Japanese swords Overview

Japanese Swords

The Japanese sword, as its name suggests, is a traditional weapon employed by Japan's samurai.
A unique, special sword, the Japanese sword is very different from swords made in the West and other Asian countries and has evolved uniquely within Japan.
The Japanese sword is slender and has a unique pattern called a "hamon" (刃文, lit. "blade pattern"), and many famous Japanese swords, referred to as "mei-to" (名刀, famous sword), have been preserved overseas due to the abolition of swords in the Meiji period.
For this reason, many more famous swords are found abroad than in Japan.

The History of Japanese Swords

The people of ancient Japan, the Jomon people, were hunters, and bladed weapons resembling swords had already existed before the Kofun period.
However, the direct roots of the Japanese sword as we know them today are thought to date back to the Heian period.
Japanese swords are classified into three types according to blade length: tachi/uchigatana, wakizashi, and tanto.
After the end of the Edo period, the bayonet, a short sword at the end of the barrel, became the symbolic weapon of the Japanese army, even after the Japanese sword became the mainstay of weaponry, and bayonet training developed into a Japanese martial art.
Other traditional Japanese weapons include the nagamaki, a sword with a handle of similar length to the blade, and the naginata, a spear with a large, curved blade.
Thus, the Japanese sword has many characteristics not found in foreign weaponry, but perhaps its most important feature is that it is slender and only has one sharp edge.
Western swords are double-bladed, such as the Green Dragon Crescent Blade of the legendary Chinese general, Guan Yu, which is also single-bladed, but is large and difficult to wield.
In contrast, the Japanese sword is said to be the most powerful weapon in close combat, as it has succeeded in reducing weight and eliminating waste.

Unlike swords found in other countries, Japanese swords are cast using two different metals, which makes them more tenacious and less likely to break, which is one of the advantages of the Japanese sword.
Also, due to the influence of popular games and anime series', such as Touken Ranbu and NARUTO, there is a renewed boom in the popularity of the Japanese sword, especially among younger generations.

Types of Japanese Swords

As mentioned before, there are three main types of Japanese swords: the tachi, wakizashi, and tanto, each with a different function.
The longest of these is the Tachi, which is the most powerful in terms of offense and defense. It was used to close the gap between the enemy and the wielder.
Modern tachi are generally between 60 cm and 90 cm in length.
This is in accordance with the rules of "Iai" (the art of drawing one's sword), a Japanese martial art that is still practiced and enjoyed by many people.
In other words, today's Japanese swords are considered to be competitive tools, despite the fact that they are real swords.

The next type of sword is the wakizashi, which is shorter than a tachi, with a blade between 30 cm and 60 cm in length.
Since the Edo period, the basic style of the samurai was to use a tachi and a wakisashi.
There is a significant reason why the wakizashi is shorter than tachi, however.
The Japanese sword has only one sharp edge, so the sword is drawn with the dominant hand and held in both hands, with the sharp blade facing one's opponent.
In close quarter combat, the shorter the blade, the more powerful the sword, hence the length of the wakizashi.
In other words, the tachi was used to block the attacks of opponents and the wakisashi was used to counterattack when the opportunity arose.
For this reason, the wakizashi was a very important sword for Japan's samurai.
In addition, there was a strict tradition among samurai of cutting one's own belly with a sword to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), and even in this case, the wakisashi was easier to handle than the longer-bodied tachi.

The tanto, the third category of Japanese sword, was mainly used for self-defense.
It was also called a "futokorogatana (懐刀, lit. pocket sword) or a kakushigatana (隠し刀, lit. hidden sword) because it could be carried in one's robe or sleeves.
Japanese swords are also classified according to their time period.
Japanese swords made before the Nara period are called "Jokoto" (上古刀), swords made before the end of the Momoyama period are called "Koto" (古刀), swords made in the Azuchi-Momoyama period when sword making techniques were most developed and mass production was possible are called "Suekoto" (末古刀), and swords made after that period are called "Shinto" (新刀).
Shinto are further subdivided into sub-types: "Shinshinto" (新々刀), swords made from the late Edo period to the middle of the Meiji period (1868-1912), "bakumatsuto" (幕末刀), swords used by the shogunate in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, "fukkoto" (復古刀), swords of the Edo period that revived the famous swords of the Kamakura period, "showato" (昭和刀), swords that were made for military purposes during World War II, and "gendaito" (現代刀), swords made during the period when Japan was known as the "Empire of Japan."

Forging Japanese Swords

One of the reasons why many Japanese swords have been recognized as national treasures and have attracted avid collectors from overseas is because of the high level of Japanese sword manufacturing technology.
Japanese swords may seem simple at first glance, but they are filled with various craftsmanship techniques that have evolved throughout Japan's long history.
The following is a list of techniques used to forge Japanese swords.
The manufacturing methods vary slightly depending on the workshop, artisan, and region, so we'll explain the most common ways of making a Japanese sword.

・Oroshigane (卸し鉄): This is the process of reusing steel products that were once made in Japan to make tamahagane, the raw material for Japanese swords. Tamahagane is a mixture of several steel products that are heated in a "tatara" using a process called "tatarafuki" until they turn red.
Tamahagane is a mixture of pig iron, which has a high carbon content and is hard and brittle, and wrought iron, which has a low carbon content and is soft yet tenacious.
Tatarafuki (たたら吹き) is a process of feeding carbon-rich charcoal and air into a furnace containing iron to heat it up.

・Mizuheshi (水減し): After tatarafuki, the metal is stretched thin to about 3-6 mm and then rapidly cooled in cold water.
By doing this, the part with a high carbon content breaks, leaving only the tenacious portion intact.
The cracked portion is used to make kawagane (皮鉄, the outer layer of the blade), and the remaining part is used as the shingane (心鉄, the inner part of the blade).

・Making the Teko-bou and Teko-dai: Simply put, the teko-dai is a tool for loading and placing the steel into the fire pit, and the teko-bou is used to hold the metal in the position where it can be boiled most smoothly when it is placed in the fire pit. The teko-bou serves as the handle and the teko-dai is attached to the end of the handle.
Because the teko-dai will be one part of the sword, high quality tamahagane is used.

・Tsumi-kasane (積み重ね): Approximately 2 kg of carefully selected steel is stacked on the teko-dai.
Since each shape is different, it's a matter of skill for the craftsman to know how to stack them without any gaps.

・Tsumi-wakashi (積み沸かし): The teko-dai is wrapped in washi paper wet with water and straw, doused evenly with watery mud, and then placed in the fire pit.
The reason for using wet washi paper and mud is to allow heat to pass through evenly.

・Tempering (鍛錬): Tempering is the process of hammering heated metal, cooling it, heating it again, and then repeating the process until the desired hardness is reached.
This process removes impurities and equalizes the amount of carbon in the steel, resulting in a beautiful sword.

・Tempering (Shita-gitae (下鍛え)): This is the first half of the tempering process.
The metal that was melted together in the fire pit is placed on an anvil and beaten with a mallet, then folded in two with a chisel and beaten again until it is evenly distributed so that no gaps are left.

・Tempering (Age-gitae (上鍛え)): This is the second half of the forging process.
This is where the high carbon content kawagane is formed into the sword blade.
In the "age-gitae" process, the sword is beaten many times to equalize the heat and carbon content, but in the age-gitae process, too much beating will cause the materials to mix together and the surface of the blade won't form correctly, so the sword smith determines how many times to beat the blade based on his experience.
The characteristic patterns of Japanese swords are the result of a chemical change in carbon.
For example, the faintly visible grains on the blade are carbon crystals called "nie" (沸).
When the grains appear in the hamon on the blade, it's called kinsuji (金筋).

・Sunobe (素延べ): This is the process of determining the curvature and size of the blade.

・Hizukuri (火造り): The process of heating metal to give it plasticity and form it into the required shape.
In this process, a mallet is used to shape the edge of the blade.

・Quenching (焼入れ): The blade is rapidly cooled to prevent undesired reactions from occurring.
At this time, the blade is coated with clay to create a beautiful wave-like pattern.
This is the moment a Japanese sword comes to life.

・Ai-dori (合い取り): In this process, also known as "yakimodoshi" (焼き戻し, annealing), the hardened blade is brought back from the fire and heated to 140-150 degrees Celsius.
At this point, a thermochemical reaction occurs and the metal inside the blade is stabilized.

・Kaji-oshi (鍛冶押し): This is the process of sharpening the sword after it has underwent ai-dori.
It is also called "kaji-togi" (鍛冶研ぎ) or "shiage-togi" (仕上研), and is done by the swordsmith himself.

・Nakagojidate (茎仕立て): This is the final stage of the sword making process.
The base of the blade is filed and the swordsmith engraves his name on it.

After the blade is finished, it goes through various craftsmen, including sheath makers, guard makers, shiners, hilt wrappers, and more, to complete the sword.
Thus, a single Japanese sword has a complex structure and is made through the painstaking work of many skilled craftsmen.

A List of Famous Historical Japanese Swords

The recent boom in Japanese swords has been driven by the game and anime "Touken Ranbu," which is based on anthropomorphic versions of real-life Japanese swords.
The following are some of the famous Japanese swords that have appeared in Touken Ranbu.

・Okanehira (大包平): This tachi is said to have been made at the end of the Heian period and is designated a national treasure.
・Raikiri (雷切): This famous sword has a legend that tells of it cutting thunder and the God of Thunder. There are several swords called "Raikiri," the most famous being the Chidori, which belonged to Tachibana Dosetsu.
・Ichigo Hitofuri (一期一振): Said to be the only tachi made by the famous swordsmith, Awataguchi Yoshimitsu.
・Tenka-goken (天下五剣): In the history of Japanese swords, five famous swords made in the Muromachi period are known as Tenka-Goken (The Five Swords Under Heaven).
The five great swords are Dojigiri (童子切, "Slayer of Shuten-doji"), Onimaru (鬼丸, "Demon"), Mikazuki (三日月, "Crescent Moon"), Odenta (大典太, "Great Denta"), and Juzumaru (数珠丸, "Rosary").
・Muramasa (村正): Muramasa is a school of swordsmiths active from the Muromachi period to the Edo period, and also refers to the swords made by them.
The Muramasa lineage produced many famous Japanese swords.
They are so sharp that their owners could be injured if they were mishandled, which is how the legend of cursed Masamune blades was born.
・Masamune (正宗): These Japanese swords were made by Masamune, a master swordsmith active in the late Kamakura period and early Nanboku-cho period.

How to Get Your Hands on Some Japanese Steel!

In Japan, there are certain restrictions under the Firearms And Swords Control Law, but Japanese swords are sold in specialty shops.
As the manufacturer and seller of Japanese swords have applied for permission from the police, anyone with a "Firearms and Swords Registration Certificate" can possess a Japanese sword.
Japanese swords are made of iron and must be cared for properly, otherwise they may rust and lose their sharpness.
Modern Japanese swords are priced at ¥190,000 to ¥200,000, and the popular tachi weighs about 1 kg.
Although slender, the Japanese sword is not a light enough weapon to be handled without training.