Since my childhood I have been fascinated by Japanese martial arts and the quintessential Japanese sword (nihonto or shinken) – a beautiful weapon created by master craftsmen. As a result, I studied both intensively with over 16 years of Kodokan Judo under my belt as well as several years of Muso Shinden Ryu and Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei iaido/iaijutsu (i.e. Japanese swordsmanship). And throughout those years, I learned how to properly handle a Japanese sword.
This will not be an article on how to wield such a weapon. That’s impossible. Please find a legitimate instructor of traditional Japanese Sword Arts (JSA) and get proper training if that is your aim. Instead, this article is an introductory guide on the basics of Japanese sword etiquette.
Author’s note: this is a revised and translated version of an earlier article which I published years ago on my former website.
Why the Need For Sword Etiquette?
Perfection was the ultimate goal of the Japanese samurai warrior. This was demonstrated by every meticulously controlled and deliberate movement, ritual, and event. Together with the principles of courage, honor, loyalty and respect, it formed the foundation of bushido – the way of the warrior.
The Japanese longsword (daito) was a samurai’s most prized and sacred possession – it functioned as the very extension of the warrior himself. Mishandling or treating someone’s sword with disrespect was therefore a grave insult to its owner.
For this very reason, the Japanese people formalized a specific set of rules to properly convey respect for the sword, its owner and its creator. They also prevented damage to the sword as a result of misuse and ignorance.
These rules still exist today and are especially applicable for those who work with nihonto (i.e. real, sharp swords – otherwise known as shinken – made by traditional swordsmiths in Japan) or contemporary Japanese-styled blades from non-Japanese craftsmen (e.g. Michael Bell, Walter Sorrells, Howard Clark, and Anthony DiCristofano) or production companies (e.g. Bugei Trading Company, CAS Iberia’s Hanwei Forge line…).
Where Would I Handle a Japanese Sword?
Since you’re reading this article, you likely have an interest in Japanese swords. Perhaps you want to start training with these weapons in a traditional JSA? Or you just want to display a sword in your home.
Either way, you will likely encounter such a blade in a store or – for the more discerning customer – at a Japanese sword show (Token Kai). You may also handle one in a dojo during a training session or at a collector’s home. In either case, use these opportunities to thoroughly review the sword and ask questions to knowledgeable individuals.
Let’s start with some general tips before we go into detail:
- Do the research. Come prepared and – at minimum – learn about the basic anatonomy and terminology of a Japanese sword. Understand what a tsuba (handguard), tsuka (handle), saya (scabbard), sageo (tying cord), koshirae (the sword’s mountings), etc. is. An excellent source is the Japanese Sword Index.
- Ask permission. Never, ever grab or touch a Japanese sword without the permission of the owner or swordsmith. It is extremely rude and a major faux pas! This applies in shops, in a dojo, at a Token Kai, as well as at home.
- Don’t act like a fool. Hand the average Joe a nihonto and they will suddenly believe themselves to be expert swordsmen. Don’t be childish and start swinging the sword around like an idiot. You’re not Miyamoto Musashi. Show some modesty and composure instead – for your own safety and that of those around you.
Receiving the Sword
After you have received permission, place one hand under the tsuka, near the handguard, while the other hand goes under the scabbard close to the kojiri (scabbard tip). Slowly and carefully pick up the sword from the table, floor or katanagake (sword stand) and keep it horizontal.
If someone hands you a sword (in its saya), they will also present it to you horizontally and with both hands. Accept it in the same manner as described above. A polite nod or bow combined with a “thank you” will do wonders.
The owner, seller or swordsmith may choose to draw the blade from its scabbard before handing it over to you. In this case, he will hold the sword vertically and with the kissaki (blade tip) pointed up. He will also turn the ha or hasaki (edge) of the blade towards himself to demonstrate his peaceful intent. Additionally, he will grip the sword near the end of the tsuka, close to the kashira (buttcap). To accept the sword, grab the handle at its top, right underneath the tsuba. Once handed over, turn the edge towards you.
Drawing the Sword
After having received or picked up a sheathed sword, do not immediately draw the blade. It is extremely rude. In fact, this was act of aggression in ancient Japan and thus could end fatally.
Instead, keep the sword horizontal. The tsuka should be in your right hand. If not, carefully turn the sword around.
Before removing the blade from its saya, first admire the koshirae (mountings) of the sword for a moment. Look at the engravings and craftsmanship of the tsuba. And the expertly wrapped handle. Appreciate the piece of art you are holding. Then slightly angle the scabbard downwards while keeping the hasaki pointed upwards. Carefully pull and separate the sword from the saya until the habaki (copper or silver collar) of the blade is fully revealed. Only then can you completely withdraw the sword from the scabbard. Hand over the saya or gently set it aside.
Attention! Japanese swords are sometimes stored in shirasaya. In this case, the blade is stripped from all its koshirae (e.g. the guard, handle…) and fitted with a plain wooden scabbard and handle. Think of shirasaya as a sword’s pyjamas, which are used for long-term storage of an unused blade. This sheath only consists of 2 thin wooden halves glued together, which allows for easy separation and cleaning. Do not use the sword for cutting or training in this configuration! Also never draw a blade in shirasaya with full force – you might split the shirasaya and even severely injure yourself.
Inspecting the Sword
Now you’re ready to fully inspect the sword and its blade. This is also where people make the most mistakes. Here are some outtakes:
- Do not touch the blade. Your fingers leave an acidic, oily residue on the blade, which – if left untreated – can damage the steel over time. Ask for a cloth to rest the blade on during your inspection. If you accidentally touched the blade with your bare hands, use the cloth to wipe your fingerprints away. Afterwards, the owner will also apply a light coat of protective oil to the steel.
- Do not test the sharpness. Rest assured, these swords are sharp. For the same reason – but also for your own safety – I just mentioned above, do not use your thumb or fingernail to feel how sharp the sword is. You may be allowed to test the blade’s sharpness on a piece of paper, but ask permission first.
- Hold your breath. Your breath contains mosture, which is bad for the steel. If you want to inspect the blade up close (e.g. to admire the amazing forged pattern), hold your breath for a couple of seconds. Or cover your nose and mouth with a handkerchief or tissue.
- Do not smoke. This is extremely rude and disrespectful. Your cigarette addiction can wait, so keep them away from the sword.
Resheathing & Returning the Sword
In short, this is the reverse process of drawing and receiving the sword.
With the sword’s edge upwards, place the tip of the blade in the koiguchi (scabbard mouth). Slowly slide the saya over the blade closely following the mune (spine) of the blade. So do not push the sword down into the scabbard. This could cause internal damage. The sword is properly secured once the blade’s habaki is locked into the koiguchi.
Bring the shinken back to a horizontal position, with one hand under the tsuka and the other under the saya. The tsuka again points to the left and the hasaki points towards you. Hand the sword back over to the owner, seller or swordsmith. Again, a slight bow, nod and a “thank you” will do wonders.
Displaying Your Sword
A samurai typically wore a set of 2 swords (called a daishō), which consists of a longsword (the daito) and shortsword (the shōto, also known as wakizashi). Several guidelines exist to place both weapons (or just a single sword) on a katanagake (sword stand) – and they all depend on your intent and the situation.
I will discuss the display of the typical, famous katana in uchigatana-style mountings. Other rules apply for different Japanese blade styles (e.g. a tachi) or types of koshirae.
To start, there is 1 fixed rule – always point the hasaki (edge) up when you display a blade on a sword stand. This way, the sword correctly rests on its mune (spine). If the blade rests on its edge instead, it or the scabbard might get damaged.
The second step is to decide whether to display your daishō with the handles pointing to the left or right. Neither is particularly “wrong,” but they each signify a specific attitude towards visitors. It is more common and polite to present your swords with their tsuka to the left. The reason why is historic, as the samurai always drew their swords with their right hand. Traditional JSA generally did not allow left-handedness.
So with the tsuka to the left, it is more difficult to swiftly draw the sword. This is therefore the more peaceful method. This manner also correctly shows the omote (front of the sword) side, which typically contains the smith’s signature (mei) on the tang (nakago) of the blade.
While presenting your swords with the tsuka to the right, the ura side (back of the sword) is visible. This also demonstrates your distrust of any visitor – or even your hostile intent – as it allows you to quickly grab and draw the blade. Again, neither method is wrong – one is historically just more polite than the other.
Finally, you have to decide where to place your daito and shōto on the katanagake. Which one goes on top and which one on the bottom? Despite many disagreements and discussions, both options are correct. It’s entirely based on practicality.
When a samurai was ready to leave for the day, he would first grab his shōto and place it in his belt. Next, he would pick up his daito from the stand and leave the house. Once outside, he would then slide the longsword between his belt, next to the shōto, and be on his merry way.
Therefore, the most comfortable way to grab the shortsword determines the positioning of your daishō. As such, place the shōto on the top and the daito on the bottom of the stand if the katanagake is on or near the ground. However, if your sword stand is at shoulder-level or higher (e.g. in a tall display cabinet), reverse the order and place the daito on the top and the shōto on the bottom position. Either way, the choice is entirely yours.
Michael Bell – who apprenticed under master swordsmith Nakajima Muneyoshi – once shared the following story:
During a Token Kai, a man approached my table. Without asking permission, he picked up one of my katana. He then drew the sword and soiled the blade with his fingerprints. After making several negative remarks about my sword, he wrongly attempted to resheath the blade. As the sword jammed in the scabbard, he still tried to force the blade in. Frustrated at his failure, he then threw my sword back on the table – refusing to put it back in its proper place – and walked off…— Michael Bell.
Don’t be like this idiot.
You will soon learn that if you show respect to the owner, seller, and swordsmith, they will respect you in return. Your courtesy and knowledge of sword etiquette can even have several benefits. For instance, the swordsmith may surprise you by giving special attention to your order because you bothered to learn how to properly handle a Japanese sword.
Take care and until next time.