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Japanese Katana: An Introduction

Labeled diagram of katana

Labeled diagram of katana

Like the early six-shooters of the Wild West have come to symbolize the romance and violence of the American gunslinger, so too has the elegant curved blade of the Japanese katana become synonymous with the honor and grace of the Samurai.

Such an association is only to be expected. For much of Japanese history, only samurai were permitted to carry swords. If a peasant was found with a blade, he would instantly face death, slain by the very sword he had insolently carried. A sacred bond existed between katana and samurai. For these warriors, the sword is forged to the wielder's soul and therefore should be drawn only when strictly necessary.

Some History

The Katana was developed in the early 15th century, when the feudal era reached its climax during "The Age of States at War." Similar to their European counterparts, the feudal lords of ancient Japan waged war against each other in order to increase their land holdings. It was not until the Meiji restoration of the late 19th century that Japan fell under the rule of the emperor, and use of the blades was outlawed.

In 1877, after the emperor became the formal leader of Japan, the Haitorei Edict was issued. The law restricted the right to carry swords to military and police personnel only, officially abolishing Japan's samurai class. The katana slowly faded into history, until it made an unexpected return during the United States occupation of Japan at the conclusion of World War II. During a meeting with General MacArthur, Dr. Honma Junji produced blades from various periods of Japanese history. MacArthur was so enchanted by the elegant weapons, he amended the ban on katana so that swords of artistic merit could be owned and preserved. By 1958, because so many inexpensive katana had been sold to American soldiers, there were more Japanese swords in America than in Japan.

The Sword

The katana, or Dai-to, is a long curved blade (ken) with a chisel like point. Unlike many other swords, the blade of a katana has a single sharp edge, and is hence known as a "back-sword," meaning it has an unsharpened edge or back. The katana was much lighter than its European cousins, and could be used as both a slashing and thrusting weapon, thanks its curved shape and chisel point.

Sword making in Japan reached its pinnacle during the civil war when the nation's feudal lords battled for superiority. The forging of katana could take many days and was highly revered for its inherent art. Many professionals helped make the sword. After one smith would forge the blade, another would fold the metal and another would polish the blade. There were even specialists in the creation of sheath, hilt, and tsuba (hand guard). The most fascinating part of the process was the folding of the metal. As the name implies, folding is a process in which the metal is bent over itself and hammered flat, creating multiple layers which strengthens the blade. The number of folds varied from one sword to another, but each fold results in 2^n layers (where n is the number of folds). A sword folded 12 times would contain 212 or over 4000 layers.

The katana has a blade length of approximately 28 inches, and would be carried in a saya (scabbard) and tucked into the obi of a kimono with the blade turned down. However, when samurai were unarmored, they would carry their swords with the blade facing up, making it easier to draw the sword and strike in one quick motion. To draw the sword, the samurai would turn the saya down ninety degrees and unsheathe it first with his left hand, and then grip the tsuka (hilt) with his right hand and slide the blade out while pushing the saya back to its original position.

The katana was often paired with another smaller sword or dagger, called a wakizashi that was anywhere from 12 to 24 inches long. Together, these weapons were called daisho,which literally means "the big and the small." Traditionally, the longer katana was used for cutting and the wakizashi for stabbing. Masters of Kenjutsu (the samurai sword art) could even wield both weapons at the same time. The legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) perfected a two-sword technique called niten'ichi (two heavens as one). The master was rumored to have participated in more than 60 duels and never known defeat.

Wielding Katana

Kenjutsu is the martial art of using katana in combat. The appropriate way to hold katana was very important to samurai, because only with the proper technique would they be quick enough to make the first strike against their enemies. First, a samurai would grab the tsuka with his right hand about an inch below the tsuba (cut guard), keeping his hand from slipping onto the blade. Next, he would place the sword's pommel into the palm of his left hand, so that it would leave a gap of anywhere from 6" to 8" between the warrior's hands, allowing for more flexible movement of the blade either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.

Nearly all styles of kenjutsu share the same five basic guard postures. They are as follows; chûdan-no-kamae (middle posture), jôdan-no-kamae (high posture), gedan-no-kamae (low posture), hassô-no-kamae (eight-sided posture), and waki-gamae (side posture).

For cutting, there was a specific technique called ten-uchi. Ten-uchi refers to the motion made by arms and wrist in a descending strike. As the sword swings down, the elbow is fully extended at the last instant, snapping the sword in place and increasing the force of the blade against any resistance offered by its target. The motion causes the wielder's grip to twist slightly, similar to wringing a wet towel. From there, the arms would follow through, pulling the sword through the target, resulting in maximum damage. At full speed, the swing would appear as one fluid motion.

The blade's razor-edge was so hard upon hitting an equally hard or harder object, that chipping was an issue. Therefore, unlike other schools of fencing and sword technique, most blade-to-blade contact was discouraged, and evasive body maneuvers preferred. If such movement was not feasible, samurai would block with the shinogi, beating aside their opponent's descending strikes.

Katana Today

Due to their increasing visibility in film and television, katana and other Japanese swords have become more popular in the weapons marketplace. Commonly made from stainless steel, which makes the blade more brittle and blunt, scale replica blades are widely available for purchase and subsequent display.

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In Japan, genuine edged, hand-made katana, whether they are antique or modern, are officially classified as art (not weapons), and must have accompanying certification in order to be owned.


nevaeh mc nary on February 09, 2016:

thanks had a lot of useful info for my 7 grade samurai project.

Gunhee Lee on July 15, 2013:

thank you

mqjeffrey (author) on July 12, 2013:

Hi! Sure, you can use this in your research essay. A majority of the information came from this book: and my own knowledge. You can also give credit to Sensei Greg Rennick

Gunhee Lee on July 11, 2013:

What sources did you use to write this article and I was wondering if I could use this in my research essay I am writing

Nicholas Nelson from Park Fores, ILLINOIS on January 08, 2013:

You're most welcome. We are all, to a degree, prone to misspelling common and uncommon words. I just noticed that I spelled critique as 'crique'. Ha, how embarrassing.

mqjeffrey (author) on January 08, 2013:

Thanks for your kind words and edits :)

Nicholas Nelson from Park Fores, ILLINOIS on January 08, 2013:

Brilliant authorship! Concise, yet engaging and eloquent. Resplendently organized something to which we can all aspire. In crique of your piece, the title is broad and so could encompass myriad aspects of the katana. One last thing, you misspelled Wakizashi in the history of the Katana section as 'wazashi'. Thought you would appreciate the feedback. Happy writing! Again, expertly written article.

mqjeffrey (author) on September 07, 2012:

Sounds wonderful! Definitely let me know if/when you publish :)

Michael Smathers from LaGrange, GA on September 06, 2012:

No problem, glad to be of help:) I'm trying to get around to starting on an iaijutsu/kenjutsu series of hubs that explain various concepts and techniques. May throw some Western swordsmanship in there too.

mqjeffrey (author) on September 06, 2012:

Thank you for reading! I have made the edits you suggested; I appreciate your insight :)

Michael Smathers from LaGrange, GA on September 06, 2012:

Nicely written. Couple of things that caught my eye though: parrying isn't done with the mune, it's more with the shinogi.

Also, the grip of the right hand is about an inch away from the tsuba, not directly under it.

Other than that, pretty good.

mwilliams66 from Left Coast, USA on June 04, 2012:

mqjeffrey, I was absolutely fascinated from start to finish. I had no idea what went into creating these works of art.

Voting across the board and sharing.

mqjeffrey (author) on December 02, 2011:

Thanks John! That was a great catch; I appreciate you letting me know :)

John on December 02, 2011:

"The number of folds varied from one sword to another, but each fold results in 2n layers (where n is the number of folds). A sword folded 12 times would contain 212 or over 4000 layers."

I think your equation is off. Should be 2^n

krackernuts45 on November 28, 2009:

I find Japanese weapons interesting given that these swords have history written all over them. I found out on all about weapons that both Samurai and Ninja use. All sword enthusiasts should check it out! Thanks for posting helpful information on Katana!

Chang on October 09, 2009:

Helped a lot thanks.

Dave on September 15, 2009:

could you make one on hurricanes?

mqjeffrey (author) on September 15, 2009:

Glad I could help :)

Dave on September 15, 2009:

awesome! Helped me a lot on an important project!

deathwish on March 06, 2009:

nice info thnx a lot it helped me

mqjeffrey (author) on December 09, 2007:

Thank you, I appreciate your readership!

Samurai Dave on December 09, 2007:

Now that's a nice piece of text you wrote here. Thxs!

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