The Shirasaya. A sword of simplicity and elegance.

Given that I’ve been talking a lot about cool, stealthy staff weapons, I thought i’d throw one more sword type into the mix, designed along similar lines to the venerable shikomizue. Especially since I recently encountered a rather beautiful specimen of such a sword. It’s only fair that I share:

Mushashi Black Shirasaya

Musashi Black Shirasaya
[view full size]

The oh, so elegant sword you see above is called a shirasaya. The shirasaya, which means “White Scabbard” in Japanese, is a style of sword that features a minimalist theme with regards to the way the grip and scabbard is designed. A traditional shirasaya features a smooth grip with no fancy fittings, in hardly any fittings at all, save for the bamboo pin(s) used to secure the blade in the grip. No guard either. The scabbard is usually equally plain, though they sometimes have information about the sword written on them.

The shirasaya above is unique in that it is lacquered in black, which runs counter to the traditional “white scabbard” design theme, but it is still smooth, and devoid of all fittings, except, of course, for the bamboo pin used to secure the blade. A sleek, beautiful fusion of traditional shirasaya style in modern black.

The shirasaya, while beautiful, suffers from a flaw that is common to pretty much every other staff weapon I have mentioned in previous posts. No guard and a poor grip. This causes two problems. First, because there is no guard, your fingers/arms/etc. no longer have any protection from a sword strike that slides down the blade towards your hand. combine that with a smooth grip, and you no longer have a positive way to prevent your hand from sliding up toward and/or onto the blade should a mishap occur.

Both issues pose rather large problems from a combat perspective, providing all the ingredients for a rather nasty accident. However, given that staff weapons were meant foremost for stealth, and easy concealment, as opposed to uncompromising battle ability, I suppose they are flaws that a person using such a weapon could learn to live with.

I thought I’d also show you an example of a more traditional shirasaya. At least on the outside:

2 in 1 Shirasaya

2 in 1 Shirasaya
[view full size]

Now while the weapon above may actually look like a standard shirasaya when they sheathed, is actually rather unique, in that it has two swords instead of the single blade of a standard shirasaya. What is even more interesting is that these swords are sheathed at the same end of the saya, side by side. A very interesting, and quite useful design.

Based on it’s appearance alone, you might not guess that there were two swords hiding in that innocent looking piece of wood. I love stealth…


A commenter (Muchas gracias, Miles!) recently pointed out to me that the Shirasaya design was intended primarily for storage, as opposed to stealth. I also discovered that it has traditionally been used to transport high quality blades to and from the polishers, or for shipping a blade to a collector who intended to install their own custom fittings.

Having never purchased a sword without the fittings attached, I thought this was interesting, as I have run across this design a gazillion times, but for some inexplicable reason, never really took the time to properly research it’s origins. Oh. well. I guess I’m slipping in my old age…

Anyway the light wood used (often magnolia) was usually specifically selected for the purpose and cured for many years to remove all moisture, and the lack of finishing, or more precisely, the lack of the traditional lacquer finish, was by design intended to allow the saya to “breathe” and allow moisture to escape, so that the blade would last longer in storage.

In retrospect, looking at the design, this all makes perfect sense, though I will also point out that the design is of such significant aesthetic value that it has been subverted for “practical” use by many sword designers, and even traditionally finished, such as the first blade featured above, which is technically a violation of it’s original intent.

So while similar in many respects to shikomizue, it was originally intended for a completely different purpose. Though aesthetically it’s still a sweet as all get out design… Even if it’s not really particularly stealthy…

7 Responses to “The Shirasaya. A sword of simplicity and elegance.”

  1. 1 ladyofspiders
    November 15, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    That is a pretty nice looking blade

  2. November 16, 2007 at 12:40 am

    Yeah, I really love the idea of the Shirasaya, and they make for a very pleasing sword aesthetic, even though it is not the best combat design.

  3. 3 Miles
    May 26, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    You’re really frightening me. The reason the shirasaya mount doesn’t work well in combat is because it’s NOT “a style of sword” at all. It’s ‘pajamas’ to keep a valuable blade safe and un-rusted in storage, as it’s healthier for the blade than a real tsuka and saya would be. Outside of manga, nobody would be crazy enough to try serious cutting with a blade in shirasaya mount. It’s not meant to be a shinobi-zue variant.

  4. May 27, 2008 at 12:49 am

    Ah, thanks for the correction. I had not considered that about the shirasaya. I always thought that the were simply another shikomizue variant. But that makes perfect sense, the design seemed very poor from a combat perspective, though shikomizue/shinobizue are not that much different.

    The funny thing is, some shirasaya are finished just as ornately as regular saya. And there is really nothing preventing someone from properly mounting a sword in a shirasaya styled saya/tsuka, and simply not applying the lacquer finish. In fact, a shikomizue designed for stealth should not have a lacquer coating because that would give it away would it not?

    So is there any real difference between them besides intent?

  5. 5 Miles
    May 27, 2008 at 7:15 am

    There are practical considerations in the blade and making (all ignored by modern companies just selling them as if they were ready-to-use, and admittedly a shirasaya is a lovely sleek thing). The wood of a shirasaya should be left unvarnished so the blade can breathe and no mildew or rust will form on it (old Japanese swords are very susceptible to that) and some trees have natural oils that also keep the blade healthy. Good ones are made from magnolia wood, which is aged 10 years to get rid of any sap or moisture. But since they must be left uncoated, they can’t protect a blade outdoors, from rain or snow soaking through the wood.
    The high-end forges still sell some of their blades that way so a customer can buy custom mountings and fit them himself- or find antique mountings, like a beautiful Edo tsuba, and create a katana that has a new blade but real koshirae. Before the Meiji Restoration, when it was still legal to wear swords in public, the samurai typically owned one of each type of saya per valuable blade. The shirasaya was used for storage, while the koshirae fittings were used when the sword was worn in public. This site gives more detail:
    So a shirasaya is essentially a practical way to keep your high-carbon blade alive over the centuries. The shinobi-zue resembles it, but uses a straight narrow blade- more often a yari spear blade, as they fit well- in a bamboo or lacquered walking stick. Much less conspicuous back in the days when most people carried such things:-) But really, nobody can look at a shirasaya and not guess there’s a sword in there- a katana or wakisashi-shaped blade just doesn’t lend itself to concealment. Good walking sticks and canes were often finished with a Japanese lacquer so they wouldn’t necessarily give away the fact there was a blade inside. I suppose it would depend on whether one was trying to look innocent or was in full stealth mode and trying to avoid any reflection- in which case the innocent-looking shinobi is no longer helpful (what am I doing on the daimyo’s roof wearing all black? I’m just a poor blind peasant, you see.. I lost my way”).
    Sorry about the word count. Cheers:)

  6. May 27, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    (What am I doing on the daimyo’s roof wearing all black? “I’m just a poor blind peasant, you see.. I lost my way”)

    OH, man, that cracked me up!! LOL

    But yeah, you are right, a Katanas curve simply does not lend itself well to concealment within a straight staff. Unless it were seriously cut down in length. But even then, from a shinobi perspective, I would think a shikomizue hiding a longer, straighter sword would definitely have been preferred for the purposes of appearing innocuous.

    But that also means that technically, the black shirasaya above was intended more for active use rather than storage, as it lacquered. Which would make for a very poor Shirasaya (as if being a poor combat blade wasn’t enough). From an aesthetic standpoint however, I do like the simplicity of the design. I only wish it could be used this way without the risk of damaging oneself…

    But thanks, for the link, no worries about the word count, IMHO it was for a worthy cause 🙂

  7. 7 Sean
    February 6, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Does anyone know where I can buy cheap shirasaya mountings? So without the blade itself? I like to buy a katana (at Cheness, you should definetely add that to your weapon sellers), but I need a shirasaya mounting. Can anyone help me out?

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