History of the Katana

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.

The U.S. occupation of Japan

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.

Quick history of the Japanese Sword – The katana

Read about the parts of the katana
Read about forging a katana
Read about how to hold a katana
Read about training with a katana – The basics
Read about training with a katana – Advanced