Katana Saya Complete guide to understand the sheath of the legendary samurai sword
Katana Saya: A Complete Guide
The Katana, or samurai sword, is truly a lethal weapon. It can cause a lot of damage if it slips or swings in the wrong direction. The sheath, or saya, of the Katana prevents this from happening. The saya is the most important part made to protect the sword and its surroundings from dirt. While the focus is often on the blade of the Japanese sword, the craftsmanship applied to the saya is also noteworthy. In this article, We'll explain the basics about saya, including their history, types, and how they are made.
What Is Katana Saya?
The scabbard, or saya, is part of the exterior of the Japanese katana. It's a tube that houses the blade. Since the naked blade can be dangerous, scabbards were created for safe storage and carrying. Also, because the Japanese sword symbolizes status and power, decorations fitting to this status were applied to the saya. Moreover, if the blade is left exposed in the open air, it can rust due to moisture mixed in the air or dust. Therefore, a saya was also made to protect it from the outside air. Plus, the lacquering of the Saya itself has great artistic value.
Aside from that, the saya of the Katana plays an important role in Battōjutsu. In fact, this line of martial arts is centered around the technique of sheathing and unsheathing the sword.
History of Saya
The history of Japanese katana can trace back to Yayoi period, and saya have been unearthed from archaeological sites. Made with decorative materials like jade and red lacquer, they were already being created as symbols of the owner's power. The materials used included wood, and it seems like some were made with animal skins. During the Kofun period, saya were mainly made of wood, deer antler, and metal. By the Nara period, wooden saya were decorated with metal fittings, and their value as decoration items increased even more. From the Heian period onwards, Tachi katana were made, and later in the late Muromachi period, Uchigatana appeared. Common to Tachi and Uchigatana is that the blade has a curve. Corresponding to this, the saya also had a curve, and the technique of making each scabbard so that the inside of the scabbard does not touch the blade was established.
Types of Scabbards
There are two main types of saya, the "Koshirae" used for carrying the sword around, and the "Shirasaya" used for storage.
The Koshirae refers to the complete ensemble that decorates the sword blade, including the saya, tsuka, and tsuba etc. The saya is painted with lacquer over a wooden base and decorated with metal fittings. In the case of a Tachi, it has additional fittings that allow it to be hung from a belt. For Uchigatana saya, they have special designs to store small tools like Kozuka (tiny utility knife) and Kogai (hair pin). The Koshirae is essentially the sword's "outfit" for when it's carried around.
The Shirasaya refers to a scabbard that is simply finished in plain wood, without a guard. Surprisingly, leaving the blade in the Koshirae can cause the sword to rust due to ventilation issues. Since the Koshirae is for carrying around and mainly serves for decoration, it's not suitable for storing the sword for long time. The Shirasaya, literally means "white scabbard", is a scabbard specifically made for storing the blade. Because it's left in its natural wooden state, the humidity inside the scabbard is maintained, reducing the chance of the sword rusting. Additionally, the join line of the scabbard is made so that it can easily split open, allowing for easy cleaning and maintenance of the inside. Also, the handle is designed to be easily removable. Therefore, it's extremely dangerous to use the sword while it's in the Shirasaya.
How to Make a Saya
The Japanese sword involves various craftsmen in its production, each focus on their own area perfecting their skills. There are specific craftsmen, known as "Saya-shi", who make the best scabbard to fit each sword. As previously explained, there are 2 types of saya, "Koshirae" and "Shirasaya", but the manufacturing process is almost the same until a certain point. Here, we will introduce the materials for the Saya and the Saya-shi's job, the manufacturing process.
Materials for the Saya
One of the most common materials for a scabbard is Magnolia wood. It's ideal for scabbards because it's strong, yet soft enough to not damage the blade, easy to work with, has a low oil content, and is readily available.
The Manufacturing Process of the Scabbard step by step
Selecting and Shaping the Material (Wood Taking)
The Saya-shi chooses from Magnolia wood that's been naturally dried for more than 10 years. They check the grain and select the one that's easiest to work with and has the most beautiful texture. They then place the blade on the chosen wood, mark the shape, cut it out with a saw, making it larger than the blade shape, and use it as scabbard material.
Hollowing out the Wood (Carving)
The scabbard material is split straight into two halves, and the shape of the sword is drawn on the inside. Using various chisels, the material is carved out. The curve and tip of each sword are different, so they carefully customize and carve it out. Once a certain amount of carving is done, they apply oil to the blade, put it into the scabbard, and check where the blade touches the scabbard by the oil marks. If the blade touches the scabbard, it could rust at that point. They keep making fine adjustments to carve it out so that the blade doesn't touch the inside of the scabbard, but the inside of the scabbard doesn't become too wide either.
Joining the Wood (Gluing)
Once the blade fits nicely, the two parts of the saya material are glued together. The adhesive used for this is called "Tsugui", which is a paste made from rice grains. Because it's not a chemical, it doesn't affect the blade, and although it has adhesive power, it's not too strong, so you can peel it off without damaging the scabbard if a certain amount of force is applied.
Shaving and Polishing the Wood (Shaving, Polishing)
The outside of the glued scabbard material is planed. They create the part where the handle and scabbard join, drill a hole in the handle for a peg to fix the tang (Nakago), and chamfer the finish. The outside is then polished smooth using Horsetail or Aphananthe leaves, and the Shirasaya is complete.
The Koshirae is essentially the "dressed up" version of the Shirasaya. It has lacquer applied and fittings attached. The Koshirae is made thinner than the Shirasaya to account for the thickness of the lacquer. It also has compartments for a small handle and hairpin, for which individual holes ("hitsuana") are carved.
After the saya is crafted to serve as the base for the Koshirae (the Koshirae shitaji), it is handed off to various craftsmen for further detailing. A "nushi" applies the lacquer, a "tsukamakishi" decorates the handle, and a "kinkoshi" works on the ornamental metal parts. The extent of each artisan's work can vary.
Lacquer and Scabbard
When you think of a Japanese katana saya, the first thing that often comes to mind is a saya with black lacquer. Lacquering is a traditional Japanese technique applied to various wooden products. The lacquer applied to the saya is referred to as "kawarimono", and there were artisans specialized in applying lacquer to scabbards. The base of the Koshirae is painted with various colors of lacquer, not limited to black, and different patterns are created by applying lacquer with rayskin, leaves, stencils, and so on. These patterns add decoration to the saya.
Handcrafted and lacquered Kata Saya carry great art value. A traditional Japanese scabbard lacquerer spends two to three months on a single saya to craft it to perfection. This is why handcrafted Katana Saya can cost more than a thousand dollars.
The exterior of the saya should have a certain degree of roughness to hold onto the lacquer. To achieve this, the craftsman uses washi paper and a clay mixture to lay down a foundation for the layering. A special polishing powder, known as Tonoko, goes into the clay mixture.
The next process is Naka Nuri. During this phase, the lacquerer sand down the exterior of the sheath, making it rough. He will then apply a lacquer layer of a previously agreed-upon color. Usually, the artist will mix dye powders with lacquer to prepare the desired coating.
That first layer is allowed to dry. Afterward, the lacquerer shall sand down the layer with a piece of sanding charcoal. This again makes it rough and ready to apply another lacquering layer. The craftsman shall repeat this sanding and layering a total of ten times.
The purpose of lacquering the saya is not just artistic. Instead, it is mostly a protective measure. The lacquer coating makes it difficult for the environmental forces to penetrate the saya and reach the blade. Thus, the lacquering process enhances the longevity of the Katana and the saya.
Due to the influence of TV dramas, the image of "saya equals black" has become strong. However, in reality, a variety of patterned scabbards have been created by lacquer artisans, making them valuable as decorative items.
The Indispensable Craftsmanship of the Saya
The scabbard, created to carry and protect the sword blade, has always been with the sword throughout history. Although the sword blade might be the star of the show when it comes to Japanese katana, the saya, which supports the blade, plays an indispensable supporting role. The techniques applied to the saya making, from the selection of materials to carving and finishing, are the result of skilled craftsmanship that cannot be achieved overnight, and worth our respect.
As we mentioned before, there are 2 types of Saya, Koshirae for carrying and shirasaya for storage. To dig deeper in this topic, koshirae for tachi and Uchigatana has their own unique features as well:
Saya fittings distinct to Tachi:
Ashi-kana-mono (First and Second Ashi)
Ashi-kana-mono consists of metal attachments which allow the Obidome to pass through, facilitating the hanging of the Tachi. These fittings are situated right beneath the tsuba, with the first one positioned slightly below it, and the second one even lower. The first ashi is closer to the scabbard’s opening, while the second ashi is further down.
The Obidori is an ornamental element, often made of leather, that is used to thread the cord of the Tachi through. It is closely associated with the Ashi-kana-mono.
The Tachi-o is either a braided or leather cord that helps in fastening the sheath. It is wrapped around the waist when the Tachi is worn and typically has a tortoiseshell pattern. The cord is approximately 3 meters in length and, when the sword is not in use, it is tied in a particular knot called Tachi-musubi.
Seme-kana-mono is a metal ring-shaped attachment fixed to the scabbard’s midsection to keep it from cracking open. Often, a Kashiwaba-kana-mono, which has a design that mimics oak leaves, is utilized for this purpose.
Ishizuki-kana-mono is an attachment fixed to shield the base of the sheath.
Saya fittings exclusive to Uchigatana:
Kashira is an attachment affixed to the handle’s end to fortify it. It frequently showcases a design that matches that of the Fuchi.
Fuchi is an attachment that is affixed to the handle’s mouth (close to the Tsuba) to reinforce it. Most of the time, Fuchi has a design that coincides with that of the Kashira.
Kogai-bitsu and Kogai
Kogai-bitsu is a slot located on the sheath's outer surface made to accommodate the Kogai. The Kogai itself is a small, slender instrument utilized for grooming purposes, such as arranging untidy hair.
Kozuka-bitsu and Kozuka
Kozuka-bitsu is a slot located on the reverse side of the sheath to store the Kozuka. Kozuka is a small, handy knife primarily used for carving wood or cutting paper. During the Edo period, Kogai-bitsu, Kogai, Kozuka-bitsu, and Kozuka evolved into highly valued ornamental pieces rather than just practical tools.
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Importance Of The Saya In Battōjutsu
The term Battōjutsu means the art of technique of drawing the blade. The later version of Battōjutsu is Laidō, which means the martial art of quick drawing and resheathing the sword. So, it’s easily understandable how crucial the scabbard is in the Japanese sword-wielding martial arts forms.
To the less knowledgeable public, the saya, or scabbard, might seem like a mere covering for the Katana. However, as you learn more about Battōjustsu and Laidō, you will see that the saya is as important as the sword in these martial arts.
In fact, training in these disciplines mostly focuses on the skillful sheathing and unsheathing of the Katana. So, it is not an understatement to say that Battōjutsu and Laidō don’t exist without the Saya.
The role of the saya is very important during a fight. If you are normally waving or swinging a blade, you won’t be able to use its full striking potential. However, you can strike your opponent with the most power when you draw it from the Saya and wield it. This is why Battōjutsu puts so much emphasis on training the sheathing and unsheathing of the Katana.
When you draw the Katana out of the scabbard, it moves three or two times faster than it would normally. That’s because unsheathing gives the samurai the advantage of putting more power into the movement without worrying about controlling the pathway. As the Katana curves upwards against the Saya, it can guide the blade when the fighter draws it out.
In other words, the saya is not just a covering but actually a part of the Katana. Suppose two samurai with the same level of expertise engage in a battle, and one doesn’t have the saya. In this case, you can bet that the person with the sheath will win.
ConclusionThe Katana Saya is a work of art. The intense labor the craftsman puts into manufacturing and lacquering the piece speaks of dedication and excellence. At the same time, it is a crucial piece of equipment during samurai training and battle.
So, if you’re training in Battōjutsu or Laidō, take good care of your saya and work hard on your drawing and re-sheathing skills. For more katana parts knowledge you can check here.