Rise and Fall of the Katana and Samurai

4 minute read

A legend, iconic and instantly recognisable, the Japanese Katana has been the subject of much literature and film. Wielded by the Samurai class in Japan, the Katana is famous for several reasons. The blade quality is legendary, taking a master swordsmith weeks or even months of work to produce a single blade. There is also the mystical relationship between each blade and its wielder, made popular by publications and popular culture, for example Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2. For the majority of Japanese history, only the Samurai class was allowed to carry a sword. If a peasant were discovered carrying a sword, they were more often than not killed on the spot, and in an ironic twist of fate, it would often be a Samurai sword which would be used for the killing blow. Samurai often carried other weapons beside the Katana, such as the bow, spear, or even a fan! 


The Samurai and Katana

The Samurai and Katana shared a special bond which was considered sacred: It was thought that the sword should only be used as a last resort. The Katana was the extension of the Samurai and was believed to be linked to the soul, as such it would take a dire situation to be drawn (what constituted a dire circumstance was debatable). It could be saving the nobility, family members, defending your life, or something mundane like killing a peasant for carrying a sword. There are some inconsistencies with Samurai logic!

The Katana was traditionally paired with a dagger or a smaller sword. In the scenario of the shorter sword, it was called a Wazashi, or Wakizashi which measured on average between twelve and twenty-four inches. The dagger in the Katana pairing was named a Tanto, and measured in at between six and twelve inches. The pairing between the Katana and Wakizashi was referred to as the daisho which aptly translates to ‘big-little’. The longer blade was used for cutting while the shorter would be used for stabbing. A well-seasoned and expert practitioner of Kenjutsu could even wield both swords at the same time, a feat which is by no means trivial. The renowned sword master and writer of “Book of Five Rings”, Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was fabled to have honed a dual-wielding sword technique which he named niten’ichi or "two heavens / swords as one". Using this method of wielding a Katana and Wakizashi at the same time, Musashi was able to take part in over 60 duels and come out as the victor every time. Needless to say, being able to fight with a sword in each hand offers advantages but is without doubt incredibly difficult to do so effectively.

A Katana has a long curved blade with a chisel like tip, which is sharpened on one side and has an unsharpened back, this can sometimes be called a back sword. Due to this design, the Katana is suitable for both slashing and stabbing, although as true of all curved weapons the Katana is better for slashing vs a straight-edged sword. The blade of the Katana is on average 28 inches long, and is normally  worn through a sash with the blade facing up, this allows for a quick draw-and-slash motion. The Tachi is a similarly shaped sword which is longer than the Katana at 31 inches. The Tachi was especially favored by Samurai on horseback, owing to the extra reach the longer blade provided. It allowed the horseman to engage with enemy on foot.

The very first swords to be used in Japan did not originate in the country; they were imported from Korea and China, which just goes to show that some things never change. The imported swords were traditional straight dual edged swords. It was not until around 2000 BC that the Japanese started forging their own weapons.

In an ironic twist, the first swords produced in Japan where knockoffs of the imported swords from China, these straight edged were called ‘jokoto’ or ancient swords, fast forward a few hundred years (700 AD) and the Japanese were starting to produce the finest swords the world had ever known. The Japanese swords were no longer mimicking others, they had started to develop a swords which were curved and tailored to meet the demands of the wars and fighting styles present at the time. A curved blade allowed for a faster draw and was perfect for slashing and cutting, which suited the mounted combat popular at the time.

The sword-making craft reached the peak of perfection during the ‘The War of Onin’ 1467 – 1477. This was a time of great turmoil and uncertainty in the country; the nation was in the grip of civil war, and this demanded exceptional armor and weapon crafting skills. Even by today’s standards, the weapons created during this period where superior to anything else produced. The actual forging of a Samurai Sword could take several days or weeks. The process was ritualistic and considered a revered act. In order to create a blade during this period required the work of several expert artisans with specialized roles. One smith would be tasked with forging the blade, another would specialize in folding the metal, and yet another would sharpen and polish the final product. Other specialists would work on the hilt, sheath and tsuba in order to create an exceptional piece of lethal art.

One of the most well-known parts of the smithing process was the folding of the steel used in the blade. We’ve all seen parts of films where red hot metal is folded over and over to make a strong blade. As implied by the name, the metal is folded over itself and hammered flat repeatedly. The folding process serves to create multiple layers with each fold doubling the layers present. The exact number of folds required differed per sword but exceeding sixteen was rare. Once the swords were completed the finished product would be tested to ensure it was fit for use, famously this was performed on the corpses of criminals.

A few generations after the swords smiths perfected the art of creating the Katana, the Edo period began (1603 – 1867), marking an era of relative peace in Japan. As peace reigned, the requirements for Samurai and the weapons they were associated with diminished, leading to a loss of smith skills. This process was further exaggerated by the rise of firearms. It was not long until swords were seen as a unnecessary. Any sword manufactured after the 1600’s is thought to be inferior to those crafted during the golden age of Katana production. In 1877, the Haitorei edict restricted the right to carry swords to just the military and police, this signified the end of the Samurai class in Japan and the end of the reign of the Katana.

Katana are still forged in Japan using traditional methods. Licensed forgers exist and must undergo lengthy apprenticeships to be able to create ‘shinken’ or true swords. The swordsmith must then undergo an assessment by the elite board of sword crafters to ensure the apprentice is up to par. Sword ownership is limited in Japan and must be licensed in accordance with the law. Such a true Japanese sword forged using traditional methods will cost many thousands of pounds. There are of course crafters outside of Japan creating swords using traditional methods and, as with most things, the better the product the more it will cost.

An authentic Katana used during WW2 will cost in the region of £3000 – £8000 depending on the condition of the sword, while a pre-1600 sword can cost an awful lot more. There are 125 swords that are culturally significant, one such sword created during the 1400’s sold at auction in 1992 for just over $418,000, adjusted for inflation that’s $720,000 in 2017 money.

Samurai with Sword

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