The Complete History Of The Japanese Samurai Sword

Before firearms dominated warfare, the blade ruled the battlefield. And, out of all the gleaming swords in history — from the saber to the broadsword — the katana of feudal Japan is by far the most iconic. The slender, razor-sharp sword is easily recognizable thanks to the popularity of the samurai, fierce warriors wrapped in menacing iron armor ready to die honorably on the battlefield. As the years went by, their katanas were made for swift, precise kills and became known as artistic masterpieces of death.

You’ve seen katanas plenty of times on the silver-screen and fought many imaginary battles with a plastic samurai sword in hand as a child. But, what do you really know about the elegant weapon made to cut through a human being with one strike? The katana is a legendary sword with a history worthy of dissection and discussion. Looking back at the blade’s roots, the weapon was a loyal protector, leaving trails of blood with every fluid slash. It’s unlike any other blade in existence, which is why we’d like to take a closer look and dive into its Bushido roots, influential design, iconic status, and pop culture fame. And, just in case you become obsessed over them as we did, we have some recommendations to add to your blade collection.

Legend of Amakuni

The Creator Of The First Katana

As we all know, perfection takes a bit of practice, which is why the first katana didn’t have the familiar curved silhouette. The first known katana sword was a straight, double-edged iron blade inspired by Chinese swords. At the end of the 10th century, the Japanese severed cultural ties with the Chinese and went on to establish their own class divisions within their society. The military warriors guarding the society became the first samurai and the Japanese began to make their way toward creating the famous katana.

Although there isn’t solid evidence as to who improved the design of the samurai sword, transforming it from a straight sword to a curved, killing beauty, legend has it Amakuni was the swordsmith who forged the first single-edged longsword with a curvature in the Yamato Province around 700 AD. He noticed half of the samurai came back from the battlefield carrying broken swords, especially after battling Mongolian invaders, leading him to redesign the samurai sword so that it would be nearly indestructible. Finding the best iron sand ore, he built the katana with a curve, making it optimal for slicing through the enemy. The myth states Amakuni’s death is not known and he earned immortality from all the blood his blades absorbed.

Bushido

Way Of The Warrior

An elite member of the Japanese military, samurai were fierce warriors who followed the Bushido, which means “way of the warrior.” This code of ethics was a moral compass for samurai and consisted of several values, including courage, integrity, loyalty, compassion, and respect. They were armor-clad, civil-minded savages who made it their goal to live and die with honor. Their main weapon, the katana, was thought to be an extension of their soul.

The katana was such a crucial part of a samurai’s life that when a young warrior was on the verge of entering this world, the sword he would use as a protector was brought into the delivery room as if to greet the young one. And, when a weathered, old veteran warrior was on his deathbed, ready to cross over into the White Jade Pavilion of the afterlife, his katana was placed at his side, as if to protect him one last time.

Masters of the killing stroke, each samurai had a collection of swords: a katana, the long sword, and a wakizashi, the short sword. Think of it as an equivalent to a rifle and sidearm pistol. The set was called a Daisho, and if the samurai needed something extra up their sleeve, in case the opposition was daunting, the warrior would add a tanto blade to their collection. The wakizashi was to be carried at all times and even kept under the pillow while the soldier sleeps, as it was used for close-quarter combat, emergencies, and ritual suicide. On the other hand, the katana was the head honcho on the battlefield, cutting through flesh like butter and chopping off heads, freezing the stunned faces of the enemy.

The Art Of Sword Fighting

An entire martial art was created to learn how to appropriately use the samurai sword and it was dubbed Kenjutsu (or Kendo, which is its modern day, non-military incarnation). The importance of studying Kenjutsu was crucial for samurai, as their proficiency in the ways of the sword was a life or death situation. Those who didn’t understand the intricacies of each weapon were considered uncultivated. Think of how useless a soldier would be today if he didn’t know how to fire a gun in a war zone. The art of sword combat, as with all martial arts, had both a physical and spiritual level. Kenjutsu taught the samurai every single aspect of war, including how to effectively gaze at the enemy to rattle his cage, a concept that’s been utilized ever since, most notably by a prime Mike Tyson.

In other words, samurai blended Zen Buddhism in training to allow them to draw their sword without hesitation and kill unconsciously.Taught by a sword master, a young samurai would learn everything from how to draw the blade efficiently and how to manipulate it in a battle to prevail. The mindset of the samurai was also rooted deeply in Zen Buddhism. In terms of sword mastery, the goal of the Zen Way was to allow a warrior’s thought and action to be one, making their movements instantaneous. In other words, samurai blended Zen Buddhism in training to allow them to draw their sword without hesitation and kill unconsciously. A young George Lucas admired the honorable, fierce way of the samurai, using many of their beliefs to create the Jedi in a little film called Star Wars.

In Kenjutsu, there are five basic blows: from top to bottom, left to right, right to left, and straight through the throat. Samurai trained to slash like lightning and with a mind void of everything else but the mission. To execute an enemy in one graceful stroke was called nukiuchi, which only the best could do consistently. By the 12th century, the skills of the samurai became legendary. For example, there was the Japanese epic, Heiki Monogatari, which was written about the Gempei War in the 1100s. It told the story of a warrior-monk who wielded a katana with so much precision he stained his blade with the blood of eight men in a few strokes.

Kaishakunin

The katana was not only a weapon of protection but a mercy tool to assist in a ritualistic Japanese suicide called seppuku, which was carried out when a warrior brought shame to himself. A kaishakunin, or an appointed second person on duty for the ritual, is typically a samurai on standby who is ready to behead the person performing seppuku. The kaishakunin stands on the left side of the person committing the ritual suicide and draws his sword slowly and silently, raising it with his right hand, waiting for the seppuku to be carried out.

The man performing seppuku would pierce his stomach with his blade to redeem his honor. Then, the kaishukunin double-grips his blade and performs a downward cut, or kiritsuke, beheading the former warrior. The katana helps the kaishukunin perform a controlled cut through the neck of the shamed warrior, relieving him of pain. Seppuku was a regular occurrence in feudal Japan. The 47 Ronin legend, a tale of masterless warriors avenging their leader, made seppuku well-known, as the remaining warriors perform the ritualistic suicide in accordance with the samurai code.

Photo: Marcus Cousseau

Deadly Design

A Weapon Of War

In Quentin Tarantino’s popular revenge flick, Kill Bill, master sword maker Hattori Hanzo forges a katana so sharp it could cut God. For all the legend, myth, and pop culture hype surrounding the katana sword, it actually has a marvelous, revolutionary design. Masamune, a man thought to be Japan’s greatest swordsmith, faced a technological hurdle in forging a sturdy, sharp sword. The samurai’s blade had to be made in a way it would stay razor sharp, yet could still withstand furious blows in a duel. However, steel that’s formed to be indestructible can’t take a keen edge, which became the main issue.

This special forging process creates the Hamon (differential line), which is a critical factor when sword connoisseurs analyze a katana’s artistic value.In order to jump this hurdle, Masamune and other swordsmiths used four metal bars consisting of a soft iron bar to protect the blade from breaking, two hard iron bars to keep the steel from bending, and a steel bar to be sharpened. All of the bars are heated at temperatures reaching 2,500° F and hammered down into a slender, rectangular bar to create the tamahagane steel blade. The swordsmith pulls the katana from the fire and plunges it into the water for a rapid cool down. Since the inner core contains small amounts of carbon, the blade can contract, forming the famous and functional curve. The steel would be sharpened to create the razor edge and the soft metal made the katana unbreakable in duels. This special forging process creates the Hamon (differential line), which is a critical factor when sword connoisseurs analyze a katana’s artistic value. When the katana is fully forged, a professional sword polisher rubs the blade with a series of grinding and polishing stones, creating a mirror-like finish, perhaps so enemies might catch a glimpse of their reactions before death.

The creation of a katana was so vital Shinto priests were called in to bless the process, as well as perform a spiritual purification of the swordsmith. Creators of these glorious katanas were considered artists, as they poured their hearts into the forging of these incredible weapons. In the golden age of the samurai between the 13th and 17th centuries, swordsmiths were as renowned as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. These rockstar artisans were surrounded by myths, just like the samurai. A tameshigiri (test cut) was performed with a newly forged katana by slicing through a stack of dead bodies or even live criminals. Of course, tameshigiri could only be done by a master swordsman to ensure the quality of the build.

Parts of a Katana

In order to fully understand the katana, you must know its parts. Here is a comprehensive list that defines each part of the iconic blade.

Hamon: The differential line in the hardening of the blade.

Hi: A longitudinal groove on the blade to make it lighter. It also absorbs and distributes shock stress, preventing the blade from being damaged.

Habaki: A wedge-shaped metal collar used to keep the blade from falling out of the wooden scabbard.

Kaeshizuno: A hook used to lock the katana’s scabbard onto the obi (sash on a kimono).

Kissaki: The tip of the katana.

Koiguchi: The opening of the katana’s scabbard.

Menuki: The ornaments found on the hilt of the sword.

Nagasa: The length of the sword.

Same-kawa: Liner for the handle of the blade.

Saya: The wooden scabbard for the sword.

Sori: The curvature of the blade.

Tsuba: A guard or buckler used for decoration.

Tsuka: The handle of the blade, which is made long enough two hands to grip.

Tsuka-ito: The stringing of the handle.

Wari-bashi: A pocket to store metal chopsticks.

Post-Samurai Japanese Swords

The Katana Lives On

The samurai era came to an end in 1868, and the next four decades saw the samurai armor and swords being replaced by Western uniforms and weapons. However, during the Showa Period and into World War II, Japanese swords saw a resurgence.

Between 1894 and 1905, the Murata-to became the sword that replaced the traditional samurai blade, which then transformed into the Kyu Gunto, taking on the style of American swords with a wraparound hand guard. However, between 1935 and 1945, the Shin Gunto sword became a symbol of rank in the Imperial Japanese Army. It borrowed the design of the traditional slung tachi carried by the samurai, resembling a smaller katana. In a world now filled with gun-smoke, the swords stood mostly as military flair.

After World War II, there was a prohibition placed on the creation and possessions of swords until 1953. By 1960, the Society of Preservation of the Japanese Sword came to light, helping to bring back the ancient techniques to create the tamahagane steel needed to forge authentic katanas. Today, a licensed swordsmith must craft katanas the same way it was done 1,000 years ago.

Silverscreen Samurai Swords

Katanas In Pop Culture

Take a look at some of the greatest action and martial arts films in cinema history, and you’ll find the katana sitting pretty in the double-grip of the main character’s hands. Beatrix Kiddo slaughters the Crazy 88 with her insane Hattori Hanzo katana in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Samurai Shinzaemon slices through a small town of invaders in 13 Assassins, and Deadpool turns a goon into shish kebab in his first proper outing on the big screen. That’s just scratching the surface of all the action the katana gets in pop culture. It’s up there with chainsaws, spiked baseball bats, and crossbows on the “weapons I would use in a zombie apocalypse that aren’t guns” list.

Of course, Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai tops all the appearances of katanas in film history. In the epic film, a masterless samurai, or ronin, answers a village’s call for help when he hits rock bottom. To protect the town from bandits, he recruits six other ronin to help him defend the village. Kurosawa’s masterpiece is thought to be the definitive samurai movie by many film junkies. Not only does it contain moving battle scenes, but it also lets the katanas become an extension of the characters, just as intended by the Bushido Way.

As long as there are zombies, vampires, aliens, or baddies that need slicing, the katana won’t leave Hollywood any time soon. Although the katana isn’t typically used on a real battlefield anymore, it’s still a formidable protector in the realm of cinema and TV.

Katanas For The Blade Collector

Fine Additions For Your Expanded Daisho

Quality katanas are hard to find especially if you’re looking for authentic renditions. There are plenty of samurai swords on the market, but a good amount of them aren’t the real deal. We took the time to dig up a few katanas you could consider adding to your blade collection. They range from functional katanas to ones too beautiful to actually use. And, we even threw in a quality bokken, in case you want to follow the Bushido and pick up some sword fighting skills for a potential zombie apocalypse in the future.

Tozando Sunuke Bokken

If you want to satisfy your craving for Japanese sword fighting, you’re going to need a kendo bokken. This Tozando Sunuke Bokken is made from the Iso no Ki or Japanese Isu tree. However, it is mixed with Sunuke, wood from chocolate-dark trees over 250 years old. Analyzing its hardness and weight, Sunuke is one of the best materials in Japan. This expertly crafted bokken will allow you to perfect the art of kendo.

Purchase: $120

Condor Tool And Knife Tactana

Constructed with 1075 high carbon steel, this Tactana sword by Condor Tool and Knife is extremely durable. It has a Micarta handle, comes with a handcrafted welted leather sheath and a professional black textured powder coating. Although it’s not as long as a traditional katana at 30.75 inches, having a compact blade with the strength of a katana is invaluable. It’s also a more affordable option if you’re looking to use this as a tool.

Purchase: $166

Cold Steel Katana Sword

Made with fully sharpened 1060 carbon, the katana sword from Cold Steel’s Emperor Series is a reliable update to a classic weapon. The blade is heat-treated to a tough spring temper and finished with an immaculate mirror polish. It also has a ray skin handle, black braid cord, and brass menuki, along with a black lacquered wood scabbard. Cold Steel demonstrates their sword can cut through five pieces of bamboo with ease.

Purchase: $880

Thaitsuki Nihonto Furui Shishi Sanmai Katana

Thaitsuki only produces high quality, hand-made Japanese swords and their Furui Shishi Sanmai Katana is a masterpiece. Forged and folded with 1,024 layers of Japanese high carbon steel, reaching an impressive 60 HRC, this katana is a genuine samurai sword made for warriors of long ago. In its production, the blade was clay tempered, heat treated, water quenched, and hand polished. The eight-pound blade also comes with a limited lifetime warranty.

Purchase: $2,280

Musashi Kobuse Kitae Katana

For serious collectors of anything blade-related, this rare Kobuse Kitae Katana from the Musashi Platinum Collection is epic. Forged using the traditional Kobuse Kitae technique, placing a soft steel core in a hard steel jacket, the shock absorption of the blade is upgraded immensely. The blade is made from traditional tamahagane steel, showcasing a Mino style Gunome Midare Hamon used from the Kamakura period, which was known for its cutting ability.

Purchase: $6,931

The Complete History Of Fighting & Combat Knives

Now that you’ve gained knowledge about the most iconic sword in history, it’s time to educate yourself about the katana’s compact cousins. Check out the complete history of fighting and combat knives to continue your blade education.

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