5 Iconic Japanese Swords Used in World War 2
The Japanese were always known for their excellent swordsmanship. From their earliest origins and into the modern ages, they clung to their age-old traditions and continued the production of high quality swords.
By the time World War 2 broke out – a war considered modern by many standards – one would think that the sword and saber would find no place in such a battlefield. But the Japanese thought otherwise and issued special military swords akin to the uchigatana of their past. Such swords were soon standard issue for the Japanese officers of the time.
And you’d be wrong to think that these swords were all a simple wartime copy of an uchigatana, a traditional Japanese sword which evolved into the modern katana. Instead, Japanese soldiers were issued several distinct swords with slight differences amongst them. Let’s learn more about the Japanese swords used in World War 2.
A Revival of the Old Traditions
With Imperial Japan slowly following in the footsteps of the rest of the world, entering boldly into the 20th century, it was clear that many of their aged traditions and lifestyles would inevitably have to change. Of course, the vast majority of these changes would be centered on military industry and warfare.
The methods of war were rapidly changing as the world was slowly preparing for a major global conflict – the Great War. Japan had to follow suit.
The first major changes appeared in the mid 1800s, notably with the disbanding of the Samurai class during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), and then with the Haitorei edict, which banned the carrying of swords in public.
For the Japanese people, the change was difficult and hard to accept. After all, they were described at the time as an “isolated feudal society” whose way of life was archaic in many ways. But either way, the Japanese leaders would soon realize that the use of swords still has a role to play for them.
As conflicts around them grew, especially between China and Russia, the Japanese once more saw the importance of their renowned sword-making history. The need for swords became even greater in the few years before WWII. Nationalism flared amongst the officer corps and the common soldiers, causing the traditional Japanese swords to once again become popular.
The Value of WW2 Japanese Swords
As the Japanese military forces expanded, the master swordsmiths of Japan found that they were unable to meet high demands as it was a big challenge to create thousands of swords using traditional Japanese sword-making methods. This led to the recruitment of many simple blacksmiths with little to no knowledge of forging swords.
Although the shōwatō are not considered true Japanese swords and are banned in Japan, they are considered valuable collector’s items in the rest of the world. Here are some factors that influence the value of WWII Japanese swords today:
Different Materials Used in Sword Making
The quick forging methods combined with the use of different types of steel meant that the quality of these swords was nowhere near the classic katana swords of Japan’s famed past. The best and most valuable swords were made from tamahagane while others were made from puddled steel, a type of steel made in Europe from the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Originally imported for railroad rails, the puddled steel was salvaged for use in swords, making it a substitute for tamahagane. The resulting swords made from this material have a visible jihada (surface pattern) and hamon.
The Maker of the Sword
The most important WW2 Japanese sword makers were in Seki, Nippon to Denshujo, and the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The Yasukuni Shrine’s forging group was established in 1933 and the smiths there took names beginning with “Yasu” – such as Yasunori, Yasutoku, Yasuoki, and more. Swords made by these makers are highly collectible and sought after today as they were expected to make everything by hand.
The Yasukuni smiths were also expected to model their swords after blades made by Mitsutada of Bizen Province from the mid-1200s. This resulted in their blades having a consistent pattern and are recognizable based on their shape, style, and hamon.
Old Vs New
All WW2 Japanese swords are considered “new” unless they were modified heirloom pieces passed down through the generations. Older blades are made of steel and can be confirmed using a magnet. These blades will also have a temper line (hamon). Meanwhile, new swords will feature a serial number and arsenal stamps near the collar of the blade.
The condition the sword is in is also very important. Due to battle, age, or improper storage, some blades have flaws (kizu) that may lessen or negate its value. Some models also have documented flaws that are well known by appraisers on the market.
The value of these swords also depend on factors such as the current market, demand, and economy. Ultimately, the best way to determine the value of a WW2 Japanese sword would be to have it appraised by a certified party.
Kyū Guntō – The Old Military Sword
The old-type Kyū guntō swords are commonly called the Russo-Japanese swords because of their distinct resemblance to the European and American military swords of that time. They were noted for their distinctly Russian-looking mounts which were used from 1885 until 1945. Such swords were called Murata-tō in Japan and were used extensively in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
These swords were issued to the officers of the Navy, Army, and the Cavalry, and like many swords of the period, they possessed numerous subtle differences in production. Some were traditional and others machine-made.
The sword scabbards also showed several differences: some included chromed metal, and others had lacquered wood or brass fittings. Of course, the most noticeable difference when compared to traditional Japanese swords is the wraparound hand guard on the hilt.
Shin Guntō – The New Military Sword
The new type of military sword also known as the Shin Guntō appeared from 1935 and was used until 1945. They are the most common Japanese military swords from the Second World War. The difference from the Kyū guntō is immediately apparent: Japan’s rising nationalism and pride required a return to the old roots.
This meant that the new military sword had a striking resemblance to the classic Samurai sword, most notably a tachi that was common in the Kamakura period (1185-1332). Many will simply liken these swords to the katana, an umbrella term mistakenly used for all Japanese traditional swords.
The Shin Guntō was perhaps the first truly mass-produced military sword in Japan. Due to the sheer number of swords required, traditional and painstaking forging methods were not possible, and these swords were rarely – or never – hand forged.
Because of this, most of the Japanese swords used in World War 2 were machine made, with many manufactured by the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal, a major production facility for light arms and ammunition for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Still, some blades were handmade, but not by traditional Japanese methods. Either way, they had better quality, and were classed as:
Still, some of the WW2 Japanese blades likely belonging to the highest-ranking officers were ancestral family heirlooms that date back generations and were crafted by renowned smiths. Such swords were rare in the Second World War and are therefore, greatly prized.
The quality of the common Shin Guntō varied greatly throughout the war. As the military industry suffered, so did the quality of the swords. Hilts were reduced in quality, being made from aluminum and painted in the latter stages of the war. In the end, they were made simply from wood. For this reason, there are several types of the Shin Guntō sword in existence.
1. The Type 94 Shin Guntō
Designed for use by officers in the Imperial Japanese Army, the Type 94 sword introduced in 1934 boasted many traditional features. It had a classical traditionally made hilt, known as tsuka: the hilt boasted ray skin (same) and silk (ito) wrappings. The scabbard was usually made of metal and had a protective wood lining, but was also made from leather for combat use.
2. The Type 95 Shin Guntō
The Type 95 sword or NCO sword, as its name suggests, was designed for use by NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and was introduced in 1935, prior to the Second World War. It had resemblance to the officers shin guntō katana, but was specifically designed to be cheaply mass produced.
Almost all of the Type 95 swords that were made in this period had machine-made blades, all of which carried unique serial numbers on them. In stark contrast to the officer’s sword, the hilt of the Type 95 had no traditional fittings. Instead, it was simply cast out of metal, copper, or aluminum, and painted to resemble the real thing.
By 1945, many of the essential components were lacking resulting in the WW2 swords becoming much poorer in quality. Wooden hilts and scabbards (saya) were introduced as proper steel, iron, and brass were sorely lacking.
3. The Type 98 Shin Guntō
The Type 98 shin gunto sword appeared around 1938 as a simplification of the Type 94 Japanese Army officer’s sword. Initially, the differences were subtle and hard to notice, but as the war progressed, the differences became major. From 1938 and to the capitulation in 1945, many changes were made on the Type 98.
Most of these were continued simplifications of the entire sword, simply because valuable materials were needed elsewhere. By war’s end, these swords were cheap and simple, completely contrasting the valuable and well-made swords from the prewar period.
4. The Kaiguntō Naval Sword
A rare and slightly different version of the Shin Guntō known as the Kaiguntō was reserved for the Naval officers. It usually boasted a luxurious and attractive ray skin scabbard which was lacquered black or dark blue.
Many of these swords boasted a stainless steel blade that were made by the Tenshozan Tanrenjo in Kanagawa Prefecture, a production facility for Kaiguntō and dirks for the Imperial Japanese Navy. They were sought after by naval officers who were able to purchase them in the Tenshozan store. Other issued Kaiguntō swords for the navy were made by the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal.
The End of an Ancient Tradition
The ultimate defeat of the Japanese Army in World War II meant that the ancient and prized tradition of swordmaking was coming to an end. By the time war was drawing to a close, military swords were poor in quality and common in the ranks. But none of this reduced the value and importance of the Japanese officer’s sword for the average soldier.
Still, the Japanese soldier of today does not carry a Japanese katana, a clear sign of the modern times and the rapid changing of battlefield practices.
Despite no longer in use, these swords play an important part in history as they remind us of the ancient Japanese traditions, values, and of a time when honor and national pride were something to cherish and hold dearly. These swords were a symbol of Japan’s honored past, and officers carried them boldly into battle – even though they had little to no efficiency in combat.