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Japanese Swords

The Katana, the Soul of the Samurai


Very few blades have enjoyed the notoriety in history, literature, and film as the Japanese katana. This fame is due to the legendary quality of the blade as well as the almost mystical relationship between the katana and its wielder, the samurai. For a great part of Japanese history, only samurai were permitted to carry swords. If a peasant was found carrying a sword he would be killed on the spot, probably with a samurai sword (which seems ironic in some elusive way). The samurai often carried other weapons besides the katana, such as the bow, spear and the infamous Hair Pin of Destruction. After a period of trial and error, it was finally accepted that the preferred order of engaging an enemy was 1. Fire the bow from a distance. 2. Use the spear at long melee range 3. Draw the samurai sword for hand-to-hand. This replaced a popular but miserably ineffective technique that reversed that order.

The bond between the katana and samurai welder was sacred. The sword was always used as a last resort. The samurai believed the katana was linked to their soul and should only be drawn under the most dire of circumstances (which could include saving a nobleman or family members, defending oneself from certain death, or chopping sausages for dinner or lunch (only acceptable if you're really hungry).

The katana was often worn paired with another smaller sword or dagger. The shorter sword, called a wazashi (also known alternately as Wakizashi and, occasionally, Fred) measured twelve to twenty-four inches in length. The dagger, a tanto measured six to twelve inches in length. Tonto, from the Lone Ranger series, has nothing to do with Asian weapons, but for the record, he was 67 inches long. The paired weapons (katana and wazashi) were referred to as daisho(the big and the small). The long sword was used for cutting and the short blade for stabbing. The most skilled practitioners of Kenjutsu(the samurai sword art) could even wield both weapons at the same time. The legendary swordsman and author of the "Book of Five Rings", Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) perfected a two-sword kenjutsu technique he called niten’ichi (two heavens as one) or nito’ichi (two swords as one). In that technique, the swordsman uses both katana and wakizashi at the same time. Musashi was rumored to have participated in more than 60 duels. He was never defeated.

The katana is a long curved blade with a chisel like point. Because the katana is a single-edged sword it is also referred to as a back-sword, meaning it had an unsharpened edge or back, rather than a sharpened edge on both sides. Because of its curved shape and chisel point, the katana could be used as both a slashing and thrusting weapon.

The katana has a blade length that measures approximately 28 inches. It was worn blade up through a belt-sash. Another curved Japanese sword is the tachi, which is slightly longer than the katana with an average blade length of 31 inches. The tachi was worn suspended by cords from the belt. The tachi was favored by warriors on horseback where the added blade length provided the reach required to battle a samurai on foot.

The earliest swords to appear in Japan were not of Japanese origin. They were imported from China and Korea (some things never change). These swords were dual edged straight swords. The Japanese began forging their own swords around 2000BC. Their forging began quite by accident when famed Samurai Musoshi Kilalotamen fell asleep in front of a campfire, without noticing that his blade was partly in the fire. He awoke to find his cloak on fire, so began banging at it and the red hot sword with a nearby cooking pan. The pan dropped carbon onto the blade as he hit it, and actually strengthened the sword so that... oh who am I kidding? No one really knows how the Japanese started forging swords, but we do know that the Japanese became perhaps the best sword makers in history.

The early swords created by the Japanese were merely imitations of the straight swords from China and Korea, these swords were referred to as 'jokoto' or ancient swords. By 700 AD, the Japanese sword smiths were creating some of the finest swords ever known. The traditional Japanese sword changed from a straight blade to a curved blade. The curved blade could be drawn from a scabbard more quickly, it was also more effective as a slashing weapon when used by a mounted horseman.

The art of sword making in Japan reached a pinnacle during the time known as The War of Onin(1467-1477). This was a period when civil war rocked the country and the armor and weapons created were considered superior even to those created today. The forging of the katana could take many days and was considered a sacred art. Several artisans were involved in the fabrication of the sword. One smith would forge the blade, another would fold the metal and another would polish the blade. There were even specialists who attended to sheath, hilt, and tsuba (handguard). The most famous part of fabrication process was the folding of the metal. As the name implies, folding is a process in which the metal is bent over itself and hammered flat. The folding process creates multiple layers which increases the strength of the metal. The number of folds varied from one sword to another, but swords with more than 16 folds were uncommon (all this folding eventually led to the infamous Origami Swords; complete failures in combat, but quite nice to look at. My lawyer is telling me that I have to say that the last sentence is untrue and that there is no such thing as Origami Swords.). Each fold results in 2n layers (where n is the number of folds). A sword folded 12 times would contain 212 or over 4000 layers. The completed sword was often tested by cutting through the corpses of condemned criminals. Until they ran out of condemned criminals, in which case, they moved on to testing the swords on lawyers and oil company executives.

During the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, peace was widespread in Japan diminishing the role of the samurai. As the firearm became more commonly available in Japan, swords and the art of sword fabrication declined The swords manufactured after 1600’s were considered inferior to those fabricated earlier in Japan’s history. In 1867 the last shogun resigned and the emperor became the formal leader of Japan. In 1877 the Haitorei edict was issued which restricted the right to carry swords to military and police personnel. This officially abolished the samurai class in Japan. Although the katana has faded into history it still lives on in film and literature and the hearts of those who truly appreciate a weapon of honor.

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