“Samurai” Japanese Sword.

“Samurai”Japanese Sword.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and others
Japanese sword, or nihontō (日本刀 or にほんとう lit. Japanese sword?), is one of the traditional bladed weapons (nihonto) ofJapan. There are several types of Japanese swords, according to size, field of application and method of manufacture.


In modern times the most commonly known type of Japanese sword is the Shinogi-Zukurikatana, which is a single-edged and usually curved long sword traditionally worn by samurai from the 15th century onwards.

Picture above of Japanese samurai 


BeZhare: Origin of Samurai History


Other types of Japanese swords include:tsurugi or ken, which is a double-edged sword, ōdachinodachitachi, which are older styles of a very long single-edged sword, wakizashi, a medium sized sword, and the tantowhich is an even smaller knife sized sword . Although they are pole-mounted weapons, the naginata and yari are considered part of the nihontō family due to the methods by which they are forged.

Japanese swords are still commonly seen today; antique and modernly-forged swords can easily be found and purchased. Modern, authentic nihontō are made by a few hundred swordsmiths. Many examples can be seen at an annual competition hosted by the All Japan Swordsmith Association, under the auspices of the Nihontō Bunka Shinkō Kyōkai (Society for the promotion of Japanese Sword Culture)

File:Japanese - NARA - 528400.tif

Photo from 1860s


The word katana was used in ancient Japan and is still used today, whereas the old usage of the word nihontō is found in the poem 日本刀歌, the Song of Nihontō, by the Song Dynasty poet Ouyang Xiu. The word nihontō became more common in Japan in the late Tokugawa shogunate. Due to importation of Western swords, the word nihontō was adopted in order to distinguish it from the Western sword (洋刀 yōtō?).

File:WLA haa Sword by Kenji Nobuhide Kurihara.jpg

Traditional Japanese long sword and various fittings.



Each blade has a unique profile, mostly dependent on the swordsmith and the construction method. The most prominent part is the middle ridge, or shinogi. In the earlier picture, the examples were flat to the shinogi, then tapering to the blade. However, swords could narrow down to the shinogi, then narrow further to the blade, or even expand outward towards the shinogi then shrink to the blade (producing a trapezoidal shape). A flat or narrowing shinogi is called shinogi-hikushi, whereas a fat blade is called a shinogi-takushi.

The shinogi can be placed near the back of the blade for a longer, sharper, more fragile tip or a more moderate shinogi near the center of the blade.

The sword also has an exact tip shape, which is considered an extremely important characteristic: the tip can be long (ōkissaki), medium (chūkissaki), short (kokissaki), or even hooked backwards (ikuri-ōkissaki). In addition, whether the front edge of the tip is more curved (fukura-tsuku) or (relatively) straight (fukura-kareru) is also important.

The Dao of Samurai: Bushido (Bu Shih 


The kissaki (point) is not a “chisel-like” point, nor is the Western knife interpretation of a “tanto point” found on true Japanese swords; a straight, linearly-sloped point has the advantage of being easy to grind, but it bears only a superficial similarity to traditional Japanese kissaki. Kissaki have a curved profile, and smooth three-dimensional curvature across their surface towards the edge – though they are bounded by a straight line called the yokote and have crisp definition at all their edges.

Although it is not commonly known, the “chisel point” kissaki originated in Japan. Examples of such are shown in the book “The Japanese Sword” by Kanzan Sato. Because American bladesmiths use this design extensively it is a common misconception that the design originated in America.

A hole is punched through the tang nakago, called a mekugi-ana. It is used to anchor the blade using a mekugi, a small bamboo pin that is inserted into another cavity in the handle tsuka and through the mekugi-ana, thus restricting the blade from slipping out. To remove the tsuka one removes the mekugi. The swordsmith’s signature mei is placed on the nakago.


koshirae (拵え?) refers to the mountings of a Japanese sword (e.g. katana) when the sword blade is being worn by its owner, whereas the shirasaya is a wooden saya and tsuka that the sword blade is stored in when not being used.

File:Daisho katana and wakizashi koshirae 2.jpg

Two antique koshirae, katana (top), wakizashi (bottom), in the form of a daisho (matched set)
File:Daisho set of shirasaya.jpg
A daisho set of Japanese sword storage mounts (shirasaya) for katana (top) and wakizashi (bottom).


The word koshirae is derived from the verb koshiraeru (拵える?), which is no longer used in current speech. More commonly “tsukuru” is used in its place with both words meaning to “make, create, manufacture.” A more accurate word is tōsō (刀装?), meaning sword-furniture, where tōsōgu (刀装具?) are the parts of the mounting in general, and “kanagu” stands for those made of metal. Gaisō (外装?) are the “outer” mountings, as opposed to tōshin (刀身?), the “body” of the sword.

koshirae should be presented with the tsuka (hilt) to the left, particularly in times of peace with the reason being that you cannot unsheathe the sword easily this way. During the Edo period, many formalized rules were put into place: in times of war the tsukashould be presented to the right allowing the sword to be readily unsheathed.

Koshirae were meant not only for functional but also for aesthetic purposes, often using a family mon (crest) for identification.

File:Japanese sword and koshirae glossary.jpg

A diagram of a katana and koshirae with components identified.


  • Fuchi (縁?):The fuchi is a hilt collar between the tsukaand the tsuba.
  • Habaki (鎺?):The habaki is a wedge shaped metal collar used to keep the sword from falling out of thesaya and to support the fittings below; fitted at the ha-machi and mune-machi which precede the nakago.
  • Kaeshizuno (返し角?) – a hook shaped fitting used to lock the saya to the obi while drawing.
  • Kashira (頭?):The kashira is a butt cap (or pommel) on the end of the tsuka.
  • Kōgai (笄?):The kōgai is a spike for hair arranging carried sometimes as part of Katana-Koshirae in another pocket.
  • Koiguchi (鯉口?):The koiguchi is the mouth of thesaya or its fitting; traditionally made of buffalo horn.
  • Kojiri (鐺?):The kojiri is the end of the saya or the protective fitting at the end of the saya; also traditionally made of buffalo horn.
  • Kozuka (小柄?):The kozuka is a decorative handle fitting for the kogatana; a small utility knife fit into a pocket on the saya.
  • Kuri-kata (栗形?):The kuri-kata is a knob on the side of the saya for attaching the sageo.
  • Mekugi (目釘?):The mekugi is a small peg for securing the tsuka to the nakago.
  • Menuki (目貫?):The menuki are ornaments on thetsuka (generally under the tsuka-ito); to fit into the palm for grip and originally meant to hide the mekugi.
  • Mekugi-ana (茎穴?):The mekugi-ana are the holes in the tsuka and nakago for the mekugi.
  • Sageo (下げ緒?):The sageo is the cord used to tiesaya to the belt/obi when worn.
  • Same-hada (鮫肌?) – literally the pattern of the ray skin.
  • Same-kawa (samegawa) (鮫皮?):same-kawa is the ray or shark skin wrapping of the tsuka (handle/hilt).
  • Saya (鞘?):The saya is a wooden scabbard for the blade; traditionally done in lacquered wood.
  • Seppa (切羽?):The seppa are washers above and below the tsuba to tighten the fittings.
  • Shitodome (鵐目?) – an accent on the kurikata for aesthetic purposes; often done in gold-ish metal in modern reproductions.
  • Tsuba (鍔 or 鐔?):The tsuba is a hand guard.
  • Tsuka (柄?):The tsuka is the hilt or handle; made of wood and wrapped in samegawa.
  • Tsuka-maki (柄巻?) – the art of wrapping the tsuka, including the most common hineri maki and katate maki (battle wrap).
  • Tsuka-ito (柄糸?):Tsuka-ito the wrap of the tsuka, traditionally silk but today most often in cotton and sometimes leather.
  • Wari-bashi (割箸?) – metal chop-sticks fit in a pocket on the saya.


File:Daisho habaki.jpg

A matched pair (daisho) of silverhaibaki.

The habaki (啖呵?) is a piece of metal encircling the base of the blade of a Japanese bladed weapon. It has the double purpose of locking the tsuba (guard) in place, and to maintain the weapon in its saya (scabbard).

katana, a type of Japanese longsword, is drawn by grasping the saya near the top and pressing the tsuba with the thumb to emerge the blade just enough to unwedge the habakifrom inside the saya in a process called “koiguchi-no-kirikata”. The blade is then free in thesaya, and can be drawn out very quickly. This is known as “Koiguchi-o kiru“, nukitsuke, or “tanka o kiru” (啖呵を切る, “clearing the tanka”). This is obviously an extremely aggressive gesture, since a fatal cut can be given in a fraction of a second thereafter (see iaidō).

Ronin (Masterless Samurai) Fending off Arrows by Yoshitoshi Taiso, 1869

Woodcut Print of “Ronin (Masterless Samurai) Fending Off Arrows” – 1869 http://asianhistory.about.com/od/japan/ig/Samurai-

Artist- Yoshitoshi Taiso. No known restrictions due to age.

The expression “tanka o kiru” is now widely used in Japan, in the sense of “getting ready to begin something”, or “getting ready to speak”, especially with an aggressive connotation.

The habaki will cause normal wear and tear on the koiguchi and either a shim or new saya may be needed to remedy the issue as it will become too loose over time. Oiling under the habaki after cutting or once every few months is recommended by removing the habaki from the sword, though.


File:Daisho sageo.jpg

A matched set (daisho) of sageo

sageo (下緒 or 下げ緒?) is a hanging cord made of silk, cotton or leather that is passed through the hole in the kurigata (栗形) of a Japanese sword‘s saya.

There are a number of different methods for wrapping and tying the sageo on the saya for display purposes.

In some schools of Iaidō, the sageo is tied to the hakama when practising.


File:Daisho tsuka.jpg

Two tsuka katana (top), wakizashi(bottom) in the form of a daisho(matched set)

Saya (鞘?) is the Japanese term for a scabbard, and specifically refers to the scabbard for a sword or knife.

Saya are normally manufactured from very lightweight wood, with a coat of lacquer on the exterior. The wood is light enough that great care must be taken when drawing the sword; incorrect form may result in the blade of the sword slicing through the saya and severing one or more fingers. Correct drawing and sheathing of the blade involves contacting the mune rather than ha to the inside of the saya. The saya also has a wooden knob (栗形 kurigata?)on one side for attaching a braided cord (sageo), and may have a shitodome to accent the kurigata as well as a butt cap (小尻 kojiri?) made from metal. Traditionally the koiguchi and kojiri were made from buffalo horn.



Decorated sword guard, or Tsuba

The tsuba (?, or ) is usually a round or occasionally squarish guard at the end of the grip of bladed Japanese weapons, like the katana and its various declinations, tachiwakizashitantō,naginata etc. They contribute to the balance of the weapon and to the protection of the hand. Thetsuba was mostly meant to be used to prevent the hand from sliding onto the blade during thrusts as opposed to protecting from an opponent’s blade. The chudan no kamae guard is determined by the tsuba and the curvature of the blade. The diameter of the average katana tsuba is 7.5–8 centimetres (3.0–3.1 in), wakizashi tsuba is 6.2–6.6 cm (2.4–2.6 in), and tantō tsuba is 4.5–6 cm (1.8–2.4 in).

Samurai Sword guard - Tsuba


During the Muromachi period (1333–1573) and the Momoyama period (1573–1603) Tsubawere more for functionality than for decoration, being made of stronger metals and designs. During the Edo period (1603–1868) there was peace in Japan so tsuba became more ornamental and made of less practical metals such as gold.

Samurai warriors fight on top of the Horyukaku (Horyu Tower), c. 1830-1870

Two samurai fighting on the roof of Horyu Tower (Horyukaku), Japanese woodcut print c. 1830-1870 http://asianhistory.about.com

The Empress Jingu (c. 169 – 269 A.D.) leads an invasion of Korea.

Tsuba are usually finely decorated, and nowadays are collectors’ items. Tsuba were made by whole dynasties of craftsmen whose only craft was making tsuba. They were usually lavishly decorated. In addition to being collectors items, they were often used as heirlooms, passed from one generation to the next.

Sword-guard (Tsuba 鍔)

Tsuba with stylized butterflies http://muza-chan.net

Japanese families with samurairoots sometimes have their family crest (mon) crafted onto a tsubaTsuba can be found in a variety of metals and alloys, including iron, steel, brass, copper and shakudo.

Sword-guard (Tsuba 鍔)

Tsuba with Gourds and Leaves http://muza-chan.net/

In a duel, two participants may lock their katana together at the point of the tsuba and push, trying to gain a better position from which to strike the other down. This is known as tsubazeriai (鍔迫り合い), lit. pushing tsuba against each other. Tsubazeriai is a common sight in modern kendo.

In modern Japanese, tsubazeriai (鍔迫り合い) has also come to mean “to be in fierce competition.”

Samurai Sword guard - Tsuba

Tsuba with floral design:

Edo period 'Tsuba'
Creative Commons License photo credit: dcbprime

Tsuba with Crane, symbol of longevity and immortality:

Tsuba with floral design:

Sword-guard (Tsuba 鍔)
Creative Commons License photo credit: peterjr1961

Tsuba with Butterfly design:

Tsuba buterfly - Musée Guimet
Creative Commons License photo credit: n.vasse

Tsuba with stylized butterflies:

Sword-guard (Tsuba 鍔)
Creative Commons License photo credit: peterjr1961

Tsuba with Mount Fuji:

Katana Sword Guard - Tsuba
Katana Sword Guard – Tsuba
image via Wikipedia

…and many more…

Tsuba, tsquared tsircle
Creative Commons License photo credit: dcbprime
Sword-guard (Tsuba 鍔)
Creative Commons License photo credit: peterjr1961
Sword-guard (Tsuba 鍔)
Creative Commons License photo credit: peterjr1961
Katana Sword Guard - Tsuba
Katana Sword Guard – Tsuba
image via Wikipedia
Katana Sword Guard - Tsuba
Katana Sword Guard – Tsuba
image via Wikipedia
Katana Sword Guard - Tsuba
Katana Sword Guard – Tsuba
image via Wikipedia
Katana Sword Guard - Tsuba
Katana Sword Guard – Tsuba
image via Wikipedia
Samurai Sword guard - Tsuba - Tokyo National Museum
Samurai sword guard (Tsuba) with “two comma” (futatsudomoe) design – Tokyo National Museum
Samurai Sword guard - Tsuba




Tantō mounted in aikuchi

The aikuchi (匕首?) (literally “fitting mouth”) is a form of mounting for Japanese blades in which the handle and the scabbard meet without a guard in between. Originally used on the koshigatana (a precursor to the wakizashi) to facilitate close wearing with armor, it became a fashionable upper-class mounting style for tantō (daggers) in the Edo period. Small aikuchi tantō known as kaiken became popular with the Yakuza, as they were easy to conceal; however, the most typical user of kaiken were women samurai from the Edo period onwards, who kept it as an emergency and/or suicide weapon.

According to S. Alexander Takeuchi from University of North Alabama, Department of Sociology, aikuchi, is a form of koshirae (mounting style) which commonly was used in tantō creation. The nomenclature of the word “aikuchi” is the following: the Japanese:ai is a gerund which means meeting and Japanese: kuchi is a noun that means mouth. The same formula is used in koi-guchi. So,aikuchi initially was a style of mounting in which the fuchi meets with the koi-guchi.

Later, in the Tokugawa period, this tradition of blade mounting gave the name to the very short samurai sword—tantō. Thus, the aikuchi tantō represented a no-tsuba (guard) short sword mainly used in Tokugawa period. The dagger was short and it had a cutting edge the length of which was about 9 inches. It could serve for self-defense as well as for attacking the enemy by throwing it. This weapon looks similar to tantō—the only difference is that aikuchi does not have a hand guard. It was very popular during fifteenth century.

Photo of Tokugawa-era samurai in full armor

Samurai warrior in full gear, 1860s

Aikuchi was used mainly during infighting as well as close range grappling. It served for dispatching the enemy when thrown to the ground. This weapon can be easily recognized by the size of its blade as well as by the fact that it had no hilt guard. Aikuchi were also created in a thicker version called yoroi tōshi (Japanese for “armor piercer”). Yoroi tōshi was a strong dagger able to cut through armor when fighting at a close range.

There was also another type of aikuchi called moroha zukuri (Japanese for “double-edged style”). Its blade length was about 7 inches and its blade was sharpened on both sides. It is considered that the best aikuchi knives were created by the famous Japanese swordsmiths that represented the Osafune school, situated in Bizen province. Nowadays these daggers are considered to be very rare and thus very valuable.

Daimyo Tachi


Jintachi (no) koshirae (陣太刀 jintachi?) is the primary style of mounting used for tachiJapanese swords, where the sword is suspended edge-down from two hangers attached to the obi. The hilt (tsuka) often had a slightly stronger curvature than the blade, continuing the classic tachi increase in curvature as you go from the tip to the hilt. The hilt was usually secured with two pegs(mekugi), as compared to one peg for shorter blades including uchigatana and katana.

Daimyo Tachi


File:Saya-bois.jpgA typical shirasaya with sayagaki (attribution or appraisal written on a shirasaya. Not reliable unless signature and kakihan of a recognized authority is added).
Japanese name
Kanji: 白鞘
Hiragana: しらさや

shirasaya (白鞘?), literally “white scabbard”,[4] is a plain wooden Japanese blademount consisting of a saya (scabbard) and tsuka (hilt), traditional made of nurizayawood and used when a blade was not expected to see use for some time and needed to be stored. They were externally featureless save for the needed mekugi-ana to secure the nakago (tang), though sometimes sayagaki (blade information) was also present. The need for specialized storage is because prolonged koshirae mounting harmed the blade, owing to factors such as the lacquered wood retaining moisture and encouragingcorrosion.

Daimyo Tachi

Such mountings are not intended for actual combat, as the lack of a tsuba (guard) and proper handle wrappings were deleterious; as such they would likely never make their way onto a battlefield. However, there have been loosely-similar “hidden” mountings, such as the shikomizue. Also, many blades dating back to earlier Japanese history are today sold in such a format, along with modern-day reproductions; while most are purely-decorative replicas, a few have functional blades.


File:Shikomizue koshirae.jpg

Shikomizue koshirae

File:Shikomizue tsuka.jpg

Shikomizue tsuka

The shikomizue (仕込み杖?, literally “prepared cane”) is a Japanese swordstick. It is most famous for its use by the fictional swordmaster Zatoichi.

The name shikomi-zue is actually the name of a type of mounting; the sword blade was placed in a cane-like mounting (tsue), to conceal the fact that it was a sword. These mountings are not to be confused with the Shirasaya mountings, which were just plain wooden mountings with no decorations.

Samurai Sword

Some shikomi-zue also concealed metsubushi, chains, hooks, and many other things. The shikomi-zue could be carried in public without arousing suspicion.


What generally differentiates the different swords is their length. Japanese swords are measured in units of shaku. Since 1891, the modern Japanese ‘shaku’ is approximately equal to a foot (11.93 inches), calibrated with the meter to equal exactly 10 meters per 33 shaku (30.30 cm).

Daimyo Tachi

Samurai Sword

However the historical shaku was slightly longer (13.96 inches or 35.45 cm). Thus, there may sometimes be confusion about the blade lengths, depending on which shaku value is being assumed when converting to metric or US measurements.

The three main divisions of Japanese blade length are:

A blade shorter than one shaku is considered a tantō (knife). A blade longer than one shaku but less than two is considered a shōtō (short sword). The wakizashi and kodachi are in this category. The length is measured in a straight line across the back of the blade from tip to munemachi (where blade meets tang). Most blades that fall into the “shōtō” size range are wakizashi. However, some daitō were designed with blades slightly shorter than 2 shaku. These were called kodachi and are somewhere in between a true daitō and a wakizashi. A shōtō and a daitō together are called a daishō(literally, “big and small”). The daishō was the symbolic armament of the Edo period samurai.

File:Katana blades.jpg

A blade longer than two shaku is considered a daitō, or long sword. To qualify as a daitō the sword must have a blade longer than 2shaku (approximately 24 inches or 60 centimeters) in a straight line. While there is a well defined lower-limit to the length of a daitō, the upper limit is not well enforced; a number of modern historians, swordsmiths, etc. say that swords that are over 3 shaku in blade length are “longer than normal daitō” and are usually referred to or called ōdachi. The word “daitō” is often used when explaining the related terms shōtō (short sword) and daishō (the set of both large and small sword). Miyamoto Musashi refers to the long sword inThe Book of Five Rings. He is referring to the katana in this, and refers to the nodachi and the odachi as “extra-long swords”.

Ryumon Japanese Samurai Sword Bamboo Katana


Before 1500 most swords were usually worn suspended from cords on a belt, edge-down. This style is called jindachi-zukuri, anddaitō worn in this fashion are called tachi (average blade length of 75–80 cm). From 1600 to 1867, more swords were worn through an obi (sash), paired with a smaller blade; both worn edge-up. This style is called buke-zukuri, and all daitō worn in this fashion are katana, averaging 70–74 cm (2 shaku 3 sun to 2 shaku 4 sun 5 bu) in blade length. However, nihontō of longer lengths also existed, including lengths up to 78 cm (2 shaku 5 sun 5 bu). The weight of a nihontō rarely exceeded 1 kg without thesaya.

chisa katana (小さ刀 chiisa gatana?) is simply a shorter nihontō. It is longer than the wakizashi, usually about 18 inches in length. The most common reference to a chisa katana is a shorter nihontō that does not have a companion blade. They were most commonly made in the buke-zukuri mounting.

Daimyo Tachi

Abnormally long blades (longer than 3 shaku), usually carried across the back, are called ōdachi or nodachi. The word ōdachi is also sometimes used as a synonym for nihontō. Odachi means “Great Sword”, and Nodachi translates to “Field sword”. Nodachi were used during war as the longer sword gave a foot soldier a reach advantage, but now nodachi are illegal  because of their effectiveness as a killing weapon. Citizens are not allowed to possess an odachi unless it is for ceremonial purposes.

Here is a list of lengths for different types of swords:

Swords whose length is next to a different classification type are described with a prefix ‘O-’ (for great) or ‘Ko-’ (for small), e.g. a Wakizashi with a length of 59 cm is called a O-wakizashi (almost a Katana) whereas a Katana with 61 cm is called a Ko-Katana (for small Katana) .

daimyo tachi

Since 1867, restrictions and/or the deconstruction of the samurai class meant that most blades have been worn jindachi-zukuristyle, like Western navy officers. Since 1953, there has been a resurgence in the buke-zukuri style, permitted only for demonstration purposes. Swords designed specifically to be tachi are generally kotō rather than shintō, so they are generally better manufactured and more elaborately decorated, however, these are still katana if worn in modern buke-zukuri style.


Most old Japanese swords can be traced back to one of five provinces, each of which had its own school, traditions and “trademarks” (e.g., the swords from Mino province were “from the start famous for their sharpness”). These schools are known as Gokaden (The Five Traditions). These traditions and provinces are as follows:

  • Sōshū School, known for itame hada and midareba hamon in nie deki.
  • Yamato School, known for masame hada and suguha hamon in nie deki.
  • Bizen School, known for mokume hada and midareba hamon in nioi deki.
  • Yamashiro School, known for mokume hada and suguha hamon in nei deki.
  • Mino School, known for hard mokume hada and midareba mixed with togari-ba.

In the Kotō era there were several other schools that did not fit within the Gokaden or were known to mix elements of each Gokaden, and they were called wakimono (small school). There were 19 commonly referenced wakimono.

Daimyo Tachi


Before 987, examples of Japanese swords were straight chokutō orjōkotō and others with unusual shapes. In the Heian period (8th to 11th centuries) sword-making developed through techniques brought over from China through trade in the early 10th century during the Tang Dynasty and through Siberia and Hokkaidō, territory of the Ainu people. The Ainu used warabite-tō (蕨手刀?) and these influenced the nihontō, which was held with two hands and designed for cutting, rather than stabbing.

solid gold wakizashi with mitokoromono

According to legend, the Japanese sword was invented by a smith namedAmakuni (ca.700 AD), along with the folded steel process. The folded steel process and single edge swords had been invented in the early 10th century Japan. Swords forged between 987 and 1597 are called kotō (古刀?) (lit., “old swords”); these are considered the pinnacle of Japanese swordcraft. Early models had uneven curves with the deepest part of the curve at the hilt. As eras changed the center of the curve tended to move up the blade.

Beautiful Japanese Samurai Swords,Japanese Samurai Katana Tanto Wakizashi


The nihonto as we know it today with its deep, graceful curve has its origin in shinogi-zukuri (single-edged blade with ridgeline) tachi which were developed sometime around the middle of the Heian period to service the need of the growing military class. Its shape reflects the changing form of warfare in Japan. Cavalry were now the predominant fighting unit and the older straight chokutō were particularly unsuitable for fighting from horseback. The curved sword is a far more efficient weapon when wielded by a warrior on horseback where the curve of the blade adds considerably to the downward force of a cutting action.

The tachi is a sword which is generally larger than a katana, and is worn suspended with the cutting edge down. This was the standard form of carrying the sword for centuries, and would eventually be displaced by the katana style where the blade was worn thrust through the belt, edge up. Thetachi was worn slung across the left hip. The signature on the tang (nakago) of the blade was inscribed in such a way that it would always be on the outside of the sword when worn. This characteristic is important in recognising the development, function and different styles of wearing swords from this time onwards.

samurai sword

When worn with full armour, the tachi would be accompanied by a shorter blade in the form known as koshigatana (“waist sword”); a type of short sword with no hand-guard (tsuba) and where the hilt and scabbard meet to form the style of mounting called an aikuchi(“meeting mouth”). Daggers (tantō), were also carried for close combat fighting as well as carried generally for personal protection.


The Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century spurred further evolution of the Japanese sword. Often forced to abandon traditional mounted archery for hand-to-hand combat, many samurai found that their swords were too delicate and prone to damage when used against the thick leather armor of the invaders. In response, Japanese swordsmiths started to adopt thinner and simpler temper lines. Certain Japanese swordsmiths of this period began to make blades with thicker backs and bigger points as a response to the Mongol threat.

By the 15th century, the Sengoku Jidai civil war erupted, and the vast need for swords together with the ferocity of the fighting caused the highly artistic techniques of the Kamakura period (known as the “Golden Age of Swordmaking”) to be abandoned in favor of more utilitarian and disposable weapons. The export of nihontō reached its height during the Muromachi period when at least 200,000 nihontō were shipped to Ming Dynasty China in official trade in an attempt to soak up the production of Japanese weapons and make it harder for pirates in the area to arm.

samurai sword

In the 15th and 16th centuries, samurai who increasingly found a need for a sword for use in closer quarters along with increasing use of foot-soldiers armed with spears led to the creation of the uchigatana, in both one-handed and two-handed forms. As the Sengoku civil wars progressed, the uchigatana evolved into the modern katana, and replaced the tachi as the primary weapon of the samurai, especially when not wearing armor. Many longer tachi were shortened in the 15th-17th centuries to meet the demand forkatana.

The craft decayed as time progressed and firearms were introduced as a decisive force on the battlefield. At the end of theMuromachi period, the Tokugawa shoguns issued regulations controlling who could own and carry swords, and effectively standardized the description of a nihontō.

samurai sword

samurai sword

New swords

n times of peace, swordsmiths returned to the making of refined and artistic blades, and the beginning of the Momoyama period saw the return of high quality creations. As the techniques of the ancient smiths had been lost during the previous period of war, these swords were called shintō (新刀?), literally “new swords”. Generally they are considered inferior to most kotō (“old swords”), and coincide with a decline in manufacturing skills. As the Edo period progressed, blade quality declined, though ornamentation was refined. Originally, simple and tasteful engravings known as horimono were added for religious reasons. Later, in the more complex work found on many shintō, form no longer strictly followed function.

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Imperial Japanese Army Gunto & Saber.

Under the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate, swordmaking and the use of firearms declined. The master swordsmith Suishinshi Masahide (c.1750–1825) published opinions that the arts and techniques of the shintō swords were inferior to the kotō blades, and that research should be made by all swordsmiths to rediscover the lost techniques. Masahide traveled the land teaching what he knew to all who would listen, and swordsmiths rallied to his cause and ushered in a second renaissance in Japanese sword smithing. With the discarding of the shintō style, and the re-introduction of old and rediscovered techniques, swords made in the kotō style between 1761 and 1876 are shinshintō (新新刀?), “new revival swords” or literally “new-new swords.” These are considered superior to most shintō, but inferior to true kotō.

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 Type 98 Japanese Army sabre

The arrival of Matthew Perry in 1853 and the subsequent Convention of Kanagawa forcibly reintroduced Japan to the outside world; the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration soon followed. The Haitorei edict in 1876 all but banned carrying swords and guns on streets. Overnight, the market for swords died, many swordsmiths were left without a trade to pursue, and valuable skills were lost. The nihontō remained in use in some occupations such as the police force. At the same time, kendo was incorporated into police training so that police officers would have at least the training necessary to properly use one.

In time, it was rediscovered that soldiers needed to be armed with swords, and over the decades at the beginning of the 20th century swordsmiths again found work. These swords, derisively called guntō, were often oil-tempered, or simply stamped out of steel and given a serial number rather than a chiseled signature. The mass-produced ones often look like Western cavalry sabers rather than nihontō, with blades slightly shorter than blades of the shintō and shinshintō periods. Military swords hand made in the traditional way are often termed as gendaitō. The craft of making swords was kept alive through the efforts of a few individuals, notably Gassan Sadakazu (月山貞一, 1836–1918) and Gassan Sadakatsu (月山貞勝, 1869–1943), who were employed as Imperial artisans. These smiths produced fine works that stand with the best of the older blades for the Emperor and other high ranking officials. The students of Sadakatsu went on to be designated Intangible Cultural Assets, “Living National Treasures,” as they embodied knowledge that was considered to be fundamentally important to the Japanese identity. In 1934 the Japanese government issued a military specification for the shin guntō (new army sword), the first version of which was the Type 94 Katana, and many machine- and hand-crafted swords used in World War II conformed to this and later shin guntō specifications.


 Japanese sabre of the second world war. Machine steel, industrial fabrication, with embossed and painted handle to look like a traditional tsuka. The scabbard is of Western style (by opposition to a traditional saya)

Recent history and modern use

Under the United States occupation at the end of World War II all armed forces in occupied Japan were disbanded and production of nihontō with edges was banned except under police or government permit. The ban was overturned through a personal appeal by Dr. Junji Honma. During a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur, Dr. Honma produced blades from the various periods of Japanese history and MacArthur was able to identify very quickly what blades held artistic merit and which could be considered purely weapons. As a result of this meeting, the ban was amended so that guntō weapons would be destroyed while swords of artistic merit could be owned and preserved. Even so, many nihontō were sold to American soldiers at a bargain price; in 1958 there were more Japanese swords in America than in Japan. The vast majority of these one million or more swords were guntō, but there were still a sizable number of older swords.

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World War II Japanese navel officers sword kai gunto.

After the Edo period, swordsmiths turned increasingly to the production of civilian goods. The Occupation and its regulations almost put an end to the production of nihonto. A few smiths continued their trade, and Dr. Honma went on to be a founder 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?), who made it their mission to preserve the old techniques and blades. Thanks to the efforts of other like-minded individuals, the nihontō did not disappear, many swordsmiths continued the work begun by Masahide, and the old swordmaking techniques were rediscovered.

Double Cutting Test

Modern nihonto manufactured according to traditional methods are usually known as shinsakutō (新作刀?), meaning “newly made swords”. Alternatively, they can be termed shinken (真剣?) when they are designed for combat as opposed to iaitō training swords.

Due to their popularity in modern media, display-only “nihontō” have become widespread in the sword marketplace. Ranging from small letter openers to scale replica “wallhangers”, these items are commonly made from stainless steel (which makes them either brittle or poor at holding an edge) and have either a blunt or very crude edge. There are accounts of good quality stainless steel nihontō, however, these are rare at best. Some replica nihontō have been used in modern-day armed robberies, which became the reason for a possible ban on sale, import and hire of samurai swords in the UK. As a part of marketing, modern a-historic blade styles and material properties are often stated as traditional and genuine, promulgating disinformation.

In Japan, genuine edged hand-made Japanese swords, whether antique or modern, are classified as art objects (and not weapons) and must have accompanying certification in order to be legally owned. It should be noted that some companies and independent smiths outside of Japan produce katana as well, with varying levels of quality.


Japanese swordsmithing is the labour-intensive bladesmithing process developed in Japan for various bladed weapons including Katanawakizashi,tantoyarinaginataYa (arrow).

Japanese sword blades were often forged with different profiles, different blade thicknesses, and varying amounts of grind. Wakizashi and tanto were not simply scaled-down katana; they were often forged in hira-zukuri or other such forms which were very rare on katana.

Traditional methods

Steel production

The steel used is known as Tamahagane (玉鋼:たまはがね?), or “jewel steel” (tama – ball or jewel, hagane – steel). Tamahagane is produced from black sand, a source of iron ore, and mainly used to make Samurai swords, such as the katana, and some tools.

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Diagram of a tatara and bellows

The smelting process used is different from the modern mass production of steel. A clayvessel about 4 ft (1.2 m) tall, 12 ft (3.7 m) long, and 4 ft (1.2 m) wide is constructed. This is known as a tatara. After the clay tub has set, it is fired until dry. A charcoal fire is started from soft pine charcoal. Then the smelter will wait for the fire to reach the correct temperature. At that point he will direct the addition of iron sand known as satetsu. This will be layered in with more charcoal and more iron sand over the next 72 hours. Four or five people need to constantly work on this process. It takes about a week to build the tatara and complete the iron conversion to steel. The steel is not allowed to become fully molten, and this allows both high and low carbon material to be created and separated once cooled. When complete, the Tatara is broken to remove the steel bloom, known as akera. At the end of the process the tatara will have consumed about 10 short tons (9.1 t) of satetsu and 12 short tons (11 t) of charcoal leaving about 2.5 short tons (2.3 t) of kera, from which less than a ton of tamahagane can be produced.



The swordsmiths will carefully break the kera apart, and separate the various carbon steels. The lowest carbon steel is called hocho-tetsu, which is used for the shingane, (translated as “core-steel”) of the blade. The high carbon tamahagane and higher carbon steel, called nabe-gane, will then be forged in alternating layers, using very intricate methods to form the kawagane (or, “skin steel”). The most useful process is the folding, where the metals are forge welded, folded, and welded again, as many as 16 times. The folding removes impurities and helps even out the carbon content, while the alternating layers combine hardness with ductility to create toughness. Traditionally, tamahagane is only made three or four times a year by Nittoho and Hitachi Metals during winter in a wood building and is only sold to the master swordsmiths to use once it is made.

Elemental composition

The composition of steel used for the Japanese sword varied from smith to smith and lode to lode of iron ore. One formula from World War II shin guntō production was as follows:

Elemental composition:
Iron 95.22% to 98.12%
Carbon 0.10% to 3.00%
Copper 1.54%
Manganese 0.11%
Tungsten 0.05%
Molybdenum 0.04%
Titanium 0.02%
Silicon Varying amount
Miscellaneous compounds Trace amount


The forging of a Japanese blade typically took many days or weeks, and was considered a sacred art, traditionally accompanied by a large panoply of Shinto religious rituals. As with many complex endeavors, rather than a single craftsman, several artists were involved. There was a smith to forge the rough shape, often a second smith (apprentice) to fold the metal, a specialist polisher, and even a specialist for the edge itself. Often, there were sheath, hilt, and tsuba specialists as well.


Katana made from tamahagane, showing alternating layers of varying carbon content.


Forge scenes, print from a Edo period book, Switzerland, Museum of Ethnography of Neuchâtel

The steel bloom, or kera, that is produced in the tataracontains steel that varies greatly in carbon content, ranging from wrought iron to pig iron. Three types of steel are chosen for the blade; a very low carbon steel called hocho-tetsu is used for the core of the blade, called the shingane. The high carbon steel, called tamahagane, and the remelted pig iron, called nabe-gane, are combined to form the outer skin of the blade, called kawagane.Only about 1/3 of the kera produces steel that is suitable for sword production.

The best known part of the manufacturing process is the folding of the steel, where the swords are made by repeatedly heating, hammering and folding the metal. Frequently attributed to specific Japanese smiths in legend, the process of folding metal to improve strength and remove impurities, along with other steel technologies such as differential hardening, were well known in China since at least the Han Dynasty, and it is most likely that the method was introduced to Japan during the Tang Dynasty, when the Japanese made a strong effort to recruit Chinese smiths and other craftsmen, and the same period during which many fables attribute the invention of the process to some Japanese smith or another. The technique of repeated heating and folding of steel for swords was found in many other cultures and did not necessarily have one single point of origin.

In traditional Japanese sword making, the low carbon hocho-tetsu is folded several times by itself, to purify it. This produces the soft metal, called shingane, to be used for the core of the blade. The high carbon tamahagane and the higher carbon nabe-gane are then forged in alternating layers. The nabe-gane is heated, quenched in water, and then broken into small pieces to help free it from slag. The tamahagane is then forged into a single plate, and the pieces of nabe-gane are piled on top, and the whole thing is forge weldedinto a single block, which is called the age-kitae process. The block is then elongated, cut, folded, and forge welded again. The steel can be folded transversely, (from front to back), or longitudinally, (from side to side). Often both folding directions are used to produce the desired grain pattern. This process, called the shita-kitae, is repeated from 8 to as many as 16 times. After 20 foldings, (220, or about a million individual layers), there is too much diffusion in the carbon content, the steel becomes almost homogenous in this respect, and the act of folding no longer gives any benefit to the steel.Depending on the amount of carbon introduced, this process forms either the very hard steel for the edge, called hagane, or the slightly less hardenable spring steel, called kawagane, which is often used for the sides and the back.

samurai sword

During the last few foldings, the steel may be forged into several thin plates, stacked, and forge welded into a brick. The grain of the steel is carefully positioned between adjacent layers, with the exact configuration dependent on the part of the blade for which the steel will be used. Between each heating and folding, the steel is coated in a mixture of clay, water and straw-ash to protect it fromoxidation and carburization. The clay, in turn, acts as a flux, pulling impurities out from between the layers. This practice became popular due to the use of highly impure metals, stemming from the low temperature yielded in the smelting at that time and place. The folding did several things:


Blacksmith scene, print from a Edo period book, Museum of Ethnography of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

  • It provided alternating layers of differing hardenability. During quenching, the high carbon layers achieve greater hardness than the medium carbon layers. The hardnessof the high carbon steels combine with the ductility of the low carbon steels to form the property of toughness.
  • It eliminated any voids in the metal.
  • It homogenized the metal, spreading the elements (such as carbon) evenly throughout – increasing the effective strength by decreasing the number of potential weak points.
  • It burned off many impurities, helping to overcome the poor quality of the raw Japanese steel.
  • It created up to 65000 layers, by continuously decarburizing the surface and bringing it into the blade’s interior, which gives the swords their grain (for comparison see pattern welding).

Generally, swords were created with the grain of the blade (called hada) running down the blade like the grain on a plank of wood. Straight grains were called masame-hada, wood-like grain itame, wood-burl grain mokume, and concentric wavy grain (an uncommon feature seen almost exclusively in the Gassan school) ayasugi-hada. The difference between the first three grains is that of cutting a tree along the grain, at an angle, and perpendicular to its direction of growth (mokume-gane) respectively, the angle causing the “stretched” pattern. The blades that were considered the most robust, reliable, and of highest quality were those made in the Mino tradition, especially those of Magoroku Kanemoto. Bizen tradition, which specialized in mokume, and some schools of Yamato tradition were also considered strong warrior’s weapons.


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In addition to folding the steel, high quality Japanese swords are also composed of various distinct sections of different types of steel. Known in China as bao gang 包钢 (literally “wrapped steel”) since at least the Tang Dynasty, this manufacturing technique uses different types of steel in different parts of the sword to accentuate the desired characteristics in various parts of the sword beyond the level offered by differentiated tempering.

The vast majority of modern katana and wakizashi are the maru (sometimes also called muku) type which is the most basic, with the entire sword being composed of one single steel. The kobuse type is made using two steels, which are called hagane (edge steel) and shingane (core steel). Honsanmai and shihozume types add the third steel, called kawagane (skin steel). There are almost an infinite number of ways the steel could be assembled, which often varied considerably from smith to smith.[3] Sometimes the hagane is “drawn out,” (hammered into a bar), bent into a ‘U’ shaped trough, and the very soft shingane is inserted into the harder piece. Then they are forge welded together and hammered into the basic shape of the sword. By the end of the process, the two pieces of steel are fused together, but retain their differences in hardenability. The more complex types of construction are typically only found in antique weapons, with the vast majority of modern weapons being composed of a single section, or at most two or three sections.

Another way is to assemble the different pieces into a block, forge weld it together, and then draw out the steel into a sword so that the correct steel ends up in the desired place This method is often used for the complex models, which allow for parrying without fear of damaging the side of the blade. To make honsanmai or shihozume types, pieces of hard steel are added to the outside of the blade in a similar fashion. Theshihozume and soshu types are quite rare, but added a rear support.

Geometry (shape and form)

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As Japan entered the bronze age, the swords found in Japan were very similar in shape to those found in continental Asia, i.e., China or Korea, and the Japanese adopted the Chinese convention for sword terminology along with metallurgy and swordmaking technology, classifying swords into the (either straight or curved) single-edged variety called tou 刀 and the (straight) double-edged variety called ken 剣. There is some small overlap in that there were some double-edged curved swords such as Tulwars or Scimitars which were called Tou, because the curvature meant that the “front” edge was used in the overwhelming majority of instances.

Over time, however, the single-edged sword with its characteristic curvature became so dominant a style in Japan that tou and ken came to be used interchangeably to refer to swords in Japan and by others to refer to Japanese swords. For example, the Japanese typically refer to Japanese swords as 日本刀 nihontou (“Japanese tou” i.e. “Japanese (single-edged) sword”), while the character ken 剣 is used in such terms as kendo and kenjutsu. Modern formal usage often uses both characters in referring to a collection of swords, for example, in naming the The Japanese Sword Museum 日本美術刀剣博物館 .

The prototype of the Japanese sword was the chokuto 直刀, or “straight (single-edged) sword”, a design that can be fairly described as a Japanese sword without any curvature, with a handle that is usually only a few inches long and therefore suitable for single-handed use only, with a sword guard that is prominent only on the front (where the edge is pointed) and back sides and sometimes only on the front side of the sword blade, and with a ring pommel. This design was moderately common in China and Korea during the Warring States and Han Dynasties, fading from popularity and disappearing during the Tang Dynasty. A number of such swords have been excavated in Japan from graves dating back to the kofun period.

As the chokuto evolved into the Japanese sword as it is known today, it acquired its characteristic curvature and Japanese style fittings, including the long handle making it suitable for either one-handed or two-handed use, the non-protruding pommel, and atsuba sword guard that protruded from the sword in all directions, i.e., that is not a cross piece or a guard for the edge or edge and back sides of the blade only but a guard intended to protect the hand on all sides of the blade. The shape of the Japanese tsubaevolved in parallel with Japanese swordsmithing and Japanese swordsmanship. As Japanese swordsmiths acquired the ability to achieve an extremely hard edge, Japanese swordsmanship evolved to protect the edge against chipping, notching, and breakage by parrying with the sides or backs of swords, avoiding edge-to-edge contact. This in turn resulted in the need to protect the sword hand from a sliding blade in parries on the sides and backs, i.e., parts of the blade other than the edge side, forming the rationale behind the Japanese styled tsuba, which protrudes from the blade in every direction.

This style of parrying in Japanese swordsmanship has also resulted in some antique swords that have actually been used in battle, exhibiting notches on the sides or backs of blades.

Heat treating

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A katana of the kobuse type, made in the traditional Japanese style. The hardened edge is separated from the softer back by a bright, wavy line, called the nioi. The edge of this bright line, called the hamon, marks the boundary between the martensitic portion, called the ha, from pearlitic center area, called the hira. The wavy shape of the hamon is from the manner in which the insulating clay was appllied before quenching. The inset shows a close-up of the nioi, which is made up of niye. The niye are single, bright grains of martensite surrounded by pearlite. The wood-grain appearance comes from alternating layers of steel that have different hardenability.

Having a single edge also has certain advantages, one of the most important being that the entire rest of the sword can be used to reinforce and support the edge, and the Japanese style of sword making takes full advantage of this. When finished, the steel is not quenched or tempered in the conventional European fashion i.e. uniformly throughout the blade. Steel’s exact flex and strength vary dramatically with heat treating. If steel cools quickly it becomes martensite, which is very hard but brittle. Slower and it becomespearlite, which bends easily and does not hold an edge. To maximize both the cutting edge and the resilience of the sword spine, the technique of differentiated tempering, first found in China during the first century BC, is used: the sword is heated and painted with layers of clay—the mixture being closely guarded trade secrets of the various smiths, but generally containing clay and coal ash as the primary ingredients—with a thin layer or none at all on the edge of the sword ensuring quick cooling to maximize the hardening for the edge, while a thicker layer of clay on the rest of the blade causing slower cooling and softer, more resilient steel to allow the blade to absorb shock without breaking.

This process also has two side effects that have come to characterize Japanese swords—first, it makes the edge of the blade, which cools quickly and forms evenly dispersedcementite particles embedded within a ferrite matrix (typical of tempered martensite), which will actually cause the edge part of the blade to expand while the sword spine remains hot and pliable for several seconds, which aids the smith in establishing the curvature of the blade. Second, the differentiated heat treatment and the materials with which the steel comes into contact creates different coloration in the steel, resulting in the Hamon 刃紋 (frequently translated as “tempering line” but really better translated as “tempering pattern”), that is used as a factor to judge both the quality and beauty of the finished blade. The differentiated Hamonpatterns resulting from the manner in which the clay is applied can also act as an indicator of the style of sword making, and sometimes also as a signature for the individual smith.


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Antique Japanese wakizashi sword blade showing the horimono of a chrysanthemum.

A section of an antique Japanese katana showing two grooves hi and the temper linehamon.

Almost all blades are decorated, although not all blades are decorated on the visible part of the blade. Once the blade is cool, and the mud is scraped off, the blade has designs and grooves cut into it. One of the most important markings on the sword is performed here: the file markings. These are cut into the tang, or the hilt-section of the blade, where they will be covered by a hilt later. The tang is never supposed to be cleaned: doing this can cut the value of the sword in half or more. The purpose is to show how well the blade steel ages. A number of different types of file markings are used, including horizontal, slanted, and checked, known as ichi-monjiko-sujikaisujikai, ō-sujikaikatte-agari,shinogi-kiri-sujikaitaka-no-ha, and gyaku-taka-no-ha. A grid of marks, from raking the file diagonally both ways across the tang, is called higaki, whereas specialized “full dress” file marks are called kesho-yasuri. Lastly, if the blade is very old, it may have been shaved instead of filed. This is called sensuki. While ornamental, these file marks also serve the purpose of providing an uneven surface which bites well into the tsuka, or the hilt which fits over it and is made from wood. It is this pressure fit for the most part that holds the tsuka in place during the strike, while the mekugi pin serves as a secondary method and a safety.

Some other marks on the blade are aesthetic: signatures and dedications written in kanji and engravings depicting gods, dragons, or other acceptable beings, called horimono. Some are more practical. The presence of a so-called “blood groove” or fuller does not in actuality allow blood to flow more freely from cuts made with the sword. Fullers neither have a demonstrable difference in the ease of withdrawing a blade nor do they reduce the sucking sound that many people believe was the reason for including such a feature in commando knives in World War II. The grooves are analogous in structure to an I beam, lessening the weight of the sword yet keeping structural integrity and strength.Grooves come in wide (bo-hi), twin narrow (futasuji-hi), twin wide and narrow (bo-hi ni tsure-hi), short (koshi-hi), twin short (gomabushi), twin long with joined tips (shobu-hi), twin long with irregular breaks (kuichigai-hi), and halberd-style (naginata-hi).

Furthermore the grooves (always done on both sides of the blade) make a whistling sound when the sword is swung (thetachikaze太刀風). If the swordsman hears one whistle when swinging a grooved katana then that means that just one groove is making the whistle. Two whistles means that both the edge of the blade and a groove are making a whistle, and three whistles together (the blade edge and both grooves) would tell the swordsman that his blade is perfectly angled with the direction of the cut.


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Japanese sword blade, sharpening stone, and water bucket at 2008 Cherry Blossom Festival, Seattle Center, Seattle, Washington.

For more details on this topic, see Japanese sword polishing.

When the rough blade is completed, the swordsmith turns the blade over to a polisher called a togishi, whose job it is to refine the shape of a blade and improve its aesthetic value. The entire process takes considerable time, in some cases easily up to several weeks. Early polishers used three types of stone, whereas a modern polisher generally uses seven. The modern high level of polish was not normally done before around 1600, since greater emphasis was placed on function over form. The polishing process almost always takes longer than even crafting, and a good polish can greatly improve the beauty of a blade, while a bad one can ruin the best of blades. More importantly, inexperienced polishers can permanently ruin a blade by badly disrupting its geometry or wearing down too much steel, both of which effectively destroy the sword’s monetary, historic, artistic, and functional value.

Modern swordsmithing

Traditional swords are still made in Japan and occasionally elsewhere; they are termed “shinsakuto” or “shinken” (true sword), and can be very expensive. These are not considered reproductions as they are made by traditional techniques and from traditional materials. Swordsmiths in Japan are licensed; acquiring this license requires a long apprenticeship. Outside of Japan there are a couple of smiths working by traditional or mostly-traditional techniques, and occasional short courses taught in Japanese swordsmithing. The only two Japanese-licensed smiths outside of Japan are, Keith Austin (art-name Nobuhira or Nobuyoshi) died in 1997, and 17th Generation Yoshimoto Bladesmith Murray Carter.

A very large number of low-quality reproduction katana and wakizashi are available; their prices usually range between $10 to about $200. These cheap blades are Japanese in shape only—they are usually machine made and machine sharpened, and minimally hardened or heat-treated. The hamon pattern (if any) on the blade is applied by scuffing, etching or otherwise marking the surface, without any difference in hardness or temper of the edge. The metal used to make low-quality blades is mostly cheap stainless steel, and typically is much harder and more brittle than true katana. Finally, cheap reproduction Japanese swords usually have fancy designs on them since they are just for show. Better-quality reproduction katana typically range from $200 to about $1000 (though some can go easily above two thousand for quality production blades, folded and often traditionally constructed and with a proper polish [16]), and high-quality or custom-made reproductions can go up to $15000-$50000. These blades are made to be used for cutting, and are usually heat-treated. High-quality reproductions made from carbon steel will often have a differential hardness or temper similar to traditionally-made swords, and will show a hamon; they won’t show a hada (grain), since they’re not often made from folded steel.

A wide range of steels are used in reproductions, ranging from carbon steels such as 1020, 1040, 1060, 1070, 1095, and 5160, stainless steels such as 400, 420, 440, to high-end specialty steels such as L6 and D2. Most cheap reproductions are made from inexpensive stainless steels such as 440A (often just termed “440″). With a normal Rockwell hardness of 56 and up to 60, stainless steel is much harder than the back of a differentially hardened katana, (HR50), and is therefore much more prone to breaking, especially when used to make long blades. Stainless steel is also much softer at the edge (a traditional katana is usually more than HR60 at the edge). Furthermore, cheap swords designed as wall-hanging or sword rack decorations often also have a “rat-tail” tang, which is a thin, usually threaded bolt of metal welded onto the blade at the hilt area. These are a major weak point and often break at the weld, resulting in an extremely dangerous and unreliable sword.

Some modern swordsmiths have made high quality reproduction swords using the traditional method, including one Japanese swordsmith who began manufacturing swords in Thailand using traditional methods, and various American and Chinese manufacturers. These however will always be different from Japanese swords made in Japan, as it is illegal to export theTamahagane jewel steel as such without it having been made into value-added products first. Nevertheless, some manufacturers have made differentially tempered swords folded in the traditional method available for relatively little money (often one to three thousand dollars), and differentially tempered, non-folded steel swords for several hundred. Some practicing martial artists prefer modern swords, whether of this type or made in Japan by Japanese craftsmen, because many of them cater to martial arts demonstrations by designing “extra light” swords which can be maneuvered relatively faster for longer periods of time, or swords specifically designed to perform well at cutting practice targets, with thinner blades and either razor-like flat-ground edges or even a hollow ground edges.

Commercial folded steel swords

In recent years, as the public has become more aware of the Japanese style of sword making, many companies have begun to offer folded steel swords, typically marketing them as “damascus” swords, which usually command higher prices than their non-folded equivalents. Many people are willing to pay a premium for such blades in the belief that any folded blade will be superior in performance and quality to any non-folded blade, but in fact it is just the reverse—a low quality folded sword is actually much morelikely to contain metallurgical flaws than a sword made from a single piece of steel that came off the line in a modern steel plant, and any flaws would significantly increase the likelihood of breakage at the moment of contact. Add to this the lack of differentiated heat treatment, which already renders the blade brittle compared to a traditional Japanese sword or even a Western-style sword (which would typically not be tempered to as high a hardness due to expectations of striking metal armor), and the result is a sword that would be much more likely to break or shatter at the moment of contact, even for demonstration or “test” cutting, making the use of such a sword potentially highly hazardous to the wielder and any bystanders, as any breakage at the moment of contact will result in sharpened metal flying at unpredictable directions with the force of the blow.

Sword manufacturers marketing such low end folded swords tend to choose softer steels such as 1020 or 400 for this purpose, since they are easier to work and fold, and will also often attempt to enhance the appearance of the folding layers by making comparatively few folds (thus leaving thicker folds), folding soft iron with steel, folding stainless steel with non-stainless steel, using an acid wash to blacken the folds that are less corrosion resistant, or some combination of these techniques, resulting in a blade with extremely prominent folding marks. Where the acid wash technique is used, the blade will be various shades of gray and black. and frequently exhibit no hamon tempering line. All swords made by the traditional Japanese method, regardless of the quality or assembly type, results in a bright and shiny blade upon completion, and therefore any blade that is black or gray in color when new absolutely cannot have been made in the traditional manner of the Japanese swordsmiths.

Commercial folded steel swords can also made by stamping. In this method, steel is heated and folded in a sheet large enough to make multiple swords from, and then cut or “stamped” into long “blanks” somewhat resembling the shape of the blade. The blanks are then ground down to form the edges, exposing the folds. Due the comparative ease of manufacturing and greater efficiency (in the sense that less of the sheet tends to be lost during the stamping process), this method is most commonly seen in the manufacture of straight “damascus steel” swords such as sword canes and what are often called “double-edged samurai swords” but which are really just Chinese-style ken swords with Japanese-style fittings. The physical act of the stamping alters the molecular structure at the location of the cut, which can cause deterioration in the quality of the steel in subtle ways. While it is possible to adjust for this by simply grinding down the edges further and removing the portion of the blade that has had its molecular structure thus disturbed, it is doubtful that a manufacturer that has sought to reduce cost and production time by stamping folded sheet steel would then go through such additional efforts and costs to improve the quality of the blade. In any case, even if the stamped edge is ground away, what one is left with is still a low quality blade.

Regardless of the price or the production method of the sword, it is worthwhile to remember that the choice of materials and manufacturing techniques based on the desired appearance, rather than the performance of the resulting product will predictably result in swords which are serviceable for display only in the vast majority of instances.


11 Responses to ““Samurai” Japanese Sword.”

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