The katana is simultaneously a work of art and an instrument of death. But did you ever wonder what are the basic katana parts? How are they put together? I once stripped down my sword to examine its individual elements. It is ridiculous how much you can understand about katana anatomy, so and I wrote this article to inform you about the basic samurai sword parts.
Already familiar with katana components? If you are, then this samurai sword guide provides all the groundwork that a beginner user needs, as well as a thoroughly researched list of the best Japanese swords on the market.
Why Write about Katana Parts and Elements?
Because it is such an iconic and well-made sword, it takes decades to master the craft. From the time of its inception to the modern-day, this item remains a symbol of the Japanese warrior spirit. The turbulent, war-ridden past of Japanese history brought forth and constantly improved this sword. Hard times create strong weapons.
I have seen loads of documentaries about Japanese sword-smiths, and it was impressive to discover how much time and energy they devote to their craft. I was shocked to learn that it takes months to produce a katana, from start to finish.
There is a considerable effort, skill, planning, and craftsmanship invested in every little detail of the sword, from blade tip to the pommel. Just imagine taking a real, authentic katana and striping it down bare, to its individual components, to study and understand every bit.
In fact, I want to take you on that journey right now. Let’s break down and explore the anatomy of a samurai sword. What are the essential katana parts and components? How were they made? What mysteries do they hold? What is their purpose?
How to Disassemble a Katana
We can decompose the sword into four major functional components. This will help us understand where to locate every little sub-part. Generally speaking, a samurai comprises of:
- The Blade
- The Fittings
- The Handle
- The Sheath
Most non-Japanese swords are comprised out of these four as well. But what makes the katana so amazing is the level of detail and attention given by the swordsmith to each of these elements. There are 15-20 unique nouns specifically used to refer to the different parts of the katana blade.
This is the main functional part of the sword, and the most deadly. The blade can be used to cut, slash, slice, and impale. Most of the work (80%) goes into transforming a bunch of scrap metal into a solid piece of layered steel… And then into a deadly weapon. Here is what a samurai blade looks like:
The image I featured here doesn’t nearly cover all the sub-components of the blade. There is a comprehensive vocabulary in the Japanese swordsmithing industry, and it is used to precisely refer to every little part of the blade. These are the most important elements:
KISSAKI – The piercing tip of the blade, the pointy dagger-like spike, that can pierce through armor and metal plate with the utmost ease.
Katanas are the best swords for slicing and they are just as effective as thrusting weapons. There are many geometric shapes for the katana tip, and they may differ substantially.
The most durable kissaki designs are slightly convex, rather than just triangular. As you may recall, the edge consists of hard steel, so it needs to be reinforced to avoid shattering the tip.
BOSHI-KEN – This is the sharp underbelly of the blade-tip. As the katana is trusted into the target, the “boshi” cuts its way inside. The slanted shape helps to rip through soft and hard tissue alike.
The boshi represents the edge (at least the first few centimeters of it) and it helps with thrusting.
HA – The triangularly shaped frontal face of the blade. Note: this is not technically the edge, just the frontal side of the katana, and it consists of hard steel with good edge-retention. The “ha” allows the lateral faces to converge, forming the fierce edge. This provides the katana with its special slashing and slicing capabilities. The “ha” is forged from the hardest steel, to preserve cutting ability, without dulling out too soon.
An outstanding high-quality samurai sword dulls out at a very slow rate. You can practice cutting repeatedly, with precision and finesse. If a sword needs sharpening every week, then you will grind the whole thing is no time flat! Katana swords typically have only one sharp edge. The backside (blade spine) is flat, so the warrior can press down on it, in a deadly thrusting motion. They used to trust the katana, and press down to shred flesh.
HAMON – You will hear about “hamon” on forums and it is not a katana part, technically. It is just a visual wavelike pattern crossing along the sharp edge. Hamon results from differential hardening with clay-covering, after baking the sword in high temperatures – it leaves this pattern.
Original Japanese swords contain soft, medium, and hard steel to attain prolonged sharpness and protection against impact. Mono-steel blades (if they haven’t been differentially hardened) lack this wavy feature, but sword manufactures may imprint it by applying special acids.
YAIBI – The razor-sharp edge. This is the most dangerous part of the katana and the source of its legendary appeal. Despite that, the sword must not be over-sharpened, since an overly-thin edge, has other potential drawbacks. It can suffer tiny indentations on impact, or it can dull out unevenly.
A sword that is re-sharpened too often will lose its mass rapidly. It can pose a real danger to the user. Ideally, you want to press your hand on the edge without cutting yourself. The cutting only results when drawing the blade.
MUNE – The flat, wider spine of the blade, opposite to the slicing-edge. The “mune” is primarily forged from soft and medium steels to reinforce the katana against breaking.
Japanese swordsmiths enlist a wider variety of steel alloys and forging techniques to make their blades both sharp and resistant against impact and shock.
MAKAGO (TANG) – You might have read about “full-tang” and “half-tang” blades. By definition, a blade is just a solid piece of metal, without any other components like a wooden handle. One part of the blade is sharpened and weaponized, but the blacksmith leaves a dull “appendage” of the blade which he inserts into the handle, so make it robust.
We insert the tang through a hollow handle, so it is usually not visible. You must pull off the handle, to see it. This hidden part of the katana is the tang. And a full-tang sword has a tang that goes all the way to the pommel (for the entire length of the handle). If you buy a sword, no matter which kind, make sure you get a full-tang model, because they are the only swords suitable for combat and practice.
ME – If a certified blade-smith has forged the sword, then it is likely that he carved his name on the tang. It is his signature – “me”. Any professional collector or connoisseur may inspect the sword and tell you whether it is the real deal or a replica. You can trace the sword to a specific historical date or bladesmith.
The blade and handle need to form a strong, secure unit, even after heavy usage. A sword with weak fittings is not of very much use, no matter how sharp and strong the steel is. Let’s see what holds the blade and handle together.
Fittings are the secondary essential katana parts if you are going for a functional bladed weapon.
MEKUGI – When you disassemble the katana, you will see two tiny holes on the tang. These are used to securely strap the wooden handle onto the blade. Both the tang and the handle feature these little holes, and they align perfectly when you join them together.
Once perfectly aligned, you insert these little wooden “meguki” pins to secure the two katana parts. A full-tang samurai sword should have two holes. If it has only one, then it is a half-tang blade. I recommend not using these for practice, cutting, or training.
Why don’t I recommend half-tangs? Since the wooden handle is half hollow, a good solid hit can break it. You might think these little pegs don’t deserve attention, but if they break during a fight, your blade flies off the handle and you will be left holding a piece of wood. Not much to do after that!
HABAKI – This is the brass collar that slides on the blade’s tang. The collar separates the sharp part from the handle and it secures it tightly in place.
A “habaki” acts as the fixture to hold the next component that goes on, the ring collar (seppa).
SEPPA – Another brass fixture which we insert on the blade, after the “habaki” collar. This is a decorative element, used to hold the guard in place. The “habaki” and the “seppa” ensure that the guard does not slide off the blade. They also stabilize the katana, by affixing everything tightly together. I explained later why there are two of these!
TSUBA – This is the hand-guard, which is very small in samurai swords (almost ineffective). Each katana guard is unique, elegantly designed with traditional motifs, like flowers, dragons, symbolic elements of nature. The shape can be round, square, or even rectangular. I saw a “tsuba” with cute dragonfly frames! A funny addition to such a striking weapon… Anyway, the design is just as important to me as functionality.
The guard keeps your hands protected when your opponent slides his blades downwards, aiming at your wrists and fingers. A wider guard protects your hands more effectively. I have seen old, original Samurai swords without a tsuba, just a thick wooden handle. This seems too clunky.
Once the guard is in place. We insert a secondary seppa collar to keep it firmly stable. The guard is held tightly in place between two seppa collars, for stability and safety.
A strong katana needs a solid handle. And since the item is a work of art, personal, symbolic inscriptions may be found on this part of the samurai sword. Let’s see what are the constituent sub-components of the handle:
TSUKA – Second only to the blade, this is a very important element. This is actually the wooden handle. Without it, the blade is just an unusable scrap of metal. The “tsuka” is the wooden handle that slides onto the tang and provides your sword with a comfortable grip.
A typical katana handle can measure anywhere from 11 inches, all the way up to 16. After we put the slide in the guard and stabilize it using the “seppa” collars, we put on the handle. When the holes on the tang (nakago) align with the ones on the handle, you can push in the wooden pins “mekugi“.
TSUKA ITO – This is the patterned wrapping that comes around the wooden handle. It can be cotton or silk. This piece of colored string is intricately wrapped around the seamless piece of wood to increase friction for a better grip. The wrapping process is another skilled achievement and mastery, and it requires a lot of patience and practice.
SAME – Underneath the cotton (or string) wrapping, you may see another layer that resembles leather, ray-skin, or shark-belly. Some cheaper katana models use plastic. This is the “menuki” and it is glued onto the wooden handle. Once the glue dries out, the cord wraps around to ensure a more comfortable grip.
MENUKI – These are little decorative ornate symbols and sculptures glued on top of the ray-skin menuki, just under the wrapping. These artistic pieces depict animals, flowers, elements of nature, or some kind of personal symbolism, important to the future sword owner. These elements, along with the cotton wrapping offer a better grip, by providing an uneven surface. If the handle is too even and polished (like furbished wood), then your grip might slip from under sweaty palms.
KASHIRA – The pommel (or but-cap, knob). It is attached to the bottom end of the katana, to the handle. The knob can be used as a weapon to hit and bash your opponent on the head (at close distance). In fact, I see this movement often in samurai training videos. Aside from that, the “kashira” can be highly decorative, and it severs to secure the wrapping from coming off.
That covers the construction of a handle. It isn’t that complicated, you just need to remember that every part of the katana handle serves some important functionality. Despite having so much artistic value, a katana doesn’t sacrifice efficiency for beauty.
The Sword Sheath
The sheath is useful for transporting and carrying the sword. Otherwise, it protects the blade against oxidation and rust. When I placed my katana on decor, I always kept it inside the sheath. Not only to prevent the steel from rusting but for minimizing any risk of accidents, as well. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to cut yourself deeply with just a tiny, unfortunate brush.
SAYA – This is the sheath, made from wood or plastic, to keep the blade securely tucked on your waist, or on your back. If your sword is custom made, then the scabbard will be specifically measured and designed to fit the blade seamlessly. Usually, the “saya” is measured in accordance with a finished blade, at least in the case of ancient Japanese bladesmithing system.
A lot of wood-working goes in creating the “saya”. If your sword has enough room to wiggle in the sheath, then that is because the wooden scabbard was mass-produced. These katana parts can be vividly decorated with hand paintings, ray-skin designs, and other elements. Or they can be plain and simple, lacquered wood.
SAGEO – The thick cord that binds the saya to the wearer’s back, shoulder, or belt. This is for ease of transportation and access. The cord wraps around the scabbard through the “kurigata”. By the way, never carry a sword this way in public! Having a sageo cord is not in an invite to revive medieval fashion.
KOIGUCHI – This is the mouth of the sheath, where you slide in the sword. If you plan on practicing and kind of drawing techniques, always keep your fingers away from the mouth when pulling your katana. It is incredibly easy to cut yourself this way and trust me, it hurts!
KURIKATA – The sheath (saya) has a wooden extension sticking out, with a hole in the middle (see below). This samurai sword part is used to secure the sheath to your belt. The rope is wrapped around the scabbard (next element in the list) and it goes through this “kurikata” extension node. You may see this below.
KOIGUCHI ITO – This is the rope wrapping around the “saya” in case you want to carry your katana on your shoulder, instead of a purse! It is in the image above.
Now we have gone through every element and component of the samurai sword. You should be able to disassemble your katana and put it back together. I hope this article provided some understanding of the basic katana parts, their function, and application.
Don’t forget! Every component serves a special purpose in making the samurai sword such an effective weapon. While some elements function strictly for design, the katana overall is the pinnacle of swordsmithing technology.
Japanese blade-workers have not spared a drop of attention into every little detail of the sword. High costs for these kinds of items become easily justifiable.
Images resources. Many thanks to the artists and photographs for sharing their work:
- Photo “Mekugi” and “Bamboo Mekugi“, by Samuraiantiqueworld.
- Photo “Handguard tsuba“, by Samuraiantiqueworld.
- Photo “Tsuba” by Eric Gaba Sting.
- Photo “Tsuba with a Gourd on a Vine” by Walters Art Museum.