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Exploring the Types of Menuki Ornaments and Their History

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: February 13, 2024

NO AI USED This Article has been written and edited by our team with no help of the AI

Menuki are sword-grip ornaments on Japanese swords and daggers. These decorative fittings have evolved through history both in function and design. Like most Japanese sword fittings, these metal ornaments have become art pieces and collector’s items.

Menuki were initially the ornamental head of a metal mekugi peg, securing the tang on the hilt, but later evolved into a purely decorative element.
Early menuki that served as both a menuki and mekugi peg is known as makoto-menuki.
A purely ornamental menuki, the sora-menuki, is the most common type seen on most Japanese swords and daggers today.

Different Types of Menuki

Throughout history, menuki ornaments reflected traditional Japanese craftsmanship and metalworking. While most menuki today are purely ornamental, earlier versions functioned as both peg and ornament. Some historians and collectors may use specific terminologies to describe menuki based on their function, design, and placement on the hilt.

1. Makoto-menuki

Makoto menuki on a ceremonial tachi
Featuring a makoto-menuki on a ceremonial tachi hilt, accompanied by ornamental rivets – Credits: e-Museum

The term makoto-menuki (真目貫 or 誠目貫) literally means true menuki. It refers to the early menuki that served as both an ornamental headpiece and a mekugi peg to secure the hilt on the tang. 

Having been around since the Nara Period, it is commonly found on early ceremonial tachi, especially the kara-tachi (lit. Tang tachi), which adhered to Tang ceremonial prescriptions. Most of these ceremonial tachi were covered with same (ray skin) and had unwrapped hilts, featuring a makoto-menuki with additional tawara-byo (straw bag-shaped rivets).

2. Tsubogasa-menuki

tsubogasa menuki with Paulownia mon
Featuring a tsubogasa-menuki with Paulownia mon (family crest of the Tokugawa) on a tanto hilt – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The term tsubogasa-menuki (壷笠目貫) translates as pot-hat menuki, referring to its rounded shape resembling pots or jugs with smaller tops (tsubogasa). It developed from early menuki that served as peg and ornament.

a pair of purely ornamental tsubogasa menuki
Featuring a pair of purely ornamental tsubogasa-menuki placed asymmetrically on the hilt – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The front and back of the tsubogasa-menuki have identical designs, with both heads slightly larger than the mekugi-ana opening. Originally, they were symmetrically positioned on either side of the hilt, serving both a functional and decorative purpose. However, later examples became purely decorative and were positioned asymmetrically on the hilt.

3. In ́yō-kon menuki

A pair of inyo kon menuki
A pair of in’yō-kon menuki featuring their fronts and backs with negative and positive stem – Credits: Aoi Japan

The in’yō-kon menuki is another name for the two-piece menuki that served as a mekugi peg. It derives its name from the term kon (根), meaning root, referring to the stem at its backside. To prevent it from falling out, the two-piece in’yō-kon menuki features a hollow negative stem (in-kon) and a solid positive stem (yō-kon).

Originally, the positive stem was long enough to pass through the entire hilt and tang, connecting with the negative stem on the opposite side. Both stems featured small holes through which a leather string, metal wire, or pin could pass to prevent them from separating. As menuki transitioned into purely decorative elements, these stems lost their practical function.

backside of inyo kon menuki
Featuring the backside of in’yō-kon menuki – Credits: Touken Matsumoto

The in’yō-kon menuki were made throughout the Edo period, featuring stems that followed the earlier designs but no longer served any practical purpose. These menuki can be seen on Edo-period tanto daggers, as well as on the later guntō military swords used by the Japanese army and navy after the dissolution of the samurai class.

4. Naga-menuki

kenukigata tachi with a hilt opening
Featuring a kenukigata-tachi with a hilt opening, which later inspired the design of a naga-menuki – Credits: Samurai-jpn

The naga-menuki (長目貫) features the form of a kenukigata-tachi openwork design and is also known as ō-menuki (大目貫), meaning large menuki. The kenukigata-tachi is recognized for its unique hilt opening resembling tweezers (kenuki). This type of sword emerged during the Heian period and was occasionally used in ceremonies during the early Muromachi period.

naga menuki on the sword hilt
Featuring a naga-menuki on the sword hilt without an opening – Credits: Art Gallery NSW

Later on, these swords evolved into models with normal hilts without openings, but featured a large menuki resembling the kenukigata-tachi openwork design. These swords are referred to as kenukigata-menuki no tachi and were occasionally worn as ceremonial swords during the Edo period.

5. Sora-menuki

purely ornamental lobster menuki
Featuring a purely ornamental lobster menuki on a katana hilt covered with ray skin and decorative cord wrapping – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The term sora-menuki (そら目貫 or 空目貫) translates as empty or imitation menuki. It refers to the purely ornamental menuki, differentiating it from the makoto-menuki that functioned as a mekugi peg. It is also known as kazari-menuki (飾目貫) and does not have a stem or root.

These sora-menuki emerged during the Nanbokucho period onwards, often mounted on tachi and uchigatana with wrapped hilts designed for battlefield use. In the Edo period, they were also used on unwrapped, same-covered tanto hilts. In fact, the majority of existing koshirae feature this type of menuki.

6. Dashi-menuki

dashi menuki on the unwrapped hilt of a Japanese sword
Featuring the dashi-menuki on the unwrapped hilt of a Japanese sword – Credits: Markus Sesko

The term dashi-menuki (出目貫) means exposed menuki. It is also referred to as hari-menuki (glued menuki) or uki-menuki (floating menuki). These menuki can be found on unwrapped, same-covered hilts of tanto daggers and koshigatana, which is an all-purpose weapon and a companion blade to the tachi.

dashi menuki on a traditionally wrapped wakizashi hilt
Featuring a dashi-menuki on a traditionally wrapped wakizashi hilt, placed above the braided hilt wrapping and fixed with a cord – Credits: e-Museum

Some were attached onto the same (ray skin) of unwrapped hilts, usually using a sticky lacquer known as seshime-urushi. Others were positioned above the braided hilt wrapping and secured with a cord looped around on each side. Some were positioned at the center on the evenly wrapped area of a katate-maki.

7. Gyaku-menuki

modern reproduction of Yagyu koshirae
Featuring a modern reproduction of Yagyū koshirae with a gyaku-menuki placed in the reversed position compared to the typical menuki placement – Credits: Bugeido

The Japanese term gyaku (逆) literally means reversed or inverted. Thus, the gyaku-menuki (逆目貫) refers to a menuki attached traditionally, but in reverse. In this arrangement, the menuki on the front side (omote) of the sword faces towards the kashira (pommel cap), unlike the usual case where it faces towards the fuchi (ferrule or hilt collar).

A gyaku-menuki was first and often seen on Yagyū-koshirae, popularized by the Yagyū school. Its placement on the hilt is derived from the idea that the protruding menuki should be positioned in the palm of the swordsman when gripping the sword hilt. Therefore, typical Yagyū-koshirae feature the menuki in reversed positions compared to the typical placement and have a ribbed scabbard.

A Brief History of Menuki

menuki on a tachi worn by samurai
Featuring a menuki on a tachi worn by samurai at official court gatherings – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The menuki developed from the mekugi peg, which secures the tang in the hilt through the mekugi-ana opening. Over time, the menuki evolved into purely decorative elements, while providing a better grip at the hilt. In the case of the tachi, menuki were placed about one hand’s width from the fuchi (ferrule or hilt collar) on the front side and the kashira (pommel cap) on the back side.

pair of fine menuki dating from early–mid 17th century
A pair of fine menuki dating from early–mid-17th century – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

In the Momoyama period, it became a tradition for the emperor, shogun, and daimyo to reward valued retainers with swords. This led to the production of elaborate and expensive menuki and other sword mountings, crafted from fine materials using sophisticated metalworking techniques.

Mitokoromono set of sword fittings by Goto Sojo late 15th early 16th Centuries cropped
A set of sword fittings featuring a design of crabs – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

By the Edo period, it became mandatory for a samurai to wear a daisho fitted with mitokoromono—a set of menuki, kozuka, and kogai in matching material, manufacturing technique, and design. These were often made by the Goto family, who were renowned for making fine sword fittings for the shogun and the samurai.

menuki ornaments made by the Goto artists
Featuring menuki ornaments made by the Goto artists in a presentation box – Credits: Metropolitan Museum

It was also during the Edo period that sword fittings, including the menuki, became collectible items. Chests housing these hilt ornaments were often exchanged as gifts among wealthy samurai on special occasions, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or a promotion in rank.

Sources Cited
  1. Kapp, L., Kapp, H., & Yoshihara, Y. (2012). The Craft of the Japanese Sword. Kodansha USA.
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  3. Ogawa, M. (Ed.). (2009). Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  4. 後藤家歴代揃目貫献上箱 Presentation Box for Sword-Grip Ornaments (Menuki) | Japanese. (n.d.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/857613
  5. Satō, K. (1983). 刀剣 (J. Earle, Trans.). Kodansha International.
  6. Sesko, M. (2011). Handbook of Sword Fittings Related Terms. Books on Demand.
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