Japanese Katana: An Introduction
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.