History of the Samurai Sword

History of the Samurai Sword in Japanese Culture

In pre-industrial Japan, the sword was not just a weapon but the soul of the Samurai. For this reason, a huge part of Japanese culture is based on the Samurai and their katana swords. The only people allowed to wear a sword in ancient Japan were the Samurai. The swords symbolized personal honor and social position of the Samurai in the society.

A Daisho set with a Tanto blade included at the very bottom.
A Daisho set with a Tanto blade included at the very bottom.

A Samurai was an elite member of the Japanese military and they were expected to follow the ‘Bushido’. The Bushido, which means the “way of the warrior”, was a code of ethics that guided the Samurai. The Bushido was associated with several values such as courage, integrity, loyalty, compassion and respect. In addition, Bushido highlighted the value of living and dying in honor.

Each Japanese soldier had a collection of swords in his possession. A katana (long sword) and wakizashi (short sword) made up a Daisho set. These Samurai swords were treated with great reverence. The wakizashi was considered as an emergency weapon which was to be carried everywhere the Samurai went. Although a Samurai was required to leave all his weapons outside the house, he had to carry his wakizashi in the house and keep it under the pillow. This small sword was used during emergencies, in close quarter combat or for ritual suicide. The warriors mainly used the katana swords during battles.

History of the Samurai Sword

The Samurai sword dates back to over 1300 years ago. However, the most significant historical periods of the Samurai sword are divided into 4 phases: Koto (pre-1596), Shinto (1597-1876), Gendai (1877-end of World War II) and the modern period known as Shinsaku.

The first katana blade was a straight doubled-edged iron sword which was adapted from the Chinese. However, at the end of the 10th century, the Japanese cut cultural ties with the Chinese and they stabilized to form their own class divisions in the society. As a result, the military warriors who were guarding the society became the first Samurais. Although there was little evidence to show the revolution of the Samurai sword, Japanese myths consider Amakuni as the “father of the Samurai”. Amakuni was a sword-smith who greatly improved the design of the katana.

The Legend of Amakuni

There was a huge demand for weapons and armor from local and national Japanese leaders. The weapons were used to invade China and Korea and to defend Japan from Chinese and Korean invasion. Leaders with a large supply of weapons were considered superior. Consequently, there was a large number of smiths who worked tirelessly to meet the demand for weapons. The Japanese emperor of that era tasked Amakuni Yasutsuna and Amakura (Amakuni’s son) with the responsibility of making swords for his army.

According to the Amakuni legend, the emperor was distraught about his warriors returning from war with damaged or broken swords. This forced Amakuni to make a perfect sword that would win the Emperor’s heart and ensure that the warriors won the battles. Amakuni and his son sought intervention from the Shinto gods who inspired the smiths to create a single-edged slightly curved sword. When the warriors went to their next battle with these new and innovative blades, they won it without a single blade being damaged. As a result, Amakuni won the Emperor’s favor and became known as the father of the Samurai sword.

The Kamakura and Muromachi Periods

These two periods are considered as the most important periods of Samurai sword history. Though the exact time frames for these periods is debated the period from 1185 to 1336 was known as the Kamakura while the period from 1337 to 1573 was referred to as the Muromachi period. During these periods, there were many invasions in Japan. As a result, there was need for an effective sword to fend off invaders successfully.

During battle the Japanese warriors found that it was very difficult to draw a straight sword from the scabbard (sword case) while fighting on a horseback. Consequently, during the Muromachi period, smiths developed the curved katana sword which was more functional during horseback fighting. Because of the design and effective cutting angles, a Samurai could easily draw their sword from the scabbard and slash their opponents in a single swing.

The Dark Age of Katana History

After the Muromachi period, there were fewer wars and invasions in Japan. This reduced the demand for katana swords. More superior weapons like the gun were also introduced forcing the sword smiths to abandon their craft. This had a negative effect on sword craftsmanship because the skills of the earlier smiths were not passed to new generations.

However, the katana sword rose to popularity again when the great emperor Shogun Hideyoshi allowed the privileged Samurai class to carry the katana. Later, there was 400 years of peace and the katana sword became a fine piece of art representing a long and rich history. The katana blades made at that time were mainly used for decorative purposes.

1876 marked the start of civilization in the country and Japanese warriors and citizens were ordered to stop carrying swords. This dark period forced the few remaining smiths to close their businesses. The Japanese army then abandoned the use of Samurai swords and adapted modern weapons from the West, including Western-style cavalry swords. After World War II, there were only a few smiths in and outside Japan who would produce Samurai swords.

 

Current Day Katanas

The katana sword is still respected today although it is rare to find a sword smith who can make a Samurai sword with the passion, meaning, art and spirit exhibited by the earlier sword smiths. Katana swords are currently used in martial arts training such as Kenjutsu, Iaido,  and others. These swords are mainly used to balance the unarmed nature of this martial art.

There are numerous Kenjutsu masters who believe that the art of Jujitsu was a back-up plan for warriors when their swords got lost or damaged in the battle field. This martial art initially focused on dominating the opponent without using any weapon. However, modern day martial artists often try to gain skills in both fighting styles.

The Samurai sword still carries a strong historical and ceremonial importance in Japan just like the famous Jujitsu style of fighting in modern day entertainment such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting. The katana sword is considered as the deadliest weapon in Japanese history and culture.

 

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