If you live in Japan, you may have seen the NHK television drama Mori Motonari about the famous 16th Century warlord. If you payed attention, you may have noticed the swords that the male characters wear at their sides. In the drama, Motonari and the other members of the Mori Clan generally wear their swords stuck through a belt and with the blade up. However during when they attend formal ceremonies or wear armor and go to battle, the samurai wear longer swords hung by from their belts, with the blades facing down.
Though we may think of Japanese swords as all being the same, the fairly realistic portrayal of different situations in this drama makes it clear that, at least in Motonari's time in the Muromachi Period (1392-1568), there were different kinds of swords, worn in different ways, for different purposes.
The original and most typical Japanese sword is called a tachi, and was worn hanging by cords from the waist. The wrappings, or mountings, we are going to look at were made to hold these tachi swords. The cords would be attached to two eyelets on the scabbard. Can you see the eyelets in the photos below? During the Kamakura Period, before Muromachi, samurai wore another kind of sword in addition to the long sword; a short sword called a koshigatana. Koshigatana were stuck directly into the belt instead of being strung onto the belt with cords. Paintings of battle scenes of narrative handscrolls from the period depict lower-level samurai wearing nothing but this short sword!
As time went by, swords that were stuck into the belt became more popular and common. After the koshigatana came other swords, such as chisagatana (small sword), uchigatana (slashing sword), katana (sword), and wakizashi (side sword), all of which were stuck directly into the belt. By the Edo Period (1600-1868), almost all samurai wore both a short sword and a long sword (katana) stuck into their belt. You can see this in the NHK dramas on Edo Period samurai, such as Mitokomon. By this time, the tachi sword had become mostly ceremonial and was no longer used in daily life.
Let's look at and compare some tachi sword mountings.
This extremely old mounting was made in the 9th Century, in the early Heian Period, and has been handed down through the centuries at Kuramadera Temple in northern Kyoto. It is said to have belonged to Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, the conqueror of the Tohoku region of northern Japan. This sword mounting is rather simple in construction, with a simple black lacquer-coated surface, but if you look carefully you will see that it is not curved, like most swords today, but perfectly straight. Such straight swords are a tradition dating back to the Kofun Period (3rd-6th Centuries)!
There are a number of possible reasons as to why these straight swords became curved. They may have been improved because there were more actual battles to fight in, or they may have been changed to adapt to new fighting techniques that involved slashing the enemy instead of stabbing the enemy. We don't know for certain the real reason for this change. In any case, the curved tachi sword developed in the 11th Century, at the end of the Heian Period, and many new varieties of sword mountings were created in the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods that followed.
In addition to the black-lacquered tachi mountings used most commonly for fighting were decorative sword mountings for high ranking soldiers, such as the gold-plated sword mounting above. Instead of cords, it has chains to attach the sword to the wearer's belt. The sword mounting below is called a kenuki tachi. It has a bone-shaped indentation (which would normally be cutout) in the handle and would have been used by high-ranking law-enforcement officials of the day.
Other "decorated swords" had luxurious gold, precious stones and inlayed mother-of-pearl. Such swords first came to Japan during the Nara Period from Tang Dynasty China. They continued to be used by Japanese aristocrats for official court costumes of aristocrats down through the ages.
As I said before, the purpose of these tachi swords became more and more ceremonial as time went on. By the Edo Period, they were even used by feudal lords (daimyo) as offerings to shrines and temples! As these tachi swords grew more ceremonial, they were decorated more and more lavishly and became more like art objects than weapons. Take a good look at the luxurious swords above. What was originally meant to draw blood on the battlefield certainly did change over history!
Text by Tomoyasu Kubo, Department of Archives
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives