Scabbard (saya) (鞘)

A scabbard is a sheath for the blade of an edged tool. It protects the blade to keep its sharpness, and insulates it to prevent things around it from being damaged by the blade, while ensuring safety in storage or transport. In addition to the traditional materials such as leather, wood, animal horn, cloth and metals, plastics are also used for scabbards these days. Usually, different materials are combined for use instead of a single material.

Scabbards for swords

In swords including katana (single-edged sword), ken (or tsurugi, double-edged sword), spears or naginata jutsu (art of Japanese halberd), it constitutes the accouterment of a sword along with the hilt (tsuka) and sword guard (tsuba). In wooden scabbards (usually covered with cloth or leather) or leather scabbards, metal fittings are often used. Especially, vulnerable parts such as openings and tips (kojiri) of scabbards are strengthened by metals, and hanging rings for taiken (to wear a sword) and decorative fittings are sometimes added. In 19-century Europe, scabbards made exclusively of metals were popular. Although such scabbards deteriorated sharpness of blades, they were dominant until they were replaced with those made of leather or wood and until the end of the 19th century.

The forms of carrying a sword (haiyo)

Haiyo (carrying a sword) refers to the practice for nobility, knights or samurai to wear a single- or double-blade sword as a token of rank in time of peace, or as a weapon in time of war. Because the sword should not obstruct any action and must be ready to use when necessary, it was usually hung on the left waist both in the East and in the West. In the West, a crisscrossed shoulder belt fitted with a scabbard was also worn in addition to the waist belt for carrying a sword. Short swords were carried in various forms, on the abdomen, right waist, lower back, chest or leg, depending on their length and use. On the contrary, long swords were carried on the back, or if they are too long to wear, they were sometimes carried by attendants. Japanese swords from the Sengoku period (period of warring states) to the Edo period were carried by thrusting the scabbards directly through obi sashes, the form of which is called taito.

Decorative scabbard

Swords were used as weapons but they were symbols of ranks and power at the same time. Kings, Gozoku (local ruling family), and high-ranked nobility demanded luxurious exterior decoration for their favorite swords that suit their ranks. Exterior decoration employing unusual materials (foreign animal leather or wood, for example) and precious metals fitted with stones and gems crafted by a master craftsman were artworks rather than articles of utility.

Legendary scabbards

Legend has it that the scabbard of the second Excalibur Merlin gave King Arthur had a supernatural power. The scabbard is said to have a supernatural power of protecting the owner and preventing him/her from losing blood.

Scabbards for Japanese swords

Scabbards for Japanese swords were usually made of Japanese Bigleaf Magnolia. Probably it was used because it was ideal as a scabbard material, with moderate hardness that does not damage the blade, moderate strength, and uniform quality suited for lacquer and other finishing. The exterior decoration changed over time, majorly from thick and heavy designs all covered with metals to lighter and thinner ones with less metals.

Some metal parts were replaced with shark skin. After wrapping a scabbard with shark skin, it was lacquered in black, indigo or vermilion, and then finished using a grinding stone to make a decorative pattern, which is characteristic to samezaya (a sheath made of sharkskin). The solid, beautiful and unusual style caught on rapidly, and was prevalent by the mid Muromachi period. One of the disadvantages of samezaya was that it shrinks when wet in the rain, making it difficult to draw the sword, but the art of decoration went beyond the inconvenience. The 'Botanzukuri Kairagi Zamesaya Koshigatana' (important cultural property) housed in the Kyoto National Museum is from the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan), but even in the mid Edo period, Sukeroku, who is the hero in the Kabuki masterpiece "Sukeroku" featuring the Edo idea of stylishness, carried 'an inro (pill case) and samezaya' on his waist, suggesting samezaya being a part of the artistic aspect of Japanese swords.

Koshirae (sword mountings) and shirasaya (white scabbard)

Koshirae refers to a mounted and finished form of individual sword, where the blade is placed in a hilt (tsuka) and scabbard fitted with sword guard (tsuba), hanging fittings (ashikanamono) and other reinforcement fittings, and wooden parts are finished with lacquer. Koshirae is classified into several groups having common features according to a period or region, each of which is called xx koshirae. For example, a group of characteristic uchigatana-goshirae crafted mainly in the Tensho era is called Tensho-goshirae. Another example is a group of uchigatana-goshirae crafted in the Kumamoto domain in Higo Province throughout the Edo period called Higo-goshirae.

On the other hand, the mounting consisting only of a hilt and scabbard made of unlacquered Japanese Bigleaf Magnolia, with mekugi (a rivet) in the hilt, is called shirasaya (white scabbard). Shirasaya is exclusively designed to protect swords, and the scabbard made of wood in white controls the humidity inside, preventing the blade from rusting. If the blade should rust due to improper maintenance or other reasons, the scabbard can be split at its juncture to clean inside. For this reason, shirasaya is usually assembled using a glue of mashed rice to facilitate splitting. Yakuza movies often show battle scenes using shirasaya swords, but, as might be surmised, they are not stout enough for rough use. The history of shirasaya is relatively new, and it is said that their production was started in the late Edo period. Probably, shirasaya was first introduced in families of the upper-class samurai, mainly daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) who had a collection of swords, to preserve the swords with care, which were regarded as an essential tool of samurai. However, it seems that it spread among the general public after the decree banning the wearing of swords was promulgated in Meiji Period, when swords worn by samurai became no longer necessary and went into storage except for those for military use.

Originally, blade and fittings constitute one unit, and they were not deemed as separate items.
The expression 'kokushitsu-no-tachi' (black-lacquered sword) refers to the whole sword including the blade instead of 'black-lacquered sword mountings.'
The differentiation such as tachi or katana is also attributed to the fittings of each sword, and the blades themselves were rather similar and shared commonalities (however, blades had shapes that suit their respective needs, which were taken into account in fabrication). Later, when blades and fittings came to be preserved separately, in shirasaya and using tsunagi (wooden blade used for storing fittings) respectively, the two had to be differentiated and the term 'koshirae' was coined.

Mekugi: A nail-like, 2- to 3-cm long rivet that goes through both the hilt and nakago (tang) that extends from the blade to fix the tang in place, thus preventing the tang from coming out of the hilt. Mekugi are made of bamboo or buffalo horn for shirasaya and koshirae, or sometimes metal for koshirae.

A wooden blade substitute used to link the hilt and scabbard which should be linked by a blade. Tunagi is also referred to as takemitsu (bamboo sword), but because they are mainly made of Japanese Bigleaf Magnolia these days, they are simply called tsunagi.

Ancient scabbards

From the bronze swords with remnants of what appear to be scabbards excavated in the Yayoi section, there seems to have been some kind of sword mounting culture in the Yayoi period, but details are unknown. From sections of the Kofun period (tumulus period) that followed, more artifacts were excavated, including fittings the majority of which bear pommels with characteristic decoration, as seen in examples such as kantotachi (sword with a ring pommel) and kabutsuchi-no-tachi (sword with a pommel having a fist-like end). The hilts and scabbards fitted with abundant decorations including gilt-bronze rings, embossed gilt bronze/silver sheets, and gold and silver lines still remained their glitter despite their artifact nature, conveying luxurious atmosphere at the time they were created. The length of the swords at the time was designed for use with one hand, and the ball-like pommels found in kabutsuchi-no-tachi may have been for practical use similar to the knob of a baseball bat, but whether such large swords fitted with decorative mountings were really used or not remains unknown.

Swords housed in Shosoin (treasure repository) are valuable resources in studying the sword mountings in the Nara period. They are some of few swords as well as historical materials from the Nara period, which are preserved in an excellent condition as art objects much favored and passed down over generations. One example that represents such items is Kingindenso-no-Karatachi, featuring a hilt covered with white shark skin, karatsuba (Chinese-style sword guard), elaborately pierced nagakanamono (cylindrical fittings mounted around the scabbard), and hanging fittings (ashikanamono) with yamagata-kanamono (mountain-shaped fittings), all of which are found in ornamental swords in later periods, which makes the sword deemed as their forerunner.

Whereas most of the swords before the Heian period were either imported from China or the Korean Peninsula, or modeled after them and domestically produced, swords in the Heian period and after saw development of styles original to Japan deriving from those imports. The first half of the Heian period was an era of straight swords, during which the ornamental sword style which is the form of highest-rank sword mountings was established and adopted when attending ceremonies wearing sokutai (traditional ceremonial court dress), but such style was only allowed to the highest-ranked Kugyo (the top court officials). The swords were generally similar to Karatachi (Chinese-style sword), but their hilts and scabbards became slenderer and more elegant, and the blades were substituted by iron bars, making the swords ritual objects dedicated to ceremonies. One example that represents such items is Nashiji radenkinso no kazaritachi (Sword mounting of kazari-tachi type, with mother-of-pearl inlay decoration and gold fittings on nashiji lacquer ground), which is a national treasure housed in Tokyo National Museum. Because these sumptuous swords were expensive, hosodachi (narrow blade)-style swords with partially omitted mountings were also invented and worn in place of ornamental swords according to the rank or economic status. These swords were required in court ceremonies, and after the era of wanto (curved swords, Japanese swords in a strict sense), from the late Edo period through Meiji and Taisho periods to the early Showa period, they were created with slight changes added over the course, although much decreased in number.

The swords mentioned earlier were generally used in ceremonies, and it is unlikely that they were carried to battlefields. On the other hand, few of the mountings for swords for practical use remain because they were destined to be consumed. Some of rare examples are warabi-teto (which is called Kurozukuritachi in Shosoin) and kurotsukuri-no-tachi which have been housed in Shosoin since the Nara period, and kurourushi-no-tachi from the Heian period housed in Kurama-dera Temple in Kyoto, which is said to have been carried by SAKANOUE no Tamuramaro. Their mountings featuring scabbards covered with thin leather, black-lacquer finish, simple and practical fittings, and minimal decoration suggest that the mountings are designed for practical use. However, their attentiveness to details and excellent designs suggest that they are higher in quality than those used by common soldiers.

History section of Japanese swords

Scabbards for tachi (太刀, a single-edged, usually curved long sword)

With the advent of Wanto (curved sword) believed to have taken place in the mid-Heian period, tachi (which are differentiated from another tachi [大刀] which are straight long swords) came into being. Scabbard curved to suit the blades are fitted with two hanging fittings (ashikanamono), one around the opening and the other around the center of the scabbard, on each of which a braided cord is tied, like long swords manufactured in ancient times. By passing o (string) of tachi through the cords and winding the o around the waist, the tachi is retained almost horizontally. The o of tachi is made of braid or leather, usually 3 meters or more in length, which makes it long enough to be wound twice over an armored waist. The basic style features a semegane fitting mounted between the ninoashi (ashikanamono around the scabbard center) and ishitsuki fitting (end cap), which is a style already seen in warabite and other swords in the late kofun period and inherited to the Edo period in handachi (koshirae employing handachi [transitive style between curved swords to straight swords]-style fittings) and the early Showa period in tachi-style military swords.

Scabbards of uchigatana (moderately curved swords manufactured in the Muromachi period and after worn by directly thrusting the scabbard through the sash)

The scabbard are lacquered using techniques including 'ishime-nuri' (powdered lacquer surface to produce a coarse finish), and 'tataki-nuri' (semigloss uneven coating) to obtain a non-slip effect, 'ro-nuri' (gleaming lacquer finish), and highly ornate 'kinpun-chirashi' (sprinkling of gold powder), 'aogai-chirashi' (sprinkling of mother-of-pearl), 'kin-makie' (gold lacquer), 'scabbard covered with scraped shark skin,' 'xx kizami' (inro-kizami, grooved line patterns), and rare techniques using 'leather' or 'scales.'

Manufacturing of Japanese swords are strictly based on the division of labor, and in most cases scabbard crafting and lacquering were done by different groups of people.

Tachi (太刀) was carried by hanging on the waist. Tachi (打刀) was carried by thrusting through the sash.

Scabbards for military swords

Scabbards and hilts for military swords were made of iron or aluminium.

In army, the first scabbard made in 1886 was plated and glittering silver in color, but scabbards came to be frosted from 9-4- and 9-5-model swords to make them less noticeable to enemies. Although most of the 9-4- and 9-8-model scabbards were made of iron, they were too heavy for battlefields and gradually replaced with wooden ones covered with leather. In navy, swords were more ceremonial, and the tachi-style army sword ordained in 1937 employed scabbards with a black-lacquered or scraped shark skin finish. Among the navy swords, some of those used by naval brigades were covered with leather like those of army.

Scabbards for wooden swords

In the sword-drawing form of Japanese martial arts, beginners and some schools have employed wooden swords for training since the Edo period. The scabbard is made of paper or wood, or plastic at some martial arts shops. Lacquer is applied only for copied models of descendent wooden swords.