Katana: A Guide to the Most Popular Japanese Sword
What’s in this article?
The curved, single-edged katana is the weapon most associated with the samurai warriors of feudal Japan. However, the samurai
This article discusses the history of the katana, its metallurgy, its unique characteristics, and what sets it apart from other Japanese swords.
Characteristics of the Katana
The Japanese katana
Type of Steel
Japanese swordsmiths are also iron producers, and they obtain the raw material for Japanese swords from the surrounding environment. They craft the katana swords from tamahagane, carbon steel made from the traditional tatara furnace. Unlike any other type of steel, the tamahagane is smelted from iron sands or satetsu for several days to even out its carbon content and remove impurities.
Many swordsmiths today strive to reproduce the craftsmanship of past masters using traditional techniques. Modern katana replicas often feature high carbon steel or damascus steel blades. However, these replicas are not made from tamahagane steel, and swordsmiths often use modern steel-production methods to craft them.
The challenge for Japanese swordsmiths was to produce a blade hard enough to retain its cutting edge but flexible at the same time to withstand heavy blows. The more carbon content it has, the harder the steel will be, but it comes with a price as it also makes the blade brittle.
Hence, they crafted
The Japanese swords are known most for their curved blades, which also have several aesthetic features that make them a work of art. Most
Curvature or Sori
The katana blade has a shallow curvature that may be at the center, near the tip, or toward the hilt. Experts determine the
Temperline Pattern or Hamon
Katana blades are clay tempered, resulting in a natural hamon, the visible pattern along the cutting edge. These patterns show the boundary between the softer and hardened part of the blade. Collectors value a katana blade with a good hamon which does not have gaps or breaks in the boundary line.
The hamon is considered the fingerprint of a swordsmith, as creating a distinctive pattern requires skill and experience. The hamon can have straight or irregular lines. The hitatsura has a wild and rugged look, making it the most striking of all types.
However, replica swords do not have a genuine hamon, but only an etched temperline pattern. A real hamon shows specks or dots along the borderline while an etched temperline is often smooth and lacks internal features.
Steel’s Surface or Jigane
The traditional katana blade is often darker than modern steel and is not reflective. When examining the surface, there’s a difference between the whitish steel color on the cutting edge and the grayish steel color on the other side.
Grain Patterns or Jihada
While forging the katana blade, the swordsmith repeatedly folded the steel, resulting in a distinct grain pattern called jihada. Depending on the technique, the grain patterns may feature straight lines, wavy lines, swirls, or a mix of linear and circular motifs.
Size and Length
Japanese blades generally have the same construction, but are classified according to length. The katana generally has a blade length of over 60 centimeters, with its hilt around 20 to 25 centimeters long.
The samurai often changed their
Hilt or Tsuka
The katana has a hilt that can be used with one or both hands, though samurai warriors often used a two-handed grip for full power. The tsuka is usually covered with samegawa or shark skin, sometimes ray skin to provide a secure grip for the user.
Often with matching designs, the fuchi and kashira protect both ends of the hilt. The fuchi is the collar next to the
Sword Guard or Tsuba
The most functional accessory of the katana, the tsuba is the sword guard that protects the hand of swordsmen.
The tsuba is functional and decorative, as some artisans even crafted elaborate designs that served as family heirlooms. Many tsuba artisans used gold and silver, as well as colored stones. The sukashi tsuba has a decorative cutout design, though it may not be suitable for battle.
Scabbard or Saya
The katana comes in a scabbard or saya, often made of wood. To be placed in a saya, the
Facts About the Japanese Katana
The katana served both as a weapon and the soul of the warrior. No samurai would ever be without his katana, so the
The samurai wore the katana with the cutting edge facing up.
Designed to deliver powerful slashing attacks, the samurai wore the katana with the blade facing upwards, which allowed drawing and cutting with one stroke. The katana can be distinguished from the earlier curved tachi based on how the warrior wore his
The samurai wore the daisho, a
The term daisho translates as large and small, in reference to the longer
The meaning of long
Today, swords of more than 2 shaku, approximately 60 centimeters, are called daito or long swords. On the other hand, swords shorter than 2 shaku but longer than 1 shaku, approximately 30 centimeters, are called shoto or short swords. Hence, the katana is considered a long
Swordsmen used wooden swords in training to preserve katana blades.
In the Muromachi period, martial arts training became common, so swordsmen wielded wooden swords called bokken to practice their
The samurai followed a strict code of honor and discipline.
Carrying the katana and wearing the correct armor were vital aspects of being a samurai. But apart from military skills and fearlessness, the samurai followed a strict code of conduct known as bushido, emphasizing loyalty, honesty, and self-discipline. Today, bushido serves as the basic code of conduct for Japanese people.
The katana blade is longer than a ninjato or ninja
Sword vs. Tachi Sword
Both Japanese swords are curved and single-edged, but katana blades tend to have a shallower curvature compared to tachi blades. Katana blades measure over 60 centimeters long, while tachi blades have extremely varied lengths, depending on the military strategy of the period. Still, the tachi is a longsword, measuring around 44 to 67 centimeters in length. Also, the katana served as an infantry
Swordmakers shortened many tachi blades so samurai could wear them in katana style. Collectors may determine whether a Japanese
Sword vs. Naginata Polearm
The Japanese naginata is a polearm, though its blade is similar to the forging and construction of katana blades. Early naginata blades were large, broad, and deeply curved, measuring about 30 to 76 centimeters long. Later blades tended to be smaller, shorter, and less curved yet had a wooden shaft of approximately 180 centimeters long.
Many bladesmiths occasionally shortened and reshaped the naginata blades. Like the katana, the polearm had a tsuba or guard, usually small, though others were of the same size found on samurai swords. Some naginata blades had their maker’s signature on the tang and a mekugi peg secured the tang into the pole.
The Japanese foot soldiers used the naginata as their primary weapon, though by the Sengoku period, the yari replaced it. The naginata required broad sweeping motions, which became impractical in later warfare.
History of the Katana
The oldest Japanese swords were straight—the single-edged chokuto and the double-edged tsurugi. However, changes in military strategy had created the need for different types of swords. Early samurai had used the longer and deeply curved tachi from horseback. Eventually, samurai generals preferred infantry tactics compared to mounted cavalry, making the katana the preferred
In the Muromachi Period (1338–1573)
Within the Muromachi period emerged a century of military struggle known as the Sengoku period, the Age of the Country at War. During the tumultuous period, the uchigatana developed out of the need for speed in combat. The samurai wore their uchigatana edge-up in their belts, making it easier to draw and strike compared to the earlier slung tachi that required two actions to wield the
At first, the uchigatana complemented the tachi, but it later became so popular that it replaced the tachi. Eventually, swordsmiths started to forge uchigatana in short and long lengths. The shorter blades were called wakizashi, while the longer blades were called katana. The wearing of paired swords, one long and one short among the samurai class also became common.
In the Momoyama Period (1574–1600)
During this period,
In the Edo Period (1603–1867)
During this period, the daisho, a
In the Meiji Period (1868–1889)
In 1868, the Meiji Restoration led to the abolition of the feudal system, so the samurai also lost their privileged position. The emperor regained power and formed a national army, which conscripted men from society. In 1876, the Meiji government issued the Hatorei edict, which prohibited the carrying of swords in public. The government also began to modernize the Japanese military, so the katana swords were no longer practical for modern combat.
Sword in Martial Arts
The katana is the best-known Japanese weapon with many using it in martial arts today. Here are the Japanese martial arts that utilize the katana—or other alternatives that replicate the qualities of the real
The katana is the defining blade of kenjutsu, which focuses on the traditional Japanese art of
Today, kenjutsu practitioners train with a wooden
The modern equivalent of kenjutsu, the kendo focuses on balance, speed, and fluidity in its techniques. Since the fighter’s goal is to end the combat as quickly as possible, training requires targeting areas such as the head, neck, forearms, and abdomen.
Instead of a real katana
The iaido involves perfecting the control of the katana
Today, iaido practitioners use iaito or blunt katana blades in training but never in contact drills. Modern iaido is a non-competitive art, though some competitions require participants to perform
Also referred to as iaijutsu, the battōjutsu focuses on quickly drawing the katana from the scabbard and warding off an attack. Unlike other martial arts, the movements in battōjutsu are smooth, controlled, yet instantaneous. Practitioners often start practicing with a mock
In Toyama Ryu
The Toyama Ryu focuses on the practical application of the katana
The Japanese Imperial Army created the
Sword in Pop Culture
Today, the samurai katana
The most popular is the sakabato or the reverse blade katana from Rurouni Kenshin, also known as Samurai X. In the story, the character Himura Kenshin is a former assassin who atones for his past, so he wields a reverse-bladed katana to prevent bloodshed.
A contemporary swordsmith in Japan even crafted the first real-life version of the sakabato, featuring a natural hamon, sharp cutting edge, and the death poem of Arai Shakku, master swordsmith who forged Kenshin’s
Are Katana Swords Illegal in Japan?
Ordinary citizens can legally own a katana, but the
However, decorative and training swords like iaito with zinc-aluminum blades that cannot be sharpened are exempted. In Japan, the katana is under the Firearm and Sword Possession Control Law, which forbids individuals from carrying the
The Japanese government also allows licensed swordsmiths to produce a maximum of two long swords per month, and only traditionally made Japanese katana forged from tamahagane—can be licensed. On the other hand, unlicensed katana swords or ones crafted by unlicensed swordsmiths are confiscated and the owner charged with possession of illegal weapons.
Care and Maintenance for Katana Swords
Store the katana in a plain wooden scabbard.
Elaborate mountings are great for display, but placing the katana in a shirasaya or wooden scabbard makes cleaning and maintenance easier. When rust develops in areas where the scabbard touches the blade, one may split the sheath into vertical halves for cleaning and then fasten them together with a paste. When the sheath is too old, its interior will likely accumulate dirt and rust, damaging the blade. In that case, the katana needs a new saya or scabbard.
Use proper cleaning tools for katana blades.
Sword collectors also use traditional Japanese tools for maintaining their katana blades. Most opt for wrinkled Japanese paper called nuguigami to remove dusty and coarse elements on the blade surface. Then, they use the uchiko or ground whetstone powder to clean the blade, and the abura, also called choji or clove oil, to prevent rust.
Katana blades require cleaning and oiling every six months.
You may wipe the blade with nuguigami to remove dust, then pat the uchiko powder on the surface from the base toward the tip. Next, use a flannel or wiping paper to spread oil on the blade surface. Just keep in mind that it is necessary to remove stale oil and replace it with new oil every time. As long as the katana blade is stable, you may clean it regularly every six months.
Take the katana blade to a polishing specialist once it starts to rust.
Many attempt to rub the rust off with a spatula, sandpaper, or sharpening stones, but these tools do more damage to the blade surface. The katana blade is not supposed to be bright and reflective, and buffers tend to over-shine the surface. Amateur repairs often scratch the blade surface, so it is much preferred to take the
Don’t do anything to the tang of the
Katana swords forged by licensed swordsmiths carry their identification on the tang. Any alteration on the tang, including cleaning and rust removal, can reduce the value of the katana. In fact, the color and type of rust can help to date and authenticate the katana blade. Experts usually examine the
Be mindful of how you use your katana
Battle-ready katana and training swords used in tameshigiri are prone to stain and rust as many practitioners use their swords to cut tatami mats, bamboo, fruits, and water-filled bottles. Since these targets have lots of moisture and acid that can damage the blade, the katana blade should be cleaned thoroughly after each use to avoid stains from forming.
The samurai of feudal Japan trained in several weapons, especially the katana. Although many traditional arts associated with these warriors have disappeared, the art of Japanese