The Japanese Sword Part 1
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- Last updated: 21/12/2016
You will notice this article is not called a complete guide. If you are thinking about collecting Japanese swords, you are entering into a huge world of ancient culture, full of twists and turns, which means nothing written to date could be called complete and I certainly am not qualified to write under such a title. However, I will do my best to point you in the right direction, and tell you where to find more information and assistance.
The Japanese sword, in its various shapes and sizes has a visible history that goes back well over 1300 years. The earliest examples are single handed straight swords called ‘Ken’ and many of them did not originate in Japan at all, but were made in China and Korea and traded into Japan. They also had a diamond shaped blade with two cutting edges very much like Chinese ‘Jian’. Over time the Japanese, being the type of people they are, developed and refined both the shape of the sword and the material it was made from, they also refined the techniques of manufacture and given that most iron ore in Japan is made up of a sand like material and is poor in comparison to the ores available in the Western world, they produced a magnificent weapon.
So far, I have not used the name Samurai as in ‘Samurai sword’. The reason for this is that there is no such thing as a Samurai sword. The Samurai certainly wore swords and those swords were Japanese, but to put that phrase in context it is like referring to all military rifles as ‘soldier guns’, or calling all European ancient swords ‘Knight swords’. The Japanese sword developed and changed through history, as it continues to do, to suit the requirements and conditions of the time.
All of this is good stuff, I hear you say, but I want one and want to know what to get. In that case, here is the last lesson, before we get going. You need to know the names of the various types of Japanese blades and you need to know when they were made. Where and by whom will come later. So let’s do some terms.
Tachi: This is a long sword, in the region of 28” to 30”, but the defining feature is the mount. This sword is designed to be hung from a belt, cutting edge down.
Katana: This is the long sword, seen in movies like The Seven Samurai. Typically 27” to 30” long, with a slim scabbard (saya), a guard (tsuba) and a wrapped handle (tsuka). Worn in the belt (obi), cutting edge up.
Wakazashi: The shorter sword worn in the later periods as an accompanying sword to the katana by all Samurai. This was a defining mark of the warrior class. Shorter than the katana 20” to 24” long and mounted in a similar style.
Tanto: A dagger, 6” to 10” and mounted in a wide variety of styles. From those designed to be seen, to the complete opposite.
Please remember almost nothing is exact when it comes to Japanese blades. You will find katana which are 24” long, you will find them 31” long, you will find chisa katana, which are too long to be a wakazashi and too short to be katana, you will also find 14” tanto. These weapons were hand made, by a smith for a customer. Then, as now, the customer gets what he wants.
Sword manufacture, and to a greater extent styles too, are found to coincide with time periods, these are set by the family of Emperors ruling Japan at the time, much like our Stuart, Tudor, Edwardian and Victorian periods.
Heian period: 782 to 1184. It is highly unlikely you will find any swords for sale from this period.
Kamakura period: 1185 – 1332. A period when the Samurai became dominant, and feudal wars were frequent. Also a time during which the Mongols invaded Japan twice, and when Samurai battle techniques changed from single combat, to massed battle.
Nambokucho Period: 1333-1391. A time of unrest, with minor territorial wars raging constantly.
Muromachi period: 1392-1572. Normally broken into Early and Late. This is due to the increasing number of swords required in the late Muromachi period, as this was also a time of huge unrest, when the Samurai clans were in an almost constant state of civil war.
Momoyama period: 1573-1599. A time when peace was brought to Japan, but still a period of conflict with a large and active Samurai population.
Edo period: 1600-1867. Peace finally brought to the whole of Japan and the Samurai in complete control. This is the period where films like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are set.
Meiji period: 1868-1912. The end of the Samurai as Japan entered the modern world.
There are three other periods, up to the present, but these are all covered under terms listed below.
Just to confuse matters, there are further time period classifications used within the Japanese sword world.
Koto: Anything made pre-1596
Shinto: 1597 - 1780
Shin Shinto: 1781 – 1876
Gendai: 1877 – 1945
Shinsakuto: 1945 - present
OK, the good news is that there are a surprisingly large number of genuine, smith made swords for sale worldwide and a huge resource of expertise to tap into, so for your very first katana, wakazashi or tanto, where do you start? Well you start by looking on the Internet and by looking at some books, all of which can either be done in your own home, or at your local library. I will list some web sites and recommended books at the end of this article.
The real thing
To qualify as a real Japanese sword, a sword smith using traditional materials and techniques must have forged the blade. There are blades around from the Second World War, which were made by machines, these have their own place in the collecting world, but are not considered worthy by the Japanese.
Starting with WW2 blades, as these are still pretty straightforward to find. These blades were never made for Samurai, the class had long since been disbanded. However, they were often made by a smith, paid for by parents, for a son to take to war. Some blades were even family heirlooms, as Samurai families still exist and they have handed down weapons and armour from generation to generation.
WW2 blades fall into two categories (more if we want to get too deep) Gunto or Military issue and Gendaito or Gendai, smith made. Gunto blades are cheaper, can be well made, but were made of production steel on manufacturing lines. You will not find evidence of the folding process within the steel of these blades, but often you will find a fine edge temper line (hamon). These blades are a very good place to start. Gendai can be expensive as some, although made in volume, were made by genuine master smiths or smiths who went on to be well known after the war.
These WW2 blades tend to be shorter than a typical katana for two very good reasons. First, steel was a precious commodity at that time, as it was in the UK and second, these blades were designed to be used mainly with the right hand, although the tsuka was long enough for a conventional two handed cut. I like to think that these blades were the first to be designed and forged for men to take into battle for over two hundred and fifty years. Oh, and don’t believe the urban myths about cutting machine gun barrels, etc. The place to look for these blades is at specialist antique dealers or at Militaria fairs, several of which specialise in this sort of weaponry. Before you buy anything, you really must read up, you must also decide what you want. What I mean by that is, there are blades out there, which have a fine shape, have a complex hamon and sometimes a visible hada (the texture formed in the folding of the steel during the forging of the blade), but they may not be in good overall condition. There may be evidence of old rust marks, the polish may be faded and scuffed. These blades are still collected and really good blades, even in poor condition they will fetch top money. It is the smith and the blade which many collectors and appreciators want, not a weapon to go into battle with!
You will also find some ‘nasties’ when looking at these blades, as many were brought home in kit bags at the end of the war. You will find evidence of sharpening, sometimes with a big file, or angle grinder. You will find swords with a chips on the blade, where someone has tried to prove that a genuine ‘samurai sword’ will cut through anything, and you will find, fine blades effectively killed by being left to gently rust in the saya at the back of a shed somewhere. I have seen all of this, and it breaks my heart every time.
There is always more that can be said, but for the time being look at the following.
Dr Richard Stein’s hugely informative web site at: www.geocites.com/alchemyst/nihonto.com
Also look for:
The Samurai Sword. A handbook by John M Yumoto. Publ. Tuttle. ISBN 0804805091
Japanese Swords by Nobuo Ogasawara Publ. Hoikusha
For eye candy try: www.aoi-art.com
Last point, DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT, buy anything from general online auction sites. There’s a 99.8% chance that it will be a fake and it will be rubbish. Don’t say you weren’t warned.