Japanese swords are rightly famous for their formidable cutting power, but they are also easily damaged. The fine polish of the sword, in particular, is very fragile. It is our responsibility, as temporary owners of these artistic and historical artifacts, to ensure that they are passed on to future generations of collectors.
Tools for the care of the Sabre :
A small brass hammer, mekugi nuki, is used to remove the pin (mekugi) from the sword hilt. Choji oil, specially designed for swords, is used to protect the sword from rust. A clean, unscented white handkerchief, which has not been made from recycled fibres, can be used instead of the nugui gami.
Daily care of the sword:
When a sword is not being looked at, it should be enclosed in a sword bag, which will prevent the blade from coming loose or falling out of the sheath. Japanese swords are best stored horizontally and in a dry environment (not in a damp basement).
When carrying a mounted sword, whether it is a samurai sword or a simple wooden sword (shira-saya), always keep the handle higher than the scabbard. At all times, when the sword is mounted, it must have the pin (mekugi) in the hole of the hilt and tang of the sword.
Without the mekugi, the blade can move inside the scabbard and become chipped or scratched. Never touch the polished part of the blade; the slightly corrosive sweat from your fingers can etch fingerprints on the surface of the blade. Never touch the polished part of the sword to your clothes. This is considered bad manners and can damage the polish.
Drawing the sword :
Grasp the scabbard (saya) near its mouthpiece from below with your left hand. Grasp the hilt (tsuka) from above with your right hand. With the sword held horizontally and pointing away from you, the edge towards the ceiling, gently withdraw the blade from the scabbard. The edge towards the ceiling allows the blade to roll over its back (mune) and reduces the risk of scratching the varnish or chipping the edge. Do not stop to examine the blade on the way out, as this can also damage the edge. When the blade is almost completely removed, lower the end of the scabbard a little and finish.
Removing the handle :
The pin (mekugi) must first be removed. Determine which end of the mekugi is the smallest and press it gently with the mekugi hammer. Mekugi are easily lost, so keep track of where they are once they are out of the handle. Hold the lower part of the handle in your left fist, with the blade angled upwards past your right shoulder and the edge pointing outwards. Strike the top of your left fist with your right fist, gently on the first strike and with more force on subsequent strikes until the sword comes off the hilt. Once the sword is loose, a few light blows on your fist should move the blade forward enough for you to put your fingers on the tang (nakago) and pull the sword out of the hilt. If the sword is not loose, do not try to force it; a few more blows are necessary. Force applied to the habaki can damage it or chip the beginning of the sword's edge (hamachi).
A word of caution: tanto and short wakizashi can have small nakago. Be very gentle with the first punch, or the blade may fly off.
Once the handle is released, you can slide the tsuba and the washers (seppa) out of the tang. To remove the habaki, grasp it by the sides and gently pull down.
Examine the sword:
With the nakago in one hand, you can place the upper part of the sword on a soft, clean cloth or on sword paper in your other hand. When examining the sword, be aware of your surroundings. You don't want to bump into a lamp or person, or stick the blade into the ceiling.
Re-assembling the Sword:
Slide the habaki onto the tang and replace the tsuba and washers in their original order. Hold the hilt vertically and lower the nakago of the sword into the hilt. Hold the sword upright and tap the bottom of the hilt with the heel of your free hand. A few taps should be enough to seat the nakago firmly in the hilt.
Replace the mekugi through the hole in the hilt. Reinserting the blade into the scabbard is the reverse of the removal process. With the scabbard held in the left hand and the end of the sword slightly lowered, place the back of the tip of the sword into the opening of the scabbard with the edge towards the ceiling. Sliding the blade gently into the opening, lift the end of the scabbard until you feel that the blade has been removed.
With the scabbard held in the left hand and the end of the sword slightly lowered, place the back of the tip of the sword in the opening of the scabbard, with the edge towards the ceiling. Gently sliding the blade in, lift the end of the scabbard until you feel it is in the right plane. Continue until the habaki settles into the mouth of the scabbard.
Passing the sword from person to person:
If the sword is in its mounts, the passer holds the sword horizontally, with the blade facing him, one hand on the end of the hilt and the other towards the other end of the scabbard.
The catcher places one hand on the handle and the other on the scabbard, and acknowledges the check before making the pass. If the blade is bare or mounted in the handle only, the passer grabs the blade either at the top of the handle or at the top of the nakago.
The blade must be vertical and the edge must face the passer. The receiver grasps the nakago or hilt under the hand of the passer, recognises the control and takes the sword.
Note: At all times during the pass, the edge of the sword faces the passer. It is considered bad manners to pass a sword with the edge facing the recipient.
Oiling the sword:
When the sword is not being looked at, it should be protected by a very thin layer of Choji oil. The first few months after a sword has been polished, due to the latent water from the polishing process, the oil layer is particularly important.
Place 2 or 3 drops of oil on a clean piece of cloth. Remove all the mounts from the sword. With the paper folded over the back of the blade, starting one inch above the nakago, gently wipe the blade down to the tip.
You should not start at the top of the nakago, as you may drag rust particles from the nakago onto the sword's varnish. This last centimetre at the bottom of the sword is wiped down to the nakago after the rest of the blade has been oiled. At this point, the polished part of the sword is covered with oil, probably too much. Take a clean piece of cloth or crumpled sword paper and gently wipe the oil off the sword. The small amount of oil that remains on the blade is enough to protect it. If you leave too much oil on the sword, it can build up inside the scabbard and create a mess and stains.
Cleaning the oil from the sword:
In order to clearly see the grain and temper of a Japanese sword, the oil must be removed. Start by wiping with a clean cloth from one inch above the nakago to the tip, then the last inch to the nakago.
With the sword paper or clean cloth wrapped around the back of the blade, wipe gently as before, up to the tip and down to the nakago. Be careful not to exert strong pressure and never to move back and forth over a particular area; gentle, continuous strokes are required.
Be careful not to wipe the carvings when you wipe the blade. Oil that accumulates in the carvings can be cleaned by dabbing with cloth.
Repairing and polishing Japanese swords:
This time it's easy: don't do it. Sword polishing is an incredibly detailed craft that requires several years of apprenticeship to become skilled in Japan. It's unlikely that a novice collector or the guy at the gun show who's watched a few polishing videos will manage to do anything but damage.
Be careful who you allow to polish your swords. There are many polishers in the West who claim to know what they're doing; only a handful of them are properly trained.
Maintenance of Sword Mounts:
Keep them clean, dry and protected. Never try to clean sword mounts with anything remotely abrasive. It is best to leave the repair to those who have been properly trained.
Rules at sword shows:
All that has been said above about swords applies to the observation of swords at exhibitions in the West. In addition, here are some other suggestions.
Ask permission before looking at swords on a table.
Be careful not to bump into other people when looking at a sword.
Never practice drawing your sword quickly or swinging it at an exhibition (this should be obvious, but you would be surprised...).