For those interested in the Japanese Sword - Part Two

Discussion in 'Weapon Resources' started by Dave Humm, Jan 16, 2006.

  1. Dave Humm

    Dave Humm Serving Queen and Country

    Cleaning and care for Japanese Swords

    The Japanese sword is a weapon of death, it doesn’t matter what philosophical or spiritual attributes you associate with the training in such a weapon; the simple clear fact is this: Swords were and are still designed to kill. – Its important to remember that.

    The Japanese sword is deadly even in the hands of fools therefore, great care must be exercised when handling even the least expensive decorative ‘wall hanger’ – Sharp is sharp no matter how much the sword costs – You will only need to be cut once to appreciate this and you’ll never forget the valuable lesson in care needed when handling a Japanese sword.

    In my previous article [For those interested in the Japanese Sword] I discussed several aspects of owning Nihonto, I present as part two, ‘basic sword care and maintenance’. Please do not substitute this inanimate series of words for quality training with a qualified instructor, the material contained here only serves for illustrative purposes, I take no responsibility for injuries or careless behaviour resulting from what you read here and therefore attempt.

    Like Budo, the Japanese sword requires a long-term relationship; care, discipline and commitment from its owner. Regardless of whether you own Iaito[1] or a Shinken[2] your Nihonto[3] requires a level of maintenance to ensure the life of the sword.

    In general terms both Iaito and Shinken should be looked after in the same way however, there are slight differences in the cleaning routine depending on which type of toshin[4] you have, this will be explained later. The emphasis being, regardless of construction treat your sword with due respect.

    Assuming you train with your sword on a regular basis, you will need to ensure the toshin is kept free of the mineral deposits found in human fingers, this contact although light, will happen during your training. The content of these mineral deposits will oxidise (essentially rust) the blade if they are left unattended. The oxidisation process however isn’t a problem for Iaito, this is due to the chromium plating which is used to simulate the polishing of a more traditionally constructed blade. Iaito are generally considered low maintenance compared to Shinken but, needless to say, finger marks on ANY sword look unsightly and illustrate a basic lack of respect for the weapon and the training undertaken.

    The process of cleaning a Japanese sword is relatively straight forward requires only common sense, a small cleaning kit (of the right materials). If you are cleaning a live edged sword please exercise great care !!

    Step 1. Disassembly
    Gently tap out the Mekugi[5] using the peg hammer, remove the peg completely and inspect it for undue stress. If you intend to reuse the mekugi, store it in a safe place.

    Inverting the sword and holding the Tsuka[6] tightly, push against the Tsuba[7] with the thumb to release the assembly; you may also need to tap your forearm with your opposite fist to assist in loosening the handle form the tang. Gently slide the tsuka away from the Nakago[8], in turn; remove the Seppa[9] and tsuba from the blade, now carefully withdraw the blade from the Saya[10].

    Remove the Habaki[11].

    Step 2. Cleaning
    At this stage, if you own an Iaito all you’ll need do is dry wipe the blade with a clean cloth, inspect the entire blade for any damage or wear, then apply a thin layer of Choji[12] as described below. Iaito owners can jump to the reassembly section below.

    If you own a Shinken, then it will require a little more attention. Using an uchiko[13] ball gently tap along the entire length of both sides of the blade, not forgetting to tap at least three times along the Mune[14] The uchiko powder serves to both absorb any mineral deposits but also acts as a mild polishing medium. This is why uchiko is not used on Iaito, the polishing effect which uchiko has over a prolonged time will scratch the plating used on these blades to similate a traditional polish.

    Using a clean lint-free cloth carefully wipe the entire length of the blade removing all of the uchiko. It is advisable to use slow single length wipes from one end to the tip of the blade.

    Point of note:
    If you are careless at this stage you may find yourself requiring medical attention to your missing or badly sliced finger ends. – Be careful !

    Inspect the blade for remaining marks – repeat the uchiko process if required.

    It should be pointed out that you should never attempt to clean, remove rusting or the discolouration from the nakago – Especially on older swords.

    Next we should apply a thin layer of protective sword oil, Choji. Abura-nuguishi[18] supplied with your cleaning kit pour a small amount of the oil on to the paper then apply in slow single wipe fashion; again be careful !

    Make sure the oil is applied into the Hi[15].

    Make a final inspection of the blade.

    Step 3. Re-assembly
    Reassembly is essentially the reverse of disassembly, first replace the Habaki, seppa and tsuba followed by the remaining seppa, replace the tsuka and gently tapping the base of the handle to ensure the nakago is fully seated, you may need to use the tapered end of the Mekugi-nuki [16] to make the final adjustment to align the nakago-ana[17]. Once this is done replace the mekugi. Carefully replace the sword back in to the scabbard.

    Iaito are ‘factory’ constructed and generally have a much tighter fit between the tsuka and nakago, one should therefore only disassemble an Iaito if ‘needs must’ as generally cleaning will not require you to take the sword apart, although they will disassemble, it isn’t always a good idea. Ask your sensei first ! Shinken however have slightly higher maintenance requirements and although the ‘needs must’ rule still applies, you will at times need to strip the sword, again ask and gain advice from your instructor and always take great care when handling your Nihonto.

    Iaito[1] Zink-alloy non sharp construction
    Shinken[2] Wholly or partly traditionally made steel live edge construction
    Nihonto[3] Literally “Japanese Sword”
    Toshin[4] Blade
    Mekugi[5] Retaining peg usually made from smoked bamboo
    Tsuka[6] Handle of the sword
    Tsuba[7] Hand guard
    Nakago[8] The tang of the blade which must be almost full length of the tsuka
    Seppa[9] Metal spacers between habaki/tsuba/tsuka
    Saya[10] Scabbard
    Habaki[11] The metal collar which fits between the blade and tsuba
    Choji[12] Sword oil
    Uchiko[13] Polishing stone ground into fine powder
    Mune[14] The back (or spine) of the blade
    Hi[15] Commonly known as the “Blood Groves”
    Mekugi-nuki [16] Peg Hammer used to remove and replace the retaining peg
    Nakago-ana[17] The hole in the tang used to secure the tsuka to the Nakago
    Abura-nuguishi[18] Course absorbant paper used for sword cleaning

    Last edited: Jan 16, 2006
  2. Alansmurf

    Alansmurf Aspire to Inspire before you Expire Supporter

    they are not for apple hanging ???
    seriously good info ..thanks

  3. pgsmith

    pgsmith Valued dismemberer

    Nice article Dave, but I disagree with a good part of it. It has been my experience that the normal run of people should only rarely take apart their swords, and never their iaito. There are a couple of reasons that I say this.

    The first reason is due to the method of construction of the Japanese sword. The handle (tsuka) is held tightly onto the tang (nakago) through friction. This friction is created by compressing the wood of the tsuka as you insert the nakago. Every time the tsuka is removed, you lose a little of this compression. After a while (sometimes only a short while!) the handle is no longer tight enough to ensure safety when the sword is being used. This is the reason that collector's nihonto are easily disassembled. Of course, a collector's nihonto is not likely to become a deadly missile in the dojo. I recommend to my students that they only break down their sharp swords once a year. This way they can clean under the collar (habaki) and check for any wear inside the tsuka. Any more often than that is unneeded as long as their peg (mekugi) is checked before each use of the sword.

    The second reason is due to the method of construction of many iaito. Many are made with a generic size nakago and are installed on generic sized tsuka. This means that the tsuka wasn't carved to exactly fit the nakago. Any extra space is taken up with shims. I have seen folded paper, thin wood shavings, and cardboard used as shims on iaito. If someone that is not very familiar with it takes their iaito apart and the shims drop out, it can be extremely difficult to get it back together correctly so it is both tight and properly aligned.

    The next thing that I disagree with is pushing on the tsuba to loosen the tsuka. In most user swords, the fit is very tight. If you push on the tsuba, you risk either bending the tsuba, or distorting the habaki. Since there is a lot of force brought to bear against one small edge of the habaki when you push on the tsuba, it is easier to deform it than you think. If your habaki deforms, you introduce stresses to the handle and the blade every time you train. Not a good thing. People should be warned that if their sword is tight, they should NOT hold the tsuka and press on the tsuba. The best way to do it is to place the sword on a towel, place a small block of wood against the washer (seppa) on the blade side of the tsuba, and strike the piece of wood gently to push the tsuka off.

    So, my recommendations are to only break down your shinken once a year, and do not even bother to break down your iaito (there's no real reason), and to only push on the tsuba to remove the tsuka if it is not on very tightly. Never push hard on the tsuba toward the habaki.

    These are just my opinions based upon my experiences. Other's may vary.

  4. Dave Humm

    Dave Humm Serving Queen and Country

    Thanks Paul, all good points well made and presented. In retrospect I somewhat agree with your sentiment.

    Thanks for the contribution, always appreciated mate.

  5. Anth

    Anth Daft. Supporter

    Shall we rename the Weapons Resources forum "Dave's Weapons Stuff"? :D
  6. Dave Humm

    Dave Humm Serving Queen and Country

    Aye... But I'm not paying for it (lol)

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