Doing SCA rapier in Japanese style

One day not all that long ago, a high born Japanese lady was accosted by one of the Nambanjin from the southern seas. He was charming for a barbarian and somehow convinced her to try her hand at learning to use one of the odd Namban swords they favor. Itís even true.

In short, I have a Japanese persona and am learning to use a rapier. Itís absolutely, positively, COMPLETELY anachronistic, but I wear Japanese dress and comport myself accordingly at events and tourneys. I assume if youíre reading this, you are interested in doing the same.
Left, the author in the earlier iteration of her rapier kit, about to die in a warm up melee at Southern Shores Newcomers' Tourney, April 13 2013. Right, with (now) Don Brogan Hammer (in the green), Allen, Thomas McEwan (in tan), Caterin Aderyn. I won that tourney too! Photos courtesy of Baron Joel the Brewer (Joel Schoenbrunn).

Society Rapier Standards can be found at  Please reference the section on protective gear if you are not familiar with it. If your Kingdom has different rules, you should likewise make yourself familiar with them and incorporate any modifications from Society standard as needed.

THE SHITAGI:   I spent my first fencing event in a modern nylon fencing jacket under one of my existing linen kosode and a pair of linen hakama. While I liked having something that could be worn on its own for practice or under event clothing I already had, nylon does not breathe.  

I decided to make something modeled on a samuraiís gusoku shita or shitagi, a sort of shirt worn under armor and the precursor of the traditional martial arts gi. While the illustration from the Tanki Yoriaku (left) is more than a century out of period, the garment didn't change all that much. More importantly, with slight modifications, it would work perfectly for what I had in mind.
Left: From the Tanki Yoriaku, c. 1735. The entire samurai arming manual can be downloaded at )

Society armor standards for rapier require puncture resistant material covering the entire torso (chest, back, abdomen, groin and sides up to and including the armpits). Female fighters must have puncture resistant groin protection.  A modern fencing jacket with a between-the-legs strap satisfies that, as would putting the hem of my shitagi at mid thigh. (Men need to add rigid protection, such as an athletic cup.)

I used unbleached natural 7 ounce/yard linen (4C22) from  as two layers of it passed the required punch test. Undyed and unbleached meant a smaller likelihood of chemicals compromising the durability of the fibers.  Whatever you decide to go with, it must pass a punch test either by itself or in combination with something you plan to wear over or under it. If youíre unsure whether your fabric choice(s) will pass, see if you can buy a small swatch, have a marshal punch test it and then go back and make your fabric purchase or choose something better suited. Remember, if the fabric and the layer(s) you plan to wear over/under are enough to stop the tester, it's considered safe. I know someone who fences in a heavy cotton tunic with a particular long sleeved tee shirt under it because in combination the tunic and tee shirt stopped the tester from punching through.

Linen breathes beautifully, but how do you determine this when you see something you like at the fabric store? Pick up the loose bit off the corner of the bolt, hold it to your mouth, blow through it and see if you feel anything coming out behind it. If you can feel your breath, it will likely breathe well. If not, it will probably be a heat trap.

Measurements you need to consider:
How long do you need it to be? Mine falls to about mid thigh, which satisfies the requirement for puncture resistant coverage of the groin. The shitagi in the Tanki Yoriaku print falls to just below the knee. Choose a length that suits your purpose and get a friend to help measure you from the nape of your neck to where you want the bottom hem. Don't forget to add 1/2 inch for the hem.

My Kosode Made Simple page shows how to take measurements for your collar strip, and your ďwingspanĒ to determine the width of your body panels. The pattern sketch assumes a panel width of 16 inches, which is what I normally use for constructing my kosode.  If youíve made your own before and know your measurements, use those.  We will be referring back to Kosode Made Simple for portions of the construction as this is a similar garment. (Bookmark the page now if you need to so you can find it easily.)

A samurai's shitagi did not need full length sleeve, but rapier armor does. Measure from the point of the shoulder to wrist for sleeve length.* My sketch allows for a wrist opening of 7 Ĺ inches if you assume 1/2 inch seam allowances. If you have large hands, measure the circumference of your closed fist and add 1 inch for your seam allowances. The sketch also shows a tapered sleeve, but thereís no reason you couldnít go with a rectangular one. I find the taper fits a bit better beneath my gloves. *Because of the width of the body panels determined above, the shoulder seam will fall along the upper arm rather than the point of the shoulder. Check the length after you've attached the sleeves and shorten as needed.

The body is constructed of four body panels: two sets of two to form double layers sewn back to back. As the garment overlaps in front, this means there are four layers of linen covering parts of the front of the body. This might sound like overkill, particularly if one is concerned about heat reduction, but itís a lot simpler than having to try to sew patches to the spots that donít overlap and need that second layer. You donít have to worry about anything ripping out as you move either, as the layers are all properly anchored at the normal seam lines. 

If you look at the sketch, youíll notice that the body panels are not perfect rectangles. Japanese garments cut from bolts of fabric that are only 14-16" wide need to have half-width pieces sewn into the front so it overlaps. However, if you're working from a wider bolt of fabric and include the overlap when you cut the body pieces, you have fewer seams to sew and fewer potential weak spots in your shitagi. (Would such seams be vulnerable to a broken blade? I donít know, but figured it couldnít hurt.)

I cut out my fabric in such a way that I put the selvage along the center back seams. I sewed back seam, side seams from bottom to 10Ē from the top fold and did the same for the second pair of body panels. I then turned them seam sides out, lined up the seams with each other at the bottom and sewed the bottom edges together. I turned all this outside-in again so the inner and outer layers were nested with the seams between the two. 


Each sleeve is a single layer, with a square patch sewn over the inner seam starting at the armpit, to comply with the puncture resistance requirement for the brachial artery ďkill zoneĒ under the arm. Fit the top of the sleeve into the shoulder, sew it in, sew the bottom sleeve seam and finish your seams, then pin the patch in place and stitch it on top of the seams. The photo above shows the shitagi turned inside out with the armpit patch. Yes, that's all hand sewn. I just prefer working by hand, but you do not have to! (I use running stitch on my seams, fold the raw ends in on themselves and sew them together. Itís held beautifully after a year of wear. However you chose to go, finishing your raw edges will lengthen the life of your garment, particularly if you use linen, which loves to fray along cut edges.)

The collar piece should be folded in half widthwise, centered and pinned at the top of center back seam, then pin from there and sew down around the neck on each side to the bottom front. Turn it under and sew to finish the bottom edge.  sewn around the neck, down each side to the bottom front and turned under to finish off the edge. If the finished width of your collar is more than 3Ē, itís likely to create bulk under your gorget. 2 ĹĒ finished width is workable and should not get in your way.

Closures: I sewed interior ties at the waist Ė one from the left side seam, the other where the right body panel meets the collar seam. I also used a small ojime bead I had and some satin cord to create a toggle button at the neck opening (my gorget covers it). I use a strip of bias tape as a himo (sash) if Iím wearing it under garb, or with one of my obi if Iím wearing it by itself. I have not had problems with things springing open, even with the occasional blade catch on the overlap. It would not be difficult to hide a strip of velcro under the right side of the collar where it overlaps the body, should you choose to do so.

Shitagi worn alone at practice. Photo courtesy of D.J. Goodeats

My obi are about 3 ĹĒ wide and long enough to go around my waist twice before being tied in a simple square knot or a half bow (see photo at head of article). It holds the shitagi closed without things slipping, and I can tuck a dagger or fan in it.  (See the Kosode Made Simple page for information on making your own obi.)

Because it complies with the necessary protection standards, I can wear the shitagi under any of my existing Japanese garb. Hanging kosode sleeves and underarm vents are not a safety issue.  I authorized in a silk kosode Iíd hand dyed and decorated. Iíve fought in hakama and kosode, hakama and kariginu. I can feel incoming blows calibration-wise. I havenít snagged any blades on garment openings.  As long as Iíve got something long enough on top to provide coverage under the hakamaís ďdoorknob catchers,Ē Iím good to go. If anything, my clothing is far more at risk from rolling around on the ground from a theatrical death. 


MASK AND HOOD: While it looks cool, kendo armor is a post-period development, so I decided not to try to imitate that look. I did want something a bit neater and more tailored looking than the usual hood-and-mask arrangement, so I tailored the drape to my mask and sewed triangular gussets along the sides to give it a little more shape. As I look at photos of me from behind, Iím not convinced this design is here to stay.

The outer layer is white handkerchief linen with a double layer of the 7 oz. unbleached linen under it. The three fan mon was done with a fabric paint pen and the calligraphy ("Honor, harmony, knowledge,") with a calligraphy brush pen.

UPDATE: I did eventually change out the original hood drape for something I knocked together for Estrella War in kingdom colors, including a stylized representation of the West Kingdom populace badge on the back. I used a curved carpet needle to sew it directly to the mesh at the top and sides of the mask using heavy duty thread, then tacked it to the bib. You can see the stitching in the photo below.

The mask is a three-weapon mask with a lining that can be removed for cleaning. Said lining is durable, has formed to the shape of my face and is composed of  synthetic materials that do not breathe. I keep a packet of antibacterial wipes in my gear bag and wipe it down before putting it away.

Knowing what a dirt magnet white is, I covered the bib with a piece of green and brown shibori fabric which I'm fairly sure is a print and not real shibori.

After a great deal of dithering, I decided to continue with my "Here, hold my teacup" approach with naysayers and paint my mask. It's based on a Noh mask for a female character and was done in craft acrylics. (I was fully prepared to paint it out if I wasn't pleased and touch ups are always an option if the paint doesn't hold up well.)



GORGET: Any rapier legal gorget will do. My first one, shown in one of the photos at the head of this page, was whacked out at a gorget-making party: leather over rigid plastic heated in the oven and formed to the shape of my towel protected neck) with a bit of mouse pad lining the inside of the neck. 

Last year I traded my garb-making skills for this beautiful guruwa by Yagyu Tametomo (Andy Wise) of Atenveldt.  I usually wear it over the gi (and under whatever else), and the front plate neatly overlaps the plastic chest protection I favor.
Photo by Joel Schonbrunn.

GLOVES: I started out in a pair of leather and suede rose gardening gloves from my local hardware store. My gi sleeves are tapered to fit beneath them. I'm currently in a pair of gloves from Darkwood Armory. For cut-and-thrust fighting with katana, I use a pair of kendo kote. The kote are not unlike boxing gloves and lace at the wrists, so I wear a pair of cotton kote liners with velcro at the wrists over my gi sleeves, then the kote go over that so there are no gaps.  (Left, kitted out for cut-and-thrust in kendo kote with roller skating knee and elbow pads well hidden under my kosode. Note the cherry blossom print tabi boots too. Photo by Stacey Rothrock Steinfeld)

  Whether you feel you need additional protection is up to you. I'd been fighting three weeks when I ran myself hard onto my opponent's sword. I thought about how much worse it would have been had it hit me in the sternum and decided I wanted a chest protector. We try not to hit hard in this game, but hard shots happen. In any case, I'm comfortable enough with mine that I volunteer - or get volunteered - to work with newer fighters whose calibration skills are still developing.

Iím in a model that looks like a rigid plastic sports bra. It's a sweat factory: I wear it over a tee or tank top, keep a clean, dry shirt to change into after fighting, and hit it with a wet wipe after use. There are other types of protection available, including plates that can be inserted inside a special sports bra, or could presumably be sewn into oneís gi.

FOOTWEAR: At events I fight in jika tabi with rubber soles. They're not period, however, they add more to my impression than any other pair of boots or shoes would, they're safe, the soles offer good traction on a variety of surfaces while still being thin enough I can feel what's underfoot. Being about as supportive as a pair of Converse Chucks, they are much improved by the inclusion of good cushioned insoles - or you can hunt down a pair of the Marugo "jog" tabi built on an athletic sole. Jika tabi (and cotton socks to wear inside them) can be found through martial arts suppliers or on the internet, usually in black, navy or white. Cool East Market in Canada sells them in custom dyed colors, or you can do as I did and cover your tabi with fabric that mimics the look of period tabi.




I currently use a lovely clamshell rapier with a 40" blade from Castille Armory for conventional rapier fights. After the gleeful "peer pressure" of friends about when I was going to get one, I fell into some good shopping karma at Great Western War and acquired a rapier-legal katana with a Castille blade and furniture by James the Just. I also have one of the last wakizashi from James the Just with an Alchem dagger blade. The negative is that the tsuba doesn't provide a lot of hand protection, so it's easier for my opponents to take that hand if I'm not careful. Here I am actually remembering to parry with it!
Photo courtesy of Aaron Sloane.

Then a friend presented me with a steel ribbed kung fu fan, with the idea I might be able to fight with it.  I duly showed it to the two more senior marshals I usually practice with, they made some comments and agreed I could experiment with it.

In its original condition, the fan only had fabric covering the ribs on one side. Said fabric appeared to be some durable but light synthetic and was decorated by a garishly printed, decidedly Chinese looking dragon. It also made an astonishing amount of noise when snapped open or shut. Elephants donít fart this loudly.

VERSION 1: As one of our concerns was the risk of snagging blades, I purchased what was sold to me as ďrip stopĒ nylon at JoAnn Fabric: a half yard each of black and white.  I also purchased a heavy duty all-purpose glue. I decided to go with the simple decoration of a classic Japanese tessen, with a red sun on the white side and a gold moon on the black.

After tracing the shape of the fan fabric onto my yardage, and cutting it out, I used acrylic fabric paints to create the sun and moon orbs. Once dry, I applied the glue to the exposed ribs on the back side of the fan, laid the white nylon on top and weighted it in place with several books. Several hours later, I turned it over, carefully peeled the old fabric with the dragon off Ė and discovered it had been attached with what appeared to be some sort of double sided tape. (I wish Iíd thought of that Ė the glue, for all the chemical reek, was not the best adhesive for the job as I would soon discover.) I applied glue to both the ribs and the white nylon, laid the black nylon on top, and weighted as before.

I didnít like how unevenly the fabric was adhering to the ribs. At all. I decided to stitch the sides together, putting lines of running stitch along the edges of each rib and closing up the top and bottom arcs. I edged the top arc and sides with some electrical tape, to prevent fraying and allay any concerns about ribs poking through the nylon at the business end.

The fan still opened and folded adequately even with the additional layer, however the ďelephant fartĒ effect was significantly dampened. While my compatriots lamented this limitation, I hope to be a lot more subtle in sneaking it open after my opponent thinks Iím just going to use it as a baton.

As a baton it works, having a significant amount of mass, despite being fairly compact when folded. I can parry even heavier blades with it while folded. I need a lot of practice with it though, because a smart opponent will try to take my hand and Iím not very fast with it yet.   I also need to practice sliding it open and using it that way. (If you think that sounds easy, remember, I have to do this with my left hand while wearing a glove. I still am prone to thumb cramps at this stage!)

As an open fan, itís got the benefit of being a visual distraction and something I can also sweep a blade with. Again, I still need a lot of practice, but if I can pull it off, itíll probably look great to spectators.

The blade snagging we were concerned about just has not happened. Thereís no room to get a tip through the openings between the ribs and such a strike is far more likely to hit me in the hand first. Iíd probably let go and call hold if I felt something catch on it, anyway.

Cons: The nylon on the black side (front) of the fan did not wear well. The ribs are already cutting their way through the fabric in a couple of places.

VERSION 2: After issues developed with the nylon wearing through around the fan's ribs, I ordered 1.5 ounce nylon from a vendor that sells kite building supplies and set about a rebuild. Instead of glue, I used a double sided product called Hercules Tape on the fan's ribs to stick the nylon to.  













Above left: Wear and tear on the original fan. Right: tracing the fan shape on nylon.













Above left: new nylon cut and ready to apply. Right: removal of the old nylon.













Above: use of double sided craft tape to attach nylon to fan ribs. Better adhesion and less mess than the old glue.

Sun and Moon sides, augmented with a Laurel wreath and my name. All that remained was to apply electrical tape to the edges. I am pleased to report that the flatulent elephant effect has been restored as well.
The fan in action. Photo courtesy of Annina Hausman.


Copyright 2013, 2015, 2017 Lisa A. Joseph


Return Home