HISTORICAL ORIGIN OF THE POPULARITY OF GLOSS BLACK SAYA AND AVAILABILITY OF METAL KOJIRI.*
S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama
January 24, 2004
I. The Historical Origin of the Popularity of Gloss Black Saya.
As a traditionalist Japanese, I personally prefer simple "kuroro-nuri" (i.e., gloss black) saya that is traditionally lacquered to blue or red (called "shu-nuri") saya on a typical Edo period style uchigatana. However, well done and tasteful "maki-e" saya in Momoyama koshirae (that is so colorful) is also something I really like.
Historically black saya was favored on swords as "duty weapon" during the time of war *for utilitarian reasons*. If one looks into the history of Nihon-to koshirae, however, there were so many examples of artistic koshirae designs with colorful saya during peace time or on ceremonial and privately owned swords by high ranking samurai. (See Ide, 2000 and Kokubo, 1993 for examples.)
Feudal Japanese government’s strictly designating black "kuroro-nuri" saya as the *only* "officially approved scabbard on duty weapons" of samurai (whose ranks in government hierarchy allowed then to enter the Shogunate Castle and to report directly to the Shogun in person) was a relatively recent occurrence in the history of Nihon-to. It had occurred in 1645 (i.e., 45 years after the "Battle of Sekigahara") when the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an executive order called "Dai-sho katana no Sunpo oyobi tohats futsumoh no Sei" [The Order Regarding Dai-sho Paired Swords and Hair Style] issued by the Tokugawa shogunate in July, Shoho 2 to specify the details of its samurai’s "duty weapon" (i.e., Nihon-to).
This order was issued to specify the legal blade lengths of katana, wakizashi and tanto and to strictly prohibit commoners (i.e., "chonin" class) from wearing/carrying anything longer than "ko-wakizashi" (i.e., small wakizashi whose maximum blade length is 1 shaku 5 sun = 45.45cm) (Iiyama, 1995). The law also specified the legal blade lengths of katana and wakizashi to be "officially" worn by high ranking samurai such as Daimyo lords and Hatamoto with executive positions when they appear in the Edo Castle on official government duty, along with the details of kanagu to furnish their official dai-sho (Kokubo, 1993; Ogasawara, 1991, 1994a). Here the "official" uchigatana koshirae to be worn by such samurai to appear in the Castle (called "to-jo-zashi" koshirae) was specified to have (Ogasawara, 1991):
(a) saya or scabbard lacquered in gloss black called "kuro-ro nuri" (red or gold color, fancy "maki-e nuri" and "kairagi" style same kise saya were strictly prohibited);
(b) tsuka or handle with white same (no blackened same was allowed);
(c) black tsuka ito or handle cord (no other colors were allowed, though then modern "fashion minded" samurai tried to work around the law by wrapping their swords’ tsuka with really dark navy blue ito or really dark brown ito - see Ide, 2000);
(d) horn kashira (no metal kashira was allowed);
(e) shakudo "nanako" finish fuchi, kozuka handle, etc.;
(f) shakudo "migaki-ji" (polished to gloss finish) or "nanako-ji" ("nanako" finish) round tsuba of appropriate size (no extra large or square tsuba were allowed).
[For more details on Tokugawa Shogunate’s executive order and legal specifications of "officially approve duty mountings," also see Takeuchi, 2003.]
At the end of Edo period, when the political power of the Tokugawa Shogunate had weakened drastically, the authority the old executive order had also diminished. Thus, many samurai started wearing swords that were "out of the military specs" in mountings that were also disapproved by the Tokugawa Shogunate.
For instance, at the end of Edo period, red "shu-nuri" saya and big square tsuba (both of which had been strictly prohibited by the Tokugawa Shogunate via an executive order) became rather popular amongst "samurai gangs" that typically consisted of the lowest ranking "mueki/mu-yaku" (i.e., those who did not have any official governmental office appointment) Hatamoto or "mueki" Gokenin as the leader and several Ronin thugs who routinely engaged in criminal activities to make living. Those "samurai-kuzure" (i.e, "fallen samurai") gangs in the capital city of late Edo willingly wore their swords in "prohibited mountings" as their symbol of rebellion and not fearing the then "machi-kata" (i.e., civil) police force...
II. The Popularity of Metal Kojiri Compared to Horn Kojiri.
Although horn kojiri appears to be somewhat more popular on relatively affordable uchigatana koshirae made tody, historically metal kojiri was also very common on uchigatana koshirae of various types (see for example, Ide, 2000; Kokubo, 1993; Ogasawara, 1994b for photos of existing antique koshirae) that are *not* the "official" (=legally specified) uchigatana koshirae to be worn by high ranking samurai when they appear in the Edo Castle. One of the reasons why you may have seen more uchigatana koshirae with horn kojiri (instead of metal kojiri) among the existing Edo period antique koshirae (formerly owned by *high ranking* samurai) is because of the restrictions set forth by aforementioned executive order issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1645.
While I could not find any specifications of the kojiri material/finish in this executive order in any of my reference sources, it is the most plausible assumption that the law also designated the "official" kojiri material to be horn (instead of metal) on the "tojo-zashi" uchigatana koshirae since the "official" material of kashira or pommel cap was specified to be horn (instead of metal). Because of the fact that those "official" tojo-zashi uchigatana koshirae owned by high ranking samurai were more likely to be well cared for and preserved, we tend to see them more often today.
Despite all those legal specifications, however, "private/personal" swords owned and regularly worn by high ranking samurai and majority of typical middle class samurai did not have to conform to such strict legal specifications (Ide, 2000). As a matter of fact, quite a few pictorials and illustrated reference books on Nihon-to koshirae (e.g., Ide, 2000; Kokubo, 1993; Ogasawara, 1994b) show many photos of existing antique koshirae for those "privately owned/personal" katana and wakizashi casually worn by many Edo period samurai who did not have to or were not allowed to enter the Castle because of their official ranks/positions in the samurai hierarchy.
Among those "privately/personally" owned and worn katana and wakizashi koshirae, many Higo koshirae (both Edo-Higo koshirae and true Higo-Koshirae) did indeed have metal kojiri (Ide, 2000). Also, virtually all of Shonai-koshirae and Satsuma-koshirae, as well as every Kobusho-koshirae (i.e., modified Edo period "handachi" style uchigatana koshirae) and Toppei-koshirae (i.e., the koshirae style developed to be worn with modern Western style military uniform) that became popular toward the end of Edo period did have metal kojiri (see Kokubo, 1993).
At any rate, existence of many "out of military spec" antique mounts of the samurai swords seems to indicate strongly that the expression of individuality and protest against the government’s over-regulations are simply human nature which can also been seen in a highly conservative and collectivistic society like old Japan.
Ide, Masanobu. (2000). Edo no token koshirae collection. [The collection of Japanese sword koshirae in Edo]. Tokyo, Japan: Ribun Shuppan. ISBN4-89806-125-7.
Iiyama, Yoshiaki. (1995). "Edo jidai no touso to fuzoku." ["The customs and sword furnishings in the Edo period."] In Shibata, Mitsuo, Shibata Mitsuo no token handbook. [The handbook of Japanese swords by Mitsuo Shibata.] Pp. 120-125. Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN4-7694-0094-2.
Kokubo, Kenichi. (1993). Zukan toso no subete. [The complete illustrated book of the Japanese sword furnishings.] Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN4-7694-0094-2.
Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1991). Tsuba. Tokyo, Japan: Hoiku-sha. ISBN4-586-5030-0.
Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1994a). Nihon-to no kansho kiso chishiki. [The fundamental knowledge of Japanese sword appreciation.] Tokyo, Japan: Shibun Do. ISBN 4-7694-0053-5.
Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1994b). Nippon no Bijutsu 1, No. 332: Nihon_to no koshirae. [The Art of Japan 1, No. 332: The koshirae of Japanese swords.] Tokyo, Japan: Shibun Do.
Takeuchi, S. Alexander. (2003). "Was chonin class in Edo period allowed to wear/carry swords?" In Dr. T’s Nihon-to Random Thoughts Page. University of North Alabama, Florence Alabama, USA. http://www2.una.edu/Takeuchi/DrT_Jpn_Culture_files/Nihon_to_files/Chonin_sword.htm
* Edited and reprinted from the author's original posts on old Bugei Sword Forums.
Copyright © by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.