KATANA OR SAMURAI SWORD
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"
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 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
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
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 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."
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