One of the most important parts of a Japanese sword is undoubtedly the tsuba. The principal function of the tsuba was to protect the hand by preventing the opponent's sword from sliding down past the blade. It was also key in acting as the central point of gravity and balance.
Habaki, kozuka, kogai and waribashi
Most tsubas are decorated on both sides and as well as there being a hole in the centre for the habaki (blade collar) which holds the blade in place, sometimes a parallel hole on either one or both sides can be found. These existed for the insertion of personal utensils such as a small kozuka (knife), a kogai (skewer) or a waribashi (a pair of chopsticks). As well as the tsuba simply being a functional object, they were also highly regarded for their ornate decoration, philosophical and symbolic values.
There are several reasons for this. For example, the tsuba was generally a reflection of Japanese class status and the decoration which was etched, carved, cut or inlaid was seen as symbolic of the owner's ideas, aesthetic values and emotions. Also, when worn by the samurai, the guard would be close to the centre of the body and was associated with personal pride and dignity.
Golden era of Japanese swordsmiths
Although Japanese metalwork can be traced as far back as the Yayoi period (300 BC - 300 AD), it is during the mid Heian period (AD 794 - 1192) through to the Muromachi period (AD1392 - 1573) that is considered to be the golden era of Japanese swordsmiths. The reason for this change can be directly linked to the rise of the shoguns and the samurai class. However, in 1871 during the Meiji period (1867 - 1912), a law was passed throughout Japan banning the wearing of swords which unfortunately meant that production ground to a halt. Today tsubas are highly appreciated and sought after by both dealers and collectors.