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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Japanese swordwork: drawing and returning the blade

Japanese swordwork: drawing and returning the blade

phtoto credit Ametxa

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With the upsurge in backyard cutting, not everyone who owns a katana “shinken” (live blade) has martial arts experience.  For those who don’t such experience, but want to be able to draw and noto (sheathing) the sword in a safe and traditional manner, I’d like to supply some basic information.

Note that traditional iaido terms will be marked in italics;  a glossary will be found at the end of this post.


Basic drawing and resheathing

A good visual reference on the basic drawing of a blade can be seen in the following video.  This demonstrates a basic draw, coming to the kamae (ready) standing posture.  Note this is not how the sword would be draw for a one-handed iaijutsu draw-and-cut.  That is a much more difficult and involved topic which may be covered in a future post.

In drawing, it’s important to remember that the katana is very, very sharp, and the saya (wood scabbard) is very, very light.  Not drawing the blade completely straight when taking it from its sheath (in other words, pulling the blade into a cut before it is completely out of the sheath), or not keeping the sword’s “mune” (back or spine of the blade) pressed down and horizontal when performing noto means — at the very least — you will be binding the blade against the wood of the saya.  At worst, you will actually cut through the light wood of the sheath and into your hand.

In drawing the blade, make note of how he pulls the saya back to aid in the tip clearing the sheath.  This action is known a sayabiki, and will be encountered in various forms repeatedly in handling a katana, mostly because blades are longer than an average person’s reach.



One comment I’d like to make about his description of “two fingers catching the blade”.  It must be made clear that as a person draws the back of the blade down their hand, they will feel when the point of the blade passes over the webbing between their thumb and forefinger.   The two fingers he is referring to should not actually pinch or capture the blade;  instead, as the point of the blade comes off the webbing of your hand, it will literally fall into the mouth of the saya (the koiguchi).  The back of the blade will rest against the two fingers, supporting it in position until you actually start to put the blade into the saya.  You should never use your fingers to pinch or catch the sides of a blade, both because of safety issues and because you will want to avoid getting your skin oils on the blade, as they are very acidic and can cause tarnish or rust if not cleaned immediately.


Styles of resheathing

For the basic noto, there are two variations;  the horizontal and the vertical.  In practice there are more, including the reverse noto, but we’ll touch on that in a moment.  Fortunately, the same gentleman who produced the first video also covers the horizontal and vertical resheathing nicely below:



Reverse Noto

The reverse noto takes place when — for one reason or another — you end up holding your blade reversed, with the blade depending from the bottom of your fist, with the tsuba (cross guard) held against your little finger, as has been made famous in the many Zatoichi films.

When held in this manner, a practitioner will generally perform a vertical noto, very much as shown in the previous video;  flipping the blade up so the mune rests on the arm and hand, drawing the blade down-and-out, so the kissaki (point) moves down their their hand, over the webbing, and then drops into the mouth of the saya.

When performing this version of resheathing, the practitioner will likely notice their arms are not long enough to draw the blade straight out and have the tip drop;  people often find they “run out of arm” before this happens, as sword blades are generally longer than a person’s arm extension.  To counter this, remember that you can perform sayabiki;  the saya isn’t fixed in your belt, so  you can move the mouth as needed.  So, if your arm isn’t long enough to to complete a reverse noto, simply pull the mouth backwards until the tip falls in.

The following clip by Sensei Dana Abbott demonstrates the basic elements of a reverse-hand noto.




  • Kissaki:  point and point cutting edge.
  • Noto:  sheath the sword.
  • Mune:  back or spine of the blade.
  • Saya: scabbard, normally made of light wood, traditionally magnolia wood.
  • Sayabiki:  manipulating the saya to enable drawing or resheathing of the blade.
  • Shinken:  “live” or sharp blade.


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