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The Katana, also known as "samurái sword", is the quintessential Japanese sword and is defined as a curved single-edged sword. The Katana has been considered the most perfect and effective hand held weapon that man has developed throughout history.
Katanas combines three elements.
Their artistic beauty as a piece of craftsmanship. The strength that allows you to split a body in two just by removing the sheath. And the accuracy, that allows you to split a single human hair.


Japanese Katana with "tsuba" markings

The origins of the Katana sword are found in the eighth century A.D. At that time Japan was developing in the Heian period (782-1184) and the system of confrontation in the battl was changing. Fighting on foot decreased, and combat on horseback came into play, becoming a fundamental element of battle. In this situation, the traditional straight sword called "chokuto" was not effective and therefore it was necessary to design a sword that met the needs of the soldiers that fought on horseback.



"Samurái sword" or Katana

According to the legend, it was the swordsmith Amakuni, the head of a group of smiths at the service of the Emperor, who proposed a new design of sword. Amakuni, tired of seeing the swords of the soldiers succumb to the enemy, he was determined to find a solution. By studying the remains of the destroyed swords he observed that the cause was that they had been poorly forged and on hitting against hard objects, like armour, they broke. The result was the forging of the first long, curved single edge sword. Thus was born the Tachi sword, forerunner to the Katana. The fundamental difference between them was the way in which it was carried by the warriors: on the belt Tachi ("obi") hung with the cutting edge down, while the Katana was placed with the cutting edge facing upwards.


Samurái with Katana sword hung in the "obi" with the cutting edge facing upwards

However, the Tachi sword failed to resist assaults from the Mongol cavalry in the thirteenth century. The sword was fragile and was in need of a new design: The Katana. This sword was designed to cut from the bottom up, effectuated by the movement of unsheathing the sword. The Katana was born in the Kamakura period (1185-1332) according to some versions or in the Nanpokucho era (1334-1393) according to others.
An important factor in the appearance of the Katana was the transfer of the imperial capital from Kyoto to Kamakura. Commercial contacts with China increased, encouraging innovation in forging techniques in Japan. The craftsmanship of the sword was enjoying a period of splendor by great forging masters like Masamune, also called Nyudo Goro, who perfected the Katana by introducing the forging technique called "Shosu. " This technique combined mild steel and hard steel thus achieving a Katana that would not bend nor break and with an edge sharp enough to cut through armour. Masamune was to make Katana blades that are still, even today, considered the best in the country.
The manufacturing process of the Katana is long, complex and marked by a strong symbolic component. The craftsmen were alchemists who thanks to their experience were able to learn the secrets of metal, passing them down from generation to generation. The swordsmith would say a prayer to Buddah before beginning to make every sword, which shows the spirituality that surrounded the whole forging process.


Artisan swordsmith hammering the metal to shape the Katana

The manufacturing can be divided into four fundemental phases:

 1ª Casting: The steel of the Katana comes from a very fine iron sand. To achieve the distinctive steel it is necessary to remove the oxygen and make carbon. This is accomplished by melting the steel at low temperature in a furnace called "Tatara".

2ª Folding:This is a process that is done by hand and requires great precision by the craftsman. It consists in heating the material, hammering it and then cooling it in water to make it thinner and elongated. When it has reached twice its length, the metal is bent upon itself to form exactly the same original block, but with two layers of steel together. This operation is performed at least twelve times. The length achieved is similar to that of the original block but the number of layers can be anywhere up to 5000 for every centimetre of steel. This process seeks to mix the iron and the steel so that the block is equal throughout it's entire structure and to eliminate, at the same time, it's impurities. Thus achieveing a very low carbon content (less than 0.7%) which gives flexibility to the sword.

3ª Differential Tempering: This process seeks to harden the blade of the sword and in turn maintain the flexibility of the spine. In order to achieve this flexibility, at the time of hardening the weapon a thick layer of a mixture of clay, sand and ash is laid over the spine; whereas on the blade, the mixture is of coal dust and the layer spread is much thinner. After the heating and cooling process, you get a hard temper on the blade and softer edge to the spine,and thus the curve of the sword develops naturally .

4ª Polishing: Sharpening the sword to give it it's final form. The end result provides a process characterized by the Katana, combining iron and carbon, and gives the sword it's hardness and flexibility which is difficult to match.


The different parts of a Japanese sword

The Japanese Katana is made up of a number of different parts. The main ones are the following:

  • Habaki: (Blade collar): Small square metal collar around the base of the blade.

  • Hamon: (Edge pattern): Waveform marks found on the edge of the blade resulting from the fire for tempering and cooling during the coating process of clay.

  • Hi: (Groove): Lengthwise depression of the blade, used to lighten the piece and avoid the stress of concentrated shock that can break or bend the blade of the sword.

  • Mune: (Back): Back edge of the blade of the sword. This is the part of the blade is not sharp.

  • Kashira: (Pommel): Pommel or knob found on the bottom of the handle.

  • Kissaki: (Point): Rounded tip of the sword. This is the most difficult part to polish.

  • Mei: Signature of the dealer, usually on the Nakago (shaft).
    Mekugis: Bamboo pins that function as screws keeping the spike, "nakago" in place under the handle (tsuka). These pins must be durable, but flexible enough not to break the sword when it is struck.

  • Menuki: small ornaments or sculptures (usually of animals) on the side of the handle. Traditionally used to indicate the nature of the sword holder.

  • Mune: (Back): The back edge opposite the cutting edge.

  • Nagasa: Whole blade of the Katana (length).

  • Nakago: (Shaft):  Shaft of the sword that goes into the handle.

  • Sageo: (Hanging cord): Strap which attaches the scabbard to the belt.

  • Samé: (Ray skin):  Tsuka (handle) backing. It used to be made of shark or ray skin to prevent slippage of Tsuka-Ito.

  • Saya: (Scabbard): Sheath that protects the blade from damage and protects every person who comes close to the blade. They are usually made of wood.

  • Tsuba: (Guard):  Hand guard. It's a work of art in itself made by the clans and dynasties responsible for 'tsuba'.

  • Tsuka: (Handle): Handle or grip that is wrapped with a cloth or string: the tsukaito.

  • Yokote: line between the tip of the rest of the blade
    The history of Japanese Katana is closely tied to the history of Samurai warriors. In the twelfth century, after fierce clashes between feudal families for control of 20% of the arable land in Japan, a new political system called Soghunado was introduced. The emperor was a mere symbolic figure of sovereignty, and it was the "shogun" (military commander), who took office in Japan. The shogun appointed a series of "soghus" (governors) to the service and gave them land in exchange for their loyalty, over time "soghus" were renamed "daimyo". At this time, the Samurai made their appearance as an organized class and became a caste or hereditary military class in the service of a "daimyo".


Samurái with a Katana

The duty of the samurai was to protect the territory and power of his master. In return they received money and property. Over time, the samurai were configured as a special social class and founded their own dynasties. The samurai developed a life of training and discipline governed by the ethical code of conduct known as "Bushido" (way of the warrior). Loyalty, virtue, honor and intelligence were the values that governed their lives.

According to the "bushido" life was as honorable for the samurai as death; for a warrior an honorable death was worth more than a life in disgrace.  An ideal that is well summarized in a book from the eighteenth century called Hagakure that recounts the behavior of the Japanese Samurai: "The Way of the Samurai is in death."


Japanese warriors with typical Samurai swords and armour

The sword was the most valuable belonging of a samurai warrior; it was his hallmark. So much so that in 1588, the use of the sword was declared an exclusive privilege of the Samurai warrior class. The Samurai carried with them two or three swords: one short one called Wakizashi that used to be used to for stabbing, another very similar called Tanto whose function was mainly symbolic (used generally for the "hara-kiri" ritual); and the long swrod or Katana. The latter is the one that is traditionally associated with the warrior as being his sacred weapon that represented the moral values of the Samurai.
The appearance of the firearms in the nineteenth century meant that the use of swords declined. However, thanks to the labour of some craftsmen during the second half of the twentieth century, the traditional manufacturing process of Katanas was recovered. Nowadays this sword has been converted into an icon revered throughout Japan and a sacred symbol of Japanese culture.

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