Japanese Swords 101: A Guide for Both Novices and Enthusiasts
What’s in this article?
Throughout history, the Japanese
We rounded up the most popular Japanese swords, as well as a few tips on how and where you can buy them.
Samurai Swords vs. Ninja Swords
In feudal Japan, both the samurai and ninja clans used swords as weapons. Unlike the samurai, who were more concerned with the quality of their blades, the ninjas paid more attention to methods of quickly drawing their swords. The ninjas usually belonged to the lower classes of Japanese society, so they often had difficulty in obtaining high-quality blades.
Unlike the samurai katana
Samurai swords were highly valued and respected and were never used for mundane utilitarian purposes. On the other hand, ninja swords were nothing more than a tool. Some ninjas used their swords to open a locked door in an enemy sanctuary, as well as a foot pedestal for climbing walls. As an extra weapon for protection, ninja swords were used for stabbing enemies rather than slaying them.
Types of Japanese Swords
There are different types of swords used in Japanese history. Some were samurai swords used in feudal Japan, while others are modern swords used in martial arts today. No doubt, anime has also played a role in popularizing some fictional swords, which sparks the interest of both
The most popular of all swords, the Japanese katana
Katana is a long
2. Tanto (Dagger)
Less than 30 cm long, the tanto is a very short
The josun no tanto, meaning normal-sized tanto, have blades ranging from 24 to 25 cm in length, and mostly without curvature. There were even smaller tanto daggers, approximately 20 cm long, but their longer variety, the sunnobi tanto, had blades around 30 cm in length. Despite its size, it had the same craftsmanship as its larger counterparts.
3. Tachi (Long
The first functional
The tachi from the Kofun period traditionally featured the phoenix or dragon decoration. It was commonly drawn with one hand, usually from horseback. Since it was a sharp, durable, and effective weapon, it became the blueprint for all swords developed in later times.
4. Kodachi (Short Tachi)
Kodachi literally means small or short tachi, with a length less than 60 cm. It was actually too short to be called a
5. Odachi (Great Tachi)
The extremely long swords are known as odachi or nodachi, meaning great tachi. However, these swords were difficult to handle due to their length, usually between 90 and 130 centimeters, so they were only used during the Nanbokucho period, from 1336 to 1392.
Most recognized for its extra-long tang and handle, the nagamaki evolved from the odachi or nodachi of the Nanbokucho period. Its blade could be 60 cm or more, and its handle is about the same length as the blade, designed for sweeping and slicing strokes. It has a single-edged blade and was mainly used as an infantry weapon.
The body of the nagamaki can resemble a katana, or a naginata polearm. However, its hilt was not just a simple wooden shaft—it was wrapped just like a typical katana hilt. When the nagamaki was later reshaped into a more practical
7. Wakizashi (Short
The wakizashi is a short
A sword of Chinese design, the chokuto was produced in Japan’s ancient times and pre-dated the so-called Japanese
While its kiriha-zukuri blade was ideal for thrusting and hacking, the hira-zukuri blade was designed for slicing. Many scholars believe that these two designs were later combined to create the first tachi
The term daisho is actually used to describe a
Also called a ken, the tsurugi is a symmetrical double-edged blade designed as a thrusting weapon. It can be in any length from 30 to 60 cm. It’s one of the oldest sword types used in Japan in the 3rd to 6th centuries. Today, it holds religious significance in Buddhism, and Shinto attributed kami or spirits to the
11. Uchigatana (Striking
The uchigatana was a mid-length
One of the most famous swordsmiths in the history of Japanese swords is Goro Nyudo Masamune, who became popular in the late Kamakura period. He worked in the Soshu school and produced swords of the highest quality. The Tokugawa family and
In kendo, the traditional style of Japanese fencing, the bamboo
Shinai can also be made of carbon graphite, which is 10 times more durable than the traditional bamboo shinai. However, they are not recommended for beginners, as the material absorbs lesser vibrations than the traditional bamboo.
In feudal Japan, the ninjas used the shikomizue, a
There are several noteworthy swords in anime. In Samurai X, Rurouni Kenshin used the sakabato or reverse-blade katana to fulfill his vow of never killing again. Even if there is no record of the
Japan’s most celebrated swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi became known for using bokken in his duels, though he sometimes fought with what was at hand. In Japan, the term bokken generally means wooden
17. Full Tang
Generally, all Japanese swords used in combat were full tang swords. Technically, the tang is the unsharpened portion of the blade that extends to its handle. Since its tang runs down the length of the entire handle as a solid piece, full tang swords are the strongest. It also means that the blade and handle won’t break apart from hard blows.
History of the Japanese
Throughout history, the Japanese adapted their swords based on cultural changes, historical events, technological advancement, and efficiency in warfare. As battle tactics changed, the construction and styles of blades also changed.
The long history of Japanese swords can be classified into a series of periods—Jokoto, Koto, Shinto, Shinshinto, and Gendaito, though historians do not agree on exactly when these periods started and ended. Still, these
The Jokoto era starts with the earliest historical period of Japan, the Jomon period, and ends with the mid-Heian period. Since it coincides with the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages in Europe, the swords from this era are regarded as ancient swords and were used primarily for religious ceremonies instead of weapons. They were made of bronze, and were symmetrical and double-edged, similar to the Greek hoplite and the Chinese jian.
By the Kofun period from 250 to 538 CE, straight and short steel swords were designed for battles, but many of them were imported from China. These swords feature a triangular profile and single cutting edges and were used mainly as a stabbing and hacking weapon. In this context, a straight
During the mid-Heian period, the Japanese
When the Mongols invaded Japan in the 13th century, the Japanese
When Japan entered the Warring States period, a time of almost constant civil war, odachi swords were replaced by uchigatana swords, which were more practical to use in enclosed spaces such as forts and buildings. After uchigatana became popular, swordsmiths started to produce smaller swords in general. The katana was made toward the end of the Koto era, usually with blades more than 60 cm.
During the Shinto era, also known as the New
As the peace of the Edo period continued into the 18th century, swords became more of a symbolic treasure than a weapon. With no battles to fight, the samurai preferred ornamental designs rather than protective talisman designs on their swords.
In the late 1700s, swordsmith Suishinshi Masahide sparked the interest in traditional Japanese swords, which marked the beginning of the Shinshinto or New, New
Generally, Japanese swords made from the mid-Meiji period up until the present times are regarded as gendaito or modern swords. There was little demand for swords during the period, but swordsmiths managed to preserve the traditional swordmaking.
As Japan began to modernize its military forces, the traditional swords lost their popularity as a weapon. Today, it remains illegal to produce swords to use as weapons, as all swords made in Japan since the end of World War II have been art swords.
Characteristics of Japanese
Type of Steel
What makes the Japanese
Apart from the quality of the steel, the Japanese blade has a complex structure, which makes it an effective weapon. Japanese swords are hand forged and clay tempered blades, with hardened edges and softer spines, so they are both hard and flexible.
More than that, the
Blade’s Curvature or Sori
Japanese swords are known for their blade curvatures, which make them battle-ready and effective slashing weapons. To measure the blade’s curvature, an imaginary straight line is drawn from the very tip of the
However, the location of the blade’s curvature may vary, so there are also different types of sori. If the sori is found on the center of the blade, it is called toriizori. On the other hand, the sori above the center and toward the tip of the blade is called sakizori, while the sori below the center and toward the hilt of the
Sword Tip Design or Kissaki
The kissaki or
Curvature of the Point or Fukura
The fukura or the shape of the sharpened cutting edge within the pointed part of the
Examining a Japanese
While you can purchase any piece of metal shaped like a
Unlike Western swords, Japanese swords are examined by looking only at the blade itself. Some of its aesthetic features include the jigane, the appearance of the surface steel; the jihada, the grain pattern within the steel; and the hamon, the patterned band along the edge of the
Steel’s Surface or Jigane
Traditionally, Japanese steel is not reflective or bright, so you should notice the color of the steel, which is dark compared to modern steel. To examine the color and surface of the steel, you’ll need a good light source placed above, as the flat side of the blade is viewed. You’ll notice the difference between the grayish steel color on the side and the whitish steel color on the edge.
Grain Patterns or Jihada
The steel surface has a distinct grain pattern or texture called jihada or hada, which resulted from repeated folding of the steel while being forged. There are many variations of these patterns, depending on forging techniques used. Therefore, the jihada varies from
The straight grain or masame hada features a series of straight lines along the blade’s length, while the wood pattern grain or mokume hada has irregular concentric circles and swirls. The term moku means tree or wood, while me means pattern. On the other hand, the plank pattern grain or itame hada is a combination of masame and mokume hada, as it features a mix of straight and circular motifs.
The most notable of all patterns is the undulating wave grain or ayasugi hada, which features extremely wavy lines. It is sometimes referred to as the Gassan hada, after the Gassan School of swordmaking which produces it. Also, there’s a nashi-ji hada that features very fine patterns and difficult to see.
Temperline Pattern or Hamon
When examining the
The straight line is known as suguha, but the rest of the hamon features irregular lines and have names of their own. The gunome is a wavy hamon, while the sudareba resembles a bamboo curtain. The choji hamon resembles the clove bud and has many variations. The most striking of all is the hitatsura which has a wild and rugged look.
File Marks on the Tang or Yasurime
When the blade has been removed from the hilt, the yasurime or decorative pattern of file marks on the tang can be examined, if there is any. Different swordsmiths have characteristic yasurime. Some of them are parallel slanted marks, while others feature chevron-like marks. If the Japanese
To be placed in a scabbard or saya, Japanese
Basically, the shirasaya is a simple wooden scabbard that protects the
In the Muromachi period, tsuba featured carved and inlaid designs like skulls and bones, but by the Edo period, the designs became more elaborate, from cranes to images of gods. In the Momoyama period, swordsmiths began incorporating costly materials into
A kashira is a pommel cap placed at the end of a
Sword Evaluation and Appraisals
Determining the quality and value of a
Nihon Token Hōzōn Kai is another official organization that evaluates the
If you’re looking for Japanese samurai swords, you may start with the Ginza Choshuya and the AOI-ART stores located in Tokyo, Japan. However, authentic Japanese samurai swords can range from $3,000 to $25,000 and even higher, with a museum piece around $700,000.
A great thing,