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Japanese Blades: History & Tradition

Early History to Muromachi Period

The earliest Japanese steel blades known were recovered from ancient tombs dating back to the 4th or 5th century A.D. These blades, called chokuto are broad, straight, and single edged and show a clear Chinese influence. Scholars of early Japanese history believe that some of the blades were made in China and that migrating swordsmiths taught the craft of steel and ironworking to the ancient Japanese.

The early Japanese bladesmiths adapted and improved the imported techniques and by the Heian period (794 - 1185) had made great strides in their craft and were producing their own unique blades. The first examples of what we now identify as 'samurai swords', with a slender, gracefully curving blade appeared during this period. The blades of this period are called tachi, and were about 3 feet in length, worn edge-down, slung from the waist. Warriors of this period usually fought from horseback and so had a need for a slashing rather than thrusting weapon. For this application a curved sword was more effective than a straight one, as its shape causes the edge to drag through a wound, increasing the depth of a slash or cut.

Swordsmiths of this period belonged to guilds attached to shrines and temples. These guilds had the exclusive right to produce swords, and smiths were expected to participate in religious affairs and ceremonies. This reflects the influence of the yamabushi (warrior-priests) of the period, as well as the traditional connection between the swordsmith and religious worship in Japan. The connection continues even to present times, both in the form of purification ceremonies undertaken before forging and in the manufacture of new swords for the consecration of religious sites. Many of the traditional blade engravings or horimono found on Japanese blades are derived from Buddhist religious motifs.

The warrior class of the Samurai were firmly established by the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and this period could be called the golden age of the Japanese sword. By this period, the craft of the bladesmith had reached new heights in terms of construction and skill. Until this period, swords had been forged of a single piece of steel. While fine swords could be made from this method, the smiths of this period learnt that inserting a softer core into a blade heightened its flexibility significantly. Such a sword could stand up to the impact of heavy blows on the armour of the period without breaking. Much of the new advances in blademaking techiques were encouraged by the interest and support of the craft from the retired emperor Gotoba (1180-1239), who is said to have been a practicing bladesmith.

As a nation constantly at war throughout much of its history, practical experience provided much feedback to the development of the sword. The two failed Mongol invasions in the late 1200s also influenced sword development as it was the first time dissimilar armies had engaged in hand-to-hand fighting on Japanese soil. Battlefield experience soon prompted the carrying of a backup weapon to the sword. For the tachi, this was the tanto, a foot-long short sword forged using the same techniques as the longer blade. As more substantial armour protection became available, tachi blades became wider, thicker and heavier.

By the Nanbokucho period (1333-1392), the many traditions of swordmaking had coalesced into five main schools , named for the provinces they were located in. The five schools were collectively known as Gokaden (the Five Traditions): the Soshu school in Kamakura; the Bizen school in what is now Okayama; the Yamashiro school in Kyoto; the Yamato school near Nara; and the Mino school in Gifu. During this period and for the next several hundred years, most swords made in Japan were classified as belonging to one of these five traditions or its offshoots.

The Muromachi period (1392-1568) saw continued wars throughout the country which led to mass production of swords and as a result, a significant decline in the quality of the finished blades. The intensity of warfare also led to the development of the uchigatana, a companion blade of about 24 inches long, and strongly curved. These swords were worn edge-up so as to enable drawing and slashing in a single movement. The shorter length also made them more practical than the fullsize tachi for indoor fighting. The uchigatana eventually evolved into the wakizashi in later periods.


Momoyama Period to Meiji Restoration

The Muromachi period (1568-1603) was notable for the introduction of the famed daisho (big-small) pairing of the katana and wakizashi. The katana, the longer of the two was anywhere from 24 to 36 inches long. Its shorter companion blade, the wakizashi was about 18 inches long. Only the warrior class - the samurai - was allowed to wear the two swords which remained a custom for the next several hundred years until abolished in the 19th century.

This period also saw the first successful unification of Japan when Toyotomi Hideyoshi conquered or won over the feuding warlords, effectively ending the almost constant state of civil war that existed until then. With the country at peace, the sword declined in importance as a battlefield weapon and became more of a status symbol or at most a dueling weapon. As swords were now less likely to be used against armoured opponents, blades became lighter and thinner. Hilts were also shortened for easier carrying. The era of the sword was coming to an end with the introduction of guns for the first time by European traders.

The Edo period (1603 - 1853) saw the establishment of the Shogunate by Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Hideyoshi's generals who suceeded him. This period was one of strict regulation and control and the sword further declined in importance. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration and the 1876 edicts banning the carrying of swords in public effectively abolished the samurai class. This was a time of great difficulty for the bladesmithing families and many were forced to abandon the craft that they had faithfully practiced for generations. Swords now became works of art, revered but unused relics of the past.


Modern Swords

The coming of the Second World War saw the mass production of swords again for the first time in nearly a century for the Japanese Imperial Army. However, these weapons were poor examples of the bladesmith's craft, being cheaply made from simple foundry steel and lacking the hard-forged perfection of traditional blades. Today, the Japanese government forbids registration of these swords and require that any such blades found be destroyed.

After the war, the Americans prohibited sword possession and manufacture until 1953. In an attempt to return to the traditions of the past, the government imposed strict registrations which are still in effect to the present day. In short, these restrictions prohibit the manufacture of swords (defined as any bladed instrument over 6 inches) except by licensed swordsmiths. To become a licensed smith, one had to serve a minimum of 5 years as an apprentice of a licensed swordsmith. Furthermore, all swords had to be registered with the police.

To promote and foster understanding of the craft, the Society for the Presevation of Japanese Art Swords (Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai or NBTHK) was formed in 1960 in Tokyo. To assist the bladesmiths in rediscovering the craft of their forefathers, the NBHTK organizes studies and contests. More importantly, the society also operates the only large-scale traditional smelter in Japan, producing tama-hagane, the traditional sword steel from iron ore.

The yearly NBTHK contest for swordsmiths, polishers, and scabbard carvers is probably the highlight of its activities. Each licensed swordsmith is allowed to enter one blade for the contest and all blades are appraised by a select group of sword experts and ranked from first to last. To allow less established smiths to make an impact, smiths who repeatedly place first are given the title of mukansa which means the smith is ranked above contest-level. Mukansa may still enter their blades in the contest but these are not judged. With the increasing number of accomplished swordsmiths and fine blades, the society has began a new era of the Japanese sword. Apart from the staunch traditionalists, most knowledgable craftsmen and kendoka generally agree that the new blades produced today are as good or better than the revered ancient blades of the samurai.

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