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What is Menuki? Exploring the Art of Sword-Grip Ornaments

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: February 17, 2024

Menuki are small metal decorative fittings traditionally placed under the braided hilt wrappings of Japanese swords and daggers. Although originally intended to be functional, they later became almost purely ornamental. Considered one of the Japanese sword mountings, they showcase the expertise of numerous craftsmen, evolving into coveted collector’s items today.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
Menuki are small decorative fittings attached to the hilt to prevent the hands from slipping.
Menuki were often crafted from precious metals like silver, gold, and traditional Japanese alloys such as shakudo (copper-gold alloy) or shibuichi (copper-silver alloy).
Menuki are crafted using the traditional Japanese metalworking techniques of hammering, carving, and gilding.
A golden carp menuki on a katana hilt
A golden carp menuki on a katana hilt – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques
  • Menuki (目貫) – The metal ornaments on the sides of a Japanese sword hilt, serving as the most prominent fittings on unwrapped rayskin covered hilts and located beneath the braided silk wrapping on most swords.
  • Chin (鎮) – An obsolete term for menuki, no longer in common use.
  • Kibata (際端) – The edges of a menuki, a term also applicable to the edges of a kozuka (utility knife handle).
  • Kibata-mei (際端銘) – The signature or inscription on the edge (kibata) of a menuki, if present.
  • Kon (根) – The stems on the back of menuki (if present). The term kon literally means root and is sometimes called ashi (足), meaning foot. It can be round, oval, square, or rectangular.  
  • Chikaragane (力金) – The reinforcing metal for the root (kon) of menuki, soldered on the back side. When these small metal stripes are arranged at all four sides of the root, they are referred to as yotsu-kon, meaning four-root.
  • Kodogu (小道具) – A collective term for sword fittings, including the menuki, kozuka (utility knife handle), and kogai (hairdressing tool). It literally means “small utensils” or “fittings”.

Craftsmanship and Design of Menuki

The menuki ornaments were crafted from fine materials and traditional Japanese metalworking techniques, making them works of art.

Material and Construction

Pair of menukis featuring themes of quails tree peony and elephant
3 pairs of menuki featuring the (from left to right) designs of quails made from shakudo, tree peony made from shakudo, and elephant made of shibuichi and gold – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Many fine menuki were made of shakudo—a Japanese alloy containing gold and copper—that was artificially patinated into a dark, raven black patina with a silky gloss finish. Others were crafted from shibuichi, a copper-silver alloy that was patinated in subtle colors, such as greenish gray, brown, or blue.

Pair of menuki featuring gold form of a hem and a rooster left and another pair made of silver and gold right
Pair of gold menuki in the form of a hem and a rooster (left), and another pair of menuki made of silver and gold (right) – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

Some luxurious menuki were made of pure precious metals, such as gold or silver, but there were also ones made from brass (shinchu), copper, or iron. Some sword fitting makers also used a mix of different metals in a menuki, such as gold and shibuichi or gold and shakudo, and other uncommon metal combinations.

Practical and Decorative Function

A golden carp menuki on a katana hilt zoomed out
A golden carp menuki on a katana hilt – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques
A menuki made of shakudo on a tachi hilt
A menuki made of shakudo on a tachi hilt – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The original function of menuki was as the ornamental head of a metal mekugi, a peg which secures the blade’s tang on the hilt. Over time, its role became purely ornamental. It also serves a practical purpose by filling the gap in the pam, providing a better grip and enhancing the overall handling of the sword.

In some cases, a Japanese scythe-like weapon known as kusarigama may also incorporate two menuki, particularly when its hilt is wrapped like a Japanese sword. Additionally, menuki were occasionally added to some Japanese maces such as the hachiwari or kabutowari carried by some samurai.

Placement on the Hilt

A wakizashi featuring a pair of menuki either side
A wakizashi featuring a pair of menuki placed symmetrically on the sides of the hilt – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The earlier menuki which served as a metal peg, featured hollow negative and positive parts to prevent it from falling out of the hilt. Therefore, earlier pairs of menuki were also positioned symmetrically on both sides of the hilt. It is important to note that some menuki are simply glued onto the hilt asymmetrically and serves no functional purpose.

Front and back sides of a katana featuring a menuki
Front side of a katana featuring a menuki placed closer to the hilt collar or ferrule (fuchi) [top]; back side of a katana featuring a menuki placed closer to the pommel cap (kashira) [bottom]- Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

When they became purely decorative, a pair of menuki were placed asymmetrically on the sides of the hilt: the one on the front side leans toward the ferrule (fuchi), while the one on the back leans toward the pommel cap (kashira). Japanese sword hilts are often wrapped in ray-skin, with a pair of menuki placed under the braided silk wrapping.

a pair of purely ornamental tsubogasa menuki
A tanto featuring a pair of menuki placed asymmetrically on the hilt – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Menuki in Traditional Sword Mountings

A horse shaped menuki that follows the theme of the katana koshirae
A horse-shaped menuki that follows the theme of the katana koshirae – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques
A menuki in the form of a shishi lion
A menuki in the form of a shishi lion, matching the kogai lion design – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

In a koshirae, a menuki often complements the theme of other hilt mounts consisting of a sword guard (tsuba), ferrule (fuchi), and pommel cap (kashira). A menuki may also match the design on a kozuka (knife handle) or kogai (hairdressing tool) on the side of a scabbard.

Featuring the matching designs of menuki on a wakizashi and katana hilts
Featuring the matching designs of menuki on a wakizashi and katana hilts, respectively – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The samurai class had the privilege to wear the daisho, a pair of swords consisting of a katana and a wakizashi. For a daisho’s koshirae, the menuki of the two swords were made with matching designs, reflecting the taste and wealth of a samurai.

Traditional Japanese Metalworking Techniques

A pair of menuki crafted using the traditional metalworking
A pair of menuki crafted using the traditional metalworking techniques in Japan – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

The expertise of a sword fitting maker in traditional Japanese metalworking techniques determines the craftsmanship and design of menuki. Menuki are crafted using traditional hammering, carving, and gilding techniques known in Japan. Generally, they are made from a single piece of metal shaped through hammering and then further refined.

If the hammering is done from the front, it is called heshikomi (meaning “to push into”). If the hammering is done from the back, it is called uchidashi or embossing. Also, a menuki can be made by a carving technique called katachibori (meaning “form” or “shape carving”), in which the design defines its own outline.

A menuki can also be made using the traditional iroe technique of coloring a motif, similar to gilding. For instance, the material is covered with a silver foil or thin gold, which is hammered on the surface of the ground. This technique was already in use as early as the Kofun and Nara periods.

Sources Cited
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  3. Katana by Musashi Taro Yasukuni. (n.d.). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://www.mandarinmansion.com/item/katana-musashi-taro-yasukuni
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  8. Sesko, M. (2011). Handbook of Sword Fittings Related Terms. Books on Demand.
  9. Sesko, M. (2012). Koshirae – Japanese Sword Mountings. Lulu.com.
  10. Sesko, M. (2014). Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords (Paperback). Lulu.com.
  11. Sesko, M. (2019, July 2). Shibuichi (四分一). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved January 21, 2024, from https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/shibuichi
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