Katana - samurai sword

A bladed melee weapon characterized by a straight, double-edged blade and an open handle. Sword - because we are talking about it - it is the oldest historical sword weapon. The first swords were made in the Bronze Age in China and Egypt. Depending on how it is held, the sword can be divided into one-handed, one-and-a-half and two-handed. In Eastern Europe, the sword was replaced by sabers over time, but retained its high status in Western Europe. In China, sword and saber competed with each other on equal terms in various martial arts schools. The sword came to Japan Exactly from China and underwent a metamorphosis into a katana sword, which distinguishes it from the European sword not only in appearance, but also in fighting techniques. Its history can be divided into four main periods.

Division of swords according to the time of their production

– The period of the ancient sword, i.e. Yokoto (until 900 AD). The weapons were initially made by Chinese and Korean blacksmiths, later also by the Japanese. The blade, although forged from steel, was poorly hardened. Most swords of the time were simple, and the main forges were located in Yamato. Senior officers carried precious swords from China.

– The Old Sword Period, i.e. Koto (900 – 1500 AD). At the end of the rule of the Fujiwara family, i.e. at the end of the Heian period, an increasingly stronger warrior caste came to the fore. The war for power between two families - Minamoto and Taira - shaped the future fate of the country. The sword turned from a court weapon into a fighting tool. On the battlefields, the most important formation were horse archers, but other weapons, such as the naginata and the sword, also became important. This one underwent a kind of metamorphosis, from a straight sword used for stabbing, to a curved, single-edged sword used for cutting. The swords were quite large in order to cut more efficiently from the horse's back, so the length of the blade reached up to 120 cm.

– The period of the new sword, i.e. Shintō (1500 – 1876 AD). After the end of the civil wars at the end of the 16th century, led by three figures: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Iyeyasu, peace reigned in the country. In times of peace, the sword lost its utilitarian function. The long sword was shortened, the length of the blade was significantly shortened, and swords began to be richly decorated even on the blade itself.

– The period of the newest sword, i.e. Shin-Shintabout (after 1876 AD). After the Meijin Restoration, when samurai lost their influential social position and their privileges and were forbidden to carry swords, their production was stopped. It was not permanent, and 50 years later, when nationalist parties came to power, the cult of the sword came to life.

Division of swords according to their shape and length

The Japanese sword can be divided not only by the time it was forged, but also by its length, setting and shape. It often happened that these three guidelines were dependent on each other and a sword forged in a given period had a length and setting appropriate to that period. Due to length, we distinguish:

– Very long swords: The blade measured over a meter. The most popular example is Nodachi. A rare sword is the Zanbato, whose total size could reach 2.5 meters.

– Long swords: These swords have a blade length between 60 and 80 cm. This group includes katana and tachi. These are one and a half hand swords. 

– Short swords: A short sword is considered a weapon less than 60 cm long, and the most popular form is the wakizashi. Another sword of this type is the kodachi, although it is sometimes classified as a dagger. These were auxiliary swords.

– Daggers: Any blade shorter than 30 cm is considered a dagger. This group includes: tanto, aikuchi and kaiken. Due to the shape, the determinant here is the shape of the blade itself. In Japan, we find two types of blades: Ken, where the blade is straight and double-edged, and To, where the blade is curved and single-edged.

Division of swords according to their setting

The division by setting seems to be the most complicated. There are many sub-varieties, but there are six main types:

– Binding type ken, was used for simple ancient swords and had many Chinese influences. It is usually dated to before the 10th century. 

– Binding jindachizukuri, used in old swords that were hung on hooks. It is also called a tachi type fixture. The swords are decorated with typical fitting elements, such as menuki, fuchi, kashira, wooden scabbards covered with leather or lacquer, and sometimes there is a braided handle. This setting was used for a long time, from the 10th to the 16th century.

– Bukezukuri binding, used in new swords. It is characterized by braided handles and more modest decorations. The bukezukuri type is the most popular among swords preserved to modern times. It was developed in times when swords were worn behind the belt and worn with the blade facing upwards. The scabbards are made of Japanese magnolia wood and covered with lacquer. Katana swords were made in this style.

– Shirasaya, i.e. substitute binding, widespread in the Meiji period. Shirasaya was made of raw wood to protect the blade.

– Guntō binding. There are several subtypes within this type, e.g. kaiguntō. While the blade was produced in special factories and is therefore not subject to evaluation, the setting was styled in the style of earlier styles, e.g. jindachizukuri or bukezukuri. The handle combines elements of a Japanese sword and a European cold weapon.

– Shikomezue is a niche setting produced mainly in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Swords were mounted to look like sticks or staffs. As for the tsuba - the guard of the sword - initially it was only a functional element, but over time it became a decoration and the user's calling card. It could, for example, provide information about clan membership. It was mainly made of steel, but other metals were also often used.

Production process

The sword production process itself is complicated and takes about 3 months. Bog ore is used to smelt steel. This ore contains small amounts of elements such as sulfur and phosphorus, which makes it more durable. It takes a blacksmith about three months to forge a blade. Two types of steel are most commonly used: mild and hard steel. Both types of steel are subjected to the layer forging process. Then the steel is welded together in such a way that the soft steel package constitutes the core of the sword and the hard steel package serves as the surrounding jacket.

Once the blade has its initial shape, the sword is subjected to a hardening process. During this process, the fortitude line characteristic of Japanese swords is created - hamon. The sword prepared in this way enters the polishing phase. The grinding is performed using special grinding stones, and the entire process is divided into 12 stages, in which different stones are used for each of them. The sword production process itself has also changed over time. The Mongol invasions contributed to this, when Japanese swords began to break on the Mongols' armor. It was then that swords began to be forged in layers to strengthen the steel.

The sword was used by samurai, i.e. the entourage serving the highest dignitaries in Japan. They preferred to call themselves bushi - meaning warrior. The warriors trained every day in the use of weapons and in hand-to-hand combat. The sons of the nobility received appropriate upbringing from an early age. As befits a samurai, they learned two fields of art (considered the most important by their class): culture and the art of war.

A boy of 15 was officially considered an adult. He received hakama, which he could now wear, and his hair was gathered into a bun on the top of his head. There was also a headgear award ceremony - eboshi – during which the father gave the young man a male name. He could also carry a sword from that moment on - a sword that accompanied him until the end of his days. Depending on the era and situation, it served different purposes: sometimes it killed, sometimes it saved lives. It was a sign of samurai status and an object of worship. It was even believed that he was the soul of a samurai.


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