Underneath the katana’s shiny, curved blade and mysticism lies an undeniable charm. And although the katana is one of, if not THE world’s most beautiful sword, everything will be for naught if its wielder doesn’t know how to hold it properly.
Knowing how to hold a katana properly is as crucial as learning the fundamental sword movements and its unique attributes. In this article, we’ll describe how the legendary swordsmen of Feudal Japan held their katanas to strike fear into any enemy. Plus, a few other things you must know when wielding a katana.
Wearing the Katana
Holding a katana starts with equipping the sword. After all, you don’t go around parading while holding the katana without its scabbard (Saya). And if you’ve seen Hollywood films and images of ancient Samurai, you’ll notice they are very specific about wearing the katana.
Here’s how to wear the legendary sword.
- Insert the Saya (with the katana inside) through the Kimono belt or sash (Obi) at the center of the stomach, allowing it to fall freely. Ensure you feel a slight pressure against the Obi. The katana’s sharp edge (Ha) should always face up while sheathed in the Saya.
- Most Samurai have two to three swords, including a mid-medium-length Wakizashi and a short Tanto. If you’re wearing these swords, they should go under the katana.
- Grab the cord or string (Sageo) on the Saya and wrap it around the Obi to secure the katana.
- Position the katana diagonally so that its handguard (Tsuba) aligns with your midline.
- Place your left thumb on the Tsuba’s top to keep the katana from falling off.
Now you’re ready to hold a katana.
Drawing or Unsheathing the Katana
Before we share how to hold a katana, you might want to practice the art of unsheathing or drawing this legendary sword from the Saya. Here’s how.
- Plant your right foot (or dominant foot) slightly in front to ensure balance and stability when unsheathing the katana.
- Grab the katana handle or hilt (Tsuka) from the underside with the right hand so that your fingers are higher than the wrist. Your hand’s position should be similar to throttling a motorcycle to the hilt.
- Hold the Tsuba and Saya’s upper edge (next to the Tsuba) with your left hand.
- Draw the katana from the Saya in a fluid upward motion, with your left hand slightly tugging the Saya backwards. You might want to stretch your body sideward to improve leverage.
And that’s how you reveal the katana’s mythical blade (Nagasa). Now, let’s proceed to holding a katana.
Holding the Katana
A man holding a katana. Screenshot of video by Samurai Kaz Arts on YouTube.
The Japanese sword won’t be legendary if the Samurai didn’t hold a katana properly. A wrong sword-handling technique can impact cutting, slashing, and lunging movements, potentially costing the Samurai their lives.
But how do you hold a katana like a Samurai?
- Position your right hand on the Tsuka’s center and slowly adjust it upward to maintain a 2-centimeter distance between the hand and the Tsuba. Place the right index finger on the Tsuba, barely touching it. Your thumb, index finger, middle finger, and ring finger should grip the Tsuka to ensure stability.
- Grab the Tsuka’s lowest section (Tsuka-gashira) with your left hand, ensuring the fingers don’t grip the Tsuka-gashira too tightly to maintain balance during katana handling. Your left hand’s lower edge must be 1 to 2 centimeters from the Tsuka-gashira.
- Ensure the hands are above the Tsuka, not underneath or on the sides. Additionally, maintain the correct alignment of both wrists.
The Japanese call this technique of holding a katana “Chakin-shibori.” It’s like wringing a moist or wet cloth or towel. Some katana enthusiasts say it’s akin to holding a pistol with the index finger barely touching the trigger.
Maintaining the Correct Posture
Posture is crucial to excellent katana swordplay, ensuring balance. Here are some tips to ensure the correct posture when holding a katana.
- Position your feet apart, approximating your shoulder width.
- Straighten your back while slightly bending the knees to lower the center of gravity. This stance ensures and maintains balance and stability.
- Relax your neck and shoulder muscles, feeling no tension at all.
- Slightly bend your elbows while holding katana to boost flexibility and mobility during swordplay.
- You’re now ready to slash, lunge, lock, and perform other katana movements.
Basic Katana Movements
We will describe how to hold a katana while performing basic katana movements. Please note katana swordplay extends beyond these maneuvers. However, these “basic” actions should help you get a “feel” for the katana.
Cutting, slashing, or swinging
Side cuts (Yoko-giri) and upward cuts (Kiri-age) are the most common katana slashing movements, with the former being perfect for beginners.
Performing the Yoko-giri requires the katana wielder to raise the sword parallel to the ground. And in a single, continuous, and fast motion, direct the Nagasa toward the opponent in a 90-degree turn.
Thrusting the katana straight against an opponent requires tensing the right arm and hands to apply force with the movement. Meanwhile, the left hand should stabilize the Tsuka while adding pressure to the katana as it moves head-on.
Locking or blocking
Defensive tactics even in katana swordplay. And two of the more popular locking methods are mid-block (Chudan-gaeshi) and top-block (Jodan-gaeshi).
The Chudan-gaeshi requires raising the katana parallel to the ground before shifting it to the left. Meanwhile, the Jodan-gaeshi maneuver starts with the sword above the head before switching to the right.
Sheathing the Katana
For many, sheathing a katana is more challenging than unsheathing the sword because you’re handling a sharp-edged weapon. Here’s how.
- Place your left hand over the Saya’s upper edge (near the opening) to guide the katana into the Saya.
- Position the katana’s unsharpened edge (Mune) on the left hand and slowly move the katana across until you notice the sword’s tip (Kissaki) touches the Saya’s opening.
- Adjust the katana’s angle to ensure alignment with the Saya, with your left hand supporting the Mune.
- Stabilize the Saya with your left hand as soon as the Kissaki enters the Saya. It’s your sign to give the sword a slight push, and watch the Nagasa disappear inside the Saya.
The Bottom Line
Learning how to hold a katana requires patience, dedication, and observance of fundamental safety guidelines. It might seem daunting, but practice can help you hone your skills.
You can focus on unsheathing, holding, and sheathing the katana to help you get a “feel” for the sword. Once you’re confident enough, you can master the different swordplay techniques.