The Evolution of Japanese Samurai Sword throughout its History

There are many blades and weapons crafted by great smiths, but only a few gained the interest of the people. The Samurai swords, especially the Katana, is a weapon known as the most favored piece of all times.

Since its appearance in a lot of popular movies and media, more people grew interested in the swords. There are a variety of Samurai swords, but there were two primary blades carried by the Samurai. These were the Katana and the Wakizashi.

The Katana is a sword dating all the way back to the past in the 14th century. It was a period considered to be the most important for Samurai warriors and their weapons. There were four vital and varying phases of the evolution of the Samurai swords. These were the Koto, Shinto, Gendai, and the Shinsaku periods.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jokoto Period – The Times of Ancient Japan

The oldest recorded swords in Japanese history are two blades sent to Queen Himeko. These were presents sent from China which was during the Wei Dynasty. In the year 280 AD, more iron swords were being imported straight from China to Japan.

It’s said that the art of forging steel was an influence from Korea and China, yet the details are still unknown. Yet claims state that during the 5th century, steel swords were already used and made in Japan. The swords produced still had straight blades and a single edge. These were the Chokuto swords.

The process of hardening steel, which is a common method used for Nihonto, was first used in the 6th century.

The time of these straight-bladed swords lasted from the 8th century. After this, the dominant style of warfare altered from fighting on foot to horseback. So to accommodate this manner of fighting, swords developed and produced with a curve. They were elegant, long, curved, and single-edged blades called the Tachi.

A lot of intermediate forms were present between the Tachi and Chokuto. One of the most common was the Kogarasumaru – a curved, 2-edged blade – and the Kenuki Gata Tachi. The term Nihonto or Nipponto is often for swords with curves.

Koto Period – Origin of the Nodachi, Nanbokucho Era

The original Tachi were swords forged in the Koto period. It was a sword that pioneered before the Katana which was not mentioned by name in the past. This is to indicate a blade unique from the Tachi until the close end of the 12th century.

The Naboku Cho period was also called the Northern and Southern courts. It was a developing period for the Muromachi Bakufu era of Japan’s history. And due to its continuous struggle, the demand for swords rose once more.

It was a time when smiths used the Nancho and Hokucho era dates when inscribing the Tang of their made swords. This clearly shows how confused the political situation was at that time.

The elegant and fine shape of the Kamakura era Tachi developed late during that time. Its Sugata (form) became more magnificent, had better length, and a longer Kisaki (tip).

At the start of the Nanbokucho period, the trend continued and became exaggerated in a way. The blades became longer, bigger, and wider, making the swords a bit garish. The swords were soon called the Odachi.

The Odachi of this period featured long blades crafted with the following aspects. A wide Mihaba (blade width), large Kisaki, thin Kasane (blade thickness), and shallow Sori. Most of the swords had to become shorter during the Momoyama period then reshaped to the Katana.

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The Koto Period – Rise of the Uchigatana and Katana, Muromachi Era

As armies increased, the cavalry became a rare sight on the battlefield. This was due to the change wherein foot soldiers took over the main forces of the army. And while a number of Tachi were still produced, the rise of the Katana was already at dawn.

Shorter blades were easier to carry; plus, they were also faster to draw. The curvature of the blade soon shifted forward. This was when they were being designed for the Ashigaru (foot soldiers). Near the end of the period, almost all produced swords were the Uchigatana.

As the flexibility of the troops became more vital, swords produced became shorter. Most of the blades manufactured during the period usually had a length of 60 – 65 centimeters.

This was the culmination of the Katana which was generally a short piece. Its wielders carried this along the belt with its cutting edge facing up. This manner of wearing the sword allowed the user to draw then cut in a single motion with ease.

The Shinto Period – Road to Modernization

Swords during this time transformed into more refined pieces. Materials used for production was easier to acquire. Not only that, but smiths were able to share experiences and skills. The diversity between blades made before and during the Edo era was big. So, people categorized and called these the old and new swords.

After the year 1600, the Wakizashi became the predominant sword. It is generally the shorter blade accompanying the Katana in the Daisho pairing.  But the difference is that the Wakizashi can be a sword used by classes other than the Samurai.

It wasn’t until the Edo period when Japan’s rulers tried regulating the kinds of swords for use. Here, they chose which social classes could use swords. Aside from that, the Wakizashi and Katana had fixed lengths that were officially set.

Photo Credit: Samurai Swords Store

Shinshinto Period – The Era of Newer Swords

The Shinshinto period began from 1764. In the first half of this period, swordsmiths tried to create swords using the methods of the Koto period. The blade’s Hamon waved from the Machi, which was contrary to those of the Shinto period. Swords of the Shinshinto period were also shinier and the Jihada or wavy grain pattern was not clear.

The swords of latter half of the Shinshinto period featured a more enhanced shape. The Mihaba or blade width increase,d yet  shorter than the ones made earlier. These resembled the Tachi of the Nanbokucho period. By 1868, political changes happened, which affected the sword production and quality.

Gendaito Period – The Time of Modernization

It was a rough time for the Japanese sword from 1895 to 1925 since most Tatara were lost. Along with this, the traditions and schools died as well. In 1930, strong army rose to power; their nationalism brought the rebirth of traditional sword manufacturing. The best swords of this era were from the Yasukuni. This is because the school had some of the greatest smiths of the time.

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Shinsakuto Period – The New Swords of the Present

The Shinsakuto period refers to the time of the blades created from 1953 until today. Upon the decline of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meiji rose into power. This period marked the beginning of modernization or the Meiji Restoration.

This time, the government abolished the privileges of the Samurai. They no longer had the right to carry swords, including the Daisho which was the sign of their status.

Since there was no market for swords, swordsmiths had to find other means to earn money. Due to the growth of militarism and rise of the later war, swords became necessary once again. These new swords were mass-produced in factories.

When the Japanese lost in the war, the Americans prohibited the manufacturing of swords. Around 400,000 historical and artistic swords ended up in the United States. Due to this, the art of the Japanese sword became close to extinction.

Fortunately, sword manufacturing was legalized once again. This led to the possible revival of the dead tradition. Some old masters who remained alive taught the next generation the art of sword smithing.

Today, there are around 250 working smiths in Japan. They produce swords that match the quality and beauty of those in history.

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