Classic Shirasaya Swords
There are a lot of history written about other swords used by the samurai but, there is insufficient information given about the Shirasaya sword. This sword is in fact overlooked most of the time. The Shirasaya as a scabbard if not the sword has an interesting tale to tell. First of all, the word Shirasaya literally translates to white scabbard. This term is all about white as an interpretation for its clean simple design. Any blade can be housed in a shirasaya. The shirasaya were externally featureless save for the mekugi-ana that secures the nakago or tang. At times the sayagaki or blade information was present. A typical shirasaya has sayagaki or attribution written on the shirasaya. Making the shirasaya involves slightly different processes as the natural wood shall be the final surface. Just to give an idea about how it is made; the wood is split into two and divided between the handle and scabbard. The inside is carefully carved out to make room for the tang and the blade. These fittings are tested and when it is right, the halves are glued back together. Traditionally, rice paste glue is used to seal these halves tightly until it dries up.
The shirasaya is usually made out of Honoki or Japanese bigleaf magnolia or nurizaya wood since this type of wood absorbs the fluid that can damage the steel. This is the reason why the scabbard is used as storage when the blade is not in used for combat in the battlefield. Other elaborate and lacquered woods would be for aesthetic purposes only since they contribute on retaining moisture thus causing the metal of the blade to rust and corrode when it is stored for a long period of time. Because of the tight fitting shirasaya this prevents the air from coming in contact with the blade. Koshirae functions differently because it must be loose to allow the sword to be quickly drawn on the battlefield but, serves as a temporary storage. This is why the white scabbard is favored more than a Koshirae when it comes to sword storage protection.
History of Shirasaya Swords
The use of the katana, wakizashi and tanto as a set can be traced back to feudal Japan. However, these blades came from different periods. The samurai was allowed to use two to even three of these blades. Only a samurai can carry a katana however, merchants and similar groups of people in Japanese society were allowed to use wakizashi as protection during travels especially along the roads. The shirasaya in particular was invented during the Edo period. These was the period when specific laws of feudal Japan regarding carrying of weapons in public was initiated. In an attempt of the government to establish peace they imposed regulations on the samurai class. Swords were not allowed to be carried by anyone in public. After the Edo period came the Meiji period where Japanese society moved towards modernizing their military and swords. During this period, military persons were the only ones allowed to carry swords up to World War I.
- Can be used for any blade and offers different styles of swords such as for the katana , wakizashi and tanto
- Made either using traditional methods or using other materials but, still with the same methods
- Shirasaya sword has long term storage
- In modern day, use for Cosplay and martial arts
Shirasaya in Modern Culture
Although the koshirae was used for display purposes, this was made of bamboo inside to maintain the shape of the sword. Swords in the modern culture were sold as display pieces housed in shirasaya although as mentioned above the shirasaya is used for long term storage. Later on something similar to shirasaya was introduced. Although there are similarities between shirasaya and shikomizue, aside from the undecorated exterior the comparison ends there. The shikomizue has hidden mounting concealing the blade. Shikomizue resembles a walking stick. This conceals weapons like hooks, chains and is commonly associated with ninjas whereas the shirasaya is affiliated with the katana, wakizashi and tanto of the samurai.
The film industry has contributed in making the shirasaya popular among collectors. Modern reproductions were made than the historical versions to make it appear attractive when displayed. Japanese action films where the characters are using shirasaya have added to its popularity. Even anime and manga series also uses plain looking shirasaya sheath but, it has supernatural powers. These are versions of the shirasaya that are based on fiction. Be as it may this makes shirasaya popular to the present day collectors. Those who needs shirasaya for cosplay and martial arts requires a durable weapon for active use.
The shirasaya made a comeback in the 21st century as a stylized sword. Modern day blade of the sword is constructed from carbon steel and features a temper line. The blade remains handmade though as seen on the kissaki. The saya remains to be made of wood but has a dark stain finish. This saya is crafted to fit the contours of the blade. The tsuka or handle has the same stained wood seen on the saya. The handle follows the contour of the tang. When the sword is removed from its sheath, the handle and saya looks like one solid piece while a single pin secures the tang in the handle of the sword. This is how generally modern day shirasaya are presented to new collectors.
Some modern day buyers needs to keep in mind that the simplest way to view a shirasaya is that koshirae serves as clothing during the day however, when its night time the shirasaya serves as the perfect night wear. Going back to feudal Japan, this is the reason why the samurai removes his sword from the koshirae and houses it in the evening in his shirasaya. In the morning he removes the sword from the shirasaya to once again use the koshirae. Samurais are not immune to the dictates of style which is why some would even have a lot of koshirae for a particular sword. However, for long term sword storage they still rely on their trustworthy shirasaya.