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Where did Namban come from?


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Henri L. Joly had a theory but I don't know if it was widely known as it was formulated in 1913 and printed in 1914 in French.


I have gone to the trouble of translating it to English in order to disseminate it to a wider audience.


Bulletin de la Société franco-japonaise de Paris  1st of April 1914
Note on Namban Iron and Style 
by H.L. Joly


    I had the favor of discussing here some years ago the origin of Namban iron, and I suggested that this iron came from the Malay Islands, that its imitations reproduced the type of forge adopted in these islands for the manufacture of 'Kris'. Shortly after, the publication by Dr. Grônemann of a study on the 'Kris' tended to further confirm my opinion. The research of Professor Tawara Kuniichi, carried out on samples of Namban iron preserved in Japan, led him to conclude that in its constitution this iron was identical with the Wootz (1) of northern India, but in correspondence Mr. Tawara told me that he had not studied Java iron, which leaves the question open. It would be interesting to know if Malay blacksmiths borrowed from India the method of preparing a steel, called Wootz (although this is not a Hindu word) and forging it with the 'Pamor' (2) in the manufacture of blades of 'Kris'. Sir R.F. Burton (Book of the Sword) says: "Java received from India the Arts of Egypt at the beginning of the Christian Era, the now sedentary Hindu was then an explorer and colonized Java".

    This Wootz; was exported from Chaul [just south of Mumbai] to Egypt and the [East] African coast of Melinda [Melindi, Kenya], as evidenced by the claims of the King of Portugal on this subject in 1591, mentioned by Burton, and this is worth noting because it would seem strange that the Portuguese protesting against this export, themselves introduced Wootz to Japan. Whatever the source of the Namban Tetsu known to the Japanese, Mr. Tawara's conclusions in March 1913 were:

a) The Namban Tetsu in the shape of a flat elliptical ingot (and gourd) is identical with the Wootz.

b) The bar-shaped Namban Tetsu are of unknown foreign origin. His analyzes gave: carbon, 1.60; manganese, 0.009; silicon, 0.08; phosphorus, 0.076; sulfur, 0.003 for samples [A]; and for samples [B] carbon,  1.58; manganese, 0.017; silicon, 0.016; phosphorus, 0.011, trace of sulfur.

    The most important point of this research, proving the foreign origin of these irons, is the determination of phosphorus which varies from 4 to 10 times the phosphorus content of Japanese irons. Namban iron is a very distinct material which has nothing to do with the Namban style or, to be more correct, the styles grouped under this name until now.
(1) See about this steel: Yule, Marco Polo; Philipps, Metallurgy; Percy, Iron; Birdwood. Industrial Arts of India. Philipps gives the analysis: Carbon 1.333 + 0.312; silicon 0.045; sulfur 0.181; arsenic 0.037; iron (by difference) 98.092, according to the results of Heath (Royal Society 1195) which it would be good to review using modern methods.

(2) Pamor - literally "mixed". The term refers to blades that are made of several metals, thus in a sense mixed but not "alloyed".  A technique not unlike Damascus.


Purely as a summary, we can point out that the classification of the so-called Namban guards leaves something to be desired. Certain guards of Chinese origin, or to be clearer, of Chinese manufacture were imported, through the port of Nagasaki, either as curiosities or as merchandise (?) and the fact is clearly evidenced by the mention of a customs document which we encounter on page 90 of Soken Kinko Ryakushi by Professor T. Wada. It follows that the guards with nunomé inlays, attributed to the damasceners of Nagasaki, very similar to the Chinese guards (of which Dr. Münsterberg reproduces some samples in his Chinesische Kunstgeschichte) can be grouped in the Namban although, coming from the North West the nomenclature thus adopted is illogical. The guards called Kanto tsuba and Kannan tsuba (which Hayashi seems to have made Kagonami), the first of which have a purely Chinese design with symmetrical elements, while the others belong to the types: dragon fish and pagoda; deer-monkey-wasp, etc. (see Hawkshaw Catalogue) and to which the Namban type seems best to apply, are those targeted by this note.
    The style of guards perforated with foliage intersecting sometimes with a few simple powerful convolutions, sometimes in a jumble of small tangled elements where the patience of the engraver has sometimes added figures of animals, fixed or mobile, this style whose variations are infinite seems to have been imported via China, the name Kanton or Kannan tsuba sufficiently indicates this, and there is no need to look for a dubious resemblance with Portuguese weapons as certain authors have done. The scrollwork style existed in Bronze art long before the Portuguese had dealings with Japan or India. Ancient Chinese bronzes offer us many proofs of this in the handles, ears, feet and openwork of dragons and ribbons. The question that arises is, where did this style come from? from India, from Persia, to China or vice versa? This note does not seek to resolve, but simply to pose the question by drawing attention to a few naturally acquired points.

During the Garié sale, a piece of saddle was described as a wall ornament and appeared in the catalog under number 834. Recently, the death of M.A.W. Paul having led his family to sell the objects he had collected formerly in Nepal, Sikkhim and in other provinces of India, including token samples of Tibetan and Sino-Tibetan work, I was responsible for putting some order into this collection (partly on display at the Bristol Museum) before the sale. One of the most interesting pieces was a saddle trim, in “Namban style” with movable dragons finished in nunomé precisely in the style of the piece Garie 834. Unfortunately I was not able to learn where - Bhutan or Nepal - The late Mr. Paul had obtained this mount, and to my great regret I was beaten at auction. Another interesting piece from southern Tibet was one of these large conch shells with partially gilded copper fins, decorated with amorini and a dragon.

If we compare the work of the saddle in question with the vermiculations of the mounts of two-edged sabers and daggers of Bhutanese origin, we find a similarity with on the one hand the guards with large scrolls, on the other hand those with small vermiculations embellished with pearls and enamels. We will be able to also remember the resemblance that exists between certain daggers of the Shosuin Zukuri type, and between certain Tachi mounted with cabochons and the Tibetan weapons manufactured in Dergé also mounted with cabochons (V.W.W. Rockhill, Notes on the Ethnology of Tibet, Washington, 1895, pl. 22 and Land of the Lamas, 257). I had the opportunity to talk about it in the Sword Book.

We will notice, particularly in the pommel, two ornaments which are repeated in the Namban guards, similarly the facing or intertwined dragons appear in the Chinese guards and in the elaborate 'panyun' lacquer boxes of Nepal [Paan - India], I have some samples in my modest collection. Let us add that the OVC monogram of the old East India Company, which we find on its tokens and on certain buildings, for example in Ceylon, is also quite common on the so-called Namban guards from the 18th and 19th centuries, made in the Hirado or copied from Hirado's work At that time this brand was well known in Japan and its introduction into foreign-style guards does not seem surprising.
    That said, will our colleagues ask themselves questions that this note suggests. Is the Namban style not derived from the weapons of northern India and southern Tibet? Did not the influence of this art flourishing at the foot of Kanchenjunga following Buddhist caravans? Can it not be several centuries older than the 16th century but that it remained latent until new relations with India by sea or the numerous exchanges with China in the time of the Mings have awakened it? Among the many scholars, the documented collectors, some will perhaps kindly contribute their light to the elucidation of this problem. I thought it was useless to dwell on details that the illustrations are sufficient to indicate.

London, August 1913 (2).



(1) Former Resident of the English Government at Sekkhim and Assistant Commissioner to Sir Francis Younghusband in the Lhasa Expedition.

(2) Mr. de Tressan. published in  Ostasiatischen Zeitschrift of January 1914, a note on the Namban date guards in which he makes use of the aforementioned book by Mr. Wada.
We can compare our conclusions to the above.



* The dagger shown here which I photographed as being very characteristic belongs to Mr. John Claude White (1).


* Large thick scrolls (7.5 mm.) intertwined, with two dragons and gold nunome.

* Large intertwined foliage with two dragons and mobile Tama, thickness 5.5 mm., without nunome

* Small scrolls with capsules intended to receive enamels or stones, thin canvas (3.5 mm.) thick round silver edge.


The attached file shows the images from the original text - enhanced - and some are reorientated from the French layout.  Some text has been added to clarify certain points and to highlight some spelling mistakes, these are in square brackets [...  ] or italics.


H.L. Joly note on namban iron and style.jpg



namban joly comp.jpg

Edited by Spartancrest
clearer images
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This may answer a lot of questions.


The attached peer-reviewed article was published in the July-August issue of Orientations magazine. In a nutshell, "Nanban" is Japanese catchall lingo for "foreign," similar to the earlier term "Ezo", which like "Kanton" and Kagonami" fittings bear stylistic resemblances to central Asian design and Mongolian taste, and little to do with the indigenous Ainu arts of Japan. The saddle plates illustrated in Joly's article are Tibetan. While I did not touch on it in this article, there are a good number of so-called "Nanban" tsuba that are actually Japanese Tosho and Katchushi guards that were exported abroad, where they were embellished to local taste. Dutch colonies in Java and Sri Lanka produced weapons (and sword guards) for use as business and diplomatic gifts. After 1684, a brisk sea-trade flowed between China and Nagasaki. Like the Dutch, Chinese merchants also bore gifts. Tsuba and other goods were produced in Nagasaki's Toujin Yashiki (Chinatown), to which the Jakushi school appears to have had close ties. A number of books have been published recently debunking the "Sakoku" fairy-tale of Japanese isolation—at least as far as trade is concerned. These are listed in the bibliography of the Orientations article. 


Maybe ten years ago now, Peter Dekker (a dealer in fine Asian arms) and I shared a lot of our research. His website is packed with useful information: https://www.mandarin...-export-sword-guards

I also created a Facebook page devoted to Asian export sword guards: https://www.facebook...p?id=100064636361953

Much of the confusion surrounding "Nanban" tsuba is the word itself, which is far too general and arbitrary to inhabit any useful taxonomy. Tosogu collectors would benefit greatly from expanding the scope of their research to a broader understanding of Asian decorative art, and how it was circulated by maritime trade.

What Asian Export sword guards (Nanban tsuba) teach us is that Edo-period Japan was far less isolated than some would have the world believe.


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