Japanese Swords

In no country has the sword been made an object of such honor as in Japan. The most minute detailed etiquette presided over it. It is at once a divine symbol, a knightly weapon, and a certificate of noble birth. “The girded sword is the soul of the Samurai.” The gods wore and wielded two-edged swords. From the tail of the Dragon was born the sword which the Sun Goddess gave to her grandson, with the injunction: ” Combat the enemies of thy kingdom with this sword, and slay them on the edge of it.”

Another version says : ” When Sosanoo was in banishment an eight-headed dragon had eaten up all the virgins in the land. He enticed the dragon to drink intoxicating liquor, slew him, and found in his tail a magnificent sword, called ` Cloud-cluster,’ which became one of the three emblems of the Japanese sovereigns. This sword, in the hands of Yamato Dake, turned the flames lit by the Ainos to destroy the Japanese army, and consumed them or set them to flight. Yamato Dake did this by cutting down the grass, and for this reason he changed the name of the sword to ` Grass-mower.’ ”

The Katana (sword) has always been considered the badge of gentle condition in Japan, and has ever been associated in the minds of foreigners with the Yakunin (official), or the Samurai (daimio’s armed retainer). The long sword was used for fighting, the short sword for suicide. Many warriors greatly preferred death to surrender, and always wished to have the means about them. The long sword was never used for suicide, being thought unworthy, as it had been used against an enemy.

The rules of observances connected with the wearing of the long and short or the single sword were most minute, but have fallen into disuse. Gradually the wearing of these weapons had almost ceased, and with the opening of Japan to the intercourse of western nations, the practice, except by officers of the army and the navy, was prohibited by the government. But in former days the most trivial breach of these minute observances was often the cause of murderous brawls and dreadful reprisals. To touch another’s weapon or to come into collision with the sheath was a dire offence, and to enter a friend’s house without leaving the sword outside a breach of friendship. Those whose position justified the accompaniment of an attendant invariably left the sword in his charge at the entrance, or, if alone, it was usually laid down at the entrance. If removed inside this was in-variably done by the host’s servants, and then not touched with the bare hand, but with a silk napkin, kept for the purpose ; the sword was placed upon a sword-rack, in the place of honor, near the guest, and treated with all the politeness due to an honored visitor who would resent a discourtesy.

The long sword (if two were worn) was withdrawn sheathed from the girdle with the right hand, and placed on the right side, an indication of friendship, as it could not be drawn and. used thus; never was it drawn with the left hand, or placed on the left side, except when in immediate danger of attack. To exhibit a naked weapon was a gross insult, unless when a gentleman wished to show his friends his collection. To express a wish to see a sword was not usual, unless a blade of great value was in question, when such a request would be a compliment the happy possessor would appreciate. The sword would then be handed with the back towards the guest, the edge turned towards the owner and the hilt to the left, the guest wrapping the hilt, either in a sheet of clean paper or in the little silk napkin always carried by gentlemen in their pocket-books. The weapon was drawn from the scabbard and admired inch by inch, but not to the full length, unless the owner pressed his guest to do so, when with much apology the sword was entirely drawn and held away from the other persons present. After being admired, it would, if apparently necessary, be carefully wiped with a special cloth, sheathed and returned to the owner as before.

The short sword was retained in the girdle, but at a prolonged visit both host and guest laid it aside. Women did not wear swords in their girdles by right or fashion, although when travelling it was often done. On the occasion of fires, the ladies of the Palace sometimes placed side-arms in their girdles.

The ordinary length of the Katana blade was 2 feet – 89/100 inches the small sword, or Wakizashi, worn with it, 1 foot 10 inches. In full dress the color of the scabbard was black, with a slight tinge of green or red ; the binding of the hilt, blue silk ; the mountings of the guard and hilt shakudo (alloy of copper and gold). The names of makers are innumerable, and each has his particular form of blade, etc., and mode of welding the hard metal of the edge to the softer and tougher body and backing.

Swords more than three centuries old are common enough, and all of a later date are called ” new blades ” (Shinto). There are blades known to be nearly ten centuries old, though these are very rare now. Ama-kuni and Shin-soku are two of the oldest makers whose swords are still in existence.

The Chisa-katana is about two feet long to two and a half feet, and lighter than the ordinary blade, and is worn with the naga hakama and court-dress called daimon (large crest). The Metezashi (right-hand use) is a short sword, stuck in the girdle behind, the hilt to the right, used in fighting if the wearer be thrown and unable to draw the swords on the left side of the girdle.. The Aikuchi is a short dirk without a guard, worn by doctors, artists, and those with the rank of Hoin and Hogen (about equal to officials of the fourth and fifth ranks). The Tanto and Mamori katana are stilettos about a foot or less long, worn in the girdle by officers, gentlemen, and nobles, in place of the more cumbrous Wakizashi. The Jintachi (war sword), a long heavy two-handed sword, generally carried by a sword-bearer when not in immediate use.. The Nodatchi is a sword of medium size, worn when hunting or rambling in country places for pleasure. The Tatchi is hung from the girdle by two slings ; there are several styles. The Shin-no-tatchi has a shagreen hilt, and on the guard and scabbard and other mountings there should be seventy-five examples of the crest of the owner. The Yefu-no-tatchi has a lacquered and gilt scabbard ; the Sayamaki is a portion of the scab-bard bound with silk. The mountings are numerous and the making of them is a special and honorable trade. Goto Yujo was a celebrated maker of the XVth century whose descendants still exist. The work of this family is called Iyebori (the family’s chasings)..

The first group called ” articles of three places,” comeprises, first, the ferrule on the head of the hilt, and the ring behind the guard ; second, the two pieces of metal inter-woven with the silk binding of the hilt, used to hide the hole of the rivet, and to ensure a better and firmer grasp of the sword-hilt; and third, the small knife and skewer-like pieces of metal inserted into the scabbard so as to be drawn out for use at pleasure. The small knife (Ko-katana) bore the owner’s name engraved upon it. When the murder of a relative was avenged, at night or in a secret place, the head of the victim was cut off, and the avenger plucking out his Ko-katana, thrust it in the ear of the victim, and let it lie on the public highway, or sent it to be deposited before the gate of the victim’s house ; the Ko-katana with the name engraved on it told the whole story. The two skewers were formerly used to thrust through the top-knot of the head of a decapitated enemy to carry it, but they are now used as chop sticks.

The guard (Tsubu) is often a wonderful piece of workmanship in metal. Those of Nanban (southern iron) were considered the best, though other valuable metals, worked up with gold, silver, etc., into a detailed picture of battles, hunting, or scenery, were used. Nearly every article connected with the sword was richly inlaid to correspond. Guards were also made of several thicknesses of leather or raw hide, called Neritsuba, of Shakudo, of Shibuichi, of solid silver, gold, and iron. The Seppa are washers of which there is one or more above and below the guard, made of flat pieces of metal, brass, silver or gold. The Habaki is a ferrule on the ” forte ” of the sword extending about an inch below the guard, made of the same metal as the Seppa. The Kojiri is the ornamental ferrule on the lower end of the scabbard, often very expensively inlaid to match the other mountings. The Kurikata is the small cleat on the scabbard through which the Sage-wo, or silk cord, is rove; this is of various materials and generally made as part of the scabbard. The Saguri is a small hook on the scabbard to prevent the sword slipping too far through the girdle. The Tskaito is the silk cord bound crosswise on the hilt. There are several styles of binding, Maki, Dashi me nuki, Katate maki, Neomaki, etc. Some swords have only short skin hilts without silk, but generally the silk binding is over the skin (Same), those pieces having the largest nodules being most valuable.

The sheath or scabbard (Scia) is made of a wood called Ho, generally lacquered. Black and dark colors are preferred : gaudy crimson and variegated colors are affected by the old “swashbucklers.” Leather covers are worn over the handsomely lacquered scabbards ; shark-skin ground down, inlaid with shell-work or peculiar kinds of lacquer, is sometimes seen on scabbards. The Sage-wo is the long silk cord, of various kinds and colors of sennet, about five feet in length for large swords, half that for short swords, used to bind up the sleeves preparatory to fighting. On journeys the gentleman’s sword-bearer carried the honored blade covered with the Shiki hada, a sword-case of leather or cloth emblazoned with the owner’s crest.