The Samurai Sword

April 13, 2010

by Masafumi Kubo; Fumino Nakajima

The Samurai Sword: Katana

Have you ever seen a real Japanese sword that was used by samurai? There are many shops that sell such swords in Kyoto. In this article, we will introduce the shop called “Hashimoto”. First, however, we’ll explain about the Japanese sword.

・History

After the middle of the Heian period, which ran from 794-1185 A.D., the form arose that is known today as the Japanese sword (literal translation: nihonto). It is also called tachi- a sword that has a curve – and katana. Before the Heian period, swords were straight in form and they had the distinction of excelling as thrusting weapons. But as the styles of battle changed, the curved sword was born, a weapon that excels at cutting. And the Japanese sword has a very beautiful form. It has kept the form that combines power with beauty for more than one thousand years. In the Kamakura period, 1185-1333, the Japanese sword was a symbol of samurai authority. It was a very magnificent form. The Muromachi period, 1333-1573, began comparatively peacefully. So , domestic demand for swords was in decline. But Japanese sword was to become one of the articles of trade. And then the battle of Onin (1467) broke out, beginning a warring period that lasted more than a century. The Japanese sword took center stage. Each sword was unique and one-of-a-kind, like the soul of its samurai owner. When the gun was introduced, samurai kept using their traditional Japanese swords. After the Meiji period, with its cultural enlightenment, the new Japanese goverment prohibited the use of the Japanese sword. Samurai could no longer own even a single sword. But the technique of forging them was protected. And the Japanese sword came down as a part of the nation’s heritage and today it is still loved by many Japanese people.

・Making the Sword

The katana begins with a lump of cartridge steel (tamahagane); it is a raw material which is made from iron sand. When steel has a suitable quantity of carbon and good quality, it is called cartridge steel. It can be used directly for the raw materials. The Japanese sword is actually made from various kinds of iron which are different in hardness. The blade is composed of both soft and hard steel, which creates both sharpness and strength. It is hammered over and over, until impurities are removed. While hammering, it is turned fifteen times. The first half of this process is called shitagitae and the latter half is called agekitae. A perfect work’s layers number more than thirteen thousand. A little known fact is that a part of the sword is actually a very thin layer of painted clay; this creates both strength and softness, which gives the sword a great deal of resilience. The blade itself becomes hard and the part which supports the blade becomes soft. The effect is to make cutting easy but to make breaking the blade extremely difficult. When a clayed sword is cooling, that period is called yakiire. Yakiire is what makes the curve. After passing through this process, the katana is perfected.

・Legend: Is Muramasa Cursed!?

Muramasa was the person who made a katana called by his own name: Muramasa. It is said that Muramasa is cursed. Do you know why? Ieyasu Tokugawa, who built the Edo shogunate, hated Muramasa because his grandfather and father were killed by vassals of Muramasa. But it is a legend.

・Uchigatana or Tachi?

If you travel in social circles which know about katana, you might hear terms like uchigatana and tachi. What is the difference? Uchigatana means carrying a Japanese sword on one’s back. When carrying it in this way, the blade faces up. On the other hand, tachi is hung from one’s back. When carrying a sword in this manner, the blade faces downward.

・Saya

Saya is the scabbard or sheath which protects katana from damage. Saya is made of magnolia wood, hounoki in Japanese. The wood is dried naturally for more than 10 years, and the two boards are connected by glue.

・Introducing Hashimoto Katana-ya Sword Dealers

Hashimoto was founded in 1966 in the neighborhood around near Nijo Castle.The exterior of the shop has white walls and a tile roof which gives it a distinctive Kyoto atmosphere. Japanese swords are beautifully displayed and you can even see them from the outside through the show window. Entering the shop, the shop owner greets us. We are surrounded by a lot of swords. Many people walking by stop to gaze inside the windows at the swords inside. This includes a number of foreigners.

・We Hear about Katana from Hashimoto’s Proprietor

“Nowadays katana seems to be handiwork, but swords are not pure handiwork. They are a symbol of the age-old Japanese spirit and convey Japanese culture. The traditional set of three tools of the gods are katana, mirror and magatama. This shows us that the katana is seen as very special. Only samurai were permitted to have katana, for it represented authority. If a samurai warrior succeeded in a military exploit, he could receive an excellent sword.
“Katana is a weapon not only to cut an opponent but also to ward off enemies and save lives. Katana is consecrated for Japanese. The maker’s spirit and the owner’s/warrior’s spirit live within it. Beauty is also its characteristic. The curve is exquisite and it fascinates people. Katana has both beauty and strength. The Japanese sword is made while considering the harsh realities of life as well as artistic beauty.”

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