Japanese Traditions: The Katana

Previously, I had posted several articles with regard to Japanese traditions. Today, I want to add one more to that list of blog posts, this one having to do with the Japanese katana.

The katana is a traditional Japanese single-edged sword that was used by the samurai in feudal Japan. It is generally characterized as a standard-sized, moderately curved sword with a blade length greater than 60 cm (23.5 inches.) The katana rose in popularity over the tachi due to the change in the nature of close-combat warfare. The tachi were forged during the Koto Period (prior to 1596) and can be distinguished from the katana based on where the sword smith’s signature is located. The tachi was worn suspended from a belt with the edge of the blade facing downward. The katana on the other hand was thrust through the obi (a belt-like sash) with the edge of the blade facing up. This facilitated the a quicker draw of the sword and the ability of the samurai to strike the enemy down with a single motion.

Tachi

Tachi

The katana was often paired with a similar smaller companion sword (wakizashi) or it was worn with the tanto, a smaller, similarly shaped dagger. The pairing of a katana with a smaller sword is called the daisho. Only samurai were permitted to wear the daisho. This represented the social power and personal honor of the samurai.

The length of the katana blade varied during the course of history. During the late 14th and early 15th centuries, katana blades tended to have lengths between 70 and 73 cm (27.5 and 28.5 inches). In the early 16th century, the average length was closer to 60 cm (23.5 inches). By the late 16th century, the average length returned to approximately 73 cm (28.5 inches).

The production of swords in Japan can be divided into specific time periods:

  • Jokoto (Crafted until approximately 900 A.D.)
  • Koto (Swords made between 900–1596 A.D.)
  • Shinto (Swords made between 1596–1780 A.D.)
  • Shinshinto (Swords made between 1781–1876 A.D.)
  • Gendaito (Swords made between 1876–1945 A.D.)
  • Shinsakuto (Newly made swords 1953 A.D. –present)

Several times in Japanese history, the new ruler sought to ensure his position by calling a sword hunt (katanagari). Armies would comb the entire country, confiscating the weapons of the enemies of the new regime. In this manner, the new ruler sought to ensure that no one could take the country by force as he had just done. The most famous sword hunt was ordered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1588 who resumed power from Oda Nobunaga. Toyotomi claimed that the confiscated weapons would be melted down and used to create a giant image of Buddha for the Asuka-dera monastery in Nara. However, it was later discovered that the best swords were hidden away and became known as the sought after Hideyoshi Certified Katana.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

During the Meiji Period, the samurai class were disbanded and the special privileges granted to them were taken away including the right to carry swords in public. Consequently, skilled sword smiths had trouble making a living during this period.  Many sword smiths turned to making other items, such as farm equipment, tools, and cutlery in order to survive. Military action by Japan in China and Russia during the Meiji Period helped revive interest in swords, but it was not until the Showa Period that swords were produced on a large scale again.

Today, visitors to Japan can find a nice collection of swords, sword mountings, armor and other related items at The Japanese Sword Museum, located in a quiet neighborhood in Shibuya just a few minutes’ walk from the Hatsudai Station on the Keio Line. The museum is open from 10 AM to 4:30 PM daily except Mondays (excluding National Holidays).

You will find after touring the museum that these swords are more than mere weapons, they are a work of art. 

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