What is The Tang (Nakago) of Katana?


The katana tang marked by the red circle

The ‘nakago’ is also known as the ‘tang’ and is the most informative part of a Japanese sword during its evaluation, with its importance rivaling that of the blade itself. When appreciating a Japanese sword, beginners often pay more attention to the sword fittings, while more experienced researchers focus on the blade's details. The most dedicated collectors pay the most attention to the information conveyed by the tang. However, many people only pay attention to the inscriptions on the tang, which can lead to misconceptions. In reality, inscriptions can be genuine or fake, and their authenticity should be determined by considering other features of the tang. During evaluation, several aspects can be considered:



The shape of the tang varies and includes styles such as ‘kiri-saki’ , ‘wakizashi-koshirae nakago’, ‘furisode nakago’ , ‘jizuri-nakago’ , and ‘ken-gata nakago’. In the case of the same type of tang, the bottom shape may also differ, and typically, a bladesmith maintains a consistent style for the tang. When identifying a sword, the shape of the tang is an important reference factor. Some fake swords may have unusual shapes for the tang.


Central Tip

At the bottom of the tang. This part also comes in various shapes, reflecting different styles and the characteristics of the swordsmiths. Shapes include ‘nyûyama’, ‘sword’, ‘kiri’, and more.



In addition to the shape of the tang, the bladesmith will also carve certain pattern of stripes on the tang, and these patterns are called ‘yasurime’ . Yasurime can increase the friction between the tang and the handle, preventing the handle from slipping off. There are various basic forms of yasurime, including hori, katte-saka, suji-nagashi, o-suji-nagashi, hienuki, taka-feather, gyaku-taka-feather, kiri-suji-nagashi, sente-kaeshi, and more. These different forms can be combined freely, known as ‘kasumi yasurime’, creating countless variations. Yasurime conveys the characteristics of a sword's school or lineage, with each yasurime pattern being associated with a specific school or family.If the inscription is akin to a signature of the swordsmith, then the yasurime can be likened to the Thumbprint left by the swordsmith.


Rust Color

A well-preserved, aged Japanese sword usually has a blade that is bright and shiny as if freshly made on the grinding wheel, while the tang of an older sword often exhibits rust color. There are two reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, the steel in the tang has not undergone quenching. Secondly, the maintenance methods for the blade and tang differ.The blade requires regular cleaning and maintenance using blade powder and oil. Conversely, it is common practice to allow the tang to naturally develop rust. Over the course of centuries, this rust darkens and becomes compact, forming a protective layer that prevents further oxidation.With modern technology, faking rust is not difficult. Typically, a chemical oxidizing agent is applied, and overnight, a modern blade can appear to have the aged tang of a thousand-year-old antique sword. However, this deception doesn't fool the eyes of professionals. Falsified tangs often have a duller hue, and when wiped with the hand, they reveal a clay-like residue.

The tang of a newly made sword is the natural color of the metal and does not have any rust.



Also known as ‘peg holes’, are the holes used to secure the tang. These mekugis are not cylindrical but rather have one end thicker and the other end thinner. Correspondingly, the mekugianas have one side larger and one side smaller. Modified swords often have two or more mekugianas. In contrast, newly made replicas often have perfectly round holes due to the use of modern mechanical drilling equipment.



Swordsmith's mei: After embarking on a career as a Japanese swordsmith, they typically adopt another artisanal name known as a ‘swordsmith's mei’ to be used as the official mark on their works, similar to an artist's pseudonym or a writer's pen name. For example, in the case of Kurihara Akihide, ‘Kurihara’ is the family name, and ‘Akihide’ is the artisanal name. Their original name might be something else, such as Hikosaburo. These artisanal names typically follow certain conventions and are generally comprised of two Chinese characters, often incorporating characters like ‘忠’ (loyalty), ‘国’ (country), ‘兼’ (inclusive), ‘吉’ (good fortune), among others. Signatures (referred to as ‘mei’) are the most prominent and distinctive features on the tang of the sword. However, because they are so visible, they are also a common target for forgery, which can diminish their reliability as a reference point. It's worth noting that the same smith may use different signatures for works created at different times, and multiple smiths from various eras might employ the same signature.


The two sides of the tang are known as the ‘omote’ (表) and ‘ura’ (里). When placing the sword with the tip facing outward and the edge facing to the left, the side of the tang facing upward is called "omote," and the other side is called ‘ura’. For katana, wakizashi, and tanto, the swordsmith's information is usually inscribed on the omote side, while the age-related information is inscribed on the ura side. However, tachi follows the opposite convention. There are some schools or styles that do not strictly adhere to this convention.


Sword inscriptions come in two forms: ‘short mei’ and ‘long mei’. Short mei typically only include the swordsmith's name, such as ‘Masamune’,‘Yoshimitsu’,‘Masamitsu’,etc. The shortest mei might consist of just one character, like ‘Sa’ (also known as ‘Sato’ or ‘Sadamune’) or ‘Ichi’(also known as‘Ichimonji’). Long mei, in addition to the smith's name, may include regional names, titles, and other details. For example, ‘Hizen no Kuni jū Mutsu no Kami Tadayoshi’ includes the regional name ‘Hizen no Kuni’, the title ‘Mutsu no Kami’, and the smith's name ‘Tadayoshi’. Some mei also include additional information related to the sword, such as the smith's age, the name of the person who owned the sword, the results of cutting tests, etc. Inscriptions that include information about cutting tests are referred to as ‘saitan mei’. In kotō times, short mei were more common, while long mei became more prevalent in shintō times.


Some sword inscriptions have been passed down through generations within a family, such as into the Meiji period,the ‘Kaneuji’ name, which has been passed down for 23 generations, or ‘Izumi no Kami Kanesada’,which has been passed down for 11 generations. These mei are like registered trademarks of a family business.


The same school of swordsmiths often shares a common character in their mei (signature). For example, in the Bizen Osafune school, the second character in the smith's name is often '光' (Mitsu), leading to names like 'Tadamitsu,' 'Yoshimitsu,' 'Kiyomitsu,' 'Yasumitsu,' etc. In the Mino Seki school, the first character is typically '兼' (Kane), resulting in names like 'Kanemoto,' 'Kanefusa,' 'Kanedada,' 'Kanekuni,' and so on. In the Tsukama school, the first character is '贞' (Sada), leading to names like 'Sadakuni,' 'Sadamasa,' 'Sadayoshi,' 'Sadatoshi,' and others.


Forgeries of mei are referred to as '伪铭' (wei mei). When a famous smith's name is associated with numerous forgeries, distinguishing genuine mei from fake ones becomes a highly challenging task, similar to authenticating Chinese calligraphy, requiring years of accumulated expertise.


Some swords do not have inscriptions, and they are called‘mumei’(unsigned swords). There are several reasons for the absence of inscriptions:

Apprentice or novice smiths may not have inscriptions as they have not yet mastered their craft.

Swords made by renowned masters are sometimes offered as offerings to generals or temples, and they may not be inscribed.

If a swordsmith is not satisfied with the finished blade, they may choose not to inscribe it.

Therefore, the absence of inscriptions does not necessarily mean that a sword is of lower quality. Its quality should be evaluated based on the sword itself.


In some cases, unsigned swords are evaluated and authenticated by authoritative experts. The results are written on the tang of the sword using cinnabar lacquer and are referred to as‘shumei’(red inscriptions). Some inscriptions are also inlaid with gold, known as‘kinzogan’(gold-inlaid inscriptions).


Sometimes, inscriptions need to be modified. In such cases, a small section of the inscription is cut out, and the altered steel piece is replaced, a technique known as‘emaekime’(modified inscription).



During the use of a samurai sword, for various reasons such as changing fittings, a change in ownership, or a shift in combat requirements, there are occasions when the sword needs to be shortened. The process for this is called‘reshaping’or ‘regrinding’. In this process, a portion or all of the sword tang (nakago) is cut off, and a new tang is reshaped at the end of the sword by filing or grinding. When the entire tang, or even part of the blade, is cut off, it is referred to as a‘major reshaping’.In contrast, a tang that has never been modified is called an‘original tang’or‘unaltered tang’.Because the reshaped tang is exposed to the same hardening process as the blade, it develops a different rust color compared to the original tang, and this rust is more noticeable. Some of the inscriptions (mei) on the tang may be partially or entirely removed during the reshaping process. In most cases, once an inscription is removed, it is not re-engraved, resulting in a sword referred to as an ‘mumei’(unsigned swords). Additionally, there are cases where one side of the tang with no inscription is ground thinner by half, folded over, and the inscription is transferred from one side to the other, creating what is known as a‘reversed mei’.

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