Nihontô (Japanese Samurai Sword)


Featuring mountings of the Edo period (1603 to 1868)

Last updated: 9 April 2017

I have included both English and equivalent romanized Japanese (rômaji) sword related terminology (in bold brown type) which I hope will be of assistance to those who are unfamiliar with Nihontô.

Samurai were members of the warrior class of the nobility in old Japan. They were bound to a strict code of honor and service (bushidô) and were authorized to wear and use a pair of fighting swords (daishô) consisting of a long sword (daitô) - the primary fighting weapon - and a shorter auxiliary sword (shotô).

Old photograph showing how Samurai wore their pair of uchigatana
mounted swords (daishô) thrust through the sash of their kimono with
the cutting edges (ha) uppermost.
(public domain photo - Wiki Commons)

uchigatana mounting - the classic Samurai fighting sword configuration dating from the second half of the Muromachi Period (circa. 1336-1574).

koshirae - all of the fittings and components of the sword except for the blade itself.

tosogu - the metal fittings of the sword.

Online reference: Koshirae: Nihon Tôen Gaisô -- The Mountings of Japanese Swords by C.U. Guido Schiller and S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D., University of North Alabama.

Book reference: Edo Culture - Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868, Nishiyama Matsunosuke, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1997.

Book reference: Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo, and the Culture of Early Modern Japan, Constantine Nomikos Vaporis, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2008.

Japanese Historical Periods (There is some disagreement among scholars regarding precise start and end dates).

Asuka ..... 593 to 650
Nara ..... 650 to 794
Heian ..... 794 to 1185
Kamakura ..... 1185 to 1336
Nanboku-chô ..... 1336 to 1392
Muromachi ..... 1336 to 1574
Azuchi-Momoyama ..... 1574 to 1603
Edo ..... 1603 to 1868
Meiji ..... 1868 to 1912
Taishô ..... 1912 to 1926
Shôwa ..... 1926 to 1989
Heisei ..... 1989 ..............

Nihontô Production Time Period designations.

Jokotô ..... ancient swords, until around 900.
Kotô ..... old swords from around 900 to 1596.
Shintô ..... new swords 1596 to 1780.
Shinshintô ..... new new swords 1781 to 1876.

Sword classification by blade length (shaku = 30.30cm/11.93").

katana ..... long sword with a blade length over two shaku - the primary Samurai fighting sword.
wakizashi ..... medium sword with a blade length between one and two shaku - the most commonly used auxiliary fighting sword.
tantô ..... short sword with a blade length less than one shaku - auxiliary short sword sometimes carried by ladies - and occasionally by Samurai or Feudal Lords (Daimyo) in place of a wakizashi.

katana (long sword) in uchigatana koshirae mounting which includes the scabbard (saya), hilt (tsuka) and metal fittings (tosogu).

The scabbard (saya) is made from a species of magnolia wood (honoki) and is usually (but not always) finished in black lacquer (urushi). A fitting (kurikata) for securing the attaching cord (sageo) is affixed to the scabbard which is sometimes slotted to accommodate accessories (see below). The scabbard tip (kojiri) is usually sheathed in buffalo horn (occasionally metal) as is the scabbard mouth collar (koiguchi).

A plain wooden scabbard (shira-saya) is used to store a blade not in use and is sometimes inscribed with a kanji attribution/appraisal (sayagaki) of the blade.

When a blade is stored in a shira-saya the koshirae is usually assembled and kept together using a replica wooden substitute blade (tsunagi).

The hilt (tsuka) is made of built-up honoki wood, usually (but not always) covered with ray fish skin (same) and tightly bound with braided silk or cotton or cord or leather (ito) which also secures the hilt ornaments (menuki) in place. It is secured to the blade tang (nakago) using a tapered bamboo pin or peg (mekugi). The upper pommel (fuchi) and base pommel (kashira) are almost always matching in design/theme ("en suite").

The saya is sometimes slotted to accommodate accessories including a utility knife consisting of a handle (kozuka) with a forged blade (kôgatana), or sometimes a hair arranger/ear cleaner (kogai) or split chop sticks (waribashi).

This is an old hilt (tsuka) stripped down - ready for re-furbishing/re-wrapping. The tapered bamboo securing pin (mekugi) is shown below the tsuka.

Copper securing collar (habaki) sometimes overlaid with gold or silver foil

Copper spacing washers (seppa)

The metal hilt fittings (tosogu) include the securing collar that encircles the base of the blade (habaki) and the spacer washers in front of and behind the tsuba (seppa).

The guard (tsuba) was originally made of iron but later sometimes of (alloyed) softer metal which was frequently elaborately carved - sometimes with inlays - or pierced. The main center cut-out (nakago-ana) provides the means to secure the blade in the tsuka. One or more additional cut-outs (kozuka-ana and kogai-ana) are often incorporated to accommodate accessories:

Sometimes the tsuba was quite plain such as the one illustrated below which is made of polished shakudô (an alloy of copper and gold) and who's only decoration is a serrated gold rim.

Metal fittings (tosogu) ensemble example

The following metal fittings were disassembled as a set from an Edo period Wakizashi.


Made of iron and engraved with depictions of Wisteria (sagari fuji).

(upper pommel)

(lower pommel)

Made of partially refined copper (suaka) that has attained a lovely chocolate patina with depictions of mythical lion-dog temple/shrine guards (shishi).

(hilt ornaments)

Made of copper with gilded foliage and are depictions of Daikon radishes.

Displaying Nihontô in uchigatana koshirae

Swords are usually displayed on a traditional Japanese sword stand (katana-kake) - cutting edge (ha) up - hilt (tsuka) to the left signifying peaceful repose (i.e. not easily grasped for aggressive use) and with the long sword (daitô) of the katana/auxiliary sword set (daishô) on top. In the above picture the lower position on the stand is occupied by a partially assembled auxiliary sword (shotô) in a silk sword bag (fuduka), the hilt (tsuka) having been sent out for re-wrapping.

Go to the Nihontô Directory