A Brief History of the Development of Koshirae
Koshirae derives from the verb “koshirareru”, which is no longer in use nowadays. Usually “tsukuru” is used instead; both mean “make, create, manufacture”. More accurate is actually “Toso”, which means sword-furniture: “Tosogu” are the parts of the mounting in general, and “Kanagu” stands for those made of metal. “Gaiso” are the “outer” mountings, as opposed to “Toshin”, the “body” of the sword.
Nihonto are classified by length and koshirae and the combination of both. Swords over 2 shaku (1 shaku ” 30.3 cm, or about 1 foot) from tip to munemachi (notch where the tang starts) are daito, from 1 to 2 shaku are shoto, and under 1 shaku are tanto. The usual daito are the katana and tachi; shoto are mostly wakizashi, and there is an infinite variety of tanto. Borderline cases are kodachi (tachi shorter than 2 shaku) and O-wakizashi (wakizashi of *almost* 2 shaku). Women used to carry a tanto in the Edo period in a “brocade bag” in their obi; this tanto for self-defense was called kaiken.
The first swords made of steel were imported from China, and had Chinese mountings. The koshirae prototypes of purely Japanese design developed during the Nara period (646 ~ 794 AD), although they were still called “Kara-tachi”, i.e. Chinese tachi. Only a few survived time, but there seemed to have been two types: swords in black lacquered wooden mountings for actual combat, and those richly decorated with semi-precious stones and fancy lacquering. Rayskin was used on the handles from time to time, but only became common during the Heian period (794 ~ 1185 AD). Swords of that time were called “Kazari-tachi” (decorative tachi) or “Hoso-tachi” (narrow tachi), already adjusting in blade construction to Japanese taste and usage. They were luxuriously mounted, and meant for use by the palace guard at the imperial court. Later on they became a little bit simpler with a “Shitogi-tsuba” (rice cake tsuba), renamed “Efu-tachi”, and were still in use during the Edo period by imperial guards and high ranking officials.
Another interesting sword is the “Kenukigata-tachi” (hairpin tachi), and there is much speculation about its usefulness. Since it has a forged handle, it must have been pretty tiresome to use, although there are some examples with battlemarks. But it is believed that it served mostly decorative purposes, or as presents to shrines to celebrate a happy occasion. Most fighting swords were pretty sombre with mountings in black lacquer or covered with leather (Kawazutsumi-tachi). At the end of the Heian period and the following Kamakura period (1185 ~ 1336 AD), the “Hyogo-Kusari-tachi” was very popular. It was named after the chain-hangers, and usually was covered with metal foil.
The first “Itomaki-no-tachi” were used in the Nambokucho period (1336 ~ 1392 AD). They had tsukamaki as well as sayamaki, i.e. there was wrapping at the upper part of the saya to prevent damage from rubbing against the armor. The itomaki-tachi became the tachi of choice for the following centuries for use in battle. Sometimes the lower part of the saya had a cover made of fur to protect it from the elements, which was called “shirizaya” (butt saya).
Although the “uchigatana” (lit. “strike-sword”) already had its predecessors in the Heian period, it became standard for foot soldiers during the Nambokucho period. Unlike the tachi, which was carried edge down, and had two obitori (hangers) on the saya, the uchigatana is worn through the sash, edge up.
Tachi were still produced during the Muromachi period (1392 ~ 1573 AD), but the uchigatana became the most common daito. Kanagu other than the tsuba, up until now made from yamagane (“mountain metal”, unrefined copper), was often made from shakudo, copper with 5% gold, patinated a deep black. Uchigatana still looked very much like tachi except for the obitori, and therefore were called “handachi”, half-tachi; this style never really went out of fashion during the next 300 years.
Since the early Muromachi period, the manufacture of tsuba became a separate profession; until then, tsuba were forged by swordsmiths, armorsmiths or Kagamishi, mirror smiths (polished disks of metal were used as mirrors). Early tsuba had sukashi, cut-outs in negative silhouette, but from now on brass inlays and positive silhouette sukashi, especially from Owari province, became more refined. The Shoami family became one of the main manufacturers of tsuba, with many generations to follow.
The Momoyama period (1573 ~ 1603 AD) is well known for its flamboyant koshirae with red lacquered saya and kanagu in gold. Those flashy mountings however were counterbalanced by Tensho-Koshirae (era name of emperor Tensho, 1573 ~ 1586 AD) with black saya and “same”, a tapered tsuka with leather binding crossed over a kashira made of horn.
Part of the tsubashi from Kyoto moved to Akasaka in Edo, and produced many fine sukashi tsuba. The Myochin family switched from manufacturing armor to making tsuba. Echizen province tsuba were dominated by the families Akao, Nagasone and Kinai; the Kinai had from their second generation on a special relationship with Echizen Yasutsugu, the Shogun’s favorite smith. They not only carved the dragon horimono for his swords, but also the Aoi-no-Gomon, the family crest of the Tokugawa, on the tang of his swords. Both motifs are also very often found on their tsuba.
In Higo province the tosogushi were encouraged by the Hosokawa Daimyo, and worked in iron, copper, brass and cloisonne. The characteristics of Higo koshirae are the rounded kashira and kojiri; the “same” is often black, and the saya in samenuri – the “valleys” in the “same’ filled with lacquer, and the “mountains” polished flush. Tsuka had often a leather wrapping. This kind of koshirae was later copied as “Edo-Higo-Koshirae”, but mostly with simpler saya and natural colored “same”.
After Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo, many artists set up their workshop there. In the Edo period (1603 ~ 1868 AD) the Goto family, which already had worked for the Ashikaga, almost dominated sword fittings, especially for the daisho. This combination of katana and wakizashi became the standard for samurai during the Momoyama period.
As with many other things, wearing of swords was regulated. For example, in Genna 9 (1624 AD), red saya, swords over 2 shaku and square tsuba were prohibited. Commoners weren’t allowed to wear swords at all.
Samurai at the castle in Edo wore the Banzashi daisho, “duty attire”. “Same” had to be white, the saya black lacquered and with horn fittings. The kojiri of the katana was flat, and that of the wakizashi rounded. The kashira had to be horn, with the black tsukamaki crossed over it (kakemaki). The fuchi and midokoromono (“things of the three places”: menuki, kogai and kozuka) had to be shakudo-nanako (fish-roe pattern) with the only decoration being the family mon (crest). The tsuba was polished shakudo without any decoration. However, this was not always strictly enforced, and kanagu with shishi (lion dogs), dragons or floral motifs were tolerated.
Samurai had to wear the “Kamishimozashi” when on official duty, with the “Kataginu” wing shoulders and “Hakama” split skirt trousers, while Kuge (court nobles), Daimyo and other high ranking officials were clad in the Hitatare court attire with Eboshi-hat, with a wakizashi at their hip. This was either an aikuchi (“meeting mouth”, i.e. without tsuba) or hamidashi (a very small tsuba) in dashizame, or hilt covered in “same” without tsukamaki. This short sword didn’t have a mekugi to fasten the hilt to the tang, which rendered it impractical, because the wearer wanted to show that – due to his high rank – he didn’t have to use it anyhow. Besides, it was a serious offense to draw a sword at court, as anybody who read or watched “Chushingura“, the 47 Ronin, would know.
Bronze, copper and brass were widely used with “regular” swords, as well as the alloy shibuichi (“one quarter”, 75% copper and 25% silver) Those soft metals were called “kinko” (gold/precious metal work) as opposed to iron mountings. Pure silver mountings are quite rare, as are pure gold mountings, which were banned in 1830.
Yokoya Somin left the Goto school, which only worked with shakudo, and invented “katakiribori”, engravings with a triangular chisel. In Nara, the Nara-Sansaku (“three makers from Nara”) (Nara Toshinaga, Sugiura Joi, and Tsuchiya Yasuchika) became famous with sunken relief.
Yagyu tsuba developed from Owari tsuba, so called after the Yagyu family, fencing instructors for the Shogun. Typical Yagyu koshirae has a ribbed saya, and the menuki are at reversed positions of regular menuki placement.
At home samurai put their daisho on a double-rack, edge up, katana on top, tsuka to the left. Actually they were greeted at the entrance of the house by their wives, who carried the swords after pulling the sleeves of their kimono over their hands in order to not touch the swords with their bare skin. They then put a tanto into their sash, which was not subject to any restrictions, and was often lavishly decorated.
Although commoners weren’t allowed to carry any swords, some of them, especially rich merchants, showed off their wealth by sporting expensive tanto, walking a very thin line between status symbol and severe punishment. Physicians wore tanto made of solid wood, and firefighters sometimes had a tanto with a saw instead of a blade.
On July 18, Shoho 2 (1645 AD), the ban of wearing swords was reduced to swords over 1.8 shaku, if one obtained a permit. This enabled travelers on the Tokaido road to arm themselves against robbers which were encountered quite frequently in unpopulated areas, and also enabled the chief of police of Edo to arm the “Okappiki”, non-samurai police.
The end of the Edo period is called “Bakumatsu”, and brought many changes to the samurai class. Some already tried western clothes, and wore “Toppei koshirae” swords, also called zubon (trousers) koshirae, which had no tsukamaki and a softly rounded kojiri. In 1871 everybody was allowed to carry a sword or to wear their hair “Chonmage”, samurai topknot. Kirisute-gomen was prohibited, which was the unpunished slaying of a non-samurai for a (real or imagined) insult. But the Haitorei edict, which took effect on January 1, 1877, limited the right of carrying swords to the military and police. Most swords concealed in a cane or walking stick are made shortly after this edict.
Swords of the Meiji (1868 ~ 1912 AD) and Taisho (1912 ~ 1926 AD) period were fashioned after French and German military sabers, and only the gunto (military swords) after 1933 saw a renaissance of Japanese design.
Koshirae of Special Interest
During the Kamakura and Nambokucho period, tachi of extended length were sometimes used on the battlefield. Those swords certainly had an intimidating effect on the enemy, but their usefulness is highly questionable since they were very awkward to handle. Most were of very low quality.
Chiisagatana, lit. “short katana”, are shoto mounted as katana. Now, one could argue that wakizashi are shoto which are mounted in a similar way to katana, and that’s absolutely correct. But we’re talking here about the predecessors of the daisho, the formal katana/wakizashi pair. In the transitional period from tachi to katana, katana were called “uchigatana”, and shoto were referred to as “koshigatana” (hip-sword) and “chiisagatana”, in many cases quite longer than the later “standard” wakizashi.
One can’t make out the difference between wakizashi and chiisagatana by blade alone, although a Koto shoto close to 2 Shaku (like the above mentioned O-wakizashi) would be a good indication; it depends on the mountings. Chiisagatana are the early shoto type with koshirae not easily distinguishable from the uchigatana, just shorter, but in any case with a tsuba (another term for chiisagatana is “tsubagatana”, “sword with tsuba”, as opposed to aikuchi). The ban of carrying swords for non-Samurai wasn’t in effect yet, so people from all runs of life, who preferred shorter blades, would have chosen the chiisagatana/ koshigatana/ O-wakizashi/ tsubagatana.
As already mentioned, a daisho (lit. “big/small”) is the katana/wakizashi or katana/tanto pair that was one of the outer attributes of the samurai. Most daisho were mounted en suite, but actually any combination of a short and a long sword is considered a daisho; and it is either a wakizashi or a tanto together with the katana, never both.
Actually, there is no such thing as a special purpose ninja sword, although Hollywood and Toei filmstudios want to make us believe that. But neither ninja nor “Onmitsu Doshin”, the undercover agents of the Edo police, had a “standard” short sword with a straight blade, square tsuba and black fittings.
Present day SWAT teams and military commandos use special or modified weapons to suit their task, and so did assassins and spies of the Edo period. A shorter sword slung over the back might have proven useful for penetrating a castle and combat in confined spaces, but different situations would have called for a different sword. “Ninjato” has a nice ring to it, but the “sword shopping guide for spies” has yet to be discovered …
General Remarks on Koshirae and Placement of Fittings
When restoring an antique sword, or mounting a newly made shinsakuto for the first time, it is often difficult to make a choice in regard to the style and color of the tsukamaki, the saya, and the proper placement of the fittings. Although it’s basically a matter of personal taste, there are a few rules concerning selection and placement of koshirae.
Generally speaking, “up” and “front” of fittings would be as viewed from the side, or the tip of the tsuka, when the sword is held horizontally, sword edge down in case of a tachi and edge up for any other sword/dagger.
There are four basic shapes of tsuka:
1. “Haichi Tsuka”, the most common, the mune-side almost straight, the ha-side slightly tapered, following the lines of the sword
2. “Rikko Tsuka”, almost hour glass shaped
3. “Imogata” (“potatoe shape”), both sides straight
4. “Morozori”, closely following the shape of the saya, mostly with tachi/ handachi
The length of the tsuka was usually tailored to the individual swordsman‘s specifications. As a rule of thumb, the length of the handle of a katana is twice the width of the hand plus two fingers, the wakizashi 1.5 hand widths and the tanto one hand width. Average length of a katana tsuka used to be 8 sun (24 cm or 9.5 inches).
It is not historically proven, but traditional Kabuki and Chambarra (period movies) indicate the rank of a samurai by the color of the tsukamaki: black – blue – dark brown – light brown – gray – purple – white. However, since this approximates roughly the percentage of colors found on swords, it might be about right.
The most common wrapping method is “Tsumamimaki“, the ito “pinched“ at the crossing, followed by “Hinerimaki“, where the ito was folded over twice at a 90 degree angle at the crossing. Tachi were usually done in “Hiramaki“, the ito simply crossed over.
The Mekugi is made from seasoned bamboo, convex shaped, and inserted from the side of the tsuka that is covered by the palm. Bamboo is strong yet elastic, and even if the mekugi breaks, the tough fibers will prevent the blade from slipping out of the handle. Sometimes horn or metal was used instead of bamboo, but usually not on swords intended for fighting.
Menuki were originally used to cover the mekugi pin that fastens the handle to the tang. Later on they became purely ornamental, and were placed about one hands width from the fuchi on the omote (outward side) and the kashira on the ura (side facing the body) on tachi. However, when the uchigatana was “invented“, the placement wasn‘t changed for traditional reasons, although the sword was now worn edge up and in effect resulted in a reversed position of the menuki.
An additional benefit of the menuki placement of tachi was the better grip on the tsuka, since the menuki filled the gap in the palm of the hand. But “Gyaku-Menuki“, or “anatomically correctly“ placed menuki were almost only used on Yagyu koshirae.
That menuki became more or less decorative elements of the tsuka is evident on tanto (and to a lesser degree on wakizashi). On the short handle of a tanto they were almost opposite of each other, and sometimes even omitted.
Sometimes it might be difficult to determine the front (i.e. facing away from the body) and back side of a tsuba. If the tsuba has a kozuka hitsu or kogai hitsu (slots for kozuka and kogai), the one for the kozuka is always to the left and the one for the kogai always to the right. The mei (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, or a sukashi tsuba, without any slots, the side showing more wear is probably the front.
The average diameter of a katana tsuba, measured at the widest part, seldom exceeds about 7.5 cm or 3 inches.
C. U. Guido Schiller