The sword is one of the most
important creations in the history of Japanese craftsmanship and furthermore serves
as a monumental icon in their culture. So much so that a sword even features in
the ancient mythology which tells us of how Japan was first formed. The
first two divine beings created (a man and a woman), charged with the task
of creating the first land, were
given a special sword by the Gods called 'naginata'. With the sword they
went to the bridge between heaven and earth, while the sea churned beneath
them, and as drops of sea water fell from the sword, they formed the island
'Onogoro'; the first land, on which they made their home.
The making of a sword in Japan is considered a supreme
form of artistic expression. Japanese philosophy maintains that although the
forging of the sword is carried out by man, the Gods will always have the
final decision. Because of this, the process by which the swords are made is
enveloped in a halo of sacredness. The craftsmen perform
purification rituals and pray to Buddha before begining the forging of
every new work of art.
Different types of Japanese Swords
The outstanding quality of the Japanese swords is due to
the material of their manufacturing, which is taken from their very own
soil. The very same forgers make the steel that they use to make their
swords from ironsand, charcoal and other organic material. Through a complex
proceedure, which can take various weeks, these materials are smelted in a
traditional Japanese furnace, known as 'tatara'. The result being the
formation of a steel unmatchable in stength and malleability,
characteristics unique to Japanese swords.
The manufacturing method combines a repeated heating and
folding technique, with the hammering and annealing of the metal; This
latter technique consisting of heating the sheet of metal and then
immediately dousing it with cold water. In this process the back of the
sword is coated with a layer of clay and ashes in order to preserve
its flexibility. The rapid change in temperature (from hot to cold) gives an
extreme strength and resistance to the cutting edge of the sword.
Once the annealing process is
complete, an expert swordsmith undertakes the task of sharpening and shaping
the basic details of the blade.
It is also in this stage that
Japanese sword markings like signatures and file markings are etched on
the tang.He also engraves the
signatures and registration marks on the hilt. Finally, the manufacturing
process concludes with the polishing of the sword, which is carried out by a
specialist. The perfection of the sword is based on the specialist's ability
to carry out this task. When the sword has been polished it is then sent to
yet another crafstman to finish mounting the handle, the hand guard and other
accesories such as the scabbard.
Japanese craftsman making a future Katana
The origin of these Japanese swords
is estimated to be between the VIII - IX century A.D. which is when
they first started to appear as bronze and iron furnishings in burial
However, according to legend, the first swords
that existed in Japan were in fact a present to the Japanese Queen Himeko
from the Chinese Wei dynasty (240 A.D). This shows the great influence that
countries such as China and Korea had on Japanese culture in the early centuries of our epoch.
The very first Japanese swords were of
poor quality, made with a single straight edge, and were called 'Chokuto'.
However, this type of sword was not effective when the cavalry developed as
a fighting force in the Heian period of Japanese history
(794-1184). It was then that a new sword was
created; a long sword with a slight bend at the edge called 'tachi'.
The next step in the
evolution of the Japanese sword 'Katana' came with the Kamakura period
(1185-1332). The Katana was configured as a double-edged curved sword that
was very effective as a result of its precision and its combination of a
hard exterior and a soft centre. The centuries XII, XIII y XIV
were times of grand splendour in the development of sword craftmanship as
highly specialised and effective techniques in forgery and annealing began
to emerge. In addition to the long swords, at this stage, short-edged swords
similar to daggers were also made.
Japanese warrior with Samurai swords.
After the era of Nanpokucho
(1334-1393) began a phase of heavy internal fighting between the emperors
Godaiko (Go-Daigo from the Southern Court) and Ashikaga (from the Northern
Court). These conflicts marked the end of the
"splendid period of the swords". Combat on the ground was predominant
and this required longer swords; In addition, the war demanded the creation
of swords in much higher quantities than before, which was detrimental to
However, in the following era, called Muromachi Era
(1394-1595), the contrasting stability that came with the end of the
internal wars triggered a recovery of the earlier tradition.
This would be a period of great splendour for the samurai swords or
Samurai warrior with various swords hanging from his belt or sash
The decline of swords arrived with
the Meiji Era, when an edict was released which proclaimed the end of
the privelege granted to the Samurai to carry weapons. The ancient
tradition of sword making was almost lost, something which was exacerbated
further by the arrival of World War II which saw the US ban the
manufacturing of swords. It was in these times that a significant amount of
looting took place and thousands of Japanese swords were brought to the
United States, many privately, which still continue to hang on the walls of
former American soldiers today.
Nevertheless, thanks to the hard
work of ancient masters who guarded the secret to the craftsmanship of high
quality swords, they managed to legalize their production again in the
mid-twentieth century. Also, in 1960, formed the Japanese Society for the
Preservation of the Art of the Sword, whose duties are to safeguard the
Japanese swords are classified due to their length in
"shaku". A "shaku" is a unit of measurement that works out at about 30.3
centimetres in the metric system. According to their measurement, the swords
are the categorized into three groups: Daito (measuring over 2 "shakus"),
Wakizashi (measuring between 1 and 2 "shakus"), and Dagger (less than one
"shaku"). Below is a list of the most prominent Japanese Swords.
NODACHI: The Long Sword of the
Soldier on Foot.
The Japanese Sword Nodachi
The Nodachi was used in the Nanbokucho period (1336-1392)
as a weapon for the soldiers on foot against the cavalry. It was a weapon
very useful for breaking the legs of the enemy cavalry. It's characteristics
are very similar to those of the Tachi sword, however shorter in length. It
was more than a meter in length, so this samurai sword was more useful in
open battlefield than in indoor or close quarter fightings. Specifically the
Nodachi sword measured 120 cm in its entirety.
The edge of the whole blade was sharpened, right up to
the tip and the handle was left rounded and without a point at the end, a
style known as "oyster shell blade" ("Hamaguri ha"). The Nodachi
was very heavy, so much so that it had to be held with both hands and as a
result it wasn't commonly used. Normally it was worn hanging on the back of
the soldier, due to its excessive weight.
The nodachi was used in Nanbokucho
period (1336-1392) as a weapon of the foot soldier against the cavalry.
?DACHI: Japanese Ceremonial Sword
It is a sword of great length (three "shakus") and
consequently is very difficult to manufacture given that its length makes it
very difficult for the heat treatment to be carried out in the typical way.
In addition, the sharpening of the blade cannot be done in the traditional
fashion, with the sword placed over two stones, but instead it has to be
positioned vertically, ususally hung from the ceiling.
wasn't practical enough to be used as a weapon. Although quite
effective in dispensing foot soldiers because of its long reach, it was
heavy and reduced the speed of the swordsman.
Although it could be very effective in a fight against foot soldiers, due to
its long range, its excessive weight reduces drastically the speed at which
it can be used. Because of this, most of the Odachi
were therefore used as cermeonial objects. The majority of them were
dedicated as objects of worship and were offered to Gods and shrines with
prayers for victories in war.
Japanese long sword for cavalry
TACHI: Long Japanese Sword for the Cavalry
Tachi Sword used especially for battle on horseback
The Tachi was introduced in the Heian era (794-1184)
in response to the new requirements posed by war on horseback and is the
ancestor of the 'katana'. It's a sword with a single-edged blade and
measures two "shakus". Its more curved and longer than the katana
sword. It revolutionized Japanese warfare as it made the cavalry a stronger
and more vicious force in battle. The Tachi is hung from the "obi" (the sash
or belt of the formal Japanese dress) with the blade edge down. It is
usually paired with a shorter sword and a few daggers for close combat and
The Tachi is hung from the "obi" (the sash or belt
of the formal Japanese dress) with the blade edge down. It is usually paired
with a shorter sword and a few daggers for close combat and personal
The tachi was introduced in Heian
era (794-1184) as a single-edged curved sword with a fuller for the service
of military class.
KATANA: The Quintessential Japanese Sword
The Katana is a type of long sword with a single edged curve. It is a Daito
sword which means it measures more than 2 "shakus" in length, namely their
length varies from 100 to 120 centimetres.
Often the term is used wrongly to mean any long Japanese sword.
Its manufacturing process, developed through the folding of layers, gives
the sword it's special characteristics of strength and precision. In combat
the Katana was primarily used for cutting the enemy soldiers (cutting off
limbs, heads etc), because of the sharpness of the curved blade; It could also be used
to stab victims, although this wasn't as popular. Its
usually handled with both hands, however there are techniques for using the
Katana with only one hand.
Dagger with single edge blade.
dagger whose length ranges from fifteen to thirty centimetres.
They usually only have a single edged blade, however ones with double edged
blades do exist. It's used as a sharp weapon or a knife. They
are normally forged without the ridge in the middle of the blade.
There are many different styles of dagger, among them is the Yoroidishi with
a triangular base made to puncture the armour of the enemy. Or the Fan
dagger, which owes its name to form it takes when sheathed. The latter
design was used often by women.
The Predecessor of the Katana Sword
Japanese Uchigatana Sword
Uchigatana sword consists of a straight blade with a length ranging from one
to two "shakus".
Later on it was made even longer and more curved, producing the daito now
better known as katana.
It made its first appearance in the
era (1394-1595), and later on it was made even
longer and more curved, producing the Daito now better known as katana.
The successor of the Daggers.
Japanese Wakizashi with its scabbard.
The Wakizashi sword is quite similar to the Katana, but even finer and
shorter as they used to measure about eighteen inches on average.
Its origin dates back to the sixteenth century when it was gradually
displacing the dagger.
the Sword Wakizashi was different from that of the Katana. It had
a cross section and a less curved blade.
Its characteristics made it ideal to slash and cut more aggressively than
Japanese soldiers often combined the use of the Wakizashi and the
Katana, which was later renamed Daisho.
BOKKEN: Training Weapon.
Japanese Wooden Bokken
The Bokken was designed to help with the handling of the Katana. it is
shaped like a Katana and weighs the same, but it's made of wood. It was used
for training and practice battles so that warriors could perfect their
handling of the Katana, without the danger of actual combat. However, it can
become a dangerous weapon if you know how to handle it correctly.
Pair of Sais, Japanese Daggers
The Sai is a dagger without a blade, but with a pointed tip instead.
The Sai highlights the "tsuba" design,
formed by two forearms on both sides of the handle, which also have pointed
The function of these was to enable the Sai to serve as defensive or
offensive weapon (as a pointed weapon.)
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