Popularized by manga and films like Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," the katana holds a revered place in Japanese culture. Even today, Japanese culture remains deeply influenced by the code of honor of the samurai, known as Bushidō, and the veneration of the sword is more than just symbolic. Ritual practices, such as observing the blade to assess its quality, persist. The meticulous crafting of a katana involves numerous artisanal steps, often taking months to create an authentic forged blade. A precise vocabulary describes each component of a Japanese katana, and sometimes even the specific work done on each element. Do you know, for instance, what the koiguchi represents? Or the meaning of its name? What about the mekugi and its purpose? No? Then follow our guide to learn more about the traditional nomenclature of a katana...
The Tsuka or 柄 (Handle)
The tsuka is the name of the katana's handle. It consists of two halves of wood, traditionally made of magnolia, held together with rice glue. At the end of the handle, you'll find the kashira (頭) or tsuka-gashira (柄頭), a small pommel that reinforces the tsuka and has a small hole. This pommel, which comes in either a round or oval shape, is further secured by a metal cap known as the kashira-gane. The wood of the tsuka is wrapped in shark or ray skin, known as same-hada (鮫肌) for shark and same-gawa (鮫皮) for ray. This skin is covered by a braiding made of silk or cotton, known as the tsuka-ito (柄糸), and the braiding itself is called tsuka-maki (柄巻). The tsuka-maki can differ between swords, with combat wraps like hineri-maki and katate-maki, or more artistic styles like jabara-maki. The wrapping is finished with a decorative and functional knot, located on one side of the handle, known as the maki-dome. Under this wrapping, you can find the menuki (目貫), small decorative pieces placed asymmetrically on each side of the tsuka. Not only do they hide fastenings, but they also contribute to better grip.
The fastening is a bamboo peg that goes through the tang of the blade and the tsuka, both of which have holes for this purpose. This peg is called the mekugi (目釘). Just before reaching the guard, you'll find a collar called fuchi (縁), which separates the wrapping from the next part. On each side of the guard, there are metal washers called seppa (切羽), which reduce the gap between the guard and the tsuka, allowing for better shock absorption.
The guard is a crucial element as it serves to protect the hand from injuries and also adds a decorative touch. Some guards are stunningly beautiful and are known as tsuba (鍔) in Japanese. This piece also has its specific vocabulary. For example, the central hole is called the nakago ana, where the tang of the blade is inserted. Around this central hole, you'll find an oval and flat shape where the seppa rest; this is the seppa dai. Additionally, there are sometimes other holes to hold a small knife or tool, allowing access without drawing the blade. When present, these holes are called kogai hitsu ana for the one used for a point and kozuka hitsu ana for the one for the small knife.
The last element before the blade is a cylindrical metal piece, thicker towards the saya and thinner towards the blade. Its purpose is to secure the blade in the scabbard without locking it in place. This part is called the habaki (鎺).
The Blade of the Katana
The blade alone contains a vast array of terms. Here, we present a detailed selection of the most important ones. One characteristic of the blade is its length excluding the tang (the part inserted into the handle). This length is called nagasa. Its curvature, which can vary, is referred to as sori (反り). The part of the blade that fits into the handle, the tang, is known as nakago (茎). It has one or two holes called mekugi ana through which the mekugi passes, securing the blade. The back of the blade is called mune (棟). On the opposite side is the hardened part, the yakiba, and the tempering line that separates the hardened part is known as the hamon (刃文). The cutting edge itself is called ha or hasaki.
The bo-hi refers to a groove or channel, commonly found on most blades, designed to reduce the weight of the sword. The side of the blade is called shinogi-ji, and the lateral ridge that defines it is known as the shinogi. The beveled part of the blade, the tip, is called the kissaki (切先). The perpendicular edge that determines the beginning of the kissaki is the yokote. Some katanas may lack a yokote. The tempering line, the hamon, changes its name within the kissaki and becomes the bōshi, while the part of the cutting edge within the kissaki transforms into fukura.
The Scabbard of the Katana
The scabbard is known as saya (鞘) in Japanese. It is made of lightweight wood, traditionally magnolia for models adhering to tradition, and covered with lacquer. The opening of the saya is called the koiguchi (鯉口), which, in Japanese, means "carp mouth." Its name is derived from the shape of this piece. Traditionally, it is made of buffalo horn, but it can also be made of metal. The cotton or silk cord, either plain or braided, found on the scabbard is called sageo (下げ緒). It is connected to the saya by a small ring known as the kurigata (栗形).
On the sageo, there is a bulge on the kurigata known as the shito-dome (鵐目), which serves a purely decorative purpose. The scabbard ends with the sayajiri, which is simply the tip of the scabbard and may sometimes have a kojiri (鐺), a metal or horn fitting. However, it is more common to find a kojiri on tachi or tantō than on a katana. The kojiri can take the form of a hoe, known as kuwagata, or a long hoe, becoming a nagakuwagata, or even a sack shape, known as fukurogata. Another type of saya is the shirasaya, a plain white wooden scabbard without decoration, used for storing the blade.