Framework of the Japanese Sword: A piece-by-piece analysis

japanese sword

Swordsmanship is a deeply integral part of Japanese culture and a unique form of artistry. This ancient art form is so embedded in the region’s history that weapons meeting the highest standards of craftsmanship are deemed national treasures. The Japanese sword is also a central part of many Japanese martial arts. This includes Ninjustu amongst others. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) once wrote, “The sword is the soul of the samurai.” That being said, it is only fitting that one should understand all the pieces, which compose this extension of the warrior. The most commonly know types of Japanese swords are the tachi, katana, wakazashi, odachi, and nagamaki. For the purpose of this article, the term “sword” and “katana” will be used interchangeably. This is not uncommon in the art.

A Shinken 真剣 is a real Japanese sword with a sharp edge and is used in iaijutsu (combat practice),  and/or tameshigiri (cutting practice). An Iaito 居合刀 is a Japanese sword with a dull edge used for practicing.

The Scabbard (Saya)

Japanese SwordThe saya is the case, in which the Japanese sword is held. It is usually made of wood and for Ninjutsu practitioners it can prove to be much more than just a case. For example; by carrying a saya that is slightly longer than the katana’s blade, blinding powder or throwing darts could be hidden inside. If the bottom piece of the saya was made to be removable, it could also be used as a snorkel for water missions. ‘ Iaido is the art of smooth, controlled movements of drawing the Japanese sword from its saya, striking or cutting an opponent, removing blood from the blade (if applicable), and then replacing the sword.

  • Batto – The drawing of the sword from it’s sheath
  • Chiburi – The motion(s) taken to remove the blood from the katana (It’s highly disrespectful to re-sheath a sword with enemy blood still on it)
  • Noto – The sheathing of the sword.

The Belt Cord
(Sageo)

The sageo is tied to the shinobi’s belt to prevent the saya from slipping out of place or being lost. A longer sageo would allow the ninja to carry it in the teeth if climbing became necessary and this way the katana would not interfere with the climbing movement. It could also be used to tie back the sleeves of loose fitting clothing.

The Hilt (Tsuka)

The tsuka is hilt or handle of the Japanese sword, which is the part of the sword it’s user would hold. It is usually made of wood, covered in rayskin and wrapped in a specifc cord called “ito”. Traditional katanas often had a tsuka in excess of 15 inches long. Most modern katana range around 11 inches. The length of the tsuka is relevant as it allows the user’s hands to be farther apart which increase control and cutting power.

  • Ito – “Wrapping
Ito” is the name of the cord wrapped a very specific way around the tsuka.
  • Same – The same is the rayskin, which covers the tsuka has hundreds of little bumps on it for gripping and is usually white in color and can be seen underneath the ito.
  • Nakago/Tang  – 
The nakago is the part of the blade that his held inside the tsuka, usually kept in place by two bamboo pins. The sturdiness of the katana is dependent upon the depth of the nakago.
  • Menuki – These are the charms under the ito and on top of the same. These menuki were often a trademark of the sword maker.
  • Mekugi – These are the bamboo pins
that hold the nakago in place.

The Fittings (Fuchi/Kashira)

Kashira is the fitting on the butt of the tsuka. The Fuchi is the fitting just under the tsuba. Both of these, like the menuki, are considered a signature of the Japanese sword maker. Their purpose is to hold together the tsuka and hold the ito in place. They often feature engravings that represent the artistry of the creator.

The Cut Guard (Tsuba)

The part of the katana which separates the tsuka from the blade is called the tsuba. It protects the hand from slipping onto the blade and from being cut by an enemy. One type of Japanese sword called a “shirasaya” does not have a tsuba.

The Collar (Habaki)

Habaki is the square piece which wraps around the base of the blade and is connected to the tsuba. It is usually made of brass or iron. It serves with the nakago to keep the blade firmly in place.

The Blade (Ken)

Japanese SwordJapanese sword making is a traditional art form in the region, which is passed on from generation to generation. Each ken has a unique profile, which is dependent upon the individual swordsmith and method of construction.

Shinogi -The most identifiable part of the katana is the middle ridge, which creates a bend in its shape. This is called the “shinogi.” The original samurai sword was straight, but as the art evolved it was found that the curved design was less likely to break.

The Wave Frost (Hamon)

The Japanese sword making process of heat tempering and fast cooling of the ken causes the edge to create a wave pattern, called a hamon. Because of this process, the pattern of the hamon should be random and inconsistent. If the waves are even, the hamon did not come from cooling.

The Grain (Hada)

The grain is the pattern on the surface of the blade. It is formed during the forage and folding process. There are many different types of grain and each one is produced according to the technique used by the maker. Some examples of different Hada are as follows:

  • Masame Hada – This grain is produced with the steel billet is folded over in the same direction repeatedly using the sides of the billet to form the face of the blade creating a stack of layers.
  • Ayasugi Hada – Using the basic technique of Masame Hada the strength of the hammer blows along the blade are varied systematically distort the flow to create this grain.
  • Itame Hada – The billet is folded either in the same or alternate directions during foraging and the face of the billet, as opposed to the side, is used to make the face of the ken.
  • Mokume Hada – This grain contains varied circular patterns created using the Itame technique with varied strength of hammer blows.

The Blood Groove (Hi)

The Hi is the “blood groove,” which can also be referred to as just the “groove,” runs along the length of the ken toward the flat edge on either side of the sword. This groove is rumored to have been created to give blood a place to run along the blade so that it could be easily cleaned off. There are two kinds of hi. The standard hi ends just before the base of the blade. The extended hi reaches all the way to the nakago. The hi actually serves to make the sword lighter while maintaining its integrity.

Tachikaze– The whistling sound when the sword is swung is called the tachikaze and is generated from the hi. This sound can indicate the angle of the cut by the number of whistles audible to the swordsman. If one whistle is heard it means that just one groove is making the whistle. Two whistles are generated from one groove and the edge of the blade. When both grooves and the edge are angled perfectly with the direction of the cut, three whistles can be heard.

The Cutting Edge (Yaiba) Yaiba is one half of the character ‘shinobu’or ‘nin’ which means ‘to endure’ and is one half of the kanji for ‘ninjutsu. Yaiba is also the word for the cutting edge of the ken. This is the part of the blade where the hammon appears.

  • Ha – The ha is the tempered edge of the cutting blade.
  • Mune – The back edge of the cutting blade.

The Tip (Kissaki)

Kissaki is the rounded part of the blade at the end where the point is. This is the part of the sword used to “tsuki” or thrust into the enemy in battle. The tip can be long (okissaki), medium (chukissaki), short (kokissaki), or even hooked backwards (ikuri-okissaki). In addition, whether the front edge of the tip is more curved (fukura-tsuku) or (relatively) straight (fukura-kareru) is also important.

Boshi – The hamon pattern in the tip of the Japanese sword is called the boshi. It is difficult to create and reflects the skill of the maker. Yokote – The yokote is a small ridge at right angles to the shinogi, which signifies the separation of the kissaki from the rest of the ken.

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2 thoughts on “Framework of the Japanese Sword: A piece-by-piece analysis

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