A guide to understand Katana Menuki, a pair of decorative ornaments on the tsuka

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Things You Need to Know Menuki

Menuki are the pretty little ornaments we see on the Katana's handle. However, you might want to know more about this part. So, in this article, I'll discuss the Katana part, "Menuki," in detail.

What Is Menuki 目貫?

Katana Menuki

Menuki are a pair of ornamental pieces under the Katana's handle wrapping. They are usually about 3 cm (1.1 inches) long. Most Menuki are made of metal. However, ivory and wood Menuki are also available.

Meaning of Menuki

Menuki in Japanese is "目貫", the "me" in Menuki refers to the hole, and "nuki" implies piercing through it. You will better understand it by looking at the name of a very related katana part, Mekugi "目釘", in this case, "me" still means the hole, and "kugi" means "nail" or "peg".

Purpose of Menuki

Cover the Mekugi

As mentioned early, Menuki and Mekugi are closely related, because originally, the purpose of Menuki was to cover and decorate the head of Mekugi from above. As a safety measure to prevent the Mekugi from loose and falling from the Nakago

Enhance Gripping

Menuki are placed on the gripping part of the katana handle. When you hold the katana properly with yours palms, the Menuki enhance the grip by providing a bulge, in Japanese known as te-damari (手溜まり), a feature that allows the Menuki to fit perfectly to the shape of your hand, thereby preventing slipping.

Aesthetic Value

The katana is not just a weapon, it's also a piece of art. Among its many fittings (拵, koshirae), the saya and tsuba often capture the most attention, aside from the Katana blade itself. However, the Menuki also play an important role. They significantly impact the appearance of the katana's tsuka (handle) and are considered artworks in their own right.

Crafting beautiful Menuki involves shaping sheets of metals like iron or copper from behind and employing intricate techniques such as fine engraving (彫金, chōkin), gold painting, and inlay work (象嵌, zōgan). These Menuki can depict a vast range of motifs—from dragons and lions to crabs, flowers, and human figures—each embodying an endless variety of themes and showcasing the refined skills of the artisans.

When Menuki, Kozuka (小柄, small knives), and Kogai (笄, hair arrangers) are made by the same craftsmen with same design theme, they are known as "mitokoromono" (三所物)

Menuki Placement (Where should the Menuki be?)

There are no strict rules about the position of Menuki, and it can be customized based on personal preference. However, traditionally, the standard Menuki placement is:

Front Menuki (Left) near the Tsuba (guard).
Back Menuki (Right) near the Kashira (pommel).

This is based on right-handed users carrying the katana with the edge facing upward.

Standard Menuki Placement

Some swordsmen may find the Menuki pressing against their fingers uncomfortable, or they may be left-handed. In such cases, they might reverse the positions of the two Menuki, which is called "Gyaku Menuki" (逆目貫).

Others might place the Menuki in the middle of the Tsuka to avoid contact altogether, or they may choose not to have Menuki on their katana at all. This is perfectly acceptable. The sword is a tool, and you should customize it to suit your needs and preferences.

History of Menuki

In ancient times, Menuki comes with a peg known as "根" (ne, or root), which functions as today's mekugi. Each menuki included a root, one being convex and the other concave. These roots functioned together to securely fasten the Tsuka to the Nakago of the Katana. The convex root would extend through the mekugi ana (目釘穴) and lock into the concave root on the opposite side, effectively securing the blade in a manner similar to how mekugi are used today. We can see from the name "Menuki" itself comes from "me" (目, hole) and "nuki" (貫, to pierce through), indicating their original practical use. 

Ancient Menuki

 

Image source: Yoshimasa Iiyamaのブログ

During the Kamakura period, they started to evolve from their functional role of securing the handle to becoming more decorative. By the Muromachi period, Menuki were not only decorative but also helped improve the sword's grip.

By the Edo period, Menuki became primarily decorative, often featuring intricate designs of animals, deities, and cultural symbols, reflecting the samurai's status and identity.

During this time, Menuki became part of a set of matched fittings known as "mitokoromono" (三所物), emphasizing their artistic value. Thus, menuki transitioned from functional sword fittings to decorative masterpieces, representing the fusion of utility and elegance in Japanese swordsmanship. 

"mitokoromono" (三所物)

Image source: bunka.nii.ac.jp

Menuki Designs

Menuki are designed as a pair, with one piece for the front and one for the back of the handle. In traditional Japanese Katana, the two Menuki usually are not the same. Instead, they often feature complementary themes, such as male and female animals, mirrored plants, or a master and servant. This pairing reflects a fundamental concept in Japanese art, similar to how two panels create a single folding screen (屏風, byobu) or two hanging scrolls form a diptych (双幅, sōfuku).

During the Sengoku period, samurais favored various menuki designs, especially those symbolizing prosperity and happiness. They believed these designs would bring victory in battles, ensure the survival and growth of their families, and secure their own prosperity. Here, we will introduce some popular menuki designs and the meanings behind them.

Popular Menuki Designs1

Samurai, Wepons and  Armor Designs

  • Bow and Arrow (弓矢図, yumiya-zu):

    • Symbolizes protection from evil and bringing good luck.
    • Associated with skilled archers like Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) and Imagawa Yoshimoto (今川義元).
  • Kato Kiyomasa (清正公図, katō kiyomasa-zu):

    • Represents the famous warlord known for both martial and literary prowess.
    • Symbolizes bravery and accomplishment.
  • Tawara Toda (俵藤太図, tawara tōta-zu):

    • Depicts Fujiwara Hidesato (藤原秀郷), known for his bravery in subduing Taira no Masakado (平将門).
    • Often features a centipede, referencing the legend of killing a giant centipede.
  • Uji River Battle (宇治川先陣図, ujigawa senjin-zu):

    • Illustrates the Battle of Uji River in 1184.
    • Symbolizes bravery and determination in overcoming adversity.

Traditional Arts Designs

  • Okina Mask (翁面図, okina-men-zu):

    • Represents transformation into a deity to pray for peace and prosperity.
    • Symbolizes wisdom, peace, bountiful harvests, and longevity.
  • Hannya Mask (般若面図, hannya-men-zu):

    • Depicts a jealous female demon.
    • Symbolizes protection from evil and misfortune.
  • Echigo Lion (越後獅子図, echigo-jishi-zu):

    • Represents a traditional lion dance from Niigata Prefecture.
    • Symbolizes protection from evil and good fortune.
Popular Menuki Designs2

Plants and Animals Designs (Including Mythical Creatures)

  • Peach (桃図, momo-zu):

    • Symbolizes warding off evil and ensuring long life.
    • Associated with immortality.
  • Iris (燕子花図, kakitsubata-zu):

    • Associated with the poet Ariwara no Narihira (在原業平) and "The Tales of Ise".
    • Indicates appreciation of refined aesthetics and culture.
  • Peony (牡丹図, botan-zu):

    • Symbolizes wealth, honor, longevity, and prosperity.
    • Known for its grandeur and elegance.
  • Chidori (Plover) (千鳥図, chidori-zu):

    • Symbolizes fortune, prosperity, family safety, and marital harmony.
    • Often depicted with three birds in flight.
  • Sleeping Lion (眠り獅子図, nemuri-jishi-zu):

    • Symbolizes courage, protection, wisdom, and the power of the sun.
  • Elephant (象図, zō-zu):

    • Symbolizes strength, reliability, blessings, and protection.
    • Associated with Fugen Bosatsu (普賢菩薩) in Buddhism.
  • Dragon (龍図, ryū-zu):

    • Represents self-improvement and helping others.
    • "Ascending dragon" (昇り龍, nobori-ryū) symbolizes striving for enlightenment, "descending dragon" (降り龍, kudari-ryū) symbolizes aiding others.

Other Designs

  • Medicine Ball (薬玉図, kusudama-zu):

    • Originates from the Heian period.
    • Decorative item filled with fragrant herbs for protection and longevity.
  • Bundle of Noshi (束ね熨斗図, tabane-noshi-zu):

    • Represents celebration and sharing blessings.
    • Originally referred to dried abalone.
  • Ox Cart (牛車図, gissha-zu):

    • Symbolizes high status and elegance.
    • Used by nobles in the Heian period.
  • Asazuma Boat (浅妻船図, asazuma-bune-zu):

    • Depicts a boat carrying courtesans between shores of Lake Biwa.
    • Signifies elegance and beauty, popular in kabuki and ukiyo-e.
    You can select your desired Menuki (matched with Tsuba, fuchi & kashira) in our custom katana section.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Menuki

    What is the most common Menuki design?

    Lions and dragons are the most common designs of Menuki.

    What are some rare Katana Menuki?

    Mount Fuji, Golden Pagoda, Tori, Kirin, etc., are a few of the rare designs of Menuki.

    What are Menuki made from?

    Menukis are generally made of copper or brass or copper. However, manufacturers make more elaborate versions with solid gold or silver. in modern days, replicated katana often use alloy material

    Conclusion

    By now, you've got the necessary information about Menuki. Hopefully, you've found this article helpful. Thanks for reading through. If you are interested in other katana parts, please check here.

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