Japanese Sword Mountings
It has been said that the Japanese sword was the soul of the
Samurai. If this is indeed the case then, undeniably, the
blade is also the soul of the Japanese sword. All other parts
may be considered as secondary to the blade, but on a well
mounted sword, the fittings compliment, enhance it and
allow the blade to be actually used. A full set of mounts,
not including the blade, is known as the Koshirae. The
individual constituents of the Koshirae, which include
Kodogu (metal mountings)Tsuka and Tsukamaki (hilt and
hilt wrap) the Habaki and the lacquering and construction
of the Saya (scabbard) are all collaborations between
different artist and artisans with their individual
specialities, whilst the Katana Kaji (swordsmith) and
Togishi (polisher) work on the blade itself. These notes will
briefly describe the various types of Koshirae some of
which are dictated by the size of the blade.
Daito (long swords)
- the Daito may come in a number
of different types of Koshirae, regardless of the what type
of blade it may be (Tachi or Katana). Of these, probably
the most familiar is the Uichigatana or Katana Koshirae.
This, if you like, is the definitive "Samurai sword".
Usually, the Saya will have no metal mounts but an infinite
variety of lacquers may be used to decorate it. The lacquer
has the added advantage of being resistant to water or damp
and so, as in many Japanese art forms, it has a practical as
well as decorative function. The Saya will also have a
Kurigata (retaining "hook") on the Omote side (which is
sometimes metal) and is worn tucked through the Obi with
the cutting edge uppermost, familiar to all practitioners of
Iaido. The Koshirae will be complete with a Tsuba and
Tsuka which will have Fuchigashira and Menuki, variously
- Unlike the Katana described above. The
Tachi was worn with the cutting edge down and was
originally an ancient style designed for combat whilst
mounted on horseback. The Tachi's Saya will have metal
mounts (various rings, a chape and hanging devices) the
decoration of which, is usually repeated on the Tsuba and
Tsuka. Frequently the top 1/ 3rd of the Saya will be
wrapped in the same manner as the Tsuka and this
Koshirae is known as Ito-maki Tachi Koshirae (thread
wrapped). Most extant examples of this style would have
been for formal dress during the Edo period but there are
20th century examples around, usually with brass
mountings and of lower quality.
- A style of Koshirae which is a
mixture of both the Uichigatana and Tachi Koshirae, is
known as Han-dachi (half Tachi). Very popular during the
Bakamatsu (end of the Edo period) this is worn in the style
of Katana and not Tachi, but would retain a number of the
metal Saya mounts and would also have a Kurigata.
- As the name implies (small Katana) this
Koshirae differs only from the regular Katana by virtue of
its size. Although some are said to have been made for one
handed combat (Katate-mono) many were also made for the
affluent merchant class who were subject to restrictions on
the size of weapons they were allowed to wear. Such
swords are often very richly mounted and the Sayas are
ornately lacquered reflecting the ostentatious and wealthy
nature of their owners, which contrasted to the more
subdued (ideally) and restrained taste of the Samurai class.
Shoto (short swords and daggers)
- The Wakizashi was designed as the
Shoto that accompanied the Daito in the matched pair of
swords known as the Daisho (Daito + Shoto = Daisho).
The two blades of a Daisho might occasionally be by the
same maker, but the Koshirae would always be an obvious,
though not necessarily exact, matched pair. Often Daisho
have been split up and it is a collector's dream to reunite
the two swords of a Daisho (I have done this). Slots to
accommodate the small Ko-gatana (auxiliary knife) or
Kogai (a kind of skewer) are often found near the top of
the Wakizashi's Saya and, rarely, these may also be found
on Katana-koshirae. The Wakizashikoshirae, therefore, is
only different to the Katana or Han-dachi Koshirae, by
virtue of size.
- The Tanto or dagger might be worn as
part of a Daisho instead of the Wakizashi, in which case
the mounts would be in sympathy with those of the Daito.
There are three basic types of Tanto Koshirae which might
all contain similar types of blades.
a) Tanto: with a normally formed (but obviously smaller)
Tsuba, all the normal Tsuka mounts and a lacquered Saya.
They might also accommodate the Kogatana in the same
manner as a Wakizashi.
b) Hamidashi Tanto: similar to the above but
often slimmer overall and with a Tsuba that has
most of one side cut away usually to make room
for the top of the Kogatana.
c) Aikuchi Tanto: with no Tsuba at all, the Fuchi is
flush with the Koi-guchi and the name means
"close fitting mouth". Very often the Tsuka will
have no Itomaki (thread wrapping) and the
Menuki will be fixed directly onto the Same which
covers the Tsuka. This style was originally
designed for wearing with armour.
Finally, all lengths of swords might be found in
Shira-saya. This is a storage rather than a practical
mount and is plain, undecorated wood. In olden
days a rich Daimyo or Samurai might have several
different sets of Koshirae for one blade and would
keep it in a Shira-saya when not being used (the
Koshirae would be kept with a wooden blade,
known as Tsunagi). The Shira-saya is undecorated
except that sometimes an appraiser may brush an
attribution onto the Saya.
Nowadays, when a sword is sent off for polishing,
it will be returned in Shira-saya and if it has a
Koshirae a Tsunagi would be made for it. Sadly, it
is not possible in this situation, to return the blade
to the Koshirae which may have traces of dirt that
will damage the polish. A good Shira-saya also has
the advantage of being almost airtight, limiting the
blade's exposure to dampness and lowering the
risk of it rusting.
The above are the most commonly encountered
Koshirae. I have omitted the Tachi variations such
as Efu-no-tachi and Hoho-no-tachi as well as the
Shin-gunto or modern army sword, which is
modelled on the Tachi anyway. These are unlikely
to be encountered by the average Kendo or Iaido
To-Ken Society of Great Britain
Reprinted with permission from the British Kendo Assoc.