Manual of Handling, Etiquette, and Care of the Japanese Sword
Etiquette for the Japanese Sword
Precautions in Handling the Nipponto, Drawing a Sword Out and Putting It Back
Method of Maintenance
How to Preserve the Nipponto
Created April 3, 1996
Written by David McDonald
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Traditionally the Japanese sword has been considered
a most important treasure by the Japanese people.
The etiquette regarding the handling of swords was
very strict. The rules were such that women were not
allowed to handle swords with their bare hands, but
used the sleeves of their kimono to carry them. And
some Samurai even went so far as to forbid women
from entering the room when they were cleaning their
sword. Some Samurai hung mosquito nets and they
cleaned swords under the netting. This was found to
be the only dust-free place. Also the Samurai would
hold a piece of paper in his mouth, not only in
cleaning but in looking at swords as well. The
thought was that this kept one's breath and moisture
off of the blade. Albert Yamanaka felt that the paper
in the mouth served no purpose, since if he closes
his mouth then he must breath through his nose and
in close inspection of swords hot air from the
nostrils will fall on the blade and defeat the purpose
of having the paper in his mouth.
A certain amount of respect is due a sword as an
object of art and of history regardless of the viewer's
heritage. However, swords must also be treated with
utmost precaution to avoid injury to both the handler
or to anyone close by. The sword blade must be
protected from rust. Also the sword's saya (scabbard), and
fittings must be protected from scratches and other
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I. Etiquette for the Japanese Sword
In feudal Japan, bumping the sword's saya while
passing one another or stepping over a sword while it
was placed on the floor would be cause enough to
start a fight. As admirers of the Japanese sword some
elements of sword etiquette should be adopted to
facilitate the safe and courteous handling of these
1. One problem that did not exist in old Japan was
the transportation of swords by automobile. If,
during an accident, a fishing rod can pierce a car seat,
think of what a sword blade can do! Always pack
swords perpendicular to the normal line of travel.
2. Permission to examine a sword is always
requested from the owner first.
3. Since some lacquer work is precious, the saya
is held only with a gloved hand, a cloth or
rice paper. Only the tsuka (hilt) is touched with the bare
hand. A good habit to get into is to always carry
some form of protection for saya handling whenever
you may have opportunities to view swords.
4. Upon receiving the sword, you should show your
respect by bowing to it. Remember, swords are more
than pieces of metal and have a religious significance
attached by some people. Whether or not you
subscribe to this belief, you should honor the feelings
of the sword owner and the efforts of the swordmaker.
After properly receiving the sword, the first
items to be admired are the koshirae (sword
furniture or fittings) or the calligraphy on the
shira saya (plain
wooden scabbards and hilts), if any is there.
5. Permission should be asked again in order to
withdraw the blade from the saya. If permission is
granted, the saya should be held in the middle with
the ha (cutting edge) upwards in the left hand. The blade is then
slowly unsheathed by riding the mune (blade back)
on the saya, taking care not to let the polished
surfaces come into contact with any part of the saya.
Whether drawing out a tachi or katana, one must
hold the cutting edge up and grasp the saya from
underneath in the left hand in a forward holding
position. Then, hold the hilt from above with the
6. When handing a sword to someone you should
continually keep the ha toward
7. When handing the sword to someone else, it is
always held with the kissaki (point) upward and the
ha toward the first holder with one hand close to the
fuchi (front pommel) and the other supporting the
kashira (rear pommel). This leaves enough room on
the tsuka (hilt) for the other person to securely grasp
the sword. You, the first holder, should also
wiggle/jiggle the sword slightly as an indication that
you, the first holder, are about to release your grasp.
Upon receiving the sword, the new holder/viewer
immediately turns the ha toward their body.
8. Definite precautions should be taken to prevent
breathing on the polished surfaces of the blade. The
blade may be held in either hand after the saya is
carefully put down. If the sword has a fuduka (sword
bag) , the saya should remain in it and the top of
the bag end is folded over. This will protect the
lacquered saya or a nice shira saya.
Since the scabbard is rather tightly fit at the koiguchi
(opening) where the habaki (collar) is fit, the initial
pull must be very carefully made so that only the
habaki's length gets drawn out.. Giving a sudden
powerful pull may not only impair the opening of the
saya but also might result in an uncontrollable jerk
leading to injury. Holding the blade still, pull it
entirely out of the saya very slowly making certain
the cutting edge never faces down or sideways.
9. When you are examining a blade, you may
support it with a piece of cloth or rice paper. Under
no circumstances is the blade ever to be touched
with bare hands or fingers. The acidic natural oils can
cause rusting of the blade. Some people advocate the
wearing of white gloves when handling a blade. This
is a good practice.
10. Courtesy dictates that derogatory comments are
not to be made, and kizu (defects, if any) are not
pointed out unless the owner specifically asks the
viewer to discuss the kizu in the blade.
When a blade is placed back in the saya (scabbard),
its case must be held by the left hand and the hilt by
the right hand as in the pulling-out process. The tip
of the sharp edge facing up must first rest gently on
the opening of the saya. Again, holding the blade
still, slide the blade along the channel into the saya.
When the habaki (collar) reaches the opening of the
case, a firm push is necessary to completely seat the
blade in the saya. As before, the cutting edge must
not face down or sideways.
11. When returning a sword from viewing , you must
always keep the cutting edge toward yourself with the
kissaki (point) upward. The tsuka (hilt) is presented
so that it is easy for the receiver to grasp.
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II. Precautions to be taken in
handling the Nipponto
1. All swords, whether encased in shira saya or koshirae (formal
mountings), need to be kept in their sword bags. The
kojiri (head of the scabbard) must go into the bag
first to avoid the possibility of an accidental fall of the
blade into the bag while you are holding the saya.
How to draw a sword out of the
scabbard and put it back
2. To carry a sword, the saya (scabbard) must be
held with the right hand. The tsuka (hilt) must be
held higher than the blade and saya. This measure
will prevent dangerous accidents.
3. Whenever one draws a mounted sword out of its
bag or scabbard, make sure the position of the tsuka
(hilt) does not go lower than the saya.
4. In Japan the registration card should either be tied
to the saya or sewn onto the sword bag. The sword
owner in Japan has a legal obligation to keep a sword
and its registration card together.
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III. Method of Maintenance
The major purpose of sword care is to ensure that
the steel surface does not oxidize or rust. Therefore,
it is necessary to thoroughly remove the stale oil and
replace it entirely with new oil.
To properly care for a sword, specialized tools are
needed and a proscribed series of steps should be
1. Mekugi-nuki: A tool to remove the mekugi
(bamboo peg ) holding the blade in the hilt. It is usually
made of brass or bamboo.
2. Uchiko: The most finely ground claystone powder
(between 30 - 35 grams and about 8000 grits, with
powdered deer horn for bulk), used for cleaning the
blade surface. The uchiko is first, wrapped in
Japanese hand-made paper called Yoshino-gami,
then rewrapped by cotton or silk cloth, it comes
through the wrapping materials when patted on the
3. Nuguigami: High quality thick Japanese paper. It
must be thoroughly wrinkled to soften and remove
coarse and dusty particles and is used for wiping the
blade surface. There are two reasons for the wiping
function; one for preliminary removal of old oil; and
two for removal of the powder. When using flannel,
the fabric must be washed, destarched in water, then
4. Abura: A rust preventive oil called choji a
chamomile-like flower oil much like clove oil.
5. Abura-nuguishi: Paper used to spread oil
over the blade surface. A piece of wiping paper or flannel will
B. Method of Sword Care
1. Place the mounted blade on a secure area and push
the peg out in preparation for removing the hilt.
2. Pull the blade out of the saya.
3. To remove the hilt, hold the hilt at the kashira end
with the left hand so that the mune is resting in the
palm of your hand. Keep the blade in a slightly
angled upright position. Use the right fist to hit the
left wrist lightly a few times. When the nakago (tang)
becomes slightly loosened in the hilt, repeat until the
nakago comes out of the hilt by itself. When there is
enough room to grasp the tang, the blade may be
pulled out of the hilt with the right hand.
Be careful not to hit the left wrist too hard with the
right hand as there is a danger that blades with short
tangs like tanto might bounce out of the hilt entirely.
Therefore, the initial impact must be light, just to
check how tightly the tang is fixed in the hilt. Then,
the force of subsequent blows must be adjusted
accordingly. When the blade is taken out of the hilt,
the peg removed from the hilt should be replaced in
the tsuka to avoid accidental loss.
4. If the blade is mounted in a full koshirae, other
attachments such as tsuba (sword hand guard) and
seppa (spacers) on both sides of the tsuba in
addition to the habaki (collar) must be removed.
When the habaki is fit too tightly to remove, it can be
loosened by hitting it lightly with a wooden hammer
on the mune (back) of the habaki after covering the
habaki with a cloth for protection.
5. The wiping process requires two pieces of paper.
The initial one removes the old oil and dust, which is
called preliminary cleaning. First place the cleaning
paper on the mune (back) and fold it into halves
toward the ha (edge). Then, hold the paper covered
blade from above the back so that the thumb and the
forefinger grip each side of the cutting section from
above the paper.
Hardly any force is needed to wipe the blade
upward, one way, starting from the base. When the
cleaning paper reaches the point, be particularly
careful in wiping lightly. No pressure or friction must
be put on the point. When expertise is attained, the
wiping action can also be both ways, up and down.
Lack of experience could cause the cutting of paper
or even fingers and thus it must be strictly avoided.
6. In case the oil cannot be removed with ease,
cotton or gauze soaked in benzene (finger nail polish
remover) or pure alcohol (like Everclear) may be used
in the same wiping manner as described above.
7. The powdering starts from the base toward the tip
on the obverse in a light, uniform patting motion to
cover the blade surface. Then turn the blade over and
start patting from the point downward toward the
8. Then, use the other sheet of paper to wipe the
powder off the blade surface in the same manner as
described in (5) in this section. If oil remains, some
more powdering and wiping is necessary.
9. When the surface is thoroughly clean, check for the
presence of rust, flaws and other damages. Then
without putting back the tsuka, habaki and other
attachments, the blade alone must be placed back in
It should be noted that the two kinds of wiping
paper used in this process must not be interchanged
and should have distinct purposes preliminary and
10. The re-oiling with a piece of paper, or destarched
flannel, folded in size 3cm x 6cm and soaked in fresh
oil completes a round of sword care. When the paper
is ready, the sword is to be drawn out of the saya
again. After placing it in the left hand, put the oiling
paper on the mune (back) to do the same movement
as described in the wiping process.
To make sure the blade surface is thoroughly
covered with oil, repeat the same procedure a few
times. Just as in the wiping, the handling of the
sword as well as the oiling paper must be most
carefully done. The paper should contain the right
amount of oil so that no excess oil will over flow and
harm the inside of the saya. The oil must be spread
thinly and evenly.
11. It is a good idea to apply a very small amount of
oil to the surface of the nakago (tang) with the
fingers and then wipe it off. This might be done once
a year. However an excessive amount of oil must
also be avoided here. The black iron oxide (rust)
needs to stay black. It is used to determine the age of
12. Put the habaki back and encase the blade
tentatively in the saya. Remove the peg from the hilt,
draw the blade out of the saya, hold it in the right
hand in an almost upright position, pick up the hilt
with the left hand, and put the tang back in the hilt.
Keep holding the blade in the hilt lightly with the
palm of the right hand so that the tang settles firmly
in the hilt. When the tang is fixed in its perfect
position, replace the peg. Pass the blade to the right hand,
pick up the saya and slide the blade into it observing
the manner described in Section II. Needless to say, the other
parts like seppa and tsuba of fully mounted
swords must also be returned to their respective places before
the hilt is put on the tang, noting that the seppa and
tsuba normally only go on one way.
13. The methods for handling and caring for other
forms of blades such as yari (spears) and naginata
(halberds) are the same. Yari must be handled
especially carefully; otherwise injury may occur.
Also, the ken (a daggers of double edged type) are
Sword care tools musts be kept perfectly clean, for
dust stuck on the wiping cloth or oiling paper could
cause scratches on the steel surface. Protecting these
surfaces which have been most finely polished
through the graded processes involving more than ten
kinds of claystones of different fineness and hardness
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V. How to preserve the Nipponto
The most important aspects of preserving blades regardless
of condition are to protect them from developing rust and scratches.
The precautions required for keeping the Nipponto
in good condition are the following:
1. Despite regular care and oiling, a blade may
develop rust in places. Generally when rusting takes
place where the saya touches the blade, it must be
taken to and repaired by a saya-shi (scabbard
specialist). Or when the saya is very old, its interior
may well be contaminated with rust and dirt, thus
causing the steel to rust. In such case, a new saya
must replace the old one at once.
2. Since the formal mounting functions as an outfit
for dressing up, a blade needs to have a plain wooden
saya and hilt called a shira-saya which would be, as
it were, casual wear for a blade. It is much preferred
to rest a blade in its casual outfit so that when the
blade surface starts to rust the wooden saya can
readily be cleaned inside by splitting it open into
vertical halves, which are simply fastened together
with a rice glue.
3. If a blade should start to rust, no inexperienced
repairs such as rubbing the rust off with a spatula or
coin's edge or fine sand paper would improve the
condition; rather it is likely to aggravate it and
necessitate extra work in smoothing the damaged
area. It must be taken to a polishing specialist at once
just like a sick person would need to go to see a
4. Since a blade is particularly vulnerable to rusting
soon after polishing, cleaning and oiling should be
done preferably every ten days for about six months.
5. Later when the polished blade surface condition is
more stable, clean it regularly, at least every six
6. In preserving swords, it is improper to keep them
in a leaning position because it would cause the oil to
go down along the blade surface and make a pool at
the kissaki (point).
It is necessary to keep them in a dry place, laid
down with the ha (edge) up.
It would be ideal to keep them in drawers made of
paulownia wood. Use of camphor balls or
naphthalene to protect the chest from borers should
be avoided. It would cause rust on the steel.
7. Although dry conditions are preferable for swords,
the wooden containers or mountings require
moisture. Therefore, the place for preserving swords
must be very carefully selected.
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