Koshirae Everything you need to know about the Japanese Katana Mountings


What is Koshirae 拵

What is Koshirae 拵

"Koshirae" 拵 means the external mountings of a katana sword used for carrying, including the scabbard (saya), hilt (tsuka), handguard (tsuba) etc. It's a collective term for the decorative parts of a Japanese sword, known as "sword fittings". Koshirae serves three main functions: protection of the katana blade, enhancement of practicality, and demonstration of the owner's dignity.

Technically speaking, in Japanese, swords refer to the blade only. Fittings are Koshirae. A good analogy is Katana (the blade only) is a person, and Koshirae (fittings) are different cloths the person wears. 

There are many types of Koshirae, they can be classified by the smiths and their era .This article will introduce the overview, history, and common types of Koshirae, these are valuable knowledge if you want to order a custom katana.

Koshirae 拵 VS Shirasaya 白鞘 What is the difference?

Koshirae 拵 VS Shirasaya 白鞘

Unlike the fancy, luxurious Koshirae mounting, there is another type of katana fitting called Shirasaya 白鞘. Shirasaya literally means "blank sheath". This is a more plain and simple mounting for Japanese swords, mainly used for storage or preservation. The shirasaya is not meant for combat. It's typically made of plain, untreated wood and lacks the ornate decorations of the koshirae. The purpose of the shirasaya is to protect the blade from moisture and damage while it's not in use, helping to preserve it over long periods.

In essence, think of koshirae as the “dressed up” version of the sword for use and display, while shirasaya is like the “resting outfit” of the sword for storage and preservation.

History of Koshirae

The production of Koshirae is thought to have started around the Yayoi period, and a variety of Koshirae designs have been invented in response to changes in the shape, use, and decoration techniques of swords up to the Edo period. The production of Koshirae is divided among artisans who specialize in making different parts such as scabbards and tsuba. Koshirae represents the high level of craftsmanship in each field.

金銀鈿荘唐大刀 Gold and Silver Inlaid Tang Dynasty Great Sword From Nara Period 

金銀鈿荘唐大刀 Gold and Silver Inlaid Tang Dynasty Great Sword From Nara Period

*This Tang Dao is from Nara Period, it was used in ceremonies and is known for its luxurious decorations on its fittings. 

As Japan moved into the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, the focus shifted towards practicality in Koshirae design due to changes in warfare. This era saw the development of the Uchigatana and Aikuchi, with fittings becoming either ornate or simple to reflect a samurai status. The Azuchi-Momoyama period continued this trend with extravagant koshirae.

During the peaceful middle Edo period in Japan, swords became more than just practical tools. They were essential for samurais, symbolizing their honor and spirit, and played a key role in showing off their authority.

Example of Uchigatana koshirae

However, the government issued rules about the size of katana and the style of their mounts, to make sure they weren't too fancy. The style of these mounts was like a dress code, chosen based on the wearer's status and the occasion.

The Meiji era marked a significant decline in traditional Japanese swords and fittings, as Japan transitioned to Western-style arms and tactics.

Types of Koshirae

Based on the swords they match, Koshirae can be classified as Tachi Koshirae, uchigatana koshirae and Koshigatana Koshirae. 

Tachi Koshirae 太刀拵

Highly decorative Tachi Koshirae 太刀拵

Koshirae used on Tachi is called Tachi Koshirae 太刀拵. These fittings have been used since the ancient Kofun period. A notable feature of tachi fittings is that the sword is hung from the waist using a cord called "帯執" (obidori).

In the Nara to early Heian period, swords were mostly ceremonial tools, so their fittings were often elaborately made for ceremonial use and as symbols of social status. Later, in the late Heian period, as samurai emerged, more practical tachi fittings appeared, coated with black lacquer for actual combat.

From the Heian to the early Muromachi period, when tachi was commonly used before the "打刀" (uchigatana) became mainstream, this is the golden age for Tachi, and there were many practical designs of tachi fittings. However, when the more practical uchigatana became popular, tachi fittings once again became ornate and ceremonial.

Uchigatana Koshirae 打刀拵

Uchigatana Koshirae 打刀拵

Koshirae used on Uchigatana (which is the katana we are familiar with) called Uchigatana Koshirae "打刀拵", which was designed for practical use in infantry battles. Uchigatana fittings were simpler in appearance compared to tachi fittings and were worn with the blade facing upwards, opposite of how tachi was worn.

Especially during the Sengoku (Warring States) period, the uchigatana was used as a practical weapon, so its fittings were rarely decorated. However, in the Edo period, more elaborately decorated uchigatana fittings began to be produced.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, it became popular among warlords to modify existing tachi swords into uchigatana or to customize fittings to their preference. This trend led to the creation of many new styles of uchigatana fittings.

Koshigatana Koshirae 腰刀拵 

Koshigatana Koshirae 腰刀拵

Koshirae used on smaller katanas like the wakizashi and tanto, are called Koshigatana Koshirae 腰刀拵 . These small katana were often carried along with a longer katana (tachi or uchigatana).

In the Kamakura period, a new type of fitting called "合口拵" (aikuchi koshirae) became popular, aikuchi koshirae had no handguard (tsuba) and easy to carry around. However, in the Edo period, with the emergence of "大小拵" (daisho koshirae) - fittings for carrying both a large sword (uchigatana) and a small sword (wakizashi) together - the government required swords to have tsuba, leading to the decline in the use of aikuchi koshirae.

"合口拵" (aikuchi koshirae)

The daisho koshirae represented the samurai's status, with specific rules about the style and size of the fittings. Wearing these two swords became a symbol of being a samurai.

Gunto Koshirae 軍刀拵

Gunto Koshirae 軍刀拵

Koshirae used on Gunto are called Gunto Koshirae. Since Japanese military swords were standardized, their design varied based on the era and the rank of the user. However, as officers and officials had to pay for their own swords, there are more personalized designs show up.

There were different types of military swords, including the "saber-type," which could be handled with one hand and had a part to protect the fingers and hand, and the "tachi-style" military sword, which was an adaptation of traditional tachi fittings. Additionally, there was a "naval-style" military sword used by the navy.

Types of Tachi Koshirae

Yes, under Tachi koshirae, there are still many types of koshirae, this complexity can sometimes be overwhelmed and somewhat frustrating. But this complexity is part of the beauty of Japanese katana fittings. Don't get dizzy, this is why we make this guide. 

Kebari-gata Tachi (毛抜形太刀)

Kebari-gata Tachi (毛抜形太刀)

Also known as "Efu no Tachi" (衛府の太刀) or "Noken" (野剣), this unique style features a blade and hilt made as a single unit, unlike other Japanese swords. The hilt is designed with ancient tweezer-like notches for balance and shock absorption. This style is thought to be influenced by the Warabite sword (蕨手刀) from Northern Japan during the Nara period. While it appears ornate, its practical design suggests it was used by high-ranking samurai. Over time, this style's popularity declined, and modern versions only incorporate the tweezer-like design on the hilt.

Hyogo Kusari Tachi (兵庫鎖太刀)

Hyogo Kusari Tachi (兵庫鎖太刀)

Initially a term for military gear, it evolved into "Hyogo." This style is characterized by a chain-woven belt instead of the standard seven metal hangers. It's often confused with the "Long Covering Ring Tachi" but is distinct. The design of the chain evolved over time, becoming less practical as the sword moved away from battlefield use.

Kuro Urushi Tachi (黒漆太刀) / Shirozukuri/Shirozaku Tachi (白造/白作太刀)

Kuro Urushi Tachi (黒漆太刀)

Derived from the "Kurozukuri Tachi" (黒造太刀) of the Nara period, this style is completely covered in black lacquer, including the fittings. Some parts are intentionally left unpainted to create a white effect, known as Shirozukuri or Shirozaku. While typically for those below the sixth rank, it was also worn by higher-ranking individuals in times of mourning. It was a common style among warriors and temple guards.

Iwamono Tachi (厳物造太刀)

Iwamono Tachi (厳物造太刀)

This is a general term for a variety of robust battle Tachi from the Kamakura period known for its lavish decorations and grand design, these Koshirae were so flashy, with detailed carvings and solid construction. The Hyogo Kusari Tachi is a famous example of Iwamono Tachi.

Nagafukurin no Tachi (長覆輪太刀)

Nagafukurin no Tachi (長覆輪太刀)

A subtype of Iwamono Tachi, this style involves a scabbard completely covered in metal sheeting, secured with long rings.

Hirumaki Tachi (蛭巻太刀)

Hirumaki Tachi (蛭巻太刀)

Hirumaki Tachi is a kind of the Iwamono Tachi, this style involves wrapping the hilt and scabbard with a silver strip in a spiral pattern, filling the gaps with black lacquer. It was popular until the Muromachi period and was previously used for Naginata handles.

Kawatsutsumi Tachi (革包太刀)

Kawatsutsumi Tachi (革包太刀)

Distinguished by a leather-wrapped hilt and scabbard, this style became common for various tachi at the Muromachi period. The leather is often covered with metal fittings for protection.

Kawamaki Tachi (革巻太刀) / Itomaki Tachi (糸巻太刀)

Kawamaki Tachi (革巻太刀) / Itomaki Tachi (糸巻太刀)

In this style, the hilt and scabbard are wrapped with leather cords (Kawamaki) or braided cords (Itomaki). Predating the Kamakura period, it gained popularity during that era, especially for large swords, due to its improved grip.

Types of Uchigatana Koshirae

Tensho Koshirae 天正拵

Tensho Koshirae 天正拵

Tensho Koshirae is known for its durability, simplicity, and functionality, making it widely used in battlefields. Named after the "Tensho" era (1573–1593), it reflects the period's characteristics well.

As samurai leaders began to wear Uchigatana (打刀) swords during this era, Tensho Koshirae developed alongside. The hilt (tsuka) is shaped like a drum (tsuzumi), with a waist in the middle, known as Ryugo-gata (立鼓形). This design not only creates a balanced silhouette with the scabbard (saya) but also ensures an aesthetically pleasing line.

A notable feature of Tensho Koshirae is the hilt's wrapping. Typically, sharkskin (samegawa) is used as the base layer for its non-slip properties and durability enhancement. Over this, leather is often wrapped. The scabbard is usually coated with black or brown lacquer, and the tsuba (sword guard) is made of simple materials like iron or yamagane (mountain copper), with minimal decoration.

Higo Koshirae 肥後拵

Higo Koshirae 肥後拵

Higo Koshirae, favored by many samurai, is known for embodying the concept of "wabi-sabi" in its design. A typical feature of Higo Koshirae is its preference for shorter swords, usually with a blade around 65 cm and a hilt about 20 cm. These dimensions are ideal for quick drawing, a crucial aspect in combat.

The functionality of Higo Koshirae is geared towards practical use in battle. The shorter hilt, often designed in the Ryugo-gata (立鼓形) style, where the middle is slightly tapered, is suitable for one-handed strikes. This one-handed technique extends the reach of the sword compared to two-handed strikes, giving an advantage in Iaijutsu (the art of drawing the sword).

In terms of fittings, iron is commonly used for the metal components. The kojiri (鐺), the tip of the scabbard, features a shallow, unique Higo design with an iron "Dorozuri" (泥摺り). Additionally, the kaerizuno (返角), which prevents the scabbard from sliding off during drawing, is angled upwards to facilitate the passing of the sageo (下緒), a cord tied to the scabbard. Furthermore, the kashira (頭), or pommel, on the hilt is smaller than the rim, wrapped in sharkskin and coated with black lacquer. A distinctive characteristic is the deer leather hilt wrapping, also lacquered, and the scabbard often covered in sharkskin.

Owari Koshirae 尾張拵

Owari Koshirae 尾張拵

Owari Koshirae stands out for its robust components that suggest a sense of martial strength. However, its distinctive feature lies in the intricate and elegant craftsmanship, particularly evident in the scabbard.

For instance, the Shitodome metal fittings, used to decorate the edges of holes in metal, leather, or wood, exhibit refined details. The corners of these holes are rounded, and the mouthpiece part often features a floral pattern. A closer examination of various parts reveals the meticulousness of the design. In the hilt, the diamond shapes of the hilt wrapping are comparatively large, and the pattern of the hilt thread is reversed from what is typically seen. The inner diameter of the edge is crafted to fit the head snugly, ensuring the blade stays securely in the hilt. The menuki, which are the pegs used to secure the blade to the hilt, are made thinner and flattened, differing from the common style.

Yagyu Koshirae 柳生拵

Yagyu Koshirae 柳生拵

The hilt is designed with prominent heads and edges, and a tapered middle in the Ryugo-gata (立鼓形) style, suitable for one-handed striking. A notable aspect is the flat blade-side of the hilt (creating a concave form along the ridge of the spine), which facilitates a comfortable grip.

The hilt head is on the smaller side and is wrapped in a light yellow thread, the same color as the sageo (cord). For long swords (Tachi), the pattern created by wrapping the thread about 13 times is known as "Thirteen Diamonds" (十三菱), while for short swords (Kodachi), the thread is wrapped around eight times, forming an "Eight Diamonds" (八菱) pattern. The scabbard is finished in Kuro Roiro (黒呂塗り), a type of black lacquer that gives a deep, lustrous appearance similar to wet black lacquer.

Additionally, the scabbard features a bellows-like shape (Sanbu-giri). The mouth of the scabbard (Koiguchi) is in plain white, and the tip of the scabbard (Kojiri) is in a misty silver finish with a straight line pattern. The sword guard (Tsuba) is always round, featuring a distinctive Yagyu-style openwork design.

Shonai Koshirae (庄内拵)

Shonai Koshirae (庄内拵)

During the Edo period, various domains in Japan developed unique martial arts philosophies and styles, which also influenced the design of sword mountings. Shonai Koshirae (庄内拵) is one such example.

While there are no rigid guidelines for Shonai Koshirae, the use of fittings made by Shonai metalworkers sets it apart from other regional styles. A distinctive feature is the deeper and rounded engravings at both ends of the hilt, and the kojiri (鐺), the end of the scabbard, often having a deep, rounded bulge. The tsuba (sword guard) is usually small, and the decoration employs the "Hira-Zogan" (平象嵌) technique. In this technique, metal is processed into flat or linear shapes and inlaid to match the surrounding surface level, creating a smooth overall appearance.

Furthermore, the carving style often involves chiseling into the metal surface at an angle with a single-edged chisel to create lines of varying thickness. This method also contributes to the rounded bulge of the head and kojiri, which are often large and hoe-shaped with openwork designs.

Satsuma Koshirae 薩摩拵

Satsuma Koshirae 薩摩拵

The samurai of the Satsuma domain, known for their unique ancient swordsmanship, developed a distinctive style in their Japanese swords and mountings. Characterized by a no-nonsense approach, it eliminates unnecessary decorations, focusing on functionality and the ability to swiftly defeat an opponent.

The hilt is made thicker and longer, but not curved towards the blade side. Instead of using sharkskin, thick cowhide is wrapped around the hilt and coated with black lacquer. Furthermore, the hilt is tightly bound with thread or leather cords, and the menuki (decorative pegs) that usually secure the hilt to the blade are almost entirely omitted. The fuchi and kashira (metal fittings at both ends of the hilt) are made of sturdy iron.

An additional distinctive feature is the creation of an outward protrusion at a reverse angle on the scabbard, allowing for quick drawing. This design also facilitated direct attacks with the hilt head while the blade remained sheathed. The tsuba (sword guard) has a small hole called "Sayadome" (鞘止), which symbolized the discipline of not drawing the sword rashly. This hole was used to pass a wire or cord, securing the sword in its scabbard.

An interesting historical aspect of Satsuma Koshirae involves the Shimazu family. It is said that the red copper used in their sword fittings had a high gold content. This was allegedly so that in times of need, the gold could be extracted and used as military funds.

Major Parts of Tachi Koshirae

Tachi Koshirae parts

Kabutogane (冑金): This term refers to a metal fitting attached to protect the hilt head of a Japanese sword. These fittings often feature dense engravings and are also written as "兜金."

Sarude (猿手) : Refers to a decorative metal fitting on the Kabutogane, used to secure the "Udenokio" cord and prevent sword loss. It's named for its monkey-hand-like appearance and is chain-made for Hyogo Chain Tachi.

Kuchikanamono (口金物) : a metal fitting on a Japanese sword's scabbard, resembles a carp's mouth. It reinforces the scabbard's opening, adding to the sword's aesthetic and functionality. It equals Koiguchi in Uchigatana Koshirae.

Fuchikanamono (縁金物): These are metal fittings attached to the mouth of the sword's hilt. Materials such as gold, silver, copper, and brass (真鍮) are used, with relief engravings on metal plates.

Ashikanamono (足金物), specifically Ichi no Ashi and Ni no Ashi: These are fittings through which the sword's hanging strap is passed. Located in two places near the guard, the one closer to the scabbard mouth is called "Ichi no Ashi 一の足," and the farther one is "Ni no Ashi 二の足."

Obitori (帯執): This refers to metal or leather decorations through which the sword's strap, Tachio (太刀緒), is passed. It is associated with the Ashikanamono.

Tachio (太刀緒): A braided or leather cord wrapped around the waist to secure the scabbard of a sword. Often featuring a tortoise shell pattern, its length is about 3 meters. When the sword is not worn, it is tied in a knot known as "Tachi-musubi."

Semekanamono (責金物): A ring-shaped fitting mounted around the middle of the scabbard to prevent it from splitting. Variants include the Kashiwaba Kanamono (柏葉金物), which is adorned with oak leaf motifs.

Watari-maki (渡巻) : This is the flat wrap on the upper 1 shaku (30cm) of a Tachi's scabbard, using the same thread as the handle. It provides protection against wear when worn with armor.

Ishizuki Kanamono (石突金物): A fitting attached to protect the end of the sword scabbard.

Major Parts of Uchigatana Koshirae

Major Parts of Uchigatana Koshirae

Kashira (頭): This term refers to a metal fitting attached to the tip of a sword's hilt to provide reinforcement. Often, the design of the Kashira is made to match that of the Fuchi. This equals the Kabutogane (冑金) of Tachi koshirae.

Fuchi (縁): A metal fitting placed on the hilt's mouth near the guard, also for the purpose of reinforcement. In many instances, the design of the Fuchi is coordinated to match the Kashira.

Kōgaibitsu and Kōgai (笄櫃, 笄): Kōgaibitsu denotes the groove on the outer side of a scabbard, designed to hold a Kōgai. A Kōgai is a small accessory used for personal grooming, such as arranging hair.

Kodzukabitsu and Kodzuka (小柄櫃, 小柄): Kodzukabitsu refers to the groove on the reverse side of the scabbard for storing a Kodzuka. The Kodzuka is a small knife used for tasks such as carving wood or cutting paper. During the Edo period, the Kōgaibitsu, Kōgai, Kodzukabitsu, and Kodzuka increasingly emphasized artistic and decorative aspects over practical utility.

Sageo (下緒): A cord, about 170 cm long, used to secure the sword to the waist belt to prevent it from falling out when worn.

Kaerizuno (返角): This is a fixture used to hook onto the belt when drawing the sword, ensuring that the scabbard does not come off with the blade.

Kojiri (鐺): A fitting attached to the lower end of the scabbard to prevent damage. It equals the Ishizuki Kanamono (石突金物) of Tachi koshirae.

Part both Tachi and Uchigatana has in common

Tsuka (柄): This is the part of a sword used to hold the blade. It is typically made from Ho (朴, magnolia) wood and covered with a type of ray skin, commonly known as sharkskin.

Tsukamaki (柄巻): The purpose of the tsukamaki is to reinforce the hilt and enhance the grip. It involves wrapping a braided cord or leather around the hilt, starting from the edge of the Fuchi and finishing under the Kashira.

Mekugi (目釘): A fastener that goes from the front to the back of the hilt to prevent the blade from slipping out. Originally, it was part of the Menuki, but later evolved into a practical, separate pin. Mekugi can be made from bamboo, buffalo horn, or metal.

Menuki (目貫): Initially, this was a fastener extending from front to back to secure the blade within the hilt. Over time, its design became more decorative, splitting into distinct front and back pieces. Positioned near the center of the hilt on the front side and near the Kashira on the back side, Menuki serves as both a handguard and a non-slip device.

Tsuba (鍔): A fitting installed between the hilt and the blade of a sword. It serves to protect the hand gripping the hilt and to adjust the balance of the sword.

Seppa (切羽): Thin metal plates placed on both sides of the Tsuba. Their function is to firmly secure the Tsuba to the hilt.

Saya (鞘): The part of the sword where the blade is sheathed. Its role is to protect the blade from elements like rain and dust. While traditionally made from lacquered wood, in the later periods, the Saya featured various decorations and could also be covered with leather or wrapped in sharkskin.

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