A. A Brief History of the Development of
The first swords made of steel, called Chokut˘ 直刀 (i.e., swords with
straight blades), were imported into Japan from China during the Kofun 古墳
(i.e., tomb) period (3c ~ 5c), and had Chinese mountings. Those swords
were imported in large quantities through the Yamato 大和period, and many of
them were worn by the members of the Imperial Family and other
high-ranking court officials during the 6th century through the early 7th
century. Interestingly enough, however, there are Song period Chinese
poems that mention about the superiority of Japanese swords ľ indicating
that already back then the grass on the other side was always greener.
Although "Chokut˘ 直刀" simply means "straight sword(s)," this term is used
exclusively for straight-bladed swords of the abovementioned periods,
forged in either Hira-zukuri 平造りor Katakiri-ha 片切刃 fashions. Straight
swords of other periods are simply described (if at all) as Muzori 無反り
(i.e., without curvature).
The blade and Koshirae 拵 prototypes of the Japanese origin developed
during the Nara period 奈良時代 (early 8c ~ 794 AD), although they were still
called Kara-y˘-Tachi 唐様太刀, (i.e. Chinese style Tachi). A few existing
swords of this type that have survived time tell us that there seemed to
have been two sub-types: swords in black lacquered wooden mountings for
actual combat, and those highly decorated with semiprecious stones and
fancy lacquering. Back then Samegawa 鮫皮 (ray skin) was rarely used on the
handles, but it only became common during the Heian period 平安時代 (794 ~
The earliest curved swords of the mid Heian period 平安時代 were Kant˘ 韓刀:
simple iron swords of Korean design. The curved Tachi 太刀 of a more
Japanese design toward the latter half of the Heian period 平安時代 clearly
showed the adaptation of blade construction and mountings to the Japanese
taste and usage. Among them were Kazari-Tachi 飾太刀 (decorative Tachi), very
highly decorative Tachi worn by the highest ranking court nobles, and
Hoso-Tachi 細太刀 (narrow Tachi), a less decorative (thus more affordable)
substitute of Kazari-Tachi 飾太刀 still worn by high ranking court nobles.
Because both of these Tachi太刀 were meant for a ceremonial use, they were
luxuriously mounted and mostly came with non-functional ôbladesö made of
iron bars that were not heat-treated or sharpened.
The curved swords of Shinogi-zukuri 鎬造 type (called Want˘ 湾刀) that we now
recognize as the prototype of truly Japanese design were perfected in as
late as the second half of the Heian period 平安時代 by the smiths such as
Sanj˘ Munechika 三条宗近 of Ky˘t˘ 京都, Yasutsuna 安綱 of H˘ki 伯耆, and Tomonari 友成
of Bizen 備前. During the latter part of this period, Tachi 太刀 worn by
Imperial guards became less garish to emphasize the function because of
the series of wars from which the Samurai 侍 class emerged. Those Tachi
with sharpened steel blades and slightly more utilitarian mounts that the
earliest Samurai 侍 wore were called Eifu-Tachi 衛府太刀, and were still in use
during the Edo period 江戸時代 (1603 ~ 1867) by the imperial guards and high
ranking government officials.
One interesting characteristic of common Eifu-Tachi 衛府太刀 during the late
Heian period 平安時代 is its unique ôtweezers-shapedö cutout in the steel
handle. Because of that, they are also called the Kenukigata-Tachi 毛抜形太刀
(hair-tweezers-shape Tachi 太刀). While much speculation has been made
regarding the functionality of such cutouts, it is obvious that they must
have been very uncomfortable to hold and use because of the bear forged
steel handles. Nonetheless, from the existing examples of Kenukigata-Tachi
毛抜形太刀with actual battle marks and historical paintings, it is believed
that they were intended and actually used in the battlefields, rather than
served ritualistic purposes or as presentation pieces donated to Shint˘ist
神道 shrines to celebrate happy occasions.
At the end of the Heian period 平安時代 and the following Kamakura period 鎌倉時代
(1185 ~ 1333 AD), the Hy˘go-Kusari-Tachi 兵庫鎖太刀 became very popular. It was
named after its chain-hangers, and was usually covered with metal foil.
Theses swords were mostly used as presentation pieces to Shint˘ist 神道
shrines and Buddhist temples. However, majority of the fighting swords
were rather somber with much more utilitarian mountings in black lacquer
or covered with leather, and they were called Kurourushi-Tachi 黒漆太刀 (black
lacquered Tachi). Sometimes the lower part of the Saya 鞘 or scabbard had a
cover made of fur to protect it from the elements during the battle. This
type of saya was called Shiri-zaya 尻鞘 (butt Saya 鞘), and the early example
of Shiri-zaya 尻鞘 can be seen on Kenukigata-Tachi 毛抜形太刀.
The fighting Tachi 太刀 of the early Samurai 侍 was Kuroshibi-Tachi 黒渋太刀, but
these swords further transformed themselves into Kawazutsumi-Tachi 皮包太刀
(i.e., Tachi 太刀 with Saya 鞘 covered in black leather for protection) in
the Nambokuch˘ period 南北朝時代 (1336 ~ 1392 AD). It was also during this
period when the first Itomaki-no-Tachi 糸巻太刀 was used. They had Tsukamaki
柄巻 as well as Sayamaki 鞘巻, the wrapping at the upper part of the Saya 鞘 to
prevent damage from rubbing against the armor. The Itomaki-Tachi 糸巻太刀
became the Tachi 太刀 of choice for combat for the following centuries.
Uchigatana 打刀 (lit. "strike-sword") already had its predecessors in the
Heian period 平安時代, but it became standard for foot soldiers during the
second half of the Muromachi period 室町時代 (1338 ~ 1573 AD). Unlike the
Tachi 太刀, which had two Obitori 帯執 (hangers) on the Saya 鞘 to hang it from
the waist belt edge down, the Uchigatana 打刀 was worn edge up through the
sash. Although Tachi 太刀 was still produced throughout the Muromachi period
室町時代, but the Uchigatana 打刀 eventually became the most common long sword
or Dait˘ 大刀 for many Samurai 侍 for ordinary occasions. The early
Uchigatana 打刀 had very plain, simple mountings, whereas the later Handachi
半太刀 (half-Tachi) looked very much like Tachi 太刀 again, except for the
Obitori 帯執 This style never really went out of fashion during the next
Since the early Muromachi period 室町時代, the manufacture of Tsuba 鍔 became a
separate profession; until then, Tsuba 鍔 were forged by swordsmiths,
armorsmiths or made by Kagamishi 鏡師, mirrorsmiths. (Note: Polished disks
of metal were used as mirrors in Japan). Early Tsuba 鍔 had Sukashi 透し,
cut-outs in negative silhouette, but from then on brass inlays and
positive silhouette Sukashi 透し, especially from Owari 尾張 province, became
more refined. The Sh˘ami 正阿彌 family became one of the main manufacturers
of Tsuba 鍔, with many generations to follow. Up until Muromachi period
室町時代, many Kanagu 金具 (i.e., metal fittings) other than the Tsuba 鍔 used to
have been made of Yamagane 山金 ("mountain metal," unrefined copper). During
this time, however, they were often made of Shakud˘ 赤銅.
The Momoyama period 桃山時代 (1568 ~ 1598 AD) is well known for its flamboyant
Koshirae 拵 design with light red lacquered Saya 鞘 and Kanagu 金具 in gold,
called Momoyama Koshirae 桃山拵. Those flashy mountings, however, were
counterbalanced by Tensh˘-Koshirae 天正拵 (in the era of Tensh˘ 天正, 1573 ~
1586 AD) with black Saya 鞘 and Same 鮫, and a tapered Tsuka 柄 in so called
hourglass shape with leather binding crossed over a Kashira 頭 made of
plain horn. It was also during this period that Daish˘ 大小, or the
combination of Katana 刀 and Wakizashi 脇差 became the standard for Samurai
During this time, part of the Tank˘ 鍔工 from Ky˘to 京都 moved to Akasaka 赤坂
in Edo 江戸, and produced many fine Sukashi-Tsuba 透し鍔. The My˘chin 明珍 family
switched their trade from manufacturing armor to making Tsuba 鍔 Families
such as Akao 赤尾, Haruta 春田 and Kinai 記内 dominated Echizen 越前 province
Tsuba 鍔. From the second generation on, the Kinai 記内 family had a special
relationship with Echizen Yasutsugu 越前康継, the Sh˘gun's 将軍 favorite smith.
They not only carved the dragon-Horimono 彫物 for his swords, but also the
Aoi-no-Gomon 葵の御紋, the family crest of the Tokugawa 徳川, on the tang of his
swords. Both motifs are also very often found on their Tsuba 鍔.
In Higo 肥後 province the Kanagu-shi 金具師 were encouraged by the Hosokawa
Daimy˘ 細川大名, and worked in iron, copper, brass and cloisonnÚ (Shipp˘ 七宝).
Typical characteristics of Higo-Koshirae 肥後拵 include round Kashira 頭 and
Kojiri 鐺; the Same 鮫 that is often black; and the Saya 鞘 in Samenuri 鮫塗,
where the "valleys" in the Same 鮫 filled with lacquer, and the "mountains"
smoothed and polished flush. Also, the Tsuka 柄 often had a leather
wrapping. This type of Koshirae 拵 was later copied as Edo-Higo-Koshirae
江戸肥後拵, but mostly with simpler Saya 鞘 and natural colored Same 鮫.
After Tokugawa Ieyasu 徳川家康 moved to Edo 江戸, many artists set up their
workshop in the Sh˘gunĺs 将軍 capital. In the Edo period 江戸時代 (1603 ~ 1867
AD), the Got˘ 後藤 family, who had worked for the Ashikaga 足利, almost
dominated the making of sword fittings, especially for formal Daish˘ 大小
As with many other things, wearing of swords was also formally regulated
in the early Edo period 江戸時代 For example, in Genna 元和 9 (1624 AD), red
Saya 鞘, swords over 2 Shaku 尺 9 Sun 寸 (87.87 cm) and square Tsuba 鍔 were
prohibited. Commoners were not allowed to wear Katana swords at least
legally. Another Sh˘gunateĺs 幕府 executive order issued in July of Sh˘ho 正保
2 (1645 AD) specified the maximum blade length of Katana 刀 to be 2 Shaku 8
Sun or 9 Sun (= 84.84cm - 87.87cm) and Wakizashi 脇差 to be 1 Shaku 8 Sun or
9 Sun (= 54.54cm - 57.57cm).
Samurai 侍 in the Sh˘gunĺs 将軍 castle of Edo 江戸城 wore the Banzashi-Daish˘
番差大小 (or Toj˘zashi-Daish˘ 登城差大小) as specified by the strict military laws.
The military sepc. swords Same 鮫 had to be white, the Saya 鞘 black
lacquered and with horn fittings. The Kojiri 鐺 of the Katana 刀 was flat,
and that of the Wakizashi 脇差 rounded. The Kashira 頭 had to be horn, with
the black Tsukamaki 柄巻 crossed over it (Kakemaki). The Fuchi 縁 and
Midokoromono 三所物 ("things of the three places": Menuki 目貫, K˘gai 笄 and
Kozuka 小柄) had to be Shakud˘-Nanako 赤銅七子 (fish-roe-pattern) with the only
decoration being the family Mon 紋. The Tsuba 鍔 was polished Shakud˘ 赤銅
without any decoration. However, this was not always strictly enforced,
and Kanagu 金具 with Shishi 獅子 (lion dogs), dragons or floral motifs seem to
have been tolerated.
Inside the Edo castle 江戸城, most Samurai 侍 had to wear the Kamishimozashi
裃差 when on normal duty, with the Kataginu 肩衣 ôwing shouldersö and Hakama 袴
ôsplit skirt trousers,ö while Kuge 公家 (court nobles), Daimy˘ 大名 and other
high ranking officials were clad in the Hitatare 直垂 court attire with
Eboshi 烏帽子 hat, a Wakizashi 脇差 at their hip. The mounting was either an
Aikuchi 合口 or Hamidashi 喰出し (a very small Tsuba 鍔) with Dashizame 出し鮫, or
hilt covered in Same 鮫 without Tsukamaki 柄巻. This short sword often did
not have a Mekugi 目釘 to fasten the hilt to the tang, which rendered it
almost impractical. This was because the wearer wanted to show that, due
to his high rank, he would not need to use it anyhow. Besides, it was a
capital offense to draw a sword more than 3 Sun 寸 (9.09 cm) at court
(without a special permission), as anybody who read or watched the play
"Chűshingura 忠臣蔵", the story of the 47 R˘nin 浪人, would know.
As already mentioned, a Daish˘ 大小 (lit. "big-small") is the Katana
刀-Wakizashi 脇差 or Katana 刀-Tant˘ 短刀 pair that was one of the defining
attributes of the Samurai 侍 class. Most Daish˘ 大小 were mounted en suite,
but actually any combination of a short and a long sword is considered a
Daish˘ 大小 especially for casual wearing of the swords when not on official
duty. By the mid to late Edo period 江戸時代, there were increasingly more
fashion-minded Samurai 侍 who only wore Wakizashi 脇差 in a very casual
manner called Otoshi-zasi 落し差し by simply ôdroppingö the Wakizashi more
vertically between the sash on the left hip instead of wearing the
Wakizashi more horizontally at the abdomen.
During the second half of the Edo period 江戸後期, Koshirae-Kanagu 拵金具 or
metal fittings for Koshirae also developed into a genre of art itself.
Bronze, copper and brass as well as the alloy Shibuichi 四分一 were widely
used for fittings on "regular" swords Those fittings made of such soft
metals were called Kink˘-kanagu 金工金具 (i.e., fittings of gold / precious
metal work). Pure silver mountings were quite rare, as were pure gold
mountings, which were banned in 1830. Also during this time, Yokoya S˘min
横谷宗珉 left the Got˘ 後藤 school, which only worked with Shakud˘ 赤銅, and
invented Katakiribori 片切彫, engravings with a triangular chisel. In Nara
奈良, the Nara-Sansaku 奈良三作 ("three makers from Nara 奈良") (Nara Toshinaga
奈良利寿, Sugiura J˘i 杉浦乗意, and Tsuchiya Yasuchika 土屋安親) became famous with
sunken relief (Shishiaibori 肉合彫). Yagyű-Tsuba 柳生鍔 developed from
Owari-Tsuba 尾張鍔, so called after the Yagyű 柳生 family, fencing instructors
for the Sh˘gun 将軍. Typical Yagyű-Koshirae 柳生拵 has a ribbed Saya 鞘, and
often had the Menuki 目貫 placed in Gyakute 逆手or in reversed positions.
At home Samurai 侍 rested their Daish˘ 大小 on a rack (Katana-Kake 刀掛), edge
up, Katana 刀 on top and Tsuka 柄 to the left. High-ranking Samurai 侍 who
lived in a house with their family were usually greeted at the entrance of
the house by their wives, who carried the swords after pulling the sleeves
of their Kimono 着物 over their hands in order to not touch the mountings
with bare hands. Women of the Samurai 侍 class carried a Tant˘ 短刀 in their
sash, which was not subject to any restrictions, and was often lavishly
The executive order issued on July 18, Sh˘h˘ 正保 2 (1645 AD) only
prohibited the commoners wearing swords over 1.8 Shaku 尺 (54.54 cm). This
enabled non-Samurai travelers on the T˘kaid˘ 東海道 road to arm themselves
with a short sword against robbers that were encountered quite frequently
in unpopulated areas, and also enabled the chief of police to arm the
Komono 小者, non-Samurai 侍 police assistants in some extreme events
Rich merchants showed off their wealth by sporting expensive Tant˘ 短刀.
Physicians also wore Tant˘ 短刀, but some merely wore decorative Tant˘ 短刀
made of solid wood.
The end of the Edo period 江戸時代 is called Bakumatsu 幕末 (1853 ~ 1868), and
brought many changes to the Samurai 侍 class. Some men started wearing
newly imported western clothes. Since at this time both the Imperial Army
and the Sh˘gunĺs Army adopted Western style military uniform, the soldiers
of both Armies started wearing so called Toppei-Koshirae 突兵拵 swords, also
called Zubon ズボン (trousers)-Koshirae 拵, which had a softly rounded Kojiri
鐺 but no Tsukamaki 柄巻. In 1871 everyone was allowed to carry a sword. The
laws prohibited Kirisute-gomen 切り捨て御免, which was the legal right of the
Samurai 侍 to slay a commoner for a (real or imagined) insult of the
extreme and unbearable nature. However, the Hait˘rei 廃刀令 edict, which took
effect on January 1, 1877, limited the right of carrying swords to the
official military and police personnel. Most swords concealed in a cane or
walking stick (Shikomizue 仕込杖) are made shortly after this edict for those
former Samurai侍 who still wanted to carry a sword, their long status
Military swords of the Meiji 明治 (1868 ~ 1912 AD) and Taish˘ 大正 (1912 ~
1926 AD) period were fashioned after French and German military sabers,
and they were called Kyű-Gunt˘ 旧軍刀. Only the Shin-Gunt˘ 新軍刀 ("new military
swords") after 1933 saw a renaissance of Japanese design and a modified
Tachi Koshirae 太刀拵 for military use because of the nationalism promoted by
the government as wartime propaganda
Koshirae 拵 derives from the verb "koshirareru 拵れる," which is seldom used
nowadays. Usually "tsukuru 作る" is used instead; both mean "to make,
create, manufacture" A more accurate term to refer to sword mountings is
actually T˘s˘ 刀装, which literally means sword-furniture: T˘s˘gu 刀装具 are
the parts of the mounting in general, and Kanagu 金具 stands for those made
of metal. Gais˘ 外装 is the "outer" furniture, as opposed to T˘shin 刀身, the
"body" of the sword.
Nihont˘ 日本刀 or the Japanese swords are classified by length and Koshirae 拵
type, and often the combination of both. Swords over 2 Shaku 尺 (1 Shaku 尺
= 30.3 cm, or about 1 foot) from tip to Munemachi 棟区 (notch where the tang
starts) are Dait˘ 大刀, from 1 to 2 Shaku 尺 are Sh˘t˘ 小刀, and under 1 Shaku
尺 are Tant˘. The usual Dait˘ 大刀 are the Katana 刀 and Tachi 太刀; Sh˘t˘ 小刀
are mostly Wakizashi 脇差, and there are infinite variations of Tant˘ 短刀.
The borderline cases are Kodachi 小太刀 (Tachi 太刀 shorter than 2 Shaku 尺),
Katate-uchigatana 片手打刀 (Katana 刀 from a little longer or shorter than 2
Shaku 尺 intended for single-hand use), ďwakizashi 大脇差 (long Wakizashi 脇差
of almost 2 Shaku 尺), and Sunnobi-Tant˘ 寸延短刀 (Tant˘ 短刀 slightly longer
than 1 Shaku 尺).
Before the Uchigatana 打刀 came into being, shorter swords mounted
differently from Tachi 太刀 were called Chiisagatana 小さ刀 or Koshigatana 腰刀
(hip-sword). Chiisagatana 小さ刀, which literally means "short Katana 刀," are
Tant˘ 短刀 or Sunnobi-Tant˘ 寸延短刀 mounted in a similar fashion as Katana 刀.
Another term for Chiisagatana 小さ刀 is Tsubagatana 鍔刀 or "sword with Tsuba
鍔," as opposed to Aikuchi 合口 (ômeeting mouthö), which is usually Tant˘ 短刀
without Tsuba 鍔.
Although the meaning of Chiisagatana 小さ刀 changed over the course of
history, this term was used from the Edo period 江戸時代 on to describe Tant˘
短刀 that had a Tsuba 鍔 and usually Tsukamaki 柄巻 (hilt binding) as well. It
is a common misconception that Chiisagatana 小さ刀 stands for a sword
slightly shorter than a Katana 刀 (i.e., Wakizashi 脇差) but mounted in a
Katana 刀 sized Koshirae 拵.
Jindachi 陣太刀 does not refer to any particular style of Tachi 太刀 mounting,
but it simply means "battle camp sword" It is a term seldom used to mainly
distinguish Tachi 太刀 that was meant for actual combat from ceremonial
During the Kamakura period 鎌倉時代 and Nambokuch˘ period 南北朝時代, Tachi 太刀 of
extended length, the so called ďdachi 大太刀, were sometimes used in the
battlefields. Those swords certainly had an intimidating effect on the
enemy, but their usefulness is highly questionable since they were very
awkward to handle. Also most were of low quality.
Nodachi 野太刀 originates in the Heian period 平安時代, where this term was used
to describe a long sword used for fighting. Although Nodachi 野太刀 is often
erroneously considered to refer to Tachi 太刀 of extended length (i.e.,
ďdachi 大太刀), it simply means ôfield swordsö to distinguish it from the
Gij˘-Tachi 儀仗太刀 used by court nobles mostly for ceremonial purposes. In
other words, length was not a determining factor in this case. Even what
we now call Kenukigata-Tachi 毛抜形太刀 was called "Nodachi 野太刀" back then, and
Gij˘-Tachi 儀仗太刀 is described as Kazari-Tachi 飾太刀 in current literature.
Today's Tant˘ 短刀 was the Koshigatana 腰刀 ("hip sword") back then.
In the Nambokuch˘ period 南北朝時代 sword terminology changed again. Tachi 太刀
came to refer to shorter Kodachi 小太刀 for civilian use, and the ďdachi 大太刀
came to refer to swords for warfare with the edge length of four, 5 and
even 6 Shaku 尺. These long swords were also called Seoi-Nodachi 背負野太刀
("Nodachi 野太刀 carried on the back") or Nagadachi 長太刀 ("long Tachi 太刀),"
which some scholars believe became the Nagamaki 長巻). These huge swords
were sometimes mounted in disposable scabbards. Very few of these long
blades have survived in their original length because many were later cut
down to a more convenient length. Some exceptions are votive offerings in
temples and shrines. One remarkable blade of 6 Shaku 尺, forged by Bungo
Tomoyuki 豊後友行, is still in the collection of the ďyamazumi Shrine 大山津見神社
and has been designated a national treasure of Japan
With the advent of the Uchigatana 打刀 a kind of "standardization" took
place, and long swords were simply named either Tachi 太刀 or Katana 刀,
medium length swords Wakizashi 脇差 and daggers Tant˘ 短刀. When the term
"Nodachi 野太刀" was used, it actually meant what is now referred to "ďdachi
大太刀," though as mentioned earlier the latter term was more widely used.
Women of the noble classes used to carry a Tant˘ 短刀 (in the Edo period
江戸時代 in a brocade bag) between their Obi 帯, or sash. This type of Tant˘ 短刀
for self-defense was called Kaiken 懐剣 or Mamorigatana 守り刀 (ôprotection
Sometimes we hear that certain swords are referred to as ôNinja-t˘ 忍者刀ö or
ôShinobi-gatana 忍び刀ö Actually, there is no such thing as a special purpose
Ninja 忍者 sword, although the movie industry wants to make us believe that.
Neither Ninja 忍者 nor Onmitsu 隠密, the undercover intelligence agents of the
Tokugawa Sh˘gunate 徳川幕府, had an ôissuedö short sword with a straight
blade, square Tsuba 鍔 and black fittings.
Present day SWAT team members and military operatives use special weapons
to suit their tasks, and so did the covert operatives of the Edo period
江戸時代 A shorter sword slung over the back might have proven useful for
penetrating the security of a castle and combat in confined spaces, but
different situations would have called for a different sword. Although
"Ninja-t˘ 忍者刀" has a romantic ring to it, it only belongs to the realm of
modern day myth and video games.
The two major forms of Japanese pole arms are the Yari 槍 (a double-edged
spear with a straight blade) and the Naginata 薙刀 (spears with curved,
single-edged blades). Naginata 薙刀 are believed to have been used since the
Heian period 平安時代. Their size and shape reflects that of Tachi 太刀 of each
period. In the Muromachi period 室町時代 generally they were rather short with
a broad Monouchi 物打 (upper "striking" area) and strong Sakizori 先反り
(deeper curvature towards the tip).
In times of war, the Naginata 薙刀 was also used in combat, and it was the
favorite weapon of the S˘hei 僧兵, warrior-monks. In the Edo period 江戸時代
Naginata 薙刀 became a preferred weapon of women of the Samurai 侍 class. For
instance the female guards of the ďoku 大奥, the "harem" of the Sh˘gun 将軍,
were armed with Naginata 薙刀.
Nagamaki 長巻 is a term that, strictly speaking, only applies to a special
style of mounting a Naginata 薙刀. It was in vogue from the middle of the
Muromachi period 室町時代 until the Momoyama period 桃山時代. "Nagamaki 長巻"
literally means "long wrap," and refers to the fact that the shaft is
wrapped like a sword hilt. Another term used is "Nagadachi 長太刀" (long
Tachi 太刀), and some argue that it is actually a mere variant of the
Nodachi 野太刀 with a much longer hilt and shorter blade in comparison.
As mentioned Nagamaki 長巻 is supposed to be a style of mounting with
wrapping. However, there are certain characteristics that would make a
Naginata 薙刀 a Nagamaki 長巻 even without the wrapping: The shaft is rather
short, about four feet long and comes with a Tsuba 鍔. The blade is usually
longer than Naginata 薙刀, has less curvature, and is basically Sh˘bu-zukuri
Katana 菖蒲造刀. Although the blade was constructed like a broad, heavy Katana
刀, the Mune 棟 is sometimes thinned along the spine to reduce the weight,
thus giving the blade a more pronounced diamond shaped cross-section.
In the peaceful Edo period 江戸時代, many Naginata 薙刀 and Nagamaki 長巻 were
modified to be worn as swords, which were then so-called Naginata-naoshi
薙刀直し and Nagamaki-naoshi 長巻直し respectively. The meaning of naoshi 直しin
this context is "be altered, returned, mended, repaired," and is used for
swords that were later altered to another shape. While most Naginata 薙刀
were made into Wakizashi 脇差, Nagamaki 長巻 were often long enough to be
converted into a Katana 刀 Regardless, with many Sasuga 刺刀 (shortened tip
section - the Hamon 刃紋 runs straight out at the Mune 棟 without a
turn-back) blades, it is difficult to tell whether it was originally a
Naginata 薙刀 or Nagamaki 長巻. Furthermore, some blades were intentionally
forged to resemble a shortened Naginata 薙刀 or Nagamaki 長巻, which makes the
classifications even more difficult at times.
A sword that is originally made to look like a Naginata-naoshi 薙刀直し blade
may be called Naginata-naoshi-zukuri 薙刀直し造, but technically it is
Kanmuri-otoshi 冠落 (maybe with the additional description of having
Naginata-hi 薙刀樋) Another term to refer to such swords is
Naginata-naoshi-fű 薙刀直し風, where "-fű 風" (in this context) means "look,
appearance". Tsukuru 造る (the verb form of "-zukuri 造り") means "to build,
construct," and is used for a blade that was planned that way (e.g.,
Hira-zuruki 平造, Shinogi-zukuri 鎬造, etc.).
C. Construction, techniques and materials.
Most edged weapons all over the world have a grip or handle, and are put
in either a sheath or scabbard; the Japanese sword is no exception. The
vast majority of Nihont˘ 日本刀 have a lacquered Saya 鞘. While exceptions
exit such as the plain wood storage Shirasaya 白鞘 (or Yasumezaya 休め鞘), or
metal, ivory, rayskin (Samenuri 鮫塗), brocade and leather on a wooden core,
most common is the H˘noki 朴ノ木 wood Saya 鞘 with different types of lacquer
finish, called Nurizaya 塗り鞘.
Although some craftsmen / artists did the entire Koshirae 拵 work all by
themselves, often two and sometimes even more specialists in their
respective fields were involved. Usually the Saya-shi 鞘師 carved the wooden
core, and someone else did the lacquer work. In Japan there are actually
two types of lacquerers: the Nurimono-shi 塗物師, who do the foundation work
and solid colors, apply the coats of lacquer mostly with brushes, and the
Maki-e-shi 蒔絵師, who do the finishing and decorative work with the Tsutsu 筒
(which is explained later).
C1. Koshirae-shitaji 拵下地 (wood work and
assembly of the fittings).
C1a. Saya 鞘
H˘noki 朴ノ木 (magnolia hypoleuca and magnolia obovata) has been the wood of
choice for the Tsuka 柄 and Saya 鞘 since the Heian period 平安時代 on. It is
sap-free and dense, yet soft enough for carving. Also it does not easily
shrink or otherwise change dimensions with age. When freshly cut, H˘noki
朴ノ木 is almost white with a green core. When dried, it turns creamy beige
to olive - the longer the drying, the richer the color will be. Therefore,
careful Saya-shi 鞘師 usually waits 10 years after cutting the tree before
using the wood for carving.
A Saya 鞘 of a regular Koshirae 拵 goes through the following steps:
Kidori 木取り: The Saya 鞘 shape blank is cut roughly out of wood and then the
blank is cut into two halves vertically.
Kaki-ire 掻き入れ: Inside of those two halves are chiseled out for the shape
of the sword, and they are glued back together with rice paste (Norizuke
Ara-kezuri 荒削り: With the sword sheathed, the Fuchi 縁 is placed over the
Nakago 茎 on the mouth of the Saya 鞘 (Sayaguchi 鞘口) to determine the shape
and approximate thickness of the Saya 鞘; however, the finished Saya 鞘 will
be slightly thicker than the diameter of the Fuchi 縁. The Sayaguchi 鞘口 is
carved to its final shape and is used as a "template" for the remaining
Naka-kezuri 中削り: The edges of the Saya 鞘 surface are now planed, creating
an octagonal surface not unlike the Shirasaya 白鞘.
Shiage-kezuri 仕上げ削り: A small plane is used to give the Saya 鞘 surface its
final, rounded shape.
Saws, knifes and files are used to fit the Koiguchi-zuno 鯉口角, Kojiri 鐺 and
Kurigata 栗形. If so desired, a Kaeritsuno 返り角 (retaining hook) is also
added. If the sword will have a Kozuka 小柄 or K˘gai 笄 or both, pockets for
them are chiseled out of the Saya 鞘, covered with a thin wood board, and
finally planed flush with the rest of Saya 鞘. At the mouth of each pocket,
a small stripe of horn (Uragawara 裏瓦) is inlet to reinforce the opening.
All horn parts are sized with the later Sayanuri 鞘塗 in mind - especially
Koiguchi 鯉口 and Kojiri 鐺 have to be flush with the coats of lacquer on the
finished Saya 鞘. Taking this wood-horn parts-lacquer interaction into
account is most difficult when it comes to creating the slots for Kozuka
小柄 and K˘gai 笄. It takes even greater skill to make a Saya 鞘 for a Tachi
太刀 when preexisting fittings are to be used. The Saya-shi 鞘師 has to know
exactly how thick the final coats of lacquer will be in order to achieve a
perfect fit for the Kanagu 金具.
C1b. Tsuka 柄
The making of the Tsuka 柄 basically follows the same steps as the
construction of the Saya 鞘. Proper shaping of the entire Tsuka 柄 is a very
challenging task in order to obtain a look that goes along and ôflowsö
with the lines of the Saya 鞘. This is called Tsuka-nari 柄形
There are four basic shapes of Tsuka 柄:
1. Haichimonjii 刃一文字, the most common, the edge-side almost straight, the
spine-side slightly tapered, following the lines of the sword
2. Ryűgo 立鼓, hour glass shaped.
3. Imogata 芋形 ("potatoe shape"), both sides straight
4. Morozori 諸反り, closely following the shape of the Saya 鞘, mostly seen on
Tachi 太刀 and Handachi 半太刀
Additionally a slightly reverse-curved Tsuka 柄 is sometimes seen on swords
from Satsuma 薩摩 province. This type of handle shape is called Uchizori 内反り
The length of the Tsuka 柄 was (and still is) usually tailored to the
individual swordsmen's specifications. As a rule of thumb, the length of
the handle of a Katana 刀 is twice the width of one hand plus two fingers,
the Wakizashi 脇差 1Ż hand widths, and the Tant˘ 短刀 one hand width. The
average length of a Katana-Tsuka 刀柄 in the Edo period 江戸時代 used to be 8
Sun (24 cm).
The Nakago 茎 has to be inlet very precisely to avoid any looseness that
could lead to the wood breaking when stress is applied on the Tsuka 柄
during use. The two halves of the Tsuka 柄 are not aligned at the center of
the Nakago 茎, but slightly offset so that the edge of the Nakago 茎 faces
solid wood but not the seam line to reduce the risk of breakage.
Special care must be given to the outer dimensions of the Tsuka 柄 and
fitting of the Fuchi 縁 and Kashira 頭 to allow for the later application of
Samegawa 鮫皮. There are three methods of applying the Same 鮫: panels
(Tanzaku-kise 短冊着); a full wrap where the seam of the Same 鮫 is on the
backside (Haraawase-kise 腹合せ着); and a full wrap where the edges of the
Same 鮫 overlap (Maedare-kise 前垂れ着).
Once the wood core is properly shaped and Same 鮫 is properly applied, the
Mekugi-ana 目釘穴 is opened by using an auger and a reamer. Then the Koshirae
拵 goes back to the Shirogane-shi 白金師 who already made the Habaki 鎺 (i.e.,
collar) and two temporary Seppa 切羽 (i.e., rectangular copper plates with
cutouts for the Nakago 茎). He now will do the finishing work on the Seppa
切羽, adjusting their shape to ensure a pleasant transition between Tsuba 鍔
and Fuchi 縁, and Tsuba 鍔 and Koiguchi 鯉口. Often the rims of the Seppa 切羽
are patterned by filing, and they will then be gold plated.
C2. Koshirae-shiage 拵仕上げ (finishing work).
C2a. Sayanuri 鞘塗 (Saya 鞘 lacquering)
Most Saya 鞘 receive a lacquer finish Urushi 漆. Japanese lacquer is
harvested from the lacquer tree (rhus vernicifera) in a fashion similar to
harvesting rubber from the rubber tree. That is, a series of slanted cuts
are made in the bark, and the viscous, milky white sap flows into a small
container attached to the tree. An average of 200 grams can be harvested
from a tree per year. The natural sap is then filtered for wood chips and
other foreign matter, and this Ki-urushi 生漆 (i.e., raw lacquer) is packed
airtight to prevent the sap from turning dark brown and hardening by the
exposure to air before it leaves the Urushi-ya 漆屋 (i.e., lacquer-supply
Japanese Urushi 漆 consists of 67.3% urushiol (urushic acid, C15H25O2),
5.5% gum, 2.1% nitrogen containing albuminoids, and 25.1% volatile acid
and water. The absorption of oxygen by urushic acid in the Muro 室, drying
cabinet, leads to the hardening: C15H25O2 + O = C15H25O3, oxyurushic acid.
Actually "drying" is a wrong choice of a word, since not the evaporation
of moisture hardens Urushi 漆. A chemical reaction takes place due to a
laccase enzyme that reacts to urushiol in an environment of 68░ ~ 80░F
(20░ ~ 27░C) and 65 ~ 80% RH, resulting in oxidative polymerization.
Urushi 漆 does not adhere well to metal, which also rusts easily in the
humid, warm Muro 室. When lacquering armor, the workpiece is heated to 270
~ 330░F (130░ ~ 170░C) for 30 ~ 60 minutes, thus causing heat
polymerization not depending on the function of the laccase, and forming a
much stronger bond, though this method does not work with wood for obvious
The lacquer tree is a species of sumac and its sap is more or less
poisonous. Thus many people develop a rash when exposed to it, sometimes
even when only entering a room where Urushi 漆 is processed. A typical
lacquer rash occurs when the skin comes in direct contact with uncured
Urushi 漆and urushiol reacts to the skin proteins. For this reason, contact
with freshly lacquered items should be avoided for about three months.
Ki-urushi 生漆 is colored by adding pigments or oxides, after which it is
filtered again. This is repeated until the artist is satisfied with the
color achieved. It then is applied with brushes to the Saya 鞘 in a very
thin coat (because thick coats do not cure completely) before going into
the Muro 室 Depending on the weather and season, the lacquerer maintains
the air condition in the Muro 室 for three days, until the lacquer is
cured. The Saya 鞘 is then ground and polished, and another thin coat of
Urushi 漆 is applied. This procedure is repeated until the coating has the
desired thickness and luster.
Although the best Ki-urushi 生漆, called Kij˘mi 生上味, is produced in Japan,
its very limited quantity being harvested there necessitates importation
of lacquer from China. Chinese lacquer becomes more brittle with age, but
due to the scarcity of Kij˘mi 生上味 it accounts for the majority of lacquer
used in Japan, at least for foundation lacquering.
Even more scarce is Seshime 石漆: While Ki-urushi 生漆 is taken from the trunk
of the tree, Seshime 石漆 comes from the branches. A single coat of Seshime
石漆 needs two weeks to dry, and becomes extremely hard with an enamel-like
appearance. However, Seshime 石漆 is not used by itself, but mixed with
Ki-urushi 生漆 because the high cost and extended curing time renders it
impractical for exclusive usage. It was the favorite lacquer for Saya 鞘,
but only wealthy customers could afford it.
Irizeshime 入石漆 (which, although implying otherwise, is not Seshime 石漆 at
all but Ki-urushi 生漆 thinned with camphor) is used for Fuku-urushi 拭漆,
"lacquer wiping." This transparent, light brown lacquer is wiped on and
off with absorbent cotton, and is used for sealing the wood as well as for
the two or three finishing coats.
As already mentioned, Urushi 漆 can be colored by adding certain agents
such as vermilion for Shu-urushi 朱漆, red lacquer, or a solution made by
boiling iron filings in vinegar for R˘-urushi 蠟漆. Kuro-r˘-iro 黒蠟色 ("black
wax color") is the lustrous, jet-black lacquer we commonly see on many
Saya 鞘. Though the lacquerer usually mixes colors himself, R˘iro 蠟色 is the
only exception that can be bought ready made from the Urushi-ya 漆屋.
The wood core of the Saya 鞘 is first primed with Irizeshime 入石漆, and then
covered by a mixture of Urushi 漆, chopped hemp and rice starch. Then a
coat of Sabi 錆 is applied, 1.5 parts of Urushi 漆 and 2 parts burnt clay.
Hempen cloth (Nuno 布) is glued on with Urushi 漆 to prevent the wood from
cracking later on. Again a few coats of Sabi 錆 are used, followed by
several coats of R˘-urushi 蠟漆. After each application the Saya 鞘 is dried
in the Muro 室, and then very carefully polished with powdered charcoal and
other abrasives since even the smallest unevenness would show on the final
surface as if magnified. This Honji 本地, or priming procedure, is done by
the Nurimono-shi 塗物師, and can consist of as many as 50 or 60 steps.
Now the Saya 鞘 may go to the Maki-e-shi 蒔絵師. In addition to solid colors
and combinations thereof, a wide variety of Maki-e 蒔絵, sprinkled lacquer
"pictures," are possible. The Tsutsu 筒, a hollow bamboo tube covered with
gauze on one end, is tapped with a finger to dispense different kinds of
powders onto the still wet coat of Urushi 漆. After drying, it follows
polishing and coats of Irizeshime 入石漆.
Methods of decoration are Hira-maki-e 平蒔絵 and Taka-maki-e 高蒔絵, low and
raised designs respectively. Hira-maki-e 平蒔絵 is a design raised only by
the thickness of lacquer used, while R˘-urushi 蠟漆, camphor and lamp-black
is boiled for a paste to model a relief that is then lacquered to produce
Taka-maki-e 高蒔絵. What deserves special mention is Togidashi 研出, where
basically Hira-maki-e 平蒔絵 is covered with R˘-urushi 蠟漆 and then polished
to show the design flush with the surrounding lacquer. Besides the
pictorial designs of those three procedures, small gold flakes or ground
shells, among other materials, can be sprinkled with the Tsutsu 筒 to
achieve effects like Nashiji 梨地, Aogai 青貝, Ishime 石目 and so forth, which
are used alone or as a background.
The worst enemy of finished Urushi 漆 is direct sunlight, which turns the
lacquer dull and might even make it flake off. R˘-iro 蠟色 of lower quality
turns brownish opaque when exposed to light for an extended period of
C2b Tsukamaki 柄巻 (hilt binding)
The most common wrapping method is Tsumami-maki つまみ巻, where the Ito 糸 is
"pinched" at the crossing, followed by Hineri-maki 捻り巻, where the Ito 糸 is
folded over twice at a 90 degree angle at the crossing. Tachi 太刀 were
usually done in Hira-maki 平巻, where the Ito 糸 is simply crossed over.
Jabara-ito 蛇腹糸 is made of eight (or sometimes even more) individual
strands of silk thread that are sewed together, and is considered a
decorative wrap of the highest quality.
Though has not been historically substantiated, traditional Kabuki 歌舞伎 and
Jidaigeki 時代劇 (period movies) show the rank of a Samurai 侍 by the color of
the Tsukamaki 柄巻 in black, blue, dark brown, light brown, gray, and white
in an ascending order. However, since this roughly approximates the
percentages of Tsuka 柄 colors found on real swords, the idea might not be
totally incorrect after all. One reason for this ôrankingö could be that
lighter colors easily become dirty, thus were hardly used for any
occasions other then rituals, but would still require costly new wrap if
they are ever soiled or stained. On the other hand, darker colors are more
forgiving, thus appropriate for regular use, saving the owner the expense
of frequent new Tsukamaki 柄巻
C3. Kod˘gu 小道具 / Kanagu 金具 (metal fittings)
The materials most commonly used for sword fittings are iron (Testsu 鉄),
Shakud˘ 赤銅, Shibuichi 四分一 and Sentoku 宣徳 Other than iron, they are all
copper-based alloys which may contain precious metals.
Shakud˘ 赤銅 is an alloy of copper and gold, whereas Shibuichi 四分一 (ôone out
of fourö) is an alloy of one part silver and three parts copper Sentoku 宣徳
is an alloy of copper, lead and zinc that is a variety of brass. Pure gold
(Kin 金), pure silver (Gin 銀) and bronze (Seid˘ 青銅) were seldom used. Iron
was the most used material for Tsuba 鍔, while Shakud˘ 赤銅 was the most used
for Fuchi 縁, Kashira 頭, Menuki 目貫, Kozuka 小柄 and K˘gai 笄
In the old days fittings made of Shibuichi 四分一 were the most expensive,
but nowadays collectors pay the highest price for Shakud˘ 赤銅. Although
Shakud˘ 赤銅 fittings are generally priced higher than Tetsu 鉄, the highest
individual prices are usually fetched by nicely patinated, relatively
unpretentious iron Tsuba 鍔. Russet iron has the look of being "shibumi 渋み"
(understated elegance), which is highly admired by sophisticated
These materials attain their beautiful patination through a special
pickling bath, the result of which gives Shakud˘ 赤銅 a deep violet-black
color, Shibuichi 四分一 shades of olive-brown to silvery-gray, Sentoku 宣徳 a
yellowish color, and copper different tones of red. The most desirable
color for copper is Suaka 素銅. Suaka 素銅 (or Akagane 赤金) is very refined
copper that shows an orange-red hue when patinated. Yamagane 山金 ("mountain
metal") is unrefined copper with many color variations. Although all those
patination colors form only a thin layer on the surface, they are
practically permanent as long as they are not subjected to scratching or
All of the above patinas can also be seen on both polished and textured
surface like the one often encountered with Shakud˘ 赤銅 Nanako 七子, a
fish-roe pattern, is where each single grain is created by a cup-head
punch. High quality of artistic work shows a ground of regular rows,
uniformity in size, shape and spacing. It is not difficult to imagine how
many hours of work - besides a keen eyesight and a steady hand - this
would take even on only a very small surface like a Kashira 頭.
C4. Mekugi 目釘 (pin to fasten the Tsuka 柄 to
The Mekugi 目釘 is mostly made of seasoned, smoked bamboo (Susudake すす竹)
because of its elastic yet tough fibers. It is carved into a convex
shaped, and mostly inserted from the side of the Tsuka 柄 that is covered
by the palm of the right hand. Sometimes horn or metal was used instead of
bamboo, but usually not on swords intended for actual usage. It is
important to note, however, that the Mekugi 目釘 is not solely responsible
for holding the handle to the blade: The friction on the bladeĺs tang
caused by a perfectly inlet Tsuka 柄 is another very important factor,
perhaps even more important than the Mekugi 目釘 itself
C5. Menuki 目貫 (hilt ornaments)
Menuki 目貫 were originally used to cover the Mekugi 目釘 and prevent it from
slipping out Later on they became purely ornamental, and were placed about
one hands width from the Fuchi 縁 on the Omote 表 (outward side) and the
Kashira 頭 on the Ura 裏 (side facing the body) on Tachi 太刀. However, when
the Uchigatana 打刀 was "invented," the placement did not change for
traditional reasons, even though the sword was now worn edge up. This
resulted in a reversed position of the Menuki 目貫 to what is seen on Tachi
An additional benefit of the Menuki 目貫 placement of Tachi 太刀 was the
better grip on the Tsuka 柄, since the Menuki 目貫 filled the gap in the palm
of the hand. On Uchigatana 打刀, Gyaku-Menuki 逆目貫 (ôreversed Menuki 目貫ö), or
Menuki目貫 placed in ergonomically correct position, so to speak, were
almost exclusively found on Yagyű-Koshirae 柳生拵.
That Menuki 目貫 became more or less decorative elements of the Tsuka 柄 is
more evident on Tant˘ 短刀 (and to a lesser degree on Wakizashi 脇差). On the
short handle of a Tant˘ 短刀 they were almost opposite of each other, and
sometimes omitted altogether.
C6. Tsuba 鍔
During combat a Tsuba 鍔 might protect the hands from being cut by the
opponentĺs sword to a certain degree However, its main purpose is to
prevent oneĺs own hand from slipping forward unto the blade. The average
diameter of a Katana-Tsuba 刀鍔 therefore seldom exceeds about 7.5 cm (or 3
inches). The majority of Tsuba 鍔 are made of iron, but in the Edo period
江戸時代 Shakud˘ 赤銅 was often used as an alternative material, especially on
Sometimes it might be difficult to determine the front side (i.e. facing
the Tsuka 柄) and the back side (i.e., facing the blade) of a Tsuba 鍔. If
the Tsuba 鍔 has a Kozuka-hitsu 小柄櫃 or K˘gai-hitsu 笄櫃 (i.e., slots for
Kozuka 小柄 and K˘gai 笄), the one for the Kozuka 小柄 should always be to the
left, and the one for the K˘gai 笄 always to the right. The Mei 銘
(inscription) of the maker is usually on the front, but there are
sometimes exceptions. In most cases the more decorated side is the front
side. If it is an undecorated Tsuba 鍔, or a Sukashi-Tsuba 透し鍔, without any
slots, the side showing more wear is probably to the left, thus to the
body of the wearer.
- "Das Buch der ostasiatischen Lackkunst" by
Dr. Kurt Herberts
- "Edo no Tant˘-Koshirae 江戸の短刀拵" by Masanobu Ide
- "Edo no T˘ken-Koshirae 江戸の刀剣拵" by Masanobu Ide
- "Nihont˘ no Kansh˘ Kisochishiki 日本刀の鑑賞基礎知識" by
Nobuo Ogasawara 小笠原信夫
- "Nihont˘ no Koshirae 日本刀の拵" by Nobuo Ogasawara
- "Nihont˘ Y˘go Jiten 日本刀用語辞典" by Kot˘ken
- ôSakut˘ no Dent˘ Gih˘ 作刀の伝統技法ö by Takuo Suzuki
- "Satsuma Koshirae 薩摩拵" by Ichir˘ Zusho 調所一郎
- "Swords of the Samurai" by Victor Harris and
- "The Arts of the Japanese Sword" by B. W.
- "The Sword and SamÚ" by Henri L. Joly and
- "T˘s˘ no Subete 刀装のすべて" by Kenichi Kokubo 小窪健一
- "T˘ken Bijutsu" No. 41 (English edition) by
- ôWas Ch˘nin class allowed to wear/carry swords
in Edo period?ö by S. Alexander Takeuchi