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Swords, Japanese

Swords, Japanese

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Swords, Japanese

Without doubt the most famous of edged weapons few weapons have the mystic and reputation of Japanese swords. The ability of the weapon to cut through iron armour to kill a foe has been well documented and few weapons have had such a high cultural status for such a long period of history. Although in most countries with a military tradition the sword has been elevated to a symbol of justice and social status nowhere is this higher than in Japan. The sword has been described as the soul of the Samurai, with the samurais spiritual development being via Kendo or the way of the sword. not only a weapon the Japanese sword is regarded as a form of art if not the highest form of art and many sword masters are also skilled artists as skill in one discipline is supposed to promote understanding of the other.

To follow the history of the Japanese sword takes 1500 years and is in many ways the story of the perfection of steel. Key to the creation of the sword are the separate tasks of Swordsmith and polisher each a very different craftsman. The smith prepares the steel by repeatedly heating and quenching and re-fusing the pieces to get the required purity and carbon content. A prepared billet is next heated in a charcoal furnace beaten out and folded then welded back on itself until it is composed of a large number of wielded layers. The Shingane or core steel has low carbon content and is folded only a few times for strength, while the skin steel or hadagane may be folded as many as fifteen times giving it a higher carbon content and dispersing the carbon throughout the layers. This wielded piece is then beaten into its blade shape with the hadagane folded around the shingane. the final heat treatment involves covering the blade with a mixture of ingredients including various clays and ashes with a thin layer along the blade edge and a thicker layer across the rest of the blade , it is then heated and quenched in water.

This process gives the sword a central tough steel core a hard surface to deflect blows and a sharp edge that will retain its sharpness even after use against armour. The full effect is clear after polishing when the sword will have a grain due to the layer effect. Different schools of sword making can be identified by the grain pattern. the extreme hardness of the edge can be identified by a line of bright crystalline steel reaching from the tang to the point, this is the hamon or badge of the blade since the swordsmith can be identified by it.

During the Kofun and Nara periods of Japanese history (300-794AD) Japanese swords were mainly imported from China and Korea and blades varied in size to the massive 31inch/80cm blades that have been found and many are still preserved in temple collections. These are known as Chokuto blades and had various cross sectional shapes and an even width along the blade.These were straight bladed weapons which slowly developed into the traditional curved blade.

The Heian period (794-1185AD) saw the development of classical Japanese culture and a break from Chinese culture. The military guards and armed gentlemen became the Samurai class and the Sohei or warrior monks became a major military and political force.It is in this period that the sword became seen as an object of art as well as an instrument of war. the top part of the blade gained a shallow curve this was the Tachi, and mounted samurai carried this weapon slung edge downwards from his belt. This meant that when it was drawn from horseback the scabbard could be turned across the body to avoid touching the horses head. The weapon could be used to cut or thrust and be used one or two handed for greater power.

The Kamakura period (1185-1392) saw slender refined blades at first but by the end of this warlike period the blades had become sturdier. Blade curve became deeper to increase cutting power. In 1232 the Hojo government published a detailed legal code about the duties of samurai and banded non samurai from carrying swords. In 1274 the first Mongol invasion under Kubilai Khan grandson of Genghis Khan the samurai faced an organised army little interested in heroic duels and with tough leather armour that their swords so good at cutting iron armour had little effect on. Luckily for the Japanese a Typhoon scattered the Mongol fleet and ended the invasion but this event shook Japanese military thought. Seven years later the Mongols returned by the Japanese had learned the value of longer weapons and long blade spears (yari) and glaive like naginata appeared, the demand for weapons greatly increased. during the battles with the Mongols many swords were broken and crudely re-made on the battlefield, swords became longer and curved throughout their length.

The Yoshino or Namboku Cho period (1333-1393) saw a period of civil war following the destruction of the Mongol invasions and swords of this period reached 40ins/100cms blade length making them suitable for foot soldiers fighting cavalry, they were often carried across the back and became known as seoi tachi or back swords, some had disposable scabbards made of paper or straw.

The Muromachi period and the Age of Wars (1392-1477) saw re-establishment of links with China and long periods of civil war. This period saw the rise of the conscripted spearman or Ashigaru and a change in Japanese warfare, many swords were mass produced and of poor quality. A 24in/60cm weapon wielded in one hand became popular the uchigatana or hitting sword. During this period the wearing of two swords became popular, the daisho. The Katana or long sword and the Wakizashi or companion sword. The pair were worn outdoors with the shorter Wakizashi being worn indoors and kept at the bedside at night. In 1543 the first matchlock guns arrived in Japan marking the beginning of the end of the swords dominance.

The Edo period (1603-1867) saw the end of the old sword traditions and the rise of new Shinto sword traditions. Rigid controls on feudal lords helped curb revolts, the merchants thrived and many samurai lived in poverty. During this period many unemployed samurai gave up their swords and became tutors of kendo or took other jobs, others became bandits or lived to duel and die in violent deaths. Laws started to restrict swords to a certain length and again commoners were forbidden to carry them first in 1623 and then samurai retainers were forbidden to carry long swords in 1640. In 1798 wearing a wakizashi over 21ins/55cm was forbidden. Poorer samurai meant few could afford good swords and many had poor quality weapons. By 1867 wearing swords in public was banned and swordsmiths became few and far between.

These swords do not survive as artifacts and their description may be of doubtful historicity.

Asian Edit

  • Kusanagi-no-tsurugi ("Grass-Cutting Sword", time period disputed), one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan. Allegedly kept at Atsuta Shrine but is not available for public display. Its existence and origins remain doubtful. [1]
  • Thuận Thiên ("Heaven's Will"), the sword of the Lê Lợi, Emperor of Đại Việt from 1428 to 1433.
  • Zulfiqar, a scissor-like double bladed sword belonging to Ali, Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate from 656 to 661.

European Edit

  • Sword of Attila or the Sword of Mars, the sword of Attila the Hun, ruler of the Huns from 434 to 453. [2]
  • Colada ("Cast [Steel]"), one of two swords owned by El Cid, the other being Tizona, which is preserved.
  • Żuraw or Grus ("Crane"), the sword of Boleslaus III, Duke of Poland from 1107 to 1138. Possibly the same sword as Szczerbiec, which is preserved. [3]
  • Leggbítr or Leggbít ("Legbiter"), a gaddhjalt sword of the Magnus Barefoot, viking and King of Norway from 1093 to 1103. [4]
  • Durandal, purported to be the sword of French military leader Roland. An alleged fragment of Durendal is located in Rocamadour. [5]

These swords are preserved artifacts, or were previously preserved artifacts that are now lost. Their attribution to historical characters may be doubtful.

History of the Samurai Sword

The Samurai sword dates back to over 1300 years ago. However, the most significant historical periods of the Samurai sword are divided into 4 phases: Koto (pre-1596), Shinto (1597-1876), Gendai (1877-end of World War II) and the modern period known as Shinsaku.

The first katana blade was a straight doubled-edged iron sword which was adapted from the Chinese. However, at the end of the 10th century, the Japanese cut cultural ties with the Chinese and they stabilized to form their own class divisions in the society. As a result, the military warriors who were guarding the society became the first Samurais. Although there was little evidence to show the revolution of the Samurai sword, Japanese myths consider Amakuni as the “father of the Samurai”. Amakuni was a sword-smith who greatly improved the design of the katana.

Gunbai: Ancient Japanese Warfare

If you have ever tried to approach the study of Japanese swords, you might have encountered the incredible amount of different theories and the huge (and occasionally hostile) nomenclature that pervade such field. In order to make things clear and at the same time pay omage to this long tradition, today I'm going to talk about the Wantō (湾刀), the first c urved Japanese swords.
This specific name is an umbrella term used to refer to every Japanese curved swords, although in this s artilce I'm going to present the very first types of said family, namely the warabitet ō ( 蕨手刀 ) which differs from the usual curved Japanese sword of the later periods and all the variations that sprung from this so iconic and yet forgotten Japanese swords.

As a premise I would love to point out that this is definitely not my area of expertise, and it tooks several month to get the puzzle more or less correct this topic is massive and it has not been covered as much as it should by modern publications, since most of the attention is given towards later period blades.
So this article is rather an introduction on the topic, as I believe there are much more reliable and authoritative sources than me.

However, I would love to say that this article was possible thanks to the majestic work of Carlo Giuseppe Tacchini, "On the Origins of NihonTo", a paper that is the main reference for the entire article.

Before drescribing those swords it is important to briefly talk about the political situation of Japan during the Nara and the early Heain period, so in between the 8th and 10th century.
In fact, in the 700s Japan wasn't unified under a central government and the north eastern regions were independent from the Yamato court which controlled the south west of the archipelago.
The Kant ō region and the entire T ōhoku region weren't under direct influence of the court and had their own unique culture. While the Kant ō people were still fairly similar to the ones who inhabitated the southern part of Japan and were gradually assimilated within the Yamato sphere of influence, the north was populated by the Emishi ( 蝦夷) , a people whom are still mysterious and highly debated among modern day historian.

Emishi people from a 14th century depiction

In both regions there was a strong and vivid horse culture probably brought by Korean immigrants during the 3rd and 4th century, and the Kan t ō region was a source of skilled horse archers for the Yamato army.
It was within these regions and especially in the north that new swords models, native from Japan and independent from direct influences of the mainland were developed around the 5th and 7th century.

During the 8th and 9th century, the Yamato tried to assimilate both regions through political alliances, integration of these people in the Japanese society under the control of the Imperial court and ultimately through war. Those pieces of history, despite being extremely interesting, would not be covered here but it is important to highlight that it was through this contact that these types of swords spread towards the south east of the region.

Early History, V -VII century

It has been established by historians that the people in the north of Japan at the time had developed a slightly different type of iron smelting technology compared to those influenced by the mainland in the south east, and this is somewhat explained by different types of furnaces as well as different types of sword's designs.
The creation of this type of weapon, called warabitet ō is dated 5th century, during the Kofun period however, it gain popularity during the 6th and 7th century especially in the north eastern regions. Despite the fact that the people of the north had a consolidated and established net of trade with the mainland, there are no equivalent swords found there so it is assumed that it was a designed native to Japan.

The name of it is due to the fact that the hilt design which resembled a young bracken, with its iconic pommel.
These swords were quite short, in between 40 and 50 cm blade length on average and no swords exceeded 60 cm with the longest example at 58 cm.
On the other hand, they usually sport a strong curvature more then one hundred specimens shows curvature and about 22 show a sori more than 0,5 cm deep, ten of them even a curvature between one and two centimeters, although straigh examples along the blade existed as well.
This curvature in fact might look odd to the untrained eye, because it is emphasized along the hilt, and this tsuka-sori concerns especially early examples.

The second type is again in hira-zukuri and has short nagasa (blade length), but quite important, there is no sori on the blade, or actually we have a inverse uchizori like the ones found on chokuto of the same period.
The sugata looks like an elongated triangle and because of that it is also called "willow shape". The tsuba is mounted from the tip. These were discovered in the Kanto area, in the Chubu area down to the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture. Only three pieces were found in the Tohoku area. About 14,4 % of all warabite blades are of this style.

The third type, arguably the most known one despite the low findings (4,5%!), is the one with the shortest blade length.
As I said before, they are in kissaki-moroha-zukuri, and are either hira-zukuri or kiriha-zukuri Hira-zukuri blades are short, and both hilt and blade have no sori while Kiriha-zukuri blades are medium sized or long and narrow and show quite a strong sori along the hi.

Given the fact that the majority of these swords had a sori along the blade, despite some examples of being essentially straight, we still consider them curved swords.

Just like the contemporary chokut ō, the blade was usually assembled with a laminated construction of piled pieces of different carbon content.
Most of them have a rather soft core inserted between layers of higher carbon content steel, other were made by more or less homogenous single billets of medium to soft carbon content.
Soft iron cores were essentially wrought iron in terms of carbon while the higer content was usually in between 0.2 and 03%.

These blades were usually hardened and they had an average hardness of 300HV to 350HV, in line with continental swords and lower compared to later period swords.
On the other hand, other part of the blades had the usually lower hardness value found on mild steel, around 150-180 HV.
Hence the steel can be classified as austenitic however it is important to highlight that not every sword was hardened.

Speaking of hardening, the process was different from the ones used in later blade, and as a result yield different properties of the steel (a less harder edge, with less edge retention and more prone to rolling, but a more ductile blade overall) also due to the lower carbon content on the edge.

This process is described in old documents by the term “uzumi-yaki“ , which means to fire an object by inserting it completely in hot ash.
This might suggest that with this additional measure, eventually the blades were heated by sinking them entirely in hot ashes of the cooled charcoal fire. However it might also to be the description of a rehardening at lower temperatures, around 400° C.
There are few blades which shows the classic clay tempering traces although it's hard to consolidate this hypothesis since the blade are quite old.

So for the warabite t ō and early wan t ō swords that's all! I hope you enjoyed the reading and I highly suggest you to have a look at the aforementioned paper,aa, which is a much more detailed work on the subject. Please feel free to share and leave a comment below for any question.

Legendary Japanese Swords of Mr. Muramasa and Mr. Masamune

The pair of legendary Japanese swords called Juuchi-Yosamu and Yawarakai-Te is associated with a sword maker called Muramasa and his mentor, one Goro Nyudo Masamune. The story goes that Muramasa, one of the most famous Japanese sword makers of all, challenged his master to see which of them could make the finer blade. Both men put their finest skills to work to fabricate the best blade they could. Muramasa created Juuchi Yosamu (meaning 󈫺,000 Cold Nights”) and Masamune created Yawarakai-Te (meaning “Tender Hands”). Since craftsmanship and aesthetics were not the only ways to decide whose weapon was superior, the men agreed to test their projects by suspending each blade over a small creek. The edges would cut anything riding along the water’s surface.

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The Juuchi-Yosamu sword managed to indiscriminately slice everything that made contact with its edge: fish, stray leaves, and even the air blowing against it were all cut effortlessly. Impressed with the sharpness of his student’s weapon, Masamune changed places with Muramasa, lowered Yawarakai-Te, and waited.

Where Juuchi-Yosamu “attacked” everything it encountered, Yawarakai-Te would cut only leaves. Fish brushing past the blade never received so much as a nick, and the wind passing across the instrument merely hissed as a gentle breeze.

Muramasa’s reaction to the differences in their blades was one of amusement. He thought his master had lost the skill in creating a weapon. Masamune was also amused, albeit at his student’s lack of understanding. The older man dried and sheathed Yawarakai-Te while the younger pupil continued to heckle his sword’s perceived inadequacies.

At this point, an onlooking monk decided to intervene. He bowed to both of the men before giving his perspective on the sword test. The monk remarked that while Juuchi-Yosamu was quite a fine blade, it was an evil item that cut things with no regard for the target – butterflies and human heads were the same thing to its edge. The monk then announced Yawarakai-Te as the finer of the two blades, as it did not cut anything possessed of innocence or that did not deserve to be cut.

Other Variations on This Tale

Another version of this legend describes the same creek test, but draws attention to the leaves that collided with each of the legendary Japanese swords’ blades. Leaves sliced by Juuchi-Yosamu would cling around the blade while the leaves passing over Yawarakai-Te’s edge continued their travel with the current. A more fantastical variant of the legend describes the leaves sliced by Yawarakai-Te reforming, as if by magic, as they traveled downstream. Still another variant of the creek test legend describes Yawarakai-Te either repelling leaves from its edge or, in a particularly nice bit of poetic karma, restoring the leaves sliced by Juuchi-Yosamu.

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Muramasa vs. Masamune: The Waterfall Story

There is a separate, second legend surrounding the craftsmanship of Muramasa and Masamune, one that does not involve lowering swords into a creek. In this tale, the men are commissioned to produce swords for the shogun SHOGUN 将軍 "medieval military commander" learn more. (or the emperor, depending upon who is telling the story). After finishing their swords, the men test them out by thrusting them into a waterfall and the results are similar to the various forms of the creek test legend. The great Masamune’s sword easily slips in and out of the waterfall while Muramasa’s sword cuts every droplet of water it makes contact with. The outcome of this story is that Masamune is deemed capable of crafting holy swords and some versions of the legend have Muramasa put to death for creating nothing but evil, unholy weapons.

Real Swords from Masamune

Legendary Japanese swords sometimes reside only in myth and were never actually seen on Earth. But not always. While the truth of the matter is that these two smiths hail from vastly different periods in history, both Masamune and Muramasa were indeed real people and are acknowledged as being swordsmiths of the highest order. While Yawarakai-Te may be mythical, several other extant blades can be traced to Masamune.

Honjo Masamune

This particular blade was representative of the Tokugawa shogunate throughout most of the Edo era, passing from one shogun to the next, similar to a badge of office. The Honjo is regarded as such a pinnacle of the Japanese sword that is was declared a “National Treasure of Japan” in 1939.

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While the Masamune part of this sword’s name is obvious, Honjo arose from its relationship to Honjo Shigenaga, a 16th century general under Uesugi Kenshin’s command. At one point in service to Kenshin, Honjo ran afoul of a man named Umanosuke. At this time, Umanosuke was the owner of the Honjo Masamune sword, and tried to use it to add Honjo’s head to his collection of decapitations. Fortunately for Honjo, the blade merely split his helmet, allowing him just enough time to kill Umanosuke and claim the weapon as his own, albeit with several fresh chips from the skirmish. Honjo held onto the blade until his deployment to Fushimi Castle around 1592 to 1595.

Honjo would eventually be parted from his weapon, selling it to Toyotomi Hidetsugu, nephew and retainer to Hideyoshi, for a large sum of money. The blade then changed hands several times: to Hideyoshi, to Shimazu Yoshihizo, back to Hideyoshi, and then back into the hands of the Kii family branch of the Tokugawa clan until the end of World War II.

During the United States’s occupation of Japan, it banned ownership of edged Japanese weapons – be they culturally legendary Japanese swords or not – by anyone other than police officers and those possessing a specific governmental permit. Prince Tokugawa Iemasa sequestered the Honjo Masamune and 14 other blades in a Mejiro police station in December of 1945. A month later, Mejiro’s police handed the weapons off to a Sgt. Coldy Bimore, a name possibly decayed due to phonetic misunderstandings and allegedly connected to AFWESPAC’s Foreign Liquidations Commission.

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Investigation into Bimore reveals that no such man is recorded to exist, leaving the current location and owner of the weapon a matter of speculation.

Fudo Masamune

Another of the legendary Japanese swords is the blade called Fudo Masamune. This weapon is notable for bearing Masamune’s actual signature. Much like with Honjo Masamune, Fudo Masamune was purchased by Toyotomi Hidetsugu, in 1601. Hidetsugu passed the blade on to Tokugawa, who later passed it onto one Maeda Toshiie. Maeda Toshitsune would later return it to Tokugawa, likely as a retirement present. Since then, the blade became an heirloom of the Owari-Tokugawa family.

Fudo Masamune is a ten inch-long tanto which bears a carving of tree roots along its front outer edge. Its back end features chopstick-style grooves and depicts a dragon along the ura, the side of the blade facing the wielder. The weapon’s name comes from an engraving of Fudo Myo-o, a Buddhist war god.

Musashi Masamune

This weapon, much like the previous two, found its way into the hands of the Tokugawa Shogunate through its Kii branch and was passed onto the main line of the Tokugawa clan. After the Bakumatsu (the end of the Edo era), Tokugawa Iesato granted the Musashi Masamune to Yamaoka Tesshu for his work toward a peaceful negotation between Count Katsu Kaishu and Saigo Takamori.

Yamaoka was humbled upon being given such a masterpiece and soon passed it down to Iwakura Tomomi, an influential bureaucrat whose likeness used to be printed on ¥500 bills. After changing owners all the way into the 20th century, the Musashi Masamune eventually fell into the possession of the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords in 2000 thanks to Motoo Otsuyasu, a businessman. If only more legendary Japanese swords were in such safe hands.

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The blade is a 29-inch item that has many of the qualities associated with a Masamune piece. The sole discrepancy is in the proportion of blade length versus width historians will point out that this is evidence of Masamune’s transition into nanbokucho NANBOKUCHO 南北朝 "the period 1336-1392" learn more. style blades from his Kamakura origins. Despite apparently being named after Musashi Province, the site of Edo and then Tokyo, the weapon’s name in fact comes from its alleged connection to Miyamoto Musashi, the iconic swordsman of Japan. Much like the Honjo, this Masamune is also regarded as a Japanese national treasure.

Hocho Masamune

Unlike the other legendary Japanese swords on this list, there are three Hocho Masamune. While each of these tantos is confirmed to be made by Masamune, their overall appearance, with their wide bodies, more closely resembles a trio of cooking knives. One of these blades possesses two short grooves along the length of its blade and had restoration work done to it in 1919. These items were sold for an amount roughly equivalent to 14 cents. The Hocho Masamune are now displayed within the Tokugawa Art Museum in Aichi Prefecture.

Kotegiri Masamune

This weapon’s name means “kote cutter” a kote is an arm guard used by archers to prevent the string from stinging the inside of their forearm. The story goes that Asakura Ujikage used this weapon to cut the kote of another samurai SAMURAI 侍 "warrior serving a lord" learn more. during the Onin War’s Battle of Toji. Oda Nobunaga subsequently claimed the sword and had its length shortened. By 1615, the weapon was handed off to the Maeda Clan whom eventually gifted it to the sword-collecting Emperor Meiji in 1882.

President Harry Truman’s Masamune

Finally, American President Harry S. Truman was gifted a Masamune sword following World War II. It is currently displayed within his Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. The relationship between Japan and Truman is, for obvious reasons, fraught with complexity. But it’s interesting that the man who unleashed two atomic bombs would have owned something destined to become of the legendary Japanese swords of today.

Swords, Japanese - History

A General Guide For The Non-Collector

NOTE: The following suggestions for determining whether a Japanese sword is old or new (WW II era or later) are only general guides. No single indicator alone will determine whether a sword blade is an antique or of recent vintage. The blade must be examined in its entirety and not judged solely on a single criteria. Do not undertake to dis-assemble a sword unless you know what you are doing. You may severely injure yourself and/or damage the sword. For definitions of terms, check the visual glossary page.

The first question to be answered - is it a real sword or a modern replica or an iaito (iai practice sword)? Many modern replicas and iaito have aluminum blades. When in doubt, check the blade with a magnet. Steel is magnetic - aluminum is not. If the blade is aluminum, the sword is not a "real" sword and certainly not an antique. However, just because the blade is steel does not mean it is a genuine Japanese sword as many modern replicas are made with steel blades. There are also numerous reproduction and fake Japanese swords on the market. Also many Chinese military swords are confused with Japanese swords. Be sure to read Reproductions and Fakes.

"Ninja swords" are a Hollywood fiction. There is no historical documentation that ninja used swords which were of a special design or differed from those used by other Japanese of the period. Any so called "ninja sword" is pure fantasy.

Is there visible grain (hada) in the steel of the blade? Most handmade Japanese swords will have a visible grain in the steel of the blade. This is due to the method of forging the blade using multiple folds,etc. Grain (hada) is sometimes difficult for beginners to recognize. There are old sword blades which have no visible grain (muji hada) however, the presence of grain does most certainly mean the blade is handmade. Grain does not determine age. Many of the better WW II era swords will show prominent grain (hada).

Does the blade show a true temper line (hamon)? Replica swords and many WW II era machine made swords have an etched temper line, not a true temper line (hamon) made by differential tempering of the blade. Examine the hamon with a magnifying glass. A real hamon will show tiny dots/specks (nioi and/or nie) along and between the border of the hamon and the rest of the blade. An etched temper line will be seen as a smooth cloud lacking any internal features.

If there are serial numbers stamped in the blade, it is a machine made blade - most likely a WW II NCO sword. These are all machine made and are not classified as "Nihonto". Check the military sword page for examples of WW II era swords.

Is the blade sharpened all the way to the base where it joins the hilt? Most WW II era blades are not sharpened all the down to the habaki (collar). Some older (Shinshinto) swords may likewise not be sharpened down to the habaki however, most WW II swords were not. If the blade is not sharp all the way to the habaki does not assure it is a WW II era blade, but is a good first indicator.

If the peg (mekugi) or screw holding the handle (tsuka) onto the blade can be removed and the handle safely removed (use care not to damage the handle or blade - the complete handle should slide off the end of the tang), examination of the tang (nakago) can tell much about the age of the blade. (NOTE: Some swords may have two mekugi - one near the guard and the other near the end of the hilt. Always check. Never use force to remove the handle.) Newer swords will have a grey, metallic tang perhaps with a little red rust. (Do not remove the rust). Older swords will have more rusted tangs, ranging from brown to smooth deep black rust for the oldest swords. On newer swords the file marks on the tang will be sharp and crisp. As the tang rusts and ages, these become progressively smoother and less distinct.

NEVER CLEAN THE TANG OF A JAPANESE SWORD OR TAMPER WITH IT IN ANY WAY. - it will reduce its value by at least 50 percent!! The type and color of the rust is used to help date and to authenticate the blade.

Is the tang (nakago) signed? Many people tend to believe that if a sword is signed, that it must be hand made. That is not true. During the WW II era, many machine made blades were signed simply as a way of giving more prestige to the sword even though it was machine made. The reverse is also not true - if a sword is not signed does not mean it is machine made. Many, many antique blades were left unsigned or have had their signatures (mei) lost over time. Whether a blade is signed or not has little to do with determining if it is handmade or the age of the blade.

If there is a tang stamp (see the military sword page for examples) on the nakago, up close to the blade collar (habaki), it is a WW II era sword - these are arsenal stamps. Arsenal stamps do not appear on pre-1930's blades.

There are stories that the small papers between the handle wrap (ito) and the rayskin (same') are prayer papers to protect the soldier in battle. This is pure fiction. These are simply paper spacers to aid in positioning the wrapping properly on the handle. DO NOT UNWRAP THE HANDLE! The process of tsuka-maki (handle wrapping) is quite complicated. You cannot re-wrap the hilt with the silk cord that was removed. It will have shrunk and is likely frayed and worn. Consult someone who is trained in tsuka-maki if you need to have a handle re-built.

Sword canes (Shikomi-zue) mostly have very low grade blades. Most sword canes were produced in the late 19th Century - early 20th Century. The blades are very straight and thin and often have significant flaws. The scabbards and hilts are usually designed to resemble bamboo or old wood sticks. Rarely is a high quality blade found in sword cane mounts however, some of the mounts can be interesting with hidden, spring loaded, pop out guards.

How the sword is mounted has nothing to do with its age or authenticity. Modern replicas may look like antique swords be it a tachi, katana, wakizashi or tanto. WW II military type swords are also being reproduced today. WW II era swords have been put into shirasaya or remounted in samurai type mounts by collectors. Vice versa, antique blades are occassionally found in WW II military mounts.

There are numerous varieties of items made in the 20th Century as tourist momentos that are commonly thought to be some special type of Japanese sword. These take that shape of various dragon figures, Japanese peasants, fish etc. - all carved and painted wood figures. The blades in these items are all "soft steel" and have etched temperlines (hamon). Many will have some type of engraving, usually floral, on the blade. These items are of no interest to Japanese sword collectors. Bone tanto and swords (see below) fall into this group.

Carved bone and carved ivory sword mountings almost always have untempered, soft steel blades. These were made as tourist items from the 1870's through the 1930's. These items are purchased for the quality of the carving only. The great majority of these swords are made of carved bone, not ivory. Ivory has a distinctive grain. If you cannot see this grain or do not know what to look for, assume it is carved bone, not ivory.

Swords with carved bone handles and scabbards are of no interest to Nihonto collectors other than perhaps as an example of how poorly made a blade can be. They are referred to as "hocho tetsu" (kitchen steel) - a most derogatory term in sword circles. Swords of this type were made in all sizes, from tanto to katana or tachi. Some of these bone swords will have very low grade metal mountings, commonly with the Tokugawa mon incised into or embossed on the mountings.

The above items are only a general guide. When ANY doubt exists as to the authenticity or age of a Japanese sword, seek advice from a reputable collector. There are numerous sword clubs in many cities. Contact one of them for assistance.

If you are lucky enough to be in the possession of an authentic Japanese sword,
whether it is of WW II vintage or an antique,
be sure to CARE FOR IT properly.

Swords, Japanese - History

The Japanese sword, katana, or (日本刀 nihontō) is one of a few different sorts of swords made traditionally from Japan. Japanese swords have been produced as early as since the Kofun time period, however in more general terms the “Japanese swords” refer commonly to the blades with curved cutting edges made after the Heian time period.

There are numerous types of Japanese swords that differ greatly in size, shape, field of use and technique for production. A group of the more generally known types of Japanese swords have the names of the katana, wakizashi, odachi, and tachi.

Verifiably throughout history, the katana (刀 or かたな) was one of the generally made Japanese swords (日本刀 nihontō) that were used by the early and traditional samurai of old and medieval Japan. The katana is characterized and described by its unmistakable appearance: a curved, single-edged blade with a round or squared hand-guard and long grasp to suit being gripped and wielded by two hands. These hand-guards, or tsuba, are often very decorated with symbols varying from immortal or godly figures, as well as the smith´s signature or mei.

Katana or Nihontō
So the word for sword in Japanese is “Katana”, and it is the term currently used to portray the group of swords known as nihontō that have a length of 2 shaku, around 60 cm (24 inches) long, or more. Katana can likewise be known as dai or daitō among Western sword aficionados in spite of the fact that daitō is a conventional name for any Japanese long sword, actually meaning “big sword”. As Japanese does not have separate plural and singular forms, both katanas and katana are viewed as acceptable in English.

Pronounced [katana], the kun’yomi (Japanese reading) of the kanji symbol 刀, initially meaning dao or blade/saber in Chinese, the word has been embraced as a loanword by the Portuguese language. In Portuguese the word (spelled catana) means “big blade” or machete.

Antique Japanese daishō, the customary combination of two Japanese swords which were the image of the samurai.

The katana is commonly characterized as the standard size, tolerably curved (instead of the even more curved tachi sword type) Japanese sword with a sharp edge length of more than 60 cm (23 1⁄2 inches). It is portrayed by its unmistakable appearance: a curved, slim, single-edged cutting blade with a round or squared hand-guard (tsuba) and long handle to accommodate two hands.

The Katana vs. Tachi
With a couple of exemptions, the katana and tachi can be recognized from one another, whenever marked with a signature, by the area of the mark (mei) on the tang (nakago). In general, the mei, or signature, ought to be cut into the side of the nakago which would face outward when the sword was carried by a swordsman.

Since a tachi was worn with the sharp edge facing down, and the katana was worn with the sharp edge facing up, the mei, or signature, would be in opposite areas on the tang.

Western students of history have said that the Japanese katana were among the best cutting weapons in the history of world military, giving way to the awe and respect an authentic katana still inspires today.

Early instances of Japanese swords, or katana, were the straight swords named chokutō or jōkotō and others with surprising different unorthodox shapes, some of their styles and methods of production likely gotten from Chinese swords, and some of them are specifically imported from China through direct trade. In the picture below you can clearly see the evolution of the curved blade.

The different types of Japanese swords and their lengths and curves shown.

The Kotō Katana – The most exquisite and rare katanas
Swords produced in Japan somewhere in the range of years 987 and 1597 are called kotō (古刀) (lit., “old swords”) these are viewed as the apex of Japanese swordmaking. Early models of these had uneven curvatures with the deepest part of the curve at the hilt. As times changed the center of the curves would in general move up the blade. The Kotō katana can be extremely expensive and hard to come by, so if you are lucky enough to find one get it appraised.

The even earlier version of the Japanese sword was called “Warabite sword(蕨手刀)”, It had been produced by Emishi people in the Tōhoku region amidst the Heian time frame, samurai enhanced the Warabite to create Kenukigatatati (毛抜形太刀) – early Japanese sword-.

The Japanese sword known today with its profound, elegant curve has its birthplace in shinogi-zukuri (single-edged sharp edge with ridgeline) tachi which were designed and produced at some point around the middle of the Heian time period to support the need of the developing military class. Its shape mirrors the changing type of fighting and warfare in the region surrounding Japan.

Fighting from horseback was becoming the standard superior battling unit and the more traditional straight-swords chokutō were especially not optimal for battling from horseback. On the other hand the curved sword is an unquestionably more efficient and productive weapon when used by a warrior on horseback, where the curve of the sharp blade adds significantly to the descending power of a cutting activity.

How to carry a tachi and katana
The tachi is a sword which is commonly bigger than a katana, and is worn suspended with the edge of the blade facing down. This had been the tradition and standard way of dressing and carrying a Japanese sword for quite a long time- centuries, and would in the end be replaced by the katana style where the sharp edge is worn pushed through the belt with the sharp edge facing upwards.

The combination of a katana with a smaller sword such as the tanto, is known as the daishō. No one but samurai could wear the daishō: it spoke to their social power and individual honour.

The tachi was worn thrown over the left hip, and the signature, or mei, on the tang of the blade was engraved so that it would always show outwardly on the sword when worn. This trademark is vital in perceiving the improvement, functions, and distinctive styles of wearing swords from these older time-periods and into the future.

When the tachi sword was completed by wearing full protective armor, it would be joined by a shorter sword known as a koshigatana (“hip sword”) a kind of short sword with no hand-guard, or tsuba, and where the hilt and scabbard meet to give way to the style of mounting called an aikuchi (“meeting mouth”). Also knives called (tantō), were carried by many for close combat battling situations and also for personal protection or self defense.

Beginning history of the Japanese Katana

The generations of swords in Japan is partitioned into explicit time periods, each with special trademarks and styles:
• Jōkotō (ancient swords, until around 900 CE)
• Kotō (old swords from around 900– 1596)
• Shintō (new swords 1596– 1780)
• Shinshintō (more current swords 1781– 1876)
• Gendaitō (present day swords 1876– 1945)
• Shinsakutō (recently made swords 1953– present)

The Mongol attacks on Japan
The Mongol attacks on Japan in the thirteenth century impelled further advancements in development of the Japanese sword, or katana. Warriors were now regularly forced to forsake conventional mounted arrow based weaponry for close combat hand-to-hand battle, and numerous samurai found that their swords were too fragile and inclined to get damaged and chip when used against the thick leather protection and armor of the intruders.

Accordingly, the Japanese swordsmiths then began to adapt to this by developing more slender and thinner temper lines. Also, certain Japanese swordsmiths of this period started to make blades with thicker backs and greater points as a reaction to the Mongol threat. These proved to be more durable and effective in most types of combat and is still a fine standard today.

When the Sengoku Jidai common war broke out into full scale war in the fifteenth century, it heavily impacted the need for swords and other weaponry. This new tremendous requirement for swords in general together with the scale of the battling caused the exceptionally artistic procedures of developing katanas of the Kamakura time period (also known as the “Golden Age of Swordmaking”) to be partially replaced with more crude and expendable weapons.

The shipping to outside of Japan of nihontō achieved its peak amid the Muromachi time period when somewhere around 200,000 Japanese swords were delivered to the Ming Dynasty in China. This happened in an official exchange and with the goal of snatching up and collecting the entire production of Japanese weapons and make it harder for the pirates in the region to arm themselves with weapons of this type.

The samurai of the fifteenth and sixteenth hundreds, found an growing requirement for a sword to be used in closer combat and also indoors. In addition, the use of soldiers on foot equipped with spears spiraled into the production of the so called uchigatana, in both the one-handed and two-handed forms.

As the Sengoku common wars advanced, the uchigatana style developed into the modern Japanese sword, or katana, and almost completely replaced the more traditional and older tachi as the number one essential weapon of the samurai, particularly in situations when not wearing protective layers or armor. Numerous of the longer types of tachi were actually shortened in length in the 15th–17th hundreds in order to fulfill the need for the katana in demand.

The art of swordmaking slowly fell apart and degraded as time advanced and gunpowder and firearms were presented as a conclusive powerful factor on the front line of battle. Toward the end of the Muromachi time period, the Tokugawa shōguns issued guidelines controlling who could possess and equip swords, and successfully defined the standards of the nihontō sword.

Ongoing history and present day use
Under the United States occupation of Japan, among others, toward the end of World War II every single armed unit in those parts of Japan were disbanded and the production of nihontō with sharpened blades were restricted aside from under police or government authorities.

The boycott was once again lifted through an individual plea by a person by the name of Dr. Junji Honma, who showed General Douglas MacArthur all the different types of swords from the different times of Japanese history. MacArthur was able to very quickly recognize which of the blades held aesthetic value, and which swords could be considered merely more crude weapons. Because of this the boycott was changed back so that all the crude weapons, also called guntō, would be demolished while swords of aesthetic legitimacy could be claimed and traded.

All things considered, a very large number of nihontō were sold to Americans at super low prices and it is estimated that by around 1960 there were more katanas in the USA than in Japan. By far most of these one million or more swords were guntō, however there were still a stable number of older more expensive swords being traded.

Rediscovering nihontō techniques
After the Edo time frame, swordsmiths adapted to the changing needs of the people and this new generation of non-military by producing more and more consumer personal products instead of japanese swords.

The U.S. Occupation and its rules and regulations nearly put an end to the production of nihonto using the traditional techniques. A couple of swordsmiths continued with their work, and a man by the name of Honma proceeded to be the organizer of the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Sword (日本美術刀剣保存協会 Nippon Bijutsu Tōken Hozon Kyōkai).

This organization has one primary goal – to protect and preserve the old techniques and blades. On account of the endeavors of other similar people, the nihontō did not vanish, numerous swordsmiths continued with the work started by Masahide, and the old swordmaking methods were once again rediscovered.

Modern Japanese swords – The Katanas
Modern Japanese swords produced by customary techniques are normally known as shinsakutō (新作刀), signifying “newly made swords”. Then again, they can be named shinken (真剣) when they are intended for practical battle instead of training swords for iaitō.

There are some records of good quality tempered steel nihontō, but these are uncommon at best. Some replica nihontō unfortunately have been used in robberies, which has added to the restriction on purchasing, selling, importing, carrying and using a samurai swords in the United Kingdom. It should be noted that there are many replica katanas on the market today with both dull and sharp edges claiming to be handforged or made with traditional techniques and high quality materials which often is misinformation.

Instead of falling into the marketing traps you need to note the quality, materials, type of steel, as well as weather the sharpened edge has been folded or not and how many layers etc. The balance and weight of the katana is also important if you wish to use it for practice or combat.

In Japan today, all bladed hand-made Japanese swords, regardless of whether antique or more modern, are referred to as artistic objects (and not weapons), and must have a certificate in order to be lawfully possessed. A few organizations and companies outside Japan produce katana also, with varying quality.

After World War II
After the second world war from 1945 to 1953, the production of swords and any sword-related hand to hand fighting or martial arts using katana or the like were forbidden. Numerous swords were taken, confiscated and destroyed, thus swordsmiths were not able to sustain themselves by their craft.

Since 1953, Japanese swordsmiths have been permitted to work, however with extreme limitations. Firstly any swordsmith must be authorized and serve a five-year apprenticeship, and only these authorized swordsmiths are permitted to produce Japanese swords (nihonto). Each swordsmith is permitted to manufacture only two longswords every month, and all swords must be registered officially with the Japanese Government.

Outside Japan, a portion of the katanas being created by western swordsmiths utilize present day steel combinations, for example, L6 and A2. These advanced swords imitate the size and shape of the Japanese katana, and are used by martial artists for iaidō and also for cutting practice (tameshigiri). The utilization of present day steel and technology can make very strong cutting blades without the danger of harming or obstructing the craftsman’s hard work.

Mass-created swords hereunder iaitō and shinken in the shape of katana are accessible from numerous nations, however China overwhelms the market. These sorts of swords are ordinarily mass-produced and made with a wide assortment of steels and different techniques.

The Birth of a Blade to Protect a Country

Through the Muromachi period (which spaned 1337 to 1573) the swordsmiths worked to perfect the Katana. They did so by using a different heat treatment to help create a flexible spine and a strong edge.

This heat would also help to create higher carbon iron. After many trials, the end result would be a blade-like no other, and one that would rise above all others.

In the year 1400, the Japanese swordsmiths began adding a name to the blade, the name of “Katana.” It’s believed that this name was given in response to the change within Samuari culture.

Until this moment in time samurai warriors had worn their blades with the cutting edge facing down towards the ground. The Katana was the first sword worn with the blade facing up.

Weaponry: Samurai Sword

Of all the weapons that man has developed since caveman days, few evoke such fascination as the samurai sword of Japan. To many of us in the West, the movie image of the samurai in his fantastic armor, galloping into battle on his horse, his colorful personal flag, or sashimono, whipping in the wind on his back, has become the very symbol of Japan, the Empire of the Rising Sun. And, truly, to the samurai of real life, nothing embodied his warrior’s code of Bushido more than his sword, considered inseparable from his soul.

Indeed, a sword was considered such a crucial part of a samurai’s life that when a young samurai was about to be born, a sword was brought into the bedchamber during the delivery. When the time came for an old samurai to die — and cross over into the ‘White Jade Pavilion of the Afterlife’ — his honored sword was placed by his side. Even after death, a daimyo, or nobleman, believed he could count on his samurai who had followed him into the next world to use their keen blades to guard him against any demons, just as they had wielded their trusty weapons to defend him against flesh-and-blood enemies in this life.

From the earliest recorded times, the exceptional quality of Japanese swords has made them prized and admired. The care and technical skill that went into the creation of a samurai sword made the finished product not only a noteworthy weapon of war but also a cherished work of art. When Japanese daimyos met, they would admire each other’s collection of fine swords. In 1586, when the great Japanese warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi made peace with his archrival Ieyasu Tokugawa — making possible Toyotomi’s conquest of Japan — Toyotomi presented Tokugawa with a splendid sword to mark their newfound alliance. The sword was a work of rare beauty, accounts tell us, crafted by the inspired hands of the legendary Musumane, greatest of all Japanese swordsmiths. Masumane, ironically, rarely signed his work with his name, unlike his brother sword crafters. Ieyasu Tokugawa, meanwhile, became shogun, or military ruler, after Toyotomi’s death, founding a dynasty that would rule the country in peace for more than 250 years.

In a samurai family the swords were so revered that they were passed down from generation to generation, from father to son. If the hilt or scabbard wore out or broke, new ones would be fashioned for the all-important blade. The hilt, the tsuba (hand guard), and the scabbard themselves were often great art objects, with fittings sometimes of gold or silver. The hilt and scabbard were at times carved from ivory, just as Japanese statues often are today. Often, too, they ‘told’ a story from Japanese myths. Magnificent specimens of Japanese swords can be seen today in the Tokugawa Art Museum’s collection in Nagoya, Japan, many of which were exhibited during a tour of the United States in 1983 and 1984.

In creating the sword, a craftsman like Masumane had to surmount a virtual technological impossibility. The blade had to be forged so that it would hold a very sharp edge and yet not break in the ferocity of a duel. To achieve these twin objectives, the sword maker, or cutler, was faced with a considerable metallurgical challenge. Steel that is hard enough to take a sharp edge is brittle. Conversely, steel that will not break is considered soft steel and will not take a keen edge. Japanese sword artisans solved that dilemma in an ingenious way. Four metal bars — a soft iron bar to guard against the blade breaking, two hard iron bars to prevent bending and a steel bar to take a sharp cutting edge — were all heated at a high temperature, then hammered together into a long, rectangular bar that would become the sword blade. When the swordsmith ground the blade to sharpen it, the steel took the razor-sharp edge, while the softer metal ensured the blade would not break. This intricate forging process caused the wavy hamon, or ‘temper line,’ that is an important factor when sword connoisseurs judge a blade’s artistic merit.

So vital to the samurai spirit was the genesis of such a magnificent weapon that Shinto priests would be called in to bless the beginning of the process, and the swordsmith often underwent a spiritual purification before he began his work. In his Bushido: The Warrior’s Code, the best study in English of the samurai, Inazo Nitobe stated: ‘The swordsmith was not a mere artisan but an inspired artist and his workshop a sanctuary. Daily, he commenced his craft with prayer and purification, or, as the phrase was, ‘he committed his soul and spirit into the forging and tempering of the steel.”

Celebrated sword masters in the golden age of the samurai, roughly from the 13th to the 17th centuries, were indeed valued as highly as European artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. A sword creator who could almost match Masumane’s brilliance was fellow master craftsman Muramasa. The story is told of how a blade forged by Muramasa was held upright in a swiftly flowing stream and the edge effortlessly cut in two any dead leaf that the current brought against it. However, a blade made by Masumane was so sharp that, according to legend, when his blade was thrust into the water, the leaves actually avoided it!

By the time Ieyasu Tokugawa unified Japan under his rule at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, only samurai were permitted to wear the sword. A samurai was recognized by his carrying the feared daisho, the ‘big sword, little sword’ of the warrior. These were the battle katana, the ‘big sword,’ and the wakizashi, the ‘little sword.’ The name katana derives from two old Japanese written characters or symbols: kata, meaning’side,’ and na, or ‘edge.’ Thus a katana is a single-edged sword that has had few rivals in the annals of war, either in the East or the West.

The wakizashi, on the other hand, was even closer to a samurai’s soul than his katana. It was with the wakizashi that the bushi, or warrior, would take the head of an honored opponent after killing him. It was also with the wakizashi that a samurai would ritually disembowel himself in the act of seppuku, or hara-kiri, before his second (kaishaku) took off the samurai’s head to end the pain. (Suicide was performed by hara-kiri, or ‘belly-slitting,’ because the Japanese felt that the hara [intestines] were the seat of the emotions and the soul itself.) In the popular American television miniseries Shogun, based on the novel by James Clavell, the daimyo Kasigi Yabu, played by Japanese actor Frankie Sakai, committed suicide by hara-kiri when his treachery to his lord, Toronago (patterned after Ieyasu Tokugawa), was discovered. Sometimes a dagger, the aikuchi, was used for ritual suicide. The main difference between the aikuchi and another dagger, the tanto, was that the tanto possessed a hand guard (tsuba) and the aikuchi did not.

There were other types of swords as well in the time of the samurai. There was the tachi, similar to the katana and an exquisite weapon reserved for court and ceremonial occasions. (It most likely was a tachi that Hideyoshi Toyotomi actually presented to Tokugawa.) The nodachi, a long, wicked-looking katana carried slung over the warrior’s back, was a massive killing weapon like the two-handed sword hefted by the German landsknecht.

Because the sword was the main battle weapon of Japan’s knightly man-at-arms (although spears and bows were also carried), an entire martial art grew up around learning how to use it. This was kenjutsu, the art of sword fighting, or kendo in its modern, non-warlike incarnation. The importance of studying kenjutsu and the other martial arts such as kyujutsu, the art of the bow, was so critical to the samurai — a very real matter of life or death — that Miyamoto Musashi, most renowned of all swordsmen, warned in his classic The Book of Five Rings: ‘The science of martial arts for warriors requires construction of various weapons and understanding the properties of the weapons. A member of a warrior family who does not learn to use weapons and understand the specific advantages of each weapon would seem to be somewhat uncultivated.’

Musashi, it should be noted, was famed for fighting with two swords at once.

There were many different ryus, or schools, offering the instruction of kenjutsu. The art of sword fighting, as with all the martial arts, had both a physical and a spiritual dimension. The physical aspect of the training was to acquire the proper techniques that governed everything from how to stand to how to gaze at the enemy. Educated by a master, or adept, the young samurai would learn the correct way to draw his sword and how to use it. As Tsunetomo Yamamoto put it in his Hagakure, written in 1716, ‘If you cut by standing firm and not missing the chance, you will do well.’ There were five basic blows used in kenjutsu, perpetuated today in kendo: from top to bottom left to right right to left side to side and a straight-ahead thrust aimed at the throat. As Musashi wrote, ‘If we know the path of the sword well, we can wield it easily.’

The education of a samurai was deeply colored by the religion of Zen Buddhism, which like much of Japanese culture originally was an importation from neighboring China. The goal of Zen, applied to the mastery of the sword, was to make a samurai’s thought and action instantaneous, at one and the same time. In The Zen Way to The Martial Arts, Zen master Taisen Deshimaru told the story of a samurai who had just made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Hachiman, the Japanese god of war, in Kamakura at the midnight hour. Leaving the sacred precincts, he sensed a monster hiding behind a tree, waiting to pounce on him. ‘Intuitively he drew his sword and slew it in the instant the blood poured out and ran along the ground. He had killed it unconsciously….Intuition and action must spring forth at the same time.’

The goal, then, of striking without thinking was at the heart of instruction with the sword, because, as Deshimaru also related, in the deadly art of swordplay ‘there is no time for thinking, not even an instant.’ For a samurai to hesitate before striking, even for the time it takes to blink an eye, would give his opponent time to deal the mortal blow. The key to wielding a sword in a lightning stroke lay in emptying the mind of everything that did not have to do with studying the sword, a mental condition that can be called ‘no-mindedness,’ because the samurai is not holding anything in his mind except the task at hand. As the swordsman Yagyu Munemori, a contemporary of Musashi, commented, ‘The heart [of the samurai] is like a mirror, empty and clear.’

Once this state of mind was achieved, the warrior-to-be could become intent on learning the use of the sword with a single-minded concentration that was not possible in any other way. His mind cleared of any distractions, he could practice and practice until the wielding of the sword became second nature to him — intuition and action would indeed spring forth at the same instant, with deadly effect. The end result of such concentration and practice was a samurai’s ability to draw his sword and kill an enemy in one smooth movement called nukiuchi, just like a baseball player hitting the ball solidly every time he swings his bat.

The consequences of this education in kenjutsu were simply devastating — in a very real sense a revolution in warfare in the Far East. As early as the 12th century, the swordsmanship of the samurai was already the stuff of legends. In the Japanese epic, the Heiki Monogatari, written about the Gempei War that took place in the 1100s, a warrior-monk on the winning Minamoto side was heralded for using his sword, ‘wielding it in the zigzag style, the interlacing, cross, reversed dragonfly, waterwheel, and eight-sides-at-once styles of fencing…[to] cut down eight men.’

When two samurai faced off in a man-to-man duel, the climax was sharp and dramatic. In motion-picture director Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, his best-known film in the United States, a master swordsman modeled on Musashi dispatches the other duelist with a single blow. Sometimes in real life, however, the finale would be catastrophic — the two contestants would draw and slash simultaneously, with both of them falling dead at the same moment.

Although there are no samurai duels fought in Japan today (except in samurai movies), the traditional sword fighting mentioned above is preserved in the martial arts sport of kendo, which also boasts enthusiasts outside Japan, including many living in the United States.

Kendo in Japanese literally means ‘the way of the sword.’ Although centuries have passed since the golden age of the samurai, much remains in today’s kendo of the sword-fighting art of Japan’s redoubtable warriors. Training is done in armor resembling that worn by the medieval samurai. The shinai, the bamboo sword with which kendo devotees train, much resembles the dread katana, even to the protective tsuba. When the kendo student strikes home a blow with his shinai, he still roars from the depths of his hara, his soul, the ancient heart-stopping cry of ‘Kiai!‘ with which the samurai of old brought instant death with his sword.

This article was written by John F. Murphy, Jr. and originally appeared in the February 1994 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

Japanese Swords

Japanese swords have been popular with the advent of media and popular television. During the Meiji Period, swords were banned to be worn in public. This caused the samurai class to vanish. But with the Showa Era, Japanese swords made a comeback, in the form of military swords.

Katana (sword)

The katana is a single-bladed sword with a curved tip. The circular or squared guard was used to block swinging attacks. It was mostly associated with the Feudal Period, where samurai could wear their swords in public. It was banned in the Meiji Period, and only worn by the military police. The katana was popularized by many samurai soap operas and Period dramas. In popular culture, it’ seen wielded by Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.

Wakizashi (companion sword)

This was a companion sword worn by the samurai class, always hanging on the left side. It was more suitable for indoor fighting. If a wakizashi’s length is similar to a katana, it is called o-wakizashi, and if the length is similar to a tanto, it is called ko-wakizashi. The one who used a katana with a wakizashi was the founder of the Niten Ichi-ryu technique, Miyamoto Musashi, also known as the sword-saint. It was sometimes used to commit harakiri by samurai who refused to obey a new master.


Tanto had a thin blade, akin to a knife, and was worn in the absence of a wakizashi. Its design was popular enough to make it into America in the form of tactical knives. Because of its small size, it was used in martial arts such as aikido, jujutsu, and ninjutsu. The common tanto blade types are shinogi, hira, and shobu.


The bokken is a Japanese wooden sword used in place of a katana. The length of the sword ranges from 40 – 42 inches The bokken is made from flexible bamboo, and is deadly in the hands of a regular sword user. The blade differs when practicing different martial arts, as aikido is practiced with a blunt edge, and kenjutsu is practiced with a sharp edge. It was kept by the bedside of warriors who could handle any intruder without spilling any blood. Kaoru, from the anime Rurouni Kenshin, used this type of sword regularly.


The components of a shinai are made from dried bamboo. Some may be treated by soaking or smoking them in resin. It’s mainly used for practicing Kendo. A shinai is used as a practice sword in order to simulate the weight of a bokken or katana, without injuring the user or the target. The user also wears a bogu, intended to protect oneself from kendo attacks. Shinai is used in Kendo, which is a Japanese form of fencing.

Swordsmiths were the first to dwell into the art of metallurgy. Their opinions were valued before any king went into battle. Now, as swords have been replaced by guns, it is becoming a lost art.

Watch the video: Computer Hunting Museum Tour στο Ελληνικό Μουσείο Πληροφορικής! (June 2022).


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