Often referred to as “samurai swords”, katanas are perhaps the most famous bladed weapon to ever exist. As the primary weapon used by members of the Japanese warrior class, katanas are characterized by their curved blades, and exquisite craftsmanship. Although today they are mainly only used symbolically and in certain martial arts competitions, they’re still highly regarded as the weapon of a master. Here are a few things you might not know about them.
10. How the Katana Evolved
The first samurai used straight blades that were imported from China and Korea. The iconic curved blade was only developed when the samurai began fighting on horseback more often. Having a curved blade made the sword a weapon much better suited for slashing and stabbing while mounted. However, the straight bladed version of the katana continued to be widely used by another type of legendary Japanese combatant — the ninja.
9. Katanas Were Considered to be an Extension of the Samurai’s Soul
There was once a time when katanas could only be carried by samurai warriors in Japan. They were very much a status symbol and anyone in a lower class that was caught carrying one was immediately put to death. To the samurai, the swords were sacred and only to be used when absolutely necessary.
Traditionally, the samurai would name their swords because they were considered to be extensions of their soul. Should a samurai ever lose their honor, its their katana or wakizashi that’s supposed to end their life in a ritualized suicide known a seppuku.
8. Making a Katana is a Spiritual Undertaking
Long ago, swordsmiths enjoyed a much higher degree of respect and recognition than other tradespeople. There have even emperors who have taken it upon themselves to learn the fine technique of blade forging. But making a Katana was more than just the crafting of a fine piece of steel, it was a religious ceremony.
Before beginning, a swordsmith would purify himself according to Shinto rites. This would involve fasting, abstaining from sex, and sometimes even going on a pilgrimage. Once ready to begin forging, the smith would mark off his work area with a sacred rope and don the robe of a Shinto priest. To maintain the purification rites throughout the entire creation process, each day the smith would stand under a waterfall and recite prayers. If no waterfall was available, he would pour a fixed number of buckets of cold water over himself. These purification rites were performed throughout the entire sword making process, which could sometime last several months. There are even some stories of legendary sword makers who were assisted by divine beings when forging a katana.
7. A Katana’s Value isn’t Entirely Derived From the Blade
While the blade is certainly the most important part of the sword, other parts of the sword also have a big part in determining its value. For many collectors, the most significant part of a katana is the tsuba (the decorative hand guard) which can, in some cases, prove just as valuable as the blade. Mounts, scabbards, and other ornamental decoration would all have to be made by different craftsmen and the combined quality of their work is what gives the sword its value. Even a damaged sword by a famous swordsmith is worth more than a freshly forged blade of lesser quality. And blades made by the most recognized and elite swordsmiths are regarded as priceless national treasures in Japan.
6. The Sword Polisher Plays an Integral Role
Without proper polishing, the true quality of a katana would never be revealed. All the aspects that appraisers look for, such as the steel’s grain and temper line, are only noticeable after a master polisher brings them out in a process that can take longer than the actual forging of the blade.
Using a variety of stones, the polisher works the steel and brings out the brilliant shine that transforms the Katana into a true work of art. Sword polishing isn’t as simple as rubbing some rocks on metal though. The high degree of skill required to bring out a blade’s luster is often only acquired after completing a five year apprecticeship, which is exactly what’s necessary in order to become certified sword polisher. And when you consider that an improper polishing job could ruin a potentially priceless sword, it makes perfect sense that a certain degree of mastery should be involved.
5. Originally, Katanas Weren’t a Samurai’s Primary Weapon
In the days of the early samurai, Japanese warriors primarily used bows and arrows when they went into battle. And if they ran out of arrows, the samurai’s next weapon would be a type of polearm which still afforded them a longer attack range than the typical spear. It wasn’t until much later that the samurai moved away from archery and began focusing on their role as mounted sword-wielding combatants.
But it was the introduction of guns that forever changed the face of Japanese warfare. Unlike a katana, it didn’t take years of training to shoot a gun, so the role of Japan’s noble warrior class quickly diminished, and along with it, the need for swords, which became more of a status symbol than a practical battlefield weapon.
4. A Katana’s Quality Was Tested Using Human Flesh and Bone
During the Edo period, an official sword-testing department was established by the Japanese government to determine the quality of blades being produced. When conducting a test, a master swordsman would demonstrate a katana’s cutting ability by slicing through the bodies of several criminals piled on top of each other. Though the criminals were usually already dead at that point, sometimes heinous offenders would be left alive for the test. This process was also incorporated into the training of inexperienced samurai, however, official tests would only be carried out by a master swordsmen in order to ensure that the blade was the only factor determining the cut.
Tests were usually ordered by whoever was purchasing the sword and, although the tests could sometimes cost as much as the sword itself, blades that proved to be especially deadly would be marked by a significant increase in value.
3. Older Katana’s Were The Best
Although the official sword testing department wasn’t created until the early 17th century, the blades made before 1530 were of exceptional caliber when compared to blades made later. Supposedly, when a 16th-century blade was officially tested at the department, it was said to have cut right through seven bodies with a single slice.
The reason for the degradation in blades has mainly to do with the introduction of European guns to Japan in the 1540s. Having an abundance of easy-to-use, highly effective weapons meant that the sword makers no longer needed to produce katanas of the same quality they once did. Consequently, many of the techniques that were once used to forge a first-rate blade were lost. And, as the quality of and need for blades declined, so too did the samurai’s ability to assess them. This led to some smiths focusing more on elaborate designs rather than a sword’s cutting power. Eventually, this watered down method of sword making became so prevalent that the old method for making katanas became all but extinct.
2. High Quality Katana’s Eventually Made a Comeback
Following World War II, the American occupation force in Japan strictly outlawed the manufacture and possession of swords until 1953. When the prohibition was lifted, there seemed to be a renewed interest in katanas that brought about the formation of the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Sword. This organization was dedicated to resurrecting the ancient techniques and methods required for making the coveted tamahagane steel used in the authentic old-world blades.
Now, a licensed smith in modern Japan must craft blades in very much the same way that it was done centuries ago. And thanks to the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Sword, there are strict guidelines on the creation of blades to ensure that modern Japanese katana’s are of the highest quality –equal to, if not greater than, those forged in the 16th century.
1. The Art of Japanese Sword Making is Slowly Disappearing
Ironically, even though the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Sword had all the intentions of bringing fine sword making back to Japan, due to the rigid requirements they impose on new sword makers, the art of swordsmithing in Japan is slowly fading away.
Becoming a distinguished swordsmith isn’t easy. After completing the five year apprenticeship, it usually takes at least another five years to build up a solid reputation. The best way for a smith to make a name for themselves is by submitting their finest work to the annual sword competition. Anyone who scores high in the competition will be able to charge considerably more for the swords they make. However, every year hundreds of smiths enter but it’s believed that only those who score in the top 30 will be able to make a living off of their craft.
Furthermore, in order to guarantee that each swordsmith is wholly devoted to the blades they make, the government regulates the number of swords that are produced. Each smith can make a maximum of two long swords or three short swords a month. Despite that many smiths could probably double that production without a noticeable reduction in the quality of their work, the government chose that number after observing the time it took for a famous swordsmith to produce a flawless blade.