Browse Categories

Japanese Swords

Shop By Forge

Introduction to the Japanese Shirasaya

Japanese Shirasaya swords are a popular choice among collectors. The word translated literally means “white scabbard.” However, this term refers not to the specific color of the scabbard, but rather the simple, clean design. These swords may come with a scabbard of white, black, brown, or other colors. The more decorative scabbards are called koshirae.If you are considering purchasing a shirasaya style Japanese sword, you may also be interested in learning more about the history and the details of this unique weapon. Those who are new to Japanese weaponry may find the terminology confusing. A closer look at the shirasaya will help you fully understand the nuance of this particular piece. You can easily see that shirasaya do not have the hand guard that normal katana have. When samurai swords were outlawed in feudal Japan, shirasaya became more popular as a more stealthy way to carry a sword under clothing without the protruding hand guard.

Description of Shirasaya Swords

Shirasaya does not refer to the specific type of blade, but rather the scabbard. This means that any blade can be housed in a shirasaya. The scabbard is specifically intended for long-term storage of the blade, rather than field combat use. This is because the more elaborate and lacquered wood scabbards could retain moisture and corrode the blade over a long storage period. Shirasaya are also usually more tightly-fitted to prevent air from coming in contact with the blade. Koshirae needed to fit more loosely so that they could be drawn quickly on the battle field.

The scabbard itself is made from wood, traditionally honoki, which is a Japanese magnolia known for its lack of excretions. For modern purposes, some are also made from bamboo or other visually-appealing woods. The scabbard fits cleanly against the handle to appear as a single, fluid piece of wood. The outside remains undecorated, though some may include text depicting the type of blade that is housed inside the scabbard. There is no tsuba, or guard, and the handle is not wrapped as combat weapons are. This makes the blade impractical for use in combat because the person who wields the sword will not have adequate hand protection.

Because shirasaya scabbards can be used with any blade, they are popular for many styles. Collectible blades often come in matching sets with two or three swords of different lengths. Commonly found varieties include the following, though other sizes may be crafted by different manufacturers.

The katana is the traditional samurai sword. It measures between 23-1/2 inches and 27-1/2 inches in length. The blade is slightly curved and the grip is significant in size because it is intended to be held by both hands.

The wakizashi is slightly smaller than the katana and measures between 12 and 24 inches in length. The two were historically carried together as a set called a daisho. The blade is also curved in the same slight manner.

The tanto is one of the smallest Japanese blades. It measures only 6 to 12 inches long and is considered a knife or dagger. The blade may be curved when part of a set, but often has a straight shape due to its smaller size.

History of Shirasaya Swords

The use of the katana, wakizashi, and tanto as a set can be traced back to feudal Japan,dating from about 1185 to 1600 A.D. However, each blade was originally invented separately during earlier historic periods. The combination of one, two, or all three blades was allowed for samurai. Only a samurai could carry a katana, but wakizashi were also the weapon of choice for traveling merchants to use for protection along the road.

The shirasaya is believed to be invented during the Edo period, 1603 to 1868 A.D., when specific laws regarding the public carrying of weapons were initiated. After a long period of internal conflict, this was a time when the government attempted to establish peace and imposed regulations on the samurai class. Swords were not allowed to be carried by anyone in public. Following the Edo Periodwas the Meiji Period, during which Japanese society moved toward modernization and swords were carried only by military persons leading up to and into World War I.

When a Japanese sword was used in combat scenarios, it was carried in the more elaborately decorated koshirae. At home, the shirasaya was used for long-term storage out of plain view to protect a valuable sword. Meanwhile, the koshirae was set out for display, often with a bamboo blade inside to maintain the shape. Modernly, many swords that are sold as display pieces are housed in a shirasaya, although this was not the original practice.

Shirasaya in Popular Culture

The shirasaya is often compared with the shikomizue. However, there are some distinct differences between the usages of the two scabbard styles. While the shirasaya and shikomizue are similar in appearance due to the undecorated exterior, the comparison ends there. The shikomizue is a hidden mounting that conceals the blade. It is intended to resemble a walking stick and may be used as such. The mounting could also be used to conceal other weapons like hooks or chains and is often associated with ninjas.

The shikomizue was popularized by the Japanese film and television series Zatoichi. The series ran during the 1960s to 1980s in Japan and told the fictional story of a skilled swordsman who traveled the country, posing as a blind masseuse. The series became popular in the United States following an Americanized remake of the series. That film, calledBlind Fury, is about an American Vietnam War veteran who becomes blind when overseas, but learns to fight from local masters before eventually returning home.

The film industry trend likely contributed to the popularity of the shirasaya among collectors. Modern reproductions are often more elaborate than the historic versions and make attractive display pieces.

There are a few modern films and television series where characters carry a shirasaya in battle, most likely inspired by the Zatoichi films. The fighting style is similar to fencing and the sword is held in one hand. Some of the popular shows that demonstrate this are as follows.

·       Two live action Japanese films in the 1970s, Lady Snowblood and its sequel, feature a shirasaya. The main character Yuki carries a sword of this style and fights one-handed.

·       In the Naruto anime and manga series, the character UchihaSasuke carries a sword with a plain shirasaya sheath that also has supernatural powers.

·       Kanda Yu in the D.Gray-mananime series carries a recognizable sword, which has been replicated as a shirasaya.

Modern Shirasaya Sword Makers

There are several modern forges that produce Japaneseswords in shirasaya scabbards. Most use the traditional Japanese technique for forging and folding the blades. The shirasaya is often less durable than a koshirae, so many are not intended for combat use. Each of these manufacturers produces this style of sword.

Masahiro is a Chinese manufacturing group of several forges. All of the swords produced include a full tang. The technique varies slightly by the individual forge, but each uses either medium carbon steel or high carbon steel. The majority of their products are appropriate for practice and are very good quality.

Musashi Swords is located in China as collaboration between smaller forges, including the reputable Chris Zhou. The swords are created to suit a wide range of budgets. All are hand-forged using carbon steel. They are functional weapons, and have a beautiful look too.

Ryumon swords are made at the Longquan forge in China. All of their swords are considered battle ready. Ryumon swords are an excellent choice for anyone wanting a high quality samurai sword. Their samurai swords are beautiful as well as extrmeley well made. 

Tips for Choosing a Shirasaya Sword

If you are planning a purchase of a shirasaya, there are a few things to consider. Much of the decision relies on personal preference. Cosplayers and martial artists may need a weapon that will be durable in active use. Determine whether a weapon is combat ready or labeled for display only. You may be looking for a replica or a design that catches your eye. Do you prefer something more historically accurate or just an attractive conversation piece for your home? If your purchase will be for primarily decoration, you will probably need to purchase a display stand. Some listings may include one, but just because it is in the product photo does not mean it will be included unless specifically stated. Are you planning on collecting several weapons? If you would like to have a matched set of shirasaya swords in graduated sizes, you may want to purchase them together. Alternatively, a larger collection of attractive swords that do not necessarily match may be your preference.

Not all brands follow the same production rules. Consider whether you prefer traditional folded steel or are happy with modern techniques. The wood of the scabbard and the finish also may be important. Price also plays a role in most shopping decisions. You may be satisfied with a budget friendly model, but if you desire something higher end, it may be worth saving your cash and waiting until you can afford the perfect sword.