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A Short History of the Shirasaya Sword

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A lot has been written about the history of the Katana and Wakizashi sword. We have covered some of the story here and here respectively.

The Shirasaya on the hand gets scant mention and is often overlooked when it comes to detailing the history of the samurai.

This neglect is unfair as the sword (or more precisely the scabbard as we will discuss in a moment) has an interesting tale to tell.

What is the Shirasaya?

We cover this question more in depth here, however for the sake of clarity the Shirisaya can be translated as ‘White Scabbard’.

It is basically a sheath without decoration that is used to protect the sword.

When did the Shirasaya first appear?

Image Credit: CrowCollection.org

Experts believe that the shirasaya was first invented during the Edo period, 1603 to 1868 A.D. This makes sense as it was during this time that laws restricting the carrying of weapons in public were first imposed in Japan.

The government were attempting to establish peace throughout the land and they believed that imposing regulations on the samurai class would curtail some of the conflict that very often occurred between clans.

In short, swords were no longer allowed to be carried in public.

With their swords now stored in the home for longer periods samurai began using the tighter fit shirasaya as it provided better protection and would stop moisture from setting in.

Only when a sword was to be used in combat situations would it be placed in the more elaborately decorated koshirae.

Not to be confused with the shikomizue

The shikomizue as used in Zatoichi (Credit: Bandai Visual)

The plain, undecorated nature of the shirasaya scabbard means it is often compared and confused with the shikomizue.

While it is true that both scabbards lack any outside embellishment; that is where the similarities end.

The shikomizue was designed to disguise the sword. It features a hidden mounting that is able to conceal the blade in its entirety.

With a shikomizue it is even possible to make the sheath look like a walking stick. This idea was popularized by the Japanese television series Zatoichi. In it, the main character was a skilled swordsman pretending to be a blind masseuse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgnlJ38ntQw

An American version was made that brought the attention of the shikomizue to Western audiences. Called ‘Blind Fury’ the movie focuses on an American Vietnam War veteran blinded in battle.

While oversees he learns the way of the samurai. Once he returns home, he becomes a vigilante, using a shikomizue to disguise his weapon as a walking stick.

Movies and television have focused on the shirasaya to a lesser degree however. For those interested, here are a few worth tracking down:

  • Lady Snowblood – The main character carries a shirasaya and uses the sword one-handed.
  • Naruto  – A character named UchihaSasuke carries a sword with supernatural powers within a plain shirasaya sheath (Anime series).

Image Credit: SwordsofNorthshire

Today, there are a number of modern day reproduction shirasaya for sale online. Many of these are sold as display pieces.

As a result, you may find the decoration on such pieces to be more elaborate in design than the historic versions we have discussed here.


Image Credits: CrowCollection.org, BandaiVisual.jp, SwordsofNorthshire.com