In the following exposition I will try to explain my understanding of Japanese swords – a subject which first enchanted me about 50 years ago – with common English terms. I will refrain from using Japanese terms when not required.
Understand that Samurai and their weapons were part of Japanese history over several centuries. To say that some item or use never was accepted or it was the one, true item or way a real Samurai would use or act often cannot be pinned down as customs and usage did evolve over time. In this discussion I will mainly be presenting the ultimate condition of the Samurai caste and the swords they carried up to the middle of the 19th century.
The sword was considered the soul of the Samurai. But exactly what was a Samurai?
From the 12th century until 1868 Japanese society was rigidly structured into 4 castes (with numerous other groups outside and socially beneath these castes) placing the Samurai at the top, followed by Farmers, then Artisans, with Merchants at the bottom. At the end of this feudal period Samurai made up only 7% of the Japanese population. The Samurai and royalty were the only Japanese to bear family names.
In the beginning, the primary weapon of the Samurai was the bow and arrow, with the spear being secondary. The sword was a personal weapon and almost always the weapon of last resort. In combat, should the Samurai run out of arrows and lose or break his spear, upon drawing his sword it was not uncommon for him to discard the scabbard signaling that he did not intend to live long enough to need it anymore.
As you would expect for a country with a strict social caste system ruled by warriors Japan never really knew peace for much of its history. However, for most Samurai much of their time was spent in cities and fortresses which made every day carry of a bow or spear impractical. For this reason over time the sword became their primary weapon mostly because it was what he could expect to have immediately available.
Samurai were the only Japanese who could legally carry a pair of swords – the long sword, either Katana or Tachi, and the shorter sword known as Wakizashi. This pair of swords was the badge of their caste. The Katana differs from the Tachi mostly in the format of the scabbard furnishings – the Katana scabbard was thrust through the Obi (waist sash) with the cutting edge upwards while the Tachi had two metal hangers or attachments with a cord which was to be wrapped and tied around the waist, suspending the blade with the cutting edge downwards. As the Katana was easier to remove from one’s body – something one would do often in an urban lifestyle – it became the preferred long blade over the Tachi. For this reason I will be focusing my discussion on the Katana.
The Japanese sword differs from swords of most other cultures in that it was constructed to be easily disassembled. The entire assembly was held together by a single, bamboo pin. The handle was constructed of two halves of wood, glued and often pinned together in a single unit. It had a flat guard and an end cap where the pommel would have been on a European sword.
The handle had a hole bored through it side to side at a point that corresponded to a hole in the tang. The bamboo pin was sized to fit in this hole and hold the sword assembly together with a friction fit that put slight tension on the tang of the sword.
Japanese sword furnishings are a standard pattern for all Japanese blades from short daggers to immense, two handed swords often longer than the men who carried them. While the pattern was a common standard for any fighting blade the nomenclature had some slight variations. In general, one can expect that each of these items will be ornate and even have gilded features or inlaid with precious metals. I will give the most commonly used Japanese name for each item in parenthesis – but use the English equivalent in my explanation.
Here are the components of a standard Katana – Scabbard, blade with Hit-extension, Washer, Guard, and Handle assembly. Like many old blades the one here has more than one hole showing that it has been re-shaped and re-polished three times. Often this is does when the tip has been broken or damaged and requires a new hole to be drilled through the tang.
Hilt-extension (Habaki) – this is a wedge-shaped copper, brass, or bronze tapered block which the blade’s tang passes through. It is fit tightly to the base of the blade and fits snuggly into the mouth of the scabbard. This holds the blade securely in place while in the scabbard.
Hilt-washer (Seppa) – This is a thin washer which the tang passes through after the Hilt-extension and before the Guard. These would be changed with thicker or thinner replacements as the different components of the handle and furnishings became worn or were replaced over time. It is not unusual for a blade to have more than one Hilt-washer – usually on opposite sides of the Guard.
Guard (Tsuba) – This is the handguard which protects the user’s hand from being struck by the opponent’s blade. The tang passes through this before attaching the handle assembly.
Hilt-collar (Fuchi) – This is a metal ferrule on the handle which goes against the inside of the Guard.
Handle (Tsuka) – This is the wooden handle which goes over the tang.
Sharkskin (Samehada) – This is a single sheet of polished shark (or ray) skin which is wrapped around the handle.
Cord wrapping (Tsukamaki) – The Cord wrapping which goes around the Sharkskin. This is a flat silk or cotton woven cord which is folded or twisted in intervals which gives the traditional diamond-pattern seen on most Japanese swords. This pattern also provides a practical grip surface.
Pin covers (Menuki) – These are a pair of flat metal ornaments, one on each side, held in place by the Cord wrapping. These covered the pin holes and would hold the pin in place should it somehow become loose.
Pin (Mekugi) – This is the bamboo pin which holds the Handle on the tang.
Endcap (Kashira) – This is a cap which goes on the end of the Handle opposite the hilt end. The Endcap is held on the Handle by the Cord wrapping which passes through holes in the Endcap.
Scabbard (Saya) – This is the housing for the blade in which the sword is carried. It has its own group of standard furnishings with numerous examples where some items are omitted.
Scabbards were made of wood and generally lacquered or sometimes covered in metal, or ray or shark skin. These were the primary surface treatments although other finishes or coverings may be encountered. The scabbard has a small wooden (sometimes metal) protrusion (Kurigata) on the outside (away from the body) surface at the balance point of the sword and scabbard. This had a hole for attaching a long cord which could be used to secure the scabbard to the Samurai’s sash when the he was expecting to be moving vigorously. Alternatively, this cord could be used to tie back the voluminous Kimono sleeves when a fight was expected. The cord was tied to the scabbard with an elaborate knot which could be instantly unraveled by pulling on the ends of the cord.
There is one major variant of the above handle and scabbard pattern – a plain wood set which is used for storing a blade and not designed for fighting. The only pieces of the standard furnishings which would be used with this set are the pin and the Hilt-extension. It is unusual to see these decorated.
There were two predominant types of rack which were made for Japanese swords – at the time these were basically furniture, somewhere to put one’s swords when not wearing them. In present time I see these used to display swords but it seems few people, even Japanese, understand the correct way to place swords on these. One common rack is made for two swords held horizontally. This is made for a pair of swords, the Katana on top and Wakizashi on the lower position. Both blades should be placed on the rack cutting edge up. If a Tachi is on this type of rack in place of the Katana the Tachi is placed on the rack with the cutting edge down.
The other type of rack you might encounter is made for a single, long blade and holds the sword upright at a slight angle. The sword would be placed on this rack with the handle downward and the cutting edge towards the rack. This orientation may seem unintuitive until you realize that this would be on a Tatami mat next to you while you were seated on the mat. Preparing to leave, before standing you would first reach for your sword in which case is more practical to have the balance point towards the bottom and closer to you.
I would say something about Ninja swords but in the 50 years I have been interested in Japanese blades, having visited dozens of sword shops and museums in Japan, and in the hundreds of books I have seen in both English and Japanese, I have never seen nor even heard of an historic example. The only examples I have seen are fantasy replicas.