The age old question: how do I display my Japanese swords?

verity

Amateur Togishi
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Alright, so you've heard all sorts of stories... some true some wild fantasy. I'm here to dispel what is false and what is true when it comes to displaying your precious Japanese blades.

let's begin with a caveat emptor: they are your swords and you display them how you want. What follows is guidance based on historical, cultural and spiritual etiquette when it comes to Japanese swords and so unless you feel strongly in conforming to cultural practices of the Japanese based on historical and spiritual beliefs, you can display your swords how you want. My post is an attempt to inform and provide the rationale that was used in displaying blades in Japan at the time blades were more than just a beautiful artifact from the annals of history.

1.) edge up vs. edge down

you've seen those pics of pawn shop swords on a retailer site with the blades sitting in a stand with the edge pointing down right? was that ok? Well the answer is, it depends. This was not usually the case on katana or uchigatana (for reasons that will reveal themselves in a later section) but DID occur on mounted tachi (for those same reasons that I will cover)... but practically speaking it is a bad idea. Why? Because saya are made to meticulously fit a blade (when done correctly) and by storing it edge down you get two problems. First, the edge can be placed in contact with the saya on the inside and potentially damage it as well as residual oils can collect at the edge and promote corrosion. The edge was the most important aspect of any sword, Japanese ones included. Why would you compromise it? Second, from a practical perspective if the sword were to fall it would fall edge first, potentially damaging it on impact and also damaging the saya.

historically and culturally though. Edge down vs edge up had zero relevance. It was instead relevant to the "two sides" that many Japanese objects have.

2.) Ura / Omote

This is the REAL governing factor to all display of Japanese swords. Have you ever noticed on a tsuka that the knot at the bottom near the Kashira looks different on each side? Now, many replicas pay little attention to which side the different knots are on but this actually matters. Many Japanese objects will have an "omote" or public side, and an "ura" or private side. Think about how a katana is worn when on the body of the samurai. The blade is edge up, and essentially if you imagine the sword in the same position up on a wall in a stand, it would be edge up, with the tsuka pointing to the left. This "should" be the omote side of the sword on a katana (again, some replicas will get this wrong due to the knot placement). The inverse is true on a tachi as they were worn on the samurai edge down to allow the curve of the saya to ride along a horse's back while mounted vs jabbing it in the hind quarters. So for a tachi, the omote side would be edge DOWN when the tsuka is to the left.

Historically, the swordsmith would sign the blade on the omote side and this would clearly denote at the time the sword was forged whether it was a katana (signed katana-mei) or a tachi (signed tachi-mei). Again of course you saw exceptions arise. First, many blades were unsigned (mumei), or even some schools signed their katana tachi-mei (Echizen being the most notable school to have done this). Then of course as history progressed and many tachi were cut down and remounted as katana you got blades signed tachi-mei, having been originally tachi, but now mounted as katana. So confusing! But in the end the way to display a sword was considering how the sword was worn by a samurai and displaying in accordance with that. That should reflect the public and private sides of the sword.

Another note on this: displaying a sword with the private side out and the public side against the wall is like taking an honored guest into your home and sitting them in a chair facing the corner. Is that a way to treat a guest?

3.) tsuka to the left vs right


Clearly the above dictates most of this as really the omote / ura side of a blade dictates this more than a simple left vs right decision but it is worth noting this specifically for two reasons: First, tachi. Given tachi have things reversed, a case can be made to display a tachi one of two ways (well three but I'm not covering vertical display of tachi). Tachi can be displayed edge down, tsuka to the left. But if one desires to minimize stress on the saya and edge, it could conceivably be displayed edge UP with tsuka to the right. This would still display the omote or public side and as such is a valid form of display for a tachi.

"Oh but wait verity! I read that displaying a sword with the tsuka to the right was a sign of hostility!?"

This is a commonly repeated belief. The answer is that it is sort of true, but not quite. There was a practice of a samurai switching the katana from tsuka to the left to instead being tsuka to the right. This started appearing during the Warring States period in Japan around 1500 AD and was less a sign of direct hostility and more a sign of readiness or national distress, the latter sort of being similar to flying the flag at half mast in the United States. The rationale here being that, with most samurai being right-handed, the sword was more easily retrieved and drawn with the tsuka facing to the right. And for katana this is a reasonable argument to make, however as I said, tachi were inversed and as such I mention it because the public/private aspect supersedes all.

so again, Tachi can be displayed edge up, tsuka to the right, or edge down with tsuka to the left.

Katana should be displayed edge up, tsuka to the left (unless you are in a state of readiness or national distress, hehe).

4.) bare blade vs in the saya

This one is not much covered in history as in feudal Japan they did not have protective cases and as such they always had their blades sheathed. Long term storage would be done in shirasaya and their "active" set of blades would be in koshirae. I feel in modern times one needs to consider protection of the blade and also safety. If you display a blade bare, I feel it should be stored in an enclosed display case (this is how I display my blades) and if the blade is not in a case, it should either remain in the shirasaya or saya protecting the blade from humidity and sunlight as much as possible, not to mention the safety concerns of having razor sharp steel in the position to fall and cut someone or someone's uneducated fingers touching the blade. I use dehumidified and UV protected cases when displaying bare blades and when not using a case, the blades are in their saya.

5.) other considerations

One aspect many overlook on this topic is an often overlooked aspect which is an almost Zen / spiritual one. The Japanese would NEVER have the kissaki of a blade pointing AT the door or in the direction of the entrance to their home. This WAS considered in poor taste and would dictate the placement of their kake stand. This, amusingly is a "rule" I myself knowingly break in the display of my swords as my western aesthetic design and space considerations overrule any zen aspect. Oh well.

so there you have it! How do you display your swords? How you want to, though hopefully now at least your choice is informed with etiquette.
 
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MrNinjato

"But did you die"...
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Awesome post verity, it's always fun to read such an informative thread.
 

Wajirou Ichisada

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Aug 15, 2018
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Very good information. I always felt it best to display my swords stuck through the skulls of my slain enemies, but that's just how I roll :)

But seriously, I don't display my swords but keep them stored securely away from prying eyes, but within easy reach. I don't know why I do this to be honest, since I like the man-caves that have creative sword decorations and such. Perhaps it's done out of a sense of security- what people don't see, they don't covet. Or maybe I do it because I want the element of surprise, or that I like keeping swords as my "secret" weapon. I don't know. I did display my swords years ago and never thought much of it then. Somewhere along the way I just started doing things differently.
 
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MrNinjato

"But did you die"...
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Once I am done with school i'll have the money to start "seriously" collecting. I have thought about doing a wall in the living room like a traditional Japanese house wall. You know the "paper-look with squared wood framing" look. And hang three of four blades as "decoration".
 

verity

Amateur Togishi
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Once I am done with school i'll have the money to start "seriously" collecting. I have thought about doing a wall in the living room like a traditional Japanese house wall. You know the "paper-look with squared wood framing" look. And hang three of four blades as "decoration".
that would be awesome!
 

verity

Amateur Togishi
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Messages
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Very good information. I always felt it best to display my swords stuck through the skulls of my slain enemies, but that's just how I roll :)

But seriously, I don't display my swords but keep them stored securely away from prying eyes, but within easy reach. I don't know why I do this to be honest, since I like the man-caves that have creative sword decorations and such. Perhaps it's done out of a sense of security- what people don't see, they don't covet. Or maybe I do it because I want the element of surprise, or that I like keeping swords as my "secret" weapon. I don't know. I did display my swords years ago and never thought much of it then. Somewhere along the way I just started doing things differently.
many do this. Nothing wrong with that. My house is sort of half house, half museum hahahahah
 

Ouroboros

Student of Tachikaze
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Aug 23, 2018
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I've made enough space in a woodshop zone that I'll be tackling some display boxes for our main living area all inspired by the ones you have your collection in...but...

With the construction continuing in my basement my intention is to use 2 large maple medical specimen display cases with heavy glass and reasonably easy to open(pick) locks to display my growing collection of Kats and historical or culturally related specimens.

pmjmhY0l.jpg


Your collection spanning low to high end makes me very happy Master Verity

I see from this informative post that I have been displaying the wrong....errr private side of my blades as if I'm in an imminent war state. Correct etiquette noted.

Ouro
 
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Treeslicer

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Aug 27, 2018
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Katana should be displayed edge up, tsuka to the left (unless you are in a state of readiness or national distress, hehe).

One aspect many overlook on this topic is an often overlooked aspect which is an almost Zen / spiritual one. The Japanese would NEVER have the kissaki of a blade pointing AT the door or in the direction of the entrance to their home. This WAS considered in poor taste

Great, really really great post! As to the points I quoted you on above,

1.) Have you read the papers or seen the news anytime in the last few years?

2.) I think I'll find some way to point mine at my telephone. Nobody irritating shows up at the front door anymore. :D
 

verity

Amateur Togishi
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Messages
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Great, really really great post! As to the points I quoted you on above,

1.) Have you read the papers or seen the news anytime in the last few years?

2.) I think I'll find some way to point mine at my telephone. Nobody irritating shows up at the front door anymore. :D

Why thank you sir! And pointing at the telephone is a GREAT idea. Nothing on the etiquette says that is a no-no. Hehe. I like it!
 
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