Sword Etiquette

Sword Handling Etiquette

With grateful appreciation to Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai, The Japanese Sword Museum 1-25-10, Yoyogi, Shibuyaku, Tokyo 151.

Traditionally the Japanese sword has been a most important treasure of the Japanese people. We should do what we can to preserve it in order to pay respect to our ancestors who created such a great form of art. Swords must be treated with utmost precaution so as not to injure the handler. Precautions to protect them from scratches and rust are also necessary.

I. Precautions to be taken in handling the Nipponto

1. All swords,whether encased in plain wooden scabbards and hilts (shirasaya) or formal mountings (koshirae), need to be kept in their swordbags. The head of the scabbard (kojiri) must go into the bag first to avoid the possibility of an accidental fall.

2. To carry a sword, the scabbard (saya) must be held with one's right hand. The hilt (tsuka) must be put up and the blade must hang down. This measure will prevent dangerous accidents.

3. Whenever one draws a mounted sword out of its bag or scabbard, make sure the position of the hilt does not go lower than the scabbard.

4. The registration card should either be tied to the scabbard or sewed onto the swordbag. The sword owner in Japan has a legal obligation to keep a sword and its registration card together.

II. How to draw a sword out of the scabbard and put it back

1. Whether drawing out a tachi or katana, onemust hold the cutting edge up and grasp the scabbard from underneath in the left hand in a forward holding position. Then, hold the hilt from above with the right hand. Since the scabbard is rather tight fit at the opening where the collar (habaki) is fit (koiguchi), the initial pull must be very carefully made so that only the collar's length gets drawn out. Giving a sudden powerful pull may not only impair the opening of the scabbard but also might result in an uncontrollable jerk leading to injury. Holding the blade still, pull it entirely out of the scabbard very slowly making certain the cuffing edge never faces down or sideways.

2. When a blade is placed back in the scabbard, its case must be held by the left hand and the hilt by the right hand as in pulling-out process. The tip of the sharp edge facing up must first rest gently on the opening of the scabbard. Again, holding the blade still, slide the blade along the ditch into the scabbard. When the collar reaches the opening of the case, a firm push is necessary to ensure steady settlement. As before, the cutting edge must not face down or sideways.

III. Method of Maintenance

The major purpose of swordcare is to make sure the steel surface does not oxidize or rust. Therefore, it is necessary to thoroughly remove the stale oil and replace it entirely with new oil. The following describes the tools used and the order of operations of swordcare.

1. Mekugi-nuki: A tool to remove the bamboo peg (mekugi) holding the blade in the hilt; usually made of brass or bamboo.

2. Uchiko: The most finely ground whetstone powder (30-35g) for cleaning the blade surface. First, wrapped in Japanese hand-made paper called Yoshinogami, then rewrapped by cotton or silk cloth, it comes through the wrapping materials when patted on the blade surface.

3. Nuguigami: High quality thick Japanese paper must be thoroughly wrinkled to soften and remove coarse and dusty elements for wiping the blade surface. There are two reasons for the wiping function; one for preliminary removal of old oil and the other for removal of the powder. When using flannel, the fabric must be washed, destarched in water, then dried.

4. Abura: A rust-preventive oil called choji or clove oil.

5. Abura-nuguishi: Paper used to spread oil over the blade surface. A piece of wiping paper or flannel will do.

6. Others: A wooden hammer and benzene, if necessary.

1. Lay down the mounted blade and push the peg out in preparation for removing the hilt.
2. Pull the blade out of the scabbard.

3. To remove the hilt, hold its end with the left hand on the side where the back of the blade is fit, and keep the blade in a slightly angled upright position. Use the right fist to hit the left wrist lightly a few times. When the tang (nakago) becomes slightly loosened in the hilt, repeat until the tang comes out of the hilt by itself. When there is enough room to grasp the tang, the blade may be pulled out of the hilt by the right hand. Be careful not to hit the left wrist too hard with the right hand as there is a danger that blades with short tangs like tanto might bounce out of the hilt entirely. Therefore, the initial impact must be light, just to check how tightly the tang is fixed in the hilt. Then, the force of subsequent blows must be adjusted accordingly. When the blade is taken out of the hilt, the peg removed from the hilt should be replaced.

4. If the bIade is mounted in full koshirae, other attachments such as swordguard (tsuba) and spacers (seppa) on both sides of the swordguard in addition to the collar must be removed. When the collar is fit too tightly to remove, it can be loosened by hitting it with a wooden hammer on the back (mune) after covering the collar with a cloth for protection.

5. The wiping process requires two pieces of paper. The initial one removes the old oil and dust, which is called preliminary cleaning. First place the cleaning paper on the back and fold it into halves toward the edge. Then, hold the paper-covered blade from above the back so that the thumb and the forefinger grip each side of the cutting section from above the paper.
Hardly any force is needed to wipe the blade upward, one way, starting from the base. When the cleaning paper reaches the point, be particularly careful in wiping lightly. No pressure or friction must be put on the point. When expertise is attained, the wiping action can also be both ways, up and down. Lack of experience could cause the cutting of paper or even fingers and thus it must be strictly avoided.

6. In case the oil cannot be removed with ease, cotton or gauze soaked in benzene or pure alcohol may be used in the same wiping manner as described above.

7. The powdering starts from the base toward the tip on the obverse in a light, uniform patting motion to cover the blade surface. Then turn the blade over and start patting from the point downward toward the base.

8. Then, use the other sheet of paper to wipe the powder off the blade surface in the same manner as described in (5) in this section. If oil remains, some more powdering and wiping is necessary.

9. When the surface is thoroughly clean, check for the presence of rust, flaws and other damages. Then, without putting back the hilt, collar and other attachments, the blade alone must be placed back in the scabbard.
It should be noted that the two kinds of wiping paper used in this process must not be interchanged and should have distinct purposespreliminary and final.

10. The re-oiling with a piece of paper, or destarched flannel, folded in size 3cm x 6cm and soaked in fresh oil completes a round of swordcare. When the paper is ready, the sword is to be drawn out of the scabbard again. After placing it in the left hand, put the oiling paper on the back to do the same movement as described in the wiping process.
To make sure the blade surface is thoroughly covered with oil, repeat the same procedure a few times. Just as in the wiping, the handling of the sword as well as the oiling paper must be most carefully done. The paper should contain the right amount of oil so that no excess oil will overflow and harm the scabbard. The oil mustbe spread thinly and evenly.

11. It is a good idea to apply oil to the surface of the tang with one's fingers. However, an excessive amount of oil must also be avoided here.

12. Put the collar back and encase the blade tentatively in the scabbard. Remove the peg from the hilt, draw the blade out of the scabbard, hold it in the right hand in an almost upright position, pick up the hilt with the other hand, and put the tang back in the hilt. Keep holding the blade in the hilt with the left hand and hit the bottom of the hilt lightly with the palm of the right hand so that the tang settles firmly in the hilt. When the tang is fixed in its perfect position, replace the peg. Then, pass the blade to the right hand, pick up the scabbard and slide the blade into it observing the manner described in Section II. Needless to say, the other parts like spacers and swordguards of fully mounted swords must also be returned to their respective places before the hilt is put on the tang.

13. The methods for handling and caring for other forms of blades such as spears (yari) and halberds (naginata) are the same. Spears must be handled especially carefully; otherwise injury may occur. Also, the daggers of double-edged type (ken) are very dangerous. Swordcare tools must be kept perfectly clean, for dust stuck on the wiping cloth or oiling paper could cause scratches on the steel surface. Protecting these surfaces which have been most finely polished through the graded processes involving more than ten kinds of whetstones of different fineness and hardness is critical.

IV. How to preserve the Nipponto

The most important aspects of preserving blades in any form are to protect them from developing rust and scratches. The precautions required for keeping the Nipponto in good condition are the following:

1. Despite regular care and oiling, a blade may develop rust in places. Generally when rusting takes place where the scabbard touches the blade, it must be taken to and repaired by a saya specialist. Or, when the scabbard is very old, its interior may well be contaminated with rust and dirt, thus causing the steel to rust. In such a case, a new scabbard must replace the old one at once.

2. Since the formal mounting functions as an outfit for dressing up, a blade needs to have a plain wooden scabbard and hilt which would be, as it were, casual wear for a blade. It is much preferred to rest a blade in its casual outfit so that when the blade surface starts to rust the wooden scabbard can readily be cleaned inside by splitting it open into vertical halves, which are simply fastened together with a paste made from cooked rice. No chemical substances may be used to fasten the parts of the scabbard and hilt.

3. If a blade should start to rust, no experienced repairs such as rubbing the rust off with a spatula or coin's edge would improve the condition; rather it is likely to aggravate it and necessitate extra work in smoothing the damaged area. It must be taken to a polishing specialist at once just like a sick person would need to go to see a medical specialist.

4. Since a blade is particularly vulnerable to rusting soon after polishing, cleaning and oiling should be done preferably every ten days for about six months.

5. Later when the polished blade surface condition is more stable, clean it regularly, at least every six months.

6. In preserving swords, it is improper to keep them in a leaning position because it would cause the oil to go down along the blade surface and make a pool at the point. It is necessary to keep them in a dry place, laid down. It would be ideal to keep them in drawers made of paulownia wood. Use of camphor balls or naphthaline to protect the chest from borers should be avoided. It would cause rust on the steel.
7. Although dry conditions are preferable for swords, the wooden containers or mountings require moisture. Therefore, the place for preserving swords must be very carefully selected.

31st May 2008

"As a whole, one had better refrain from paying a visit uninvited unless necessity dictates. When invited conversely, one cannot be a real guest unless his demeanour can convince the host of his being a pleasing and thoughtful guest."

Yamamoto Tsunetomo - Hagakure

To wear a Japanese long sword, together with the short companion sword (Wakizashi) in feudal Japan was indeed a great honour. It meant that the wearer was of the Samurai class with all the privileges that accompanied that rank, but many responsibilities and formalities accompanied these rights. The Samurai were a proud and haughty bunch whose honour was often prickly and easily upset. Any perceived insult to his sword was exactly the same as an insult to the owner and would need to be rectified, often with resource to drawing the sword and the bloody consequences this might bring.

A technique known to practitioners of Iai-do to this day is called Saya-atte, or scabbard hitting. This meant that if two Saya collided, instant retribution would follow as the sword had been struck and this was tantamount to striking the owner. A technique was devised whereby as soon as the Saya touched, the sword would be drawn and an attacking cut would be made (nukitsuki) all in the one action. Saya-atte might even be deliberately caused so that a nere-do-well might have the opportunity of testing both his sword's cutting potential and his own technical ability, all in the one swift incident.

To avoid accidental Saya-atte, it was considered best when walking out, to walk to the left of a path or road and allow an approaching walker to pass on one's right hand side, away from the Saya. It is even thought that this legacy may be why the Japanese are one of the few nations in the world to drive on the left hand side of the road. (In the UK, another left hand drive nation, a similar attribution is postulated. Here, a falconer would always have his bird in a gloved left hand that would also hold a horse's reins, leaving the right sword hand free. It was always then considered essential to keep to the left and have others pass on the right).

Apart from Saya-atte, more civilised social contact could easily give the wrong impression and so great care was taken to neither offer or invite provocation. This was done by the practise of a rigid code of etiquette in any given circumstances. It was usual, for instance, when visiting, especially a person of higher rank, to leave one's long sword at the entrance to the house. It would be taken, very deferentially, by a servant or a page who handled it with a silk cloth, who then placed it on a sword rack ready for collection on departure. The visitor would be allowed to keep his short sword, which he would be careful to keep in a position in which he could easily draw it if surprised or attacked. No samurai should ever be totally unarmed! Even with the sole comfort of the short sword, care was taken to keep the left hand away from the Tsuba, as a thumb pushing the Tsuba forward, thus loosening the blade in the Saya, was the first preparatory move in drawing the sword.

The display of non-aggressive intentions was even more important if the long sword accompanied one to a meeting or social engagement. Here it would be removed from the Obi or belt as one made oneself comfortable and sat on the Tatami mats. The sword should ideally be removed with the left hand, passed over to the right hand and placed on the mat on the right hand side of the owner. Here it was relatively difficult to pick up and draw quickly, whilst if placed on the left hand side, the opposite is true. It was seen, therefore, as highly suspicious if the sword were placed on the left, especially with the cutting edge of the blade away from the owner. From this position it was very easy to grasp the Saya with the left hand whilst reaching across and drawing the blade with the right hand. The significance of where the sword was placed meant that the owner was either relaxed and expecting or offering no trouble (if on the right) or wary and maybe ready to fight (if on the left). Whatever the case, the mood of the meeting was quite obvious to all. Today, in a modern Kendo Dojo, the members always kneel in Seiza both when formally starting and finishing the session, with their Shinai to their left, in imitation of a state of preparedness and Zanshin (awareness).

Incidentally. even today in a modern Kendo or Iai dojo, the practitioners and teachers start and finish a session with a formal bow with everyone kneeling in a prescribed order. All should know their position in this line, which is in ascending order of rank or status, the lowest being at the end nearest the door. Apart from easily seeing one's Gohai/ Sempai situation, in the case of an attack on the dojo, the lowest grades would provide themselves as delaying cannon-fodder and sacrificial lambs, whilst the higher ranks had time to prepare themselves for defence. This no doubt provided a great incentive to advance in the art and progress down the line towards relative safety.

There are also correct ways of placing a sword on a Katana-kake or sword rack. If the sword is a traditional Katana or Wakizashi or a Daisho, it should be placed on the rack with the cutting edges uppermost, the Katana at the top and the Wakizashi on the bottom. This is in the manner in which they are worn. A further refinement might be that the Kurikata (retaining knob on the Saya) should be visible, in other words that the Omote side of the sword is showing and the Tsuka (handle) is to the left hand side. Once again, it is surprisingly difficult to pick up a sword so arranged and draw it immediately without, changing hands and slowing the action down. To my mind, the swords happen to be also better presented in this way. To display the swords with the Ura showing was also acceptable, but as they could be drawn from this position in an instant, it was seen as a far more aggressive position and for this reason, favoured by many warriors. Indeed, it would be possible to tell the state of any house or castle's martial preparedness, simply by seeing how the swords were displayed on their racks.

A Tachi or slung sword, ideally has a differently designed rack than that made for Katana. A Tachi rack or stand has a shaped base and a vertical stem with a slot to accept the Saya. Tachi should be placed on these racks with the end of the handle, the Kabuto-gane, resting on a small indentation on the base. It will then stand vertically with the but-end of the Saya free in the air. Should it be necessary to place a Tachi on a conventional Katana-kake, then it should be placed with the cutting edge down, in the opposite manner to a Katana. Once again, this is the position in which the sword would be worn. A beautifully made and lacquered sword rack will enhance the display of a sword at rest" but it is incredible how un-natural a sword looks when placed incorrectly on the rack or stand.

Swords on racks

There would have been occasions when a fully mounted sword was passed between two persons, possibly for inspection, study or appreciation. This would usually be accomplished whilst in Seiza, the formal kneeling position on the Tatami, (Seiza, with legs folded under the buttocks and toes also flat, is considered to be a position from which an attack is difficult to mount swiftly). After a short bow to the sword, the giver would remove it from the rack, clean it and pass it across, usually in a horizontal plane, with both hands fully outstretched. The cutting edge would be towards him and the Tsuka to his left. The right hand would be near to the end of the Saya and the left would be palm uppermost near the Tsuba with the thumb on the Mimi or rim of the Tsuba. This ensured that the blade did not inadvertently slip from its Saya. The recipient would grip inside of the giver's hand on the Saya and take over the position by the Tsuba. He would immediately turn the cutting edge towards himself, give a slight bow of respect and proceed to examine the piece. In the days of yore, this might be accompanied by a bow from the giver and if the rank of the receiver was exalted, or the sword was known to be especially important, the bow would place the sword at head level. An indication of good manners and respect for another's property, especially should exceptional lacquer work be evident on the Saya, a silk cloth called a Fukusa would be used to handle the sword. This may be supplied by the host, but it is advisable to carry one's own and be fully prepared.

The normal method for removing the Tsuka, from either a mounted sword or one in Shira-saya, is, after first removing the Mekugi or peg with a Mekugi-nuki, hold the Tsuka near its base in the left hand with the blade at a slight angle, say 20 to 30 degrees from the vertical, with the inclination across your front side and the cutting edge uppermost. With a tight left hand grip, strike the top of your left hand smartly with your clenched right fist, on the little finger side rather than with the knuckles. The shock of the strike transmits through your left hand, through the Tsuka and usually loosens the hold of the Tsuka on the Nakago, allowing the blade to be easily removed from the Tsuka. After two or three attempts at this, apart from the sometimes not inconsiderably pain of this self-flagellation, it probably means that the blade is unlikely to be freed in this manner. I have occasionally found myself in this position where, on asking permission to remove the Mekugi it has not easily tapped out. or if it does, the Tsuka proves stubborn. In this situation, not wishing to be responsible for causing any damage, either to my left hand or the sword, I have invariably asked the owner to remove it for me. If he, who is familiar with the sword, also has difficulty, it is best to leave it intact.

An alternative method of passing a sword from one person to another, might involve passing the sword, maybe minus its Saya but retaining its Tsuka. In this case, the giver would hold the end of the Tsuka firmly at the end nearest the Kashira with his left hand, again most definitely keeping the cutting edge facing himself. The danger and possible aggressive intent in doing it otherwise will be readily understood. This time the receiver will accept the sword by grasping above the giver's hand with his left hand and nodding to acknowledge that he has a firm grip, possibly acknowledging this verbally also. It will be noted that in this latter procedure both parties always have their right hand's free!

After observing the correct procedures as described above, finally the sword, complete with mounts, is safely in the viewer's hands and he may be permitted to study it. He should make himself aware of whether or not the Mekugi (peg) is inserted in the Tsuka, rather than find out by accident when the blade falls out of the Tsuka! A close examination of the fittings and the lacquer work would proceed the drawing of the blade. A sword with fine fittings should be examined whilst wearing white cotton gloves if possible, but with a Fukusa as described above, if not. The sweat from hands may cause discoloration or even rust and this is obviously to be avoided. To draw the blade, the Saya should be gripped in the left hand held slightly lower than the Tsuka, but with the cutting edge uppermost and drawn in one smooth action. The Saya should be placed safely aside, beside you on the Tatami if that is your situation, or back on the rack or table, depending on the circumstances. It is good form to cover the end of the Saya with a cloth, or the flap of the sword bag if one is present, whilst you are examining the blade, in order to prevent any dirt or grit entering the Saya and causing damage later to the blade.

Most properly, a silk handkerchief should be placed in one's mouth to prevent spittle fouling the blade and speech should be avoided when a naked blade is present for the same reason. As previously stated, a blade should only be withdrawn in its entirety from the Saya. It is considered the height of bad manners to examine a blade with only a few inches at a time being withdrawn from the Saya. Care should be taken that it is not waved around and pointed at anyone else. The handle should only be removed to inspect any inscriptions with the express permission of the owner. The blade may be examined in detail, but should not be handled other than with a Fukusa or some other suitable soft fabric. If the Tsuka is removed, it is permissible to handle the Nakago, whilst supporting the rest of the blade with a Fukusa. It is usual to leave the habaki in place whilst examining an otherwise bare blade.

To pass a fully stripped blade, the Nakago must be gripped in the same manner as the Tsuka on a mounted blade. The sword will be passed vertically to the receiver in exactly the same manner as described when the sword retains its Tsuka. However, in this circumstance, it is advisable that the free right hand be placed under the Nakago-jiri for extra support. When replacing the sword into the Saya, the back of the Kissaki is rested on the inner part of the Koi-guchi and the blade is then replaced in the exact opposite method to that described for drawing it. This applies in all circumstances.

The over-riding consideration is that the person handling the blade, at all times, is at the mercy of the blade should he mishandle it. This was, and remains the etiquette involved in handling a mounted sword. It emphasises great respect for the sword, personal safety and a high degree of Zanshin or awareness. Although today we may not fear an attack, the other components still remain and should always be practised, showing respect also for the Samurai owners of the past, whose swords we are privileged to examine and enjoy.

Unmounted swords present similar problems, but also one or two others. When swords are laid out for Kantei sessions, for instance, they usually rest on a table with the few inches nearest the Kissaki supported by a small silk pillow, a Makura. When lifting this naked blade, care should be taken that the Kissaki does not dip and touch the table itself. In other words the sword needs to be almost scooped up so that the Kissaki immediately rises rather than falls. It goes without saying that the blade should not be pivoted on the Kissaki. When clear of the table the methods and rules for examination are as described above. When replacing the sword back on the Makura, similar care should be taken.

In modern days a light source is usually available when studying a blade. This enables the hamon and Jihada to be seen clearly and in detail but often involves a certain amount of twisting and turning in order to obtain the best angle between light and blade. Great care must be taken in this situation and a good grip must be kept on the Nakago, whilst the other hand supports the blade with a Fukusa.

Often this viewing will entail several people studying several blades between them, at the same table, either standing or in a kneeling position. It is then of the utmost importance that all blades are kept facing to the front and not waved around. A clash of swords would be an unforgivable breach of etiquette and probably result in the perpetrator catching the next aeroplane home. It is difficult to imagine how one would ever be invited to return under such circumstances. In all other respects, group viewing should follow the same rules as previously described.

I am aware that on various visits to closely study good swords in Japan, both accompanied by others and on my own, sword handling etiquette and ability has been closely scrutinised by our Japanese hosts and Sensei. Often in this situation exalted sword personalities, such as museum curators or NBTHK officials, will be watching closely and have been known to comment on the "manners" of the guests. It certainly does not go unnoticed and is a direct reflection on oneself and one's teacher, whether good or bad. I hope that you will see that the etiquette of handling the Japanese sword is based on safety and good manners and that it leads to greater enjoyment and appreciation when matters are conducted in the proper manner.

Sword viewing and appreciation at an NBTHK convention in Japan

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