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JAPANESE SWORDS

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.

Several Japanese Swords

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 Swordsmith at Work

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 chambers.  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.

 

Samurai with Swords

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 their quality.

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 'katanas'.

Japanese Warrior with Sword

Samurai warrior with various swords hanging from his belt or sash ("obi").

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 tradition.

 

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.

Nodachi Japanese Sword, Oyster Shell Blade 

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

Odachi Japanese Sword, Used as Offerings

Japanese ?dachi

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.

The Odachi 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. 

TACHI: Long Japanese Sword for the Cavalry  

Tachi Sword: The Long Sword

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 personal protection.

 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 protection.

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

Katana o Samurai Sword, Varies from 100 - 120 cm.

Japanese Katana

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.

 

 

TANTO: The Japanese Dagger

Japanese Dagger, Various Different Styles

Dagger with single edge blade.

A 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.

 

UCHIGATANA: The Predecessor of the Katana Sword

Uchigatana Japanese Sword, Straight Bladed Weapon

Japanese Uchigatana
Sword

The 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 Muromachi era (1394-1595), and later on it was made even longer and more curved, producing the Daito now better known as katana.

 

WAKIZASHI: The successor of the Daggers.

Wakizashi Japanese Sword, Weapon Ideal for Slashing and Cutting
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 forging 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 the Katana. Japanese soldiers often combined the use of the Wakizashi and the  Katana, which was later renamed Daisho.



BOKKEN: Training Weapon.

Japanese Sword 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.

SAIS: Japanese Daggers

Japanese Sais, Defensive and Offensive Pointed Weapon

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 tips. The function of these was to enable the Sai to serve as defensive or offensive weapon (as a pointed weapon.)

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