Photograph by Ian Castañares
Culture Spotlight

The anatomy of a katana

A traditionally made katana can be disassembled into several pieces, and knowing these different parts could lead to identifying the value of a piece.
Aurelio Icasiano III | Jun 19 2019

The most widely collected of Japanese blades is the katana. And familiarizing oneself with its parts allows the beginning collector to further knowledgeably appraise a sword he is considering to add to his collection, or the plain inquisitive person to smartly handle a blade in his hands. Here's a good place to start. 


1. Tsuba

Tsuba with dragonfly in shibuichi. Photograph from Walters Art Museum on Wikimedia Commons

The tsuba is the katana’s guard, the part that protects the wielder’s hand from the ha (the edge of the blade). Where western swords will usually have a cross-shaped guard, Japanese blades were fitted with tsubas that were round or roughly squarish. Far more than a functional part of the sword, the creation of a tsuba was considered an art form, and some enthusiasts have been known to collect tsubas rather than full katanas.


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2. Saya

Hanwei Practical XL Katana Saya. Photograph from @orientalweaponry on Facebook

The Japanese version of a scabbard, the saya holds the katana when worn on the waist. The saya is usually made of light, lacquered wood and certain techniques called iaijutsu were developed so that samurai could quickly draw their swords from it. When displaying a katana in its scabbard, the sword is placed with the blunt side facing downwards, so as not to damage the edge or the saya itself.


3. Nakago

Nakago no katana. Photograph from Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wikimedia Commons

The nakago is the tang of the blade, and it is here where the smiths usually signed their  names as well as the date when the sword was created. Above the nakago is the collar, called a habaki, which leads to the rest of the blade.


4. Tsuka

Photograph from Parent Géry on Wikimedia Commons

The handle of the blade, the tsuka is commonly wrapped with same (ray skin) and furnished with an ito (the braid), both of which improve the grip. It is also fitted with ornaments called menukis, which can take the shape of animals or emblems connecting it to the owner.


Banner photograph by Ian Castañares

This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.