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Katana of the 16th or 17th Century, with its saya.


Handle (tsuka) of a katana of the 19th century given to an ambassador.

The katana (刀) is the Japanese backsword or longsword (大刀 daitō) of the type specifically in use after the 1400s (following the use of the tachi), although in Japanese this word serves generically as a catch-all word for sword. Katana (pronounced [ka-ta-na]) is the kun'yomi (Japanese reading) of the kanji 刀 ; the on'yomi (Chinese reading) is tō. While the word has no separate plural form in Japanese, it has been adopted as a loan word by the English language, where it is commonly pluralised as katanas.

It refers to a specific type of curved, single-edged sword traditionally used by the Japanese samurai. The weapon was typically paired with the wakizashi or shoto, a similarly made but shorter sword both worn by the members of the buke (bushi) warrior class, it could also be worn with the tantō, an even smaller similarly shaped blade. The two weapons together were called the daisho which literally means big-small, and represented the social power and personal honor of the samurai (buke retainers to the daimyo). The long blade was used for open combat, while the shorter blade was considered a side arm, and also more suited for stabbing, close combat (such as indoors), and seppuku, a form of ritual suicide. The scabbard for a katana is referred to as a saya, and the handguard piece, often intricately designed as individual works of art especially in later years of the Edo period, was called the tsuba. Other aspects of the koshirae (mountings), such as the menuki (decorative grip swells), habaki (blade collar and scabbard wedge), fuchi and kashira (handle collar and cap), kozuka (small utility knife handle), kogai (decorative skewer-like implement), saya lacquer, and tsuka-ito (professional handle wrap), received similar levels of artistry.

It is primarily used for cutting, although its curvature is generally gentle enough to allow for effective thrusting as well. Though it is intended for and was predominantly used with a two-handed grip, many extant historical Japanese sword arts include at least one or two single-handed techniques. From the sixteenth century it has been traditionally worn edge up, inserted in the obi(sash); a style known as buke-zukuri. While the practical arts for using the sword for its original purpose are now somewhat obsolete, kenjutsu and iaijutsu have turned into gendai budo — modern martial arts for a modern time. The art of drawing the katana and attacking one's enemies is iaido (also known as battōjutsu/battodo), and kendo is an art of fencing with a shinai (bamboo sword) protected by helmet and armour. Old koryu sword schools do still exist (for example, Kashima Shinto-ryu, Kashima Shin-ryu, and Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, among others). Perhaps one of the more famous types of Japanese fencing was "Nitto Ryu" or the use of both the katana and wakizashi in tandem; a technique most famously used by Miyamoto Musashi, though the extensive popularization of this technique in anime, literature, and pop culture has skewed modern perspective on its importance and prevalence.

The sword in Japanese societyEdit

The sword was considered the soul of the samurai. Although other weapons waxed and waned in popularity throughout history, the sword remained a constant. Although spears have survived since as far back as the 8th century AD, it was not until the large scale wars of the Onin period towards the end of the fifteenth century that the straight bladed spear, the yari, vied with the sword for the most popular weapon. The Japanese pinned an extraordinary amount of value on the sword. For much of Japan's history, only samurai were even allowed to carry swords, and a peasant carrying a sword was enough reason to kill the peasant and take the sword after a prohibition was issued in early Edo period. Ronin, needing money, would sometimes be forced to sell their swords, further adding to their highly dishonorable, sometimes vagabond status in Japanese society. They would be "soulless" in the eyes of a samurai.

Much of early Japanese culture revolved around swords. Elaborate methods for carrying, cleaning, storing, sharpening (or not sharpening), and wielding the sword evolved from era to era.

For example, a samurai entering someone's house might consider how to place his sheathed sword as he knelt. Positioning his sword for an easy draw implied suspicion or aggression; thus, whether he placed it on his right or left side, and whether the blade was placed curving away or towards him, was an important point of etiquette. As for the host, his long-sword was generally stored above the wakizashi on a rack called a katana-kake, curving upwards; in the manner it was worn, with the omote side showing (tsuka or handle pointing left). The Tachi on the other hand, had a stand, the tsuka was set in a groove at the base and the saya pointed upwards set in a notch at the top with the cutting edge down, again in the manner it was worn.

However, most samurai did not use their sword as a primary weapon; they used a bow first, a spear next, and only then the sword. Drawing the sword was like letting the soul blaze free when down to the last straw. To have fought until nothing but a surrender is possible was described as Ken ore, ya mo tsuki, (lit. "with swords broken and without an arrow") used as a proverb.

History of the Japanese swordEdit

In 660 BC the legendary Emperor Jimmu conquered much of Japan. At the same time, the Japanese learned the art of swordmaking from Chinese smiths. Early swords were in the style of Chinese swords, straight and single or double-edged.

One of the oldest known forms of kenjutsu dates the Kofun era (3rd and 4th centuries). The style, called Kashima no Tachi (鹿島の太刀), was created at the Kashima Shrine (in Ibaraki Prefecture). In the Heian Period (8th to 11th centuries) we see the development of sword-making, through techniques brought from the Russia and North part of Japan Hokkaido in those days Ainu's territory. The Ainu people used Warabite-tou(蕨手刀) Warabite sword and this sword influenced the Katana. According to legend, the Japanese sword was invented by a smith named 'Amakuni' in AD 700, along with the folded steel process. Among other modifications, the katana becomes single-edged, and better suited for slashing. This is also reflected in the styles of kenjutsu created during this period. From the Kashima shrine's Kashima no Tachi sprang the Kantō-nanaryū (関東七流 - also known as the Kashima-nanaryū 鹿島七流). In the same period, the Kyō-hachiryū (京八流) was created in the Kurama mountain (in Kyoto).

By the twelfth century, civil war erupted after a long period of decadence. For five centuries, Japan had its own dark ages, marked by continuous, brutal wars. The War of Onin (1467-1477) revolutionized Japanese armour.

During the Muromachi period, bloody wars were the norm, but the indolent shogunates also put a high value on art and culture, so the islands did not descend into barbarism. While many good swords were made during this period, the vast need for swords caused smiths to switch to production line methods. Furthermore, the ferocity of the fighting caused the highly artistic techniques of the Kamakura period (known as the Golden Age of Swordmaking) to be abandoned in favor of more utilitarian and disposable weapons. The export of katana reached its height during Muromachi period with the total of at least 200,000 katana being shipped to the Ming dynasty in official trades. The (ultimately failed) rationale behind this was to attempt to soak up the production of Japanese weapons and make it harder for pirates in the area to arm. As time progressed, the craft decayed under the needs listed above, and the introduction of guns, as a decisive force on the battlefield.

The famous failed invasion of Japan by the Mongols marked another point of evolution for the Japanese sword. Kokan Nagayama, in the book "The Connoiseur's Book of Japanese Swords", Kodansha International 1997, states on page 21 that the "Japanese warriors had never before encountered such an enemy (the Mongols), who was protected by leather armor and wielded a very stout sword -- clearly superior to theirs -- in a unique style of fighting." He added that certain Japanese swordsmiths started to adopt thinner and simpler temper lines due to their belief that " blades with wide temper lines reaching near to the ridge line look gorgeous, but tend to break." Unfortunately, Mr Nagayama did not quote the Japanese historical references from which he derived his comments on the superiority of the Mongol (ie continental Chinese, Korean and other makes) sword over the Japanese sword. Other Japanese scholars had also highlighted that certain Japanese swordsmiths of this period began to make blades with thicker backs and bigger points, as a counter-response to the Mongol threat.

In times of peace, swordsmiths had time and the inclination to return to the making of refined and artistic blades, and the beginning of the Momoyama period saw the return of high quality creations. As the techniques of the ancient smiths had been lost during the previous period of war, these swords were called shinto, literally 'new swords.' This gave the obvious name to the older blades as koto, 'old swords.' The blades that predated the curved blades introduced around 987AD were referred to as 'jokoto' or ancient swords. As the Edo period progressed, there came a decline in quality once again, for a variety of reasons, including the evolution of the samurai class into bureaucrats and policemen; other related arts did move forward from time to time, leading to beautiful engravings and decorations for weapons. The addition of these engravings known as 'horimono' were originally for religious reasons, and were simple and tasteful. It is often considered that the more complex work found on many shinto swords then is a corruption, where form no longer strictly follows function and thereby no longer achieves a pure form of beauty.

Under the isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate, guns and gunpowder were increasingly restricted and removed from circulation. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most young Japanese had never seen a gun, let alone actually seen one fired.

Towards the end of this period, swordmaking had fallen to another low, and due to the efforts of the master swordsmith Munetsugu at the turn of the 19th century, artistic merit once again returned to the craft. Munetsugu published opinions that the arts and techniques of the shinto swords were inferior to the koto blades, and that research should be made by all swordsmiths in the land to rediscover the lost techniques. Munetsugu travelled the land teaching what he knew to all who would listen, and swordsmiths rallied to his cause and ushered in a second renaissance in Japanese sword smithing. With the discarding of the Shinto style, and the re-introduction of old and rediscovered techniques, the swords of this time were now called 'shinshinto' meaning 'new-new swords.'

Japan remained in stasis until Matthew Perry's arrival in 1853 and the subsequent Convention of Kanagawa forcibly reintroduced Japan to the outside world; the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration soon followed.

The Haitorei edict in 1876 all but banned carrying swords and guns on streets, making samurai less distinguishable from commoners. Possession itself was not prohibited, so many katana were simply stashed away. Overnight, the market for swords died, and many swordsmiths were left without a trade to pursue, and valuable skills were lost. In time, the need to arm soldiers with swords was perceived again and over the decades at the beginning of the 20th century swordsmiths again found work. These swords, known as 'gunto', are often very low in quality with many being oil tempered or simply stamped out of steel and given a serial number rather than a chiseled signature.

Katana remained in use in some occupations, police sometimes using katana not only to catch criminals but to defend themselves from criminals who could be armed with katana as well. At the same time, Kendo was incorporated into police training so that police officers would have at least the minimal training necessary to properly use one.


"Type 95" Non Commissioned Officer's sword of the Second World War; made to resemble a Commissioned Officer's shin gunto, they were made of standard machine steel, with a metal, embossed and painted handle designed to look like a traditional tsuka.

Though this was a dark time for the katana, the craft was kept alive through the efforts of a few individuals, and notably the Gassan line of smiths who were employed as Imperial Artisans. These smiths, Gassan Sadakazu and Gassan Sadakatsu were kept busy producing fine works that stand with the best of the older blades for the Emperor and other high ranking officials. The students of Gassan Sadakatsu went on to be designated Intangible Cultural Assets, or more commonly known as Living National Treasures, as they embodied knowledge that was considered to be fundamentally important to the Japanese identity. In 1934 the Japanese government issued a military specification for the shin gunto "new army sword" the first version of which was referred to as a "Type 94 katana", and many machine- and handcrafted swords used in World War II conformed to this and later shin gunto specifications.

Under the United States occupation at the end of World War II all armed forces were disbanded and, except under several permits issued by police and municipal government, production of katana with edges was banned. This ban would be later overturned through the personal appeal of Dr. Homma Junji to General Douglas MacArthur. During their meeting, Dr. Homma produced blades from the various periods of Japanese history and General MacArthur was a quick student, being able to identify very quickly what blades held artistic merit and which could be considered purely weapons. As a result of this meeting, the general ban was amended so that the weapon grade gunto would be destroyed and swords of artistic merit could be owned and preserved. Even so, many katana were sold to American soldiers who had money to spend at a bargain price. Some were simply stolen, while others remained stashed away.

Due to this disarmament, as of 1958 there were more Japanese swords in America than in Japan: American soldiers would return from the Orient with piles of swords, often as many as they could carry. The vast majority of these 1,000,000 or more swords were gunto, but there were still a sizable number of koto, shinto and shin-shinto.

Swordsmiths had been increasingly turning to producing civilian goods after the Edo period but this disarmament and subsequent regulations almost put an end to the production of katana. A few smiths did continue their trade, and Dr. Homma went on to be a founding figure of the Nihon Bijitsu Hozon Token Kai, the 'Society for the Preservation of Art Swords', who made it their mission to preserve the old techniques and blades. With the efforts of other like minded individuals, the katana has arisen from its darkest day and many swordsmiths have continued the work begun by Munetsugu, re-discovering the old techniques and making the art swords produced by today's best smiths as good as many of the blades of old.

Some katana have been used in modern-day armed robberies. [1] However it is likely that most of these katana are sword like objects, as a basic, properly constructed katana is comparative in price to an inexpensive handgun.

The Blade Edit

Katana blades

Several katana and wakizashi blades, illustrating the variations in length and curvature. The nakago are well visible.

Classification by lengthEdit

All Japanese swords are manufactured according to this method and are somewhat similar in appearance. What generally differentiates the different swords is their length. Japanese swords are measured in units of shaku (1 shaku = approximately 30.3 centimeters or 11.93 inches; from 1891 the shaku has been defined as exactly 10/33 metres, but older data may vary slightly from this value). For more precise measurement, "sun", "bu", and "rin" (one-tenth, one-hundredth, and one-thousandth of a shaku respectively) may be used.

  • A blade shorter than 1 shaku (30 cm) is considered a tanto (knife).
  • A blade longer than 1 shaku but less than 2 (30–61 cm) is considered a shoto (short sword) and included the wakizashi and kodachi.
  • A blade longer than 2 shaku (61 cm) is considered a daito, or long sword. This is the category 'katana' fall into. However, the term 'katana' is often misapplied: a sword is only a katana if it is worn blade-up through a belt-sash called an obi (these 'katana' averaged 65 cm in blade length). If it is suspended by cords from a belt, it is called 'tachi' (average blade length of 75 cm) the tachi is worn cutting edge down.
  • Abnormally long blades (longer than 3 shaku or 90cm), usually carried across the back, are called ōdachi or nodachi. 'ōdachi' is also sometimes used as a synonym for katana.

A chisa-katana is simply a shorter katana. A katana was longer than two shaku in length. However, a chisa-katana is longer than the wakizashi, which was between one and two shaku in length. Chisa-katana were not common weapons since usually a katana was made for a taller person or a wakizashi for a shorter person. The most common reference to a chisakatana is a shorter katana that does not have a companion blade. They were most commonly made in the Buke-Zukuri mounting.

Classification by schools and provincesEdit

Japanese swords can be traced back to one of five provinces, called the Gokaden, each of which had its own school, traditions and 'trademarks' - e.g., the swords from Mino province were "from the start famous for their sharpness." (Source: The Connoisseur's Book of Japanese Swords, by Kokan Nagayama, p. 217.) These traditions and provinces are as follows:

Soshu School Yamato School Bizen School
Yamashiro School Mino School

Classification by date of manufactureEdit

Before 987: Some straight 'chokuto' or 'jokoto' and others with unusual shapes.
987 - 1597: A 'koto': these are considered the pinnacle of Japanese swordcraft. Early models had uneven curves with the deepest part of the curve at the hilt. As eras changed the center of the curve tended to move up the blade.
1597 - 1760: Known as 'shinto', or 'new sword'. These are considered inferior to most koto, and generally coincide with a degradation in manufacturing skills.
1761 - 1876: If made in koto style, these are called 'shinshinto', or 'new revival swords' (literally 'new new swords'). These are considered superior to most shinto, but worse than koto.
1876+: Post-Haitorei Edict. Any mass-produced blade is derisively called 'gunto'. These often look like Western cavalry sabers rather than katana, although most are just like katana, with many mass-produced and in general slightly shorter than blades of the shinto and shinshinto periods.

Classification by mode of wear Edit

Before 1500: Most swords worn suspended from cords on a belt, blade-down. This style is called 'jindachi-zukuri', and all daito worn in this fashion are 'tachi'.
1500 - 1867: Almost all swords are worn through a sash, paired with a smaller blade. Both blades are blade-up. This style is called 'buke-zukuri', and all daito worn in this fashion are 'katana'. Generally they could weigh up to 25 to 30 pounds, generally used by vanguard for when enemies broke to front-lines, made for emergency use only, due to their weight.
1867+: Due to restrictions and/or the destruction of the Samurai class, most blades are worn jindachi-zukuri style, like Western navy officers. Recently (1953+) there is a resurgence in buke-zukuri style, permitted only for demonstration purposes.


  • Swords designed specifically to be tachi are generally koto rather than shinto, so they are generally better manufactured and more elaborately decorated. However, these are still katana if worn in modern 'buke-zukuri' style. The signature almost always appears on the side facing away from the body when the blade is worn, so it is possible to discern the smith's intention for the blade in this manner.
  • There are many varieties of wooden practice blades, including those made out of wood (bokken) and those made out of bamboo (often used for kendo practice, usually referred to as shinai).
  • Most of the various kinds of spears could come with blades made in the same style as the Japanese sword. The two main types are 'naginata', similar to a halberd in use, and a 'yari' which is more traditionally spear like. Although largely overlooked in Western literature, spears were the first resort of any samurai and most peasants, and the blades on the samurai spears were often of extremely high quality. However, despite this, the sword was still considered the soul of the samurai, not the spear.
  • The 'soul of the samurai' concept has its roots in the early Tokugawa Shogunate. While there has always been reverence for the sword, the official line of it being the 'soul' comes from a need of the Shogunate to provide high value gifts to retainers and noblemen. In older days, these gifts would be of land, but at the time of the Shogunate land was a scarce commodity. It is considered that this angle of the sword was played up by those in power in order to replace land in the role of a gift of great honor. It became traditional that Daimyo and the Shogun, and the members of their families, would exchange gifts of swords when meeting together or for special occasions such as weddings and births. As such, the art of 'kantei' (the ability to judge a sword for period, maker, and quality) became important, as this allowed specialists to appraise a blade and so place its value. Older swords by honored makers would then be reserved for very special gifts, in particular to the Shogun and his family or from the Shogun to show very special merit.


Japanese swords and other edged weapons are manufactured by the Chinese method of repeatedly heating, folding and hammering the metal. This practice became popular from use of highly impure metals, stemming from the low temperature yielded in the smelting at that time and place. In order to counter this, and to homogenize the carbon content of the blades (giving some blades characteristic folding patterns), the folding was developed (for comparison see pattern welding), and found to be quite effective, though labour intensive.

The distinctive curvature of the katana is partly due to a process of differential quenching. The back of the sword is coated with clay, insulating it and so causing it to cool slower than the edge when the blade is quenched. This produces a blade with a hard martensite edge and softer pearlite back, allowing it to be resilient and yet retain a good cutting edge.

This process also makes the edge of the blade contract less than the back when cooling down, something that aids the smith in establishing the curvature of the blade.

While some people believe that katana and wakizashi were constructed alike, this was not always the case. They were often forged with different profiles, different blade thicknesses, and varying amounts of niku. Wakizashi were also not simply a 'scaled down' katana, they were often forged in hira-zukuri or other such forms, which were very rare on katana.

On a related note, the daisho (pair of swords) was not always forged together. If a samurai was able to afford a daisho, it was often composed of whichever two swords could be conveniently acquired, sometimes by different smiths and in different styles. Even when a daisho contained a pair of blades by the same smith, they were not always forged as a pair or mounted as one. "True" daisho, containing a pair of blades that were made as a pair, mounted as a pair, and owned/worn as a pair, are therefore uncommon and considered highly valuable - especially if they still retain their original mountings (as opposed to later mountings, even if the later mounts are made as a pair).

Japanese swords are fairly uncommon today, but not so rare that genuine antiques cannot be acquired - from reliable sources at significant expense, of course. Modern katana and wakizashi are only made by the few licenced practitioners that still practice making these crafted weapons today. Most of the "type 98 katanas" from World War II do not exist today, as well as the older versions.

Manufacturing processes are described in greater detail in following subsections.

Composition Edit

Traditional Japanese steel is popularly considered to be one of the best for creating swords, but the true reasons for this are artistic and not functional - contemporary western steels were and most modern steels are actually superior in strength and purity. The total composition varied from smith to smith and lode to lode of ore.

One more modern formula (from World War II):

Mineral composition:
Iron 98.12% to 95.22%
Carbon 3.00% to 0.10%
Copper 1.54%
Manganese 0.11%
Tungsten 0.05%
Molybdenum 0.04%
Titanium 0.02%
Silicon Varying amount
Miscellaneous compounds Trace amount

The high percentage of carbon gave the blade strength while the silicon increased the flexibility of the blade as well as its ability to withstand stress.



Blacksmith Munechika (end of the 10th century), helped by a fox spirit, forging the blade ko-kitsune-maru ("Little fox"). The kami is represented by a woman surrounded by foxes. Engraving by Ogata Gekko (1859-1920), 1873.


Engraving of the Edo era depicting forge scenes.


The forging of a Japanese blade typically took hours or days, and was considered a sacred art. As with many complex endeavors, rather than a single craftsman, several artists were involved. There was a smith to forge the rough shape, often a second smith (apprentice) to fold the metal, a specialist polisher, and even a specialist for the edge itself. Often, there were sheath, hilt, and tsuba (handguard) specialists as well.

The most famous part of the manufacturing process was the folding of the steel. Steel was repeatedly 'folded', bent over itself and hammered flat. This did several things:

  • It eliminated any bubbles in the metal.
  • It homogenized the metal, spreading the elements (such as carbon) evenly throughout - increasing the effective strength by decreasing the number of potential weak points.
  • It created layers, by continuously decarburizing the surface and bringing the surface into the blade's interior, which gives the swords their unique and beautiful grain. Despite widespread popular belief that the layered structure provides enhanced mechanical properties of the steel, this is completely false. Layers act as weld points which can only serve to weaken the integrity of the blade. (Bulat steel layering is an entirely different chemical effect, and does not apply to blades made in the Japanese fashion.)
  • It burned off many impurities, again helping to overcome the Japanese steel's poor quality and purify/strengthen the sword.

Contrary to popular belief, continued folding will not create a "super-strong" blade; once impurities are burnt off and the carbon content homogenized, further folding offers little benefit and will gradually burn out the carbon, leading eventually to a softer steel less able to hold an edge. The number of folds varied from sword to sword, but those with more than about a dozen folds are uncommon, and authentic swords with more than two dozen folds are completely unknown. It should be noted that a blade folded 12 times will have more than 4,000 'layers' underneath the initial blade to begin with, and that 20 folds would produce a blade with over a million layers. Beyond this number, the molecular structure of the blade is such that further folding would most likely serve no further purpose. Even before this point, more layers does not equal a better sword; though folding does burn off impurities and homogenize the blade, a very even and clean composition is obtained early in the process, and control of carbon content has a much greater effect on the blade's functionality. Thus, the best results were usually obtained at 8-10 folds.

Generally, swords were created with the grain of the blade (called 'hada') running down the blade like the grain on a plank of wood. Straight grains were called 'masame-hada', wood-like grain "itame," wood-burl grain "mokume," and concentric wavy grain (an uncommon feature seen almost exclusively in the Gassan school) 'ayasugi-hada'. The difference between the three normal grain types (masame-, itame-, and mokume-hada) is one of cutting a tree perpendicular to its direction of growth (mokume) at an angle (itame) or along the grain (masame), the angle causing the "stretched" pattern. The blades that were considered the most robust, reliable, and of highest quality were those made in the Mino tradition, especially those of Magoroku Kanemoto. Bizen tradition, which specialized in mokume, and some schools of Yamato tradition were also considered strong warrior's weapons.

One of the core philosophies of the Japanese sword is that it has a single edge. This means that the rear of the sword can be used to reinforce the edge, and the Japanese took full advantage of this fact. When finished, the steel is not quenched or tempered in the conventional European fashion. Steel’s exact flex and strength vary dramatically with heat variation, and depending on how hot it gets and how fast it cools, the steel has vastly different properties. If steel cools quickly, from a hot temperature, it becomes martensite, which is very hard but brittle. Slower, from a lower temperature, and it becomes pearlite, which has significantly more flex but doesn’t hold an edge. To control the cooling, the sword is heated and painted with layers of sticky clay. A thin layer on the edge of the sword ensures quick cooling, but not so fast as to crack the sword steel (this makes the actual edge of the sword extremely hard martensite). A thicker layer of mud on the rest of the blade causes slower cooling, and softer steel, giving the blade the flex it needs (this makes the rear and inside of the sword into pearlite). When the application is finished, the sword is quenched and hardens correctly.

Eventually the Japanese began to experiment with using different types of steel in different parts of the sword. Examples are shown below:

Katana core diagram

The vast majority of 'good' katana and wakazashi are of 'wariba-gitae' type, but the more complex models allow for parrying without fear of damaging the side of the blade. The last generally accepted model, the 'shiho-zume-gitae', is quite rare, but added a rear support.

The 'makuri-gitae' is made using two steels, one folded more times than the other, or of a lesser carbon content. When both sections have been folded adequately, they are bent into a 'U' shape and the softer piece is inserted into the harder piece, at which point they are hammered out into a long blade shape. By the end of the process, the two pieces of steel are fused together, but retain their differences in hardness. To make han-sanmai-awase-gitae or shiho-zume-gitae, pieces of hard steel are then added to the outside of the blade in a similar fashion.

Anatomy of the katanaEdit

Katana diagram

Nagako of a wakisashi blade


Kissaki of a tachi blade, Bizen school, signed Kuni Osafune Yoshigake; Nambokucho era (14th century).


The tanka which locks the blade is visible just under the tsuba (guard).

Each blade has a unique profile, depending on the smith, the construction method, and a bit of luck. The most prominent is the middle ridge, or 'shinogi'. In the earlier picture, the examples were flat to the shinogi, then tapering to the blade. However, swords could narrow down to the shinogi, then narrow further to the blade, or even expand outward towards the shinogi then shrink to the blade (producing a trapezoidal shape). A flat or narrowing shinogi is called 'shinogi-hikushi', whereas a 'fat' blade is called a 'shinogi-takushi'.

The shinogi can be placed near the back of the blade for a longer, sharper, more fragile tip or a more moderate shinogi near the center of the blade.

The sword also has an exact tip shape, which is considered an extremely important characteristic: the tip can be long (ô-kissaki), medium (chû-kissaki), short (ko-kissaki), or even hooked backwards (ikuri-ô-kissaki). In addition, whether the front edge of the tip is more curved (fukura-tsuku) or (relatively) straight (fukura-kareru) is also important.

It is important to point out that the kissaki (point) is not a "chisel-like" point, nor is the Western knife interpretation of a "tanto point" at all correct or Japanese. Such western knife blades feature a straight, linearly-sloped point whose sole advantage is being easy to grind and which only bears a superficial similarity to traditional Japanese kissaki. Kissaki have a curved profile, and smooth three-dimensional curvature across their surface towards the edge - though they are bounded by a straight line called the yokote and have crisp definition at all their edges.

A hole is drilled into the tang (nagako), called a mekugi-ana. It is used to anchor the blade using a mekugi, a small bamboo pin that is inserted into another cavity in the Tsuka and through the mekugi-ana. Thus restricting the blade from slipping out. To remove the Tsuka you must remove the mekugi. Also, The swordsmith signature (mei) is placed on the nagako.


Almost all blades are decorated, although not all blades are decorated on the visible part of the blade. Once the blade is cool, and the mud is scraped off, the blade has designs and grooves cut into it. One of the most important markings on the sword is performed here: the file markings. These are cut into the tang, or the hilt-section of the blade, where they will be covered by a hilt later. The tang is never supposed to be cleaned: doing this can cut the value of the sword in half or more. The purpose is to show how well the blade steel ages. A number of different types of file markings are used, including horizontal, slanted, and checked, known as ichi-monji, kosuji-chigai, suji-chigai, o-suji-chigai, katte-agari, shinogi-kiri-suji-chigai, taka-no-ha, and gyaku-taka-no-ha. A grid of marks, from raking the file diagonally both ways across the tang, is called higaki, whereas specialized 'full dress' file marks are called kesho-yasuri. Lastly, if the blade is very old, it may have been shaved instead of filed. This is called sensuki. While ornamental, these file marks also serve the purpose of providing an uneven surface which bites well into the 'tsuka', or the hilt which fits over it and is made from wood. It is this pressure fit for the most part that holds the tsuka in place during the strike, while the mekugi pin serves as a secondary method and a safety.

Some other marks on the blade are aesthetic: signatures and dedications written in kanji and engravings depicting gods, dragons, or other 'acceptable' beings, called horimono. Some are more practical, grooves for lightening and extra flex (as well as an intimidating sound, called tachikaze, when swung with force). Grooves come in wide (bo-hi), twin narrow (futasuji-hi), twin wide and narrow (bo-hi ni tsure-hi), short (koshi-hi), twin short (gomabushi), twin long with joined tips (shobu-hi), twin long with irregular breaks (kuichigai-hi), and halberd-style (naginata-hi). Contrary to popular belief, these grooves have nothing to do with improving the flow of enemy blood.



katana kissaki before polishing

When the rough blade is completed, the swordsmith turns the blade over to a polisher called a togishi, whose job it is to polish the steel of the blade to a glittering shine and sharpen the edge for battle. This takes hours for every inch of blade, and is painstaking work with different kinds of very fine stone. Early polishers used three types of stone, whereas a modern polisher generally uses seven. The modern high level of polish was not normally done before around 1600. It almost always takes longer than actually crafting the blade does, and a good polishing makes a blade look better, while a bad polishing makes the best of blades look like gunto. More importantly, an unschooled polisher can permanently ruin the blade geometry or wear the steel down to its core steel, both of which effectively destroy the sword's monetary, historic, artistic, and functional value.

There are two general styles of polishing: hadori and sashikomi. Hadori is modern (invented in the last 100 years) and involves a whitened hamon roughly following the actual hamon, and a darkened body to make the whitened hamon stand out. Hadori is likened to "makeup" that enhances the beauty of a face. Sashikomi is closer to the old styles of polish, and does not attempt to outline the hamon. It more readily reveals details of the actual hamon and crystalline structure compared to hadori.

One of the ways in which blades can be judged is by what this polishing reveals: the crystalline structure of the blade becomes quite visible, and the hamon (incorrectly known in English as the temper line, where the hard edge fades into the softer steel of the body) shows the unique nature of the sword. Each blade is distinct in its hamon and the grain (hada) of its steel. The hamon, which is determined primarily by how the clay is applied, is often used as a kind of signature of the smith, above and beyond his own signature, and each tradition of swordsmiths often has a particular style of hamon it prefers over all others. Hamon vary from straight to wavy to shaped like crabs or zigzags, and in their wandering they reveal important facts about the blade itself. A good polishing reveals what speed the edge was cooled at, from what temperature, and what the carbon content of the steel is. It does this by displaying either predominately nioi, which is a mix of extremely fine martensite with troostite (another type of tempered steel), or the larger martensite crystals called nie, which look like individual dot-like mirrors.


Edo period Wakizashi

An Edo era wakizashi. The tsukamaki (handle lacing) is off, showing the shark skin. Note the decoration of the saya.

Tsuba 2

Elaborated tsuba of the Edo era


wooden scabbard used to protect the blade when not worn for some time

From here, the blade is passed on to a hilt-maker. Hilts vary in their exact nature depending on the era, but generally consist of the same general idea, with the variation being in the components used and in the wrapping style. The obvious part of the hilt consists of a metal or wooden grip called a tsuka, which can also be used to refer to the entire hilt. The cross guard, or tsuba, on Japanese swords (except for certain twentieth century sabers which emulate Western navies') is small and round, made of metal, and often very ornate. (see related article on Koshirae)

There is a pommel at the base known as a kashira, and there is often a decoration under the criss-crossed wrappings called a menuki. A bamboo peg called a mekugi is slipped through the tsuka and through the tang of the blade, using the hole called a mekugiana drilled in it. This anchors the blade securely into the hilt. To anchor the blade securely into the sheath it will soon have, the blade acquires a collar, or habaki, which extends an inch or so past the cross guard and keeps the blade from rattling.

The sheaths themselves are not an easy task. There are two types of sheaths, both of which require the same exacting work. One is the shira-saya, which is generally made of wood and considered the 'resting' sheath, used as a storage sheath. The other sheath is the more decorative or battle-worthy sheath which is usually called either a jindachi-zukuri or a buke-zukuri, depending on whether it was supposed to be suspended from the obi(belt) by straps when the sword is mounted in Tachi-Koshirae or thrust through the obi if mounted as katana-koshirae, respectively. Other types of mounting include the kyu-gunto, shin-gunto, and kai-gunto types for the twentieth-century military, but these swords were generally mass-produced and highly inferior, and few true Japanese swords are mounted in these styles.


The katana is primarily a cutting weapon, rather than a stabbing one, though it can be used to stab. The hilt of the katana is held two-handed with a small gap between the hands, generally as large as the grip permits, allowing for more leverage to be applied when cutting and more maneuverability when parrying another weapon. However, it is often used single-handed as well. Testing of swords, called tameshigiri, was practiced on a variety of materials (including people) to test the sword's sharpness and also practice cutting technique. Considering the broader case of Japanese swords, rather than the specific case of the shinto katana, technique varies over time depending on the style of fighting prevalent in military operations of the time.

In certain eras, the sword becomes longer and is intended for use from horseback. At the same time, footmen may accompany a horseman and be armed with shorter katate-uchi at their side. This is a katana with a shortened length and handle, intended for one-handed fighting only. Also called wakizashi, and kodachi.

As armor and enemies changed over time, the shapes of blades changed from heavier profiles to lighter profiles, with different intentions for use in fighting. The heavier blades were fitted for heavier, slower, more powerful combat, while the lighter blades were suited for speed and accuracy.

The sword was mostly considered as a secondary weapon until the Kamakura period(1185-1333), used in the battlefield after the bow, or spear was no longer feasible. Then during Kamakura period the Tachi became the primary weapon on the battlefield used by cavalry mounted samurai. However, during the Edo period of Japan, Samurai went about on foot unarmored, and with much less combat being fought on horseback in open battlefields, and the need for an effective close quarter weapon resulted in samurai being armed with daisho.

Comparisons with European swordsEdit

It is a commonly-encountered article of faith that katanas are intrinsically superior to European swords. This belief is frequently bolstered by roleplaying games that assign superior statistics to katanas, and also by many movies. However, these claims are largely based on misunderstandings about the manufacture and role of European swords, and comparing the schools on their worst examples instead of their best.

Nihontô were also more honored than European swords, for cultural reasons. Many katana and tachi bear nicknames and legends, as they were originally an offering for the Gods as it was believe iron and steel were a manifestation of the gods' (Nature) power. This religious function doubled with a secular one, since the Imperial Court was using some shintô shrines as weapon storage. While religious meaning also exist with European swords; the old crossh-shaped knightly sword of the Dark Ages was abandoned over time for smaller blades, such as the rapier and sabre. While the katana and tachi designs stayed until today. Even the Tsurugi design was not entirely abandoned, with exemples such as the Kogarasumaru design or the Tsurugi swords forged under American occupation for the ceremonial re-building of Ise Jingû.

More important than religious aspects, Japanese individual masterpieces (Meibutsu, Wazamono...) are more well-known than the European ones, as we often know which katana was the one of such famous warlord (Bushô) and such. Some swords also bears nicknames reflecting there cutting prowess.

For exemple, Ôtengu Masaie (Great Tengu forged by Masaie) was the katana of Yagyû Tajima-no-kami Munenori, and also the one of his father, Yagyû Sekishûsai. The legend says lord Munenori was attacked at night in a forest by a Tengu, a Buddhist converted winged demon with a long nose. After a fierce fight, Munenori managed to slay the mountain dwelling yôkai. But soon dawn came, and the sword master discovered a great boulder splited in two instead of the Tengu's corpse. Thus, he nicknamed his katana Ootengu. While it may be considered a ghost story and purely fictional, actually... both the boulder and the katana still exists today ! The latter one often being exposed in museums, unlike European counterparts such as Joyeuse or Durandal, to say nothing of mythological blades such as Excalibur. Also, ancient legendary European or middle east blades were of lesser qualities than Kôtô or Shinshintô Nihontô. Yet, while Kôtô blades often have better steel than more recent ones, European steel quality increased with time.

Because Japan was an iron-poor society, making a sword was an inherently expensive undertaking; the supply of swords was limited, and so it was in the smiths' interest to make the most of the materials they could afford. Europe also had superlative swordsmiths; Toledo steel swords from Spain are one example of legendary quality swords from outside Japan. However, the greater availability of iron made it practical to produce low-cost, high-quality weapons in large quantities. Where Europeans had the choice between expensive swords and cheap swords, Japanese had the choice between expensive swords, somewhat less expensive swords, or none at all.

The folding of Japanese swords does not improve the overall sword, it makes the sword possible in a country with iron ore that is of relatively low quality by removing the impurities in the ore. If you have better iron to begin with, or are able to melt the metal, it is not needed. However the forging method in the manufacture of the katana results in a extremely hard Martensite edge with a soft but flexible Pearlite core and spine, results in a blade with exceptional impact resistance and sharpness, something not possible to do with a straight edge blade.

In tests a traditionally forged katana was able to deflect a 9mm round from a hand gun with out sustaining damage (with the bullet itself splitting in half), and managed to withstand 7 direct hits from a 50 caliber heavy-machine gun before shattering. The same blade also proved impenetrable to an iron-cutting machine(before being shot). These feats are due to the sword’s hard but flexible martensite/pearlite structure. [2] [3]

It is also worth noting that European technology took major leaps forward, which the secretive nature of Japanese swordsmiths prevented. Europeans invented ways to make swords from solid bars rather then pattern blades, which were of fairly good quality in battle, but much faster and easier to make. it must be noted however that as European metallurgy advanced European forgers abandoned old straight-edge designs and moved onto curved blades such as the Sabre, much in the same way the Japanese moved from the archaic Ken to curved swords.

Some European swords were also designed for different modes of combat. The katana's sharpness makes it an excellent cutting weapon, but this is matched by the swords of other nations designed to cut. Katanas are capable of damaging armor to varying degrees; older Koto era Shobu Zukuri type swords were designed when armor was prevalent and were generally slightly more curved and thick, consequenty they had relatively good armor penetration, as sword making moved onto the Shinto period the blades tended to become thiner and slightly less curved for use against unarmored opponents. It's a popular misconseption that weapons such as the yari were favored for armored opponent. Sword attacks can be fatal to an armored opponent, with or without damage to the armor. The historic record is that swords were usedin battle against armored opponents with success.

Today Shinkendo masters perform a helmet cutting ceremony capable of causing great damage to a helmet with a single stroke. In the Meiji era, it is also known the Emperor invited 3 swordsman to perform this Kabutowari test, and one of them actually managed to split through it far enough to inflict clearly lethal injuries. Is is also known the wakizashi of Saigo Takamori, forged by Izumi-no-kami Kanesada, managed to success in the Kabutowari test.

In this light, the different characteristics of certain European swords are due less to the limitations of their makers than to the requirements of their use. Attempting to establish the superiority of the one weapon over the other is ultimately meaningless without first defining the circumstances in which they are to be compared. The European sword has much greater lateral flex, giving it the ability to survive some stresses the Japanese blade would not. While the katana has much greater impact resistance, allowing it to survive stresses that the European blade would not.

Also, while Japanese helmets (kabuto) were made of hard iron, latter European armors were made with steel, especially in the Italian wars. Against such steely armors, it can be assumed both Europeans and Japanese swords would have been quite useless.

At the same time, many European sword types from the very beginning of the history of the sword, through the medieval period and the renaissance to the 20th century were designed for the same combat modes as Japanese ones, fighting against lightly-armored or unarmored infantry. Styles that relied on a single longsword for both offense and defense were well known - see e.g. Joachim Meyer's fechtbuch[4] - and disparities in weight have been greatly exaggerated; both longswords and katanas typically weighed between 1.0 and 1.5 kilograms (2-3 pounds).

In general, European swords are far more diverse, while the Japanese especially beloved the Katana design, which is yet a bit more versatile than the middle age long sword.

The European blade is frequently longer then the Japanese blade of the same general usage. But it is due in great part because of the standard size of the Edo era, imposed by the Bakufu on the Katana, which became after than an habit for Japanese sword makers and sword fighters.

The average Katana is about the length of the European one handed sword, but the European singlehand sword is closer to the Wakizashi in use, though it was more frequently used with a shield, which changes the entire nature of the combat. The European longsword, or hand and a half sword, would be classified as a Odachi, but is more similar to the Katana or Tachi in use. The European Greatsword, which would be used more as an Odachi, though few Japanese Odachi would match them in size. In the same time, while it is often assume that Odachi and Nodachi were the same thing, it is not.

Odachi can means a blade length (nagasa) slightly greater than standard katana size of 60cm, such as 70cm to 90cm. But there are very long swords such as the Tarôtachi, the still existing great sword of general Makara Naotaka of the Asai clan : with 220 cm Nagasa and a weight of 4,5 kg, the overall size simply makes it bigger than any human being who ever live in this world. Swords such as this one are the true Nodachi, use to slash through ranks of poorly armored Ashigaru enemies or to have greater range in duel with a lot of space to swing it. And their is indeed few of them.

Unlike European Great Swords, Nodachi were never mass produced nor used in mass for entire units (in the case of Tarôtachi, it was the favourite sword of a famous general and war hero). Seldom reasons exists for that. Few iron, additional hours (or rather "weeks"), experience and ressources made them rare. Also, Japanese warriors preferred the use of Naginata (spear sabre) or Nagamaki (katana with greater Tsuka and greater Nakago) for a similar usage, and few of them were trained and strong enough to wield this kind of giant blade, which increased the rarity of the Nodachi.

Some famous katana smithsEdit

Famous historic katana usersEdit

See alsoEdit


Recommended readingEdit

References Edit

External linksEdit

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