is the tongue-twister I was talking about at the beginning of this article (and which I found again in the Tōsō Kodōgu Kōza, Volume 1, p. 39). The comment literally means “effective like a sharp sickle” and may be interpreted in a similar way as the Western proverb “live by the sword, die by the sword.” In other words, sickles next to a pagoda on a tsuba represent death and the way you are gonna die, i.e. from an edged weapon. Very fitting for a medieval samurai, isn’t it? However, there is of course some scope for interpretation. The sickle is also an agricultural symbol. For example, after a rice harvest, Japanese farmers sometimes put one of the sickles used into the tokonoma alcove, after it was purified, together with like red rice beans and/ormochi, as an offering to the God of Agriculture, a custom that is referred to as kama-iwai (鎌祝い), lit. “sickle celebration/prayer.” There is also some religious context here. For example, Hachiman (八幡) is said to have been an agricultural deity before he became the God of War, and in the case of the deity Suwa (諏訪), it was exactly the other way round. Thus, the sickle on a tsuba may also be interpreted as representing the “choice” of a farmer becoming a warrior and accepting so his ultimate fate, death, or as the prayer of a warrior to maybe escape war and death and eventually being able to lead a peaceful agricultural life on the countryside.
Let’s check out another early openwork design, the so-called kukurizaru (括り猿), also sometimes seen in combination with a gorintō as shown below. Kukurizaru means literally “tied up monkey,” i.a. a monkey who is restrained by binding his hands and feet together with a rope. Often, the term kukurizaru is just translated as “talisman” but there is more to it, of course. The kukurizaru symbolism has to be understood as a mirrored reference, that is, although the monkey being the animal that is closest to us humans, it will be an animal at the end of the day and even if we are human, you just have to push certain buttons and we will fall back to the realm of animals. So, the tied up monkey means that you should remember that you should try to be above of that and supposed to control your desires and your lust. In other words: Never be caught off guard or loose control. In combination with the gorintō, this symbol quasi acts as a reminder for medieval warriors: If you are cought off guard or loose control, you die!
The kukurizaru charm left, the sukashi design right.
In conclusiuon, I just wanted to write this brief article to provide some further information, scratching the surface a little for those who are asking themselves: “Why is there a sickle?” or “Kukurizaru is just a lucky charm so what?” That said, I very much want to extend that topic in the future and go a little deeper when time allows as it is also very interesting for me because after all, nothing was applied to tsuba or sword fittings, or swords in general, for no reason. In other words, you can kind of compare the Muromachi-period sukashi symbolism with “old school” sailor tattoos, that is, there was a limited set of designs, born from superstitions etc., that everyone then understood and that you could choose from. So when I come across another interesting context, I will continue from here.