The Japanese sword and its accoutrements occupy a unique niche in the field of art and collectibles, for few cultures have taken swordmaking past the point were craft becomes art, the functional, sublime. From ancient times, the sword in Japan was revered not only as a weapon, but also as an object worthy of worship. The first Japanese annals, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, compiled in the 8th century, make numerous references to the divine nature of swords and their use by the gods in the creational mythology of Japan. Further proof can be inferred from the archeological evidence, the many blades obtained through excavation of the ancient burial mounds of the earliest kings and queens, dating from the Kofun period (300-500 A.D.), and in the ritual deification of swords at shrines across Japan. Shinto, the native religion of Japan, an animistic form of worship, provides a spiritual framework for the common believe that the sword was, fundamentally, the Ô‡„soul of the samuraiÔ‡¾. Thus, the Japanese sword is, in truth, a religious icon. When viewed in this cultural context, it is clear that calling a Japanese sword a weapon is akin to calling Mt. Fuji a volcano; a definition at once true, but in its ignorance of the multilayered historical/religious subcontext, ultimately inadequate in its oversimplification.
Therefore, to fully appreciate the subtle beauty of the Japanese sword, one is well advised to view the sword as a nexus where history, religion, science, craft, and culture converge. To collect the Japanese sword is to begin a journey which is both circuitous and unending. One can truly spend a lifetime in study, exploring the various historical, religious, and cultural facets which make the Japanese sword unique.
Japanese swords have been coveted, collected, studied, and appreciated for a thousand years in Japan; mountains of books have been published, societies founded to preserve and protect the sword have thousands of members meeting regularly, sword newspapers are published, and hundreds of men still make swords in Japan according to the strict tradition passed along from teacher to student. Despite all of this, little is known about the sword and its related arts outside of Japan; while other traditional arts, such as yakimono (pottery), sumi-e (ink painting), and hanga (wood block prints) have a large following worldwide, the sword, perhaps the most "Japanese" of all, has remained an enigma in the mainstream, perhaps the last of the traditional Japanese arts to be opened to the outside.
Clearly, in such a short space, only the most rudimentary of information may be presented. While it has been said that a little knowledge is dangerous, it is hoped that this brief introduction will serve as a jumping off point, from which the reader can pursue more detailed information.
History of the Japanese Sword
Japanese historical periods are divided into the following periods:
Heian Period (794-1184)
Kamakura Period (1185-1332)
Nambokucho Period (1333-1391)
Muromachi Period (1392-1572)
Momoyama Period (1573-1599)
Edo Period (1600-1867)
Meiji Period (1868-1911)
Modern Period (1912-present)
It is believed that rice culture and iron tools were introduced to Japan in the Jomon period from the continent. At first, these implements were imported or made in Japan by craftsman who had immigrated to Japan. Soon after, the technology was transferred to the local populace and the process of producing iron through heating and deoxification of the indigenous iron sand ore commenced.
The first iron swords are believed to have originated in China and/or Korea, and were straight, single edged, and without curvature. These old swords are called Jokoto, and are the precursors to the blades known as "samurai swords". They were primarily Ô‡„stabbingÔ‡¾ weapons, lacking the curvature neccesary for cutting techniques. Many Jokoto swords still exist and have been classified by the Japanese government as Kokuho, or National Treasures.
By the end of the mid-Heian Period (794-986), the gently curving, single edged, laminated and heat treated blades, recognizable as the Japanese sword, had been fully developed, as a result of the changes in usage from thrusting to slashing; these blades are called tachi. The basic shape and construction has changed little from this period until the present day. Blades from the Heian Period have a long, slender shape with a deep curvature and a small point. They were used in a slashing manner, frequently from horseback, where one-handed use neccessitated light weight and good balance.
Swords made in the Kamakura period are classified into early, mid, and late Kamakura, with the shape changing slightly in each period as fighting styles and armor changed. An important event was the series of Mongol invasions in the later part of the Kamakura Period. The Mongols had a type of leather armor and a heavy sword, both of which were new to the Japanese. As a result of this experience, sword shapes changed; blades became wider, longer, and heavier.
During this period of political turmoil, swords grew ever more exaggerated in size, with some surviving blades measuring more than 1 meter in length.
During the Muromachi Period, the most important event from the sword perspective was the extended period of civil wars, called the Sengoku Jidai, or Ô‡„warring statesÔ‡¾ period. During this roughly 100 year long period of fighting, several important events occurred; first, swords became a weapon of the foot soldier. As a result, long blades were replaced by much shorter blades which were much easier to wield. Additionally, blades began to be worn edge-up, allowing a continuous draw and cut motion. Swords worn edge-up are properly called katana, while those worn edge-down are called tachi. Another important result of the Sengoku Jidai was the change in sword production techniques. The long period of war drastically increased the demand for blades; to meet the demand, many blades were made in a manner best called mass production. These blades were produced as weapons, not as art, and are inferior from a quality standpoint. Many of these blades survive today and are called Ô‡„kazuuchimonoÔ‡¾, a term of derision referring to their mass production.
The Muromachi Period saw the fiercest civil wars in Japanese history, resulting in drastic societal changes. With Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi unifying Japan at the close of the 16th century, the peace and prosperity of the Momoyama Period was a catalyst for swordmakers to return to the artistic excellence of the Kamakura and Nambokucho Periods. As a result of the unification of Japan, swordmakers clustered around powerful daimyo (feudal lords). Samurai began to wear the daisho, or long and short sword (katana and wakizashi).
The Edo Period was generally a peaceful period of isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate. Swordmaking became firmly centered around the various castle towns of the regional daimyo under the shogunate. During this time of peace, swords became increasingly decadent as swordmakers made efforts to produce artistic effects in the laminated steel and quenched steel edge. Makers of kodogu (fittings) also began to use large quantities of gold and silver in lavish designs, primarily catering to the increasingly affluent merchant class (who were not allowed to carry the long sword (katana), but could wear a single short sword (wakizashi).
Toward the end of the Edo Period, a revival of sorts was begun to return sword making to the methods and techniques employed during the golden age of sword making-the Kamakura Period. This revivalist movement did much to recover many of the lost secrets of the earlier periods, but was cut short by the Meiji Restoration and the Haito Rei, a government law enacted in 1876 which outlawed the wearing of swords.
The Meiji Period was a dark time for the craft of the sword. The Heito Rei, which prohibited the wearing of swords, effectively took away the livelihood of the swordsmith. A few smiths were able to make a living making farm implements and other tools, but the majority found themselves without a source of income-instant anachronisms. A few smiths continued to make blades, primarily daggers called mamori gatana, which were still carried by women in the inside of their kimono during a wedding ceremony. The rush toward modernization trampled any vestige of tradition; certainly anything as archaic as the sword was doomed as JapanÔ‡¼s eyes were wide with awe at the military might of the western powers.
Later, as the fires of nationalism began to burn, interest returned to the traditional arts and culture. The war with Russia suddenly brought a resurgence in the demand for swords, as all officers, of samurai background, could hardly go into battle without the blades so revered by generations of warriors. As a result of this jump in demand, swordmaking was restored as a sacred rite and smiths returned to the art.
Two events in the modern period affected the world of the Japanese sword like no others, having a lasting and profound consequence. Firstly, the nationalistic spirit which first began stirring in the later part of the Meiji period, erupted in the colonization of Korea and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukoku in the Taisho and early Showa periods. The war in China, and later the Pacific War, created a huge demand for swords, carried by each and every officer as a symbol of authority, the likes of which hadnÔ‡¼t been seen since the Sengoko Period. Then, as before, mass production techniques were employed to meet the staggering demand. Some smiths stuck with traditional methods and materials, but their numbers were small. Factories produced blades from steel stock, cutting them out like cookie cutters by the thousands. Of all the blades made between 1925-1945, a very small percentage can rightly be called art.
The second event took place in 1945 with the surrender of the Japanese to the United States. General Douglas MacArthur and the occupation forces collected all weapons from the Japanese population, including swords. Most Japanese complied with the order and turned over their family treasures, some hundreds of years old. Some hid the blades in attics, or buried them in the earth-better they turn to dust than end up in the hands of the enemy. Many pictures survive of swords stacked like firewood in warehouses, thousands piled high. Other pictures show blades being shoveled into furnaces and fires, or bulldozed en mass into Tokyo Bay. Luckily, several Japanese were successful in persuading the occupational forces that many of these blades were truly important, valuable works of art, and were thus able to save many of the blades. Hundreds of thousands of other swords were scattered about the four corners of the earth as the victorious returned home with a souvenir of their conquest. Today, as a result, there are more Japanese swords outside of Japan than in it; the upside is these blades werenÔ‡¼t recycled into can openers, while the downside is they are now sitting neglected in attics and basements, rusting slowly, silently, into oblivion. As the Japanese economy first began to recover, then rocketed during the eighties, the surge in disposable income, coupled with the re-emergence of interest in the traditional arts, sent Japanese dealers abroad to repatriate the swords taken as souvenirs at the end of the war. High prices in Japan, together with an uninformed populace of aging veterans, provided a very comfortable living for many dealers.
Today, there are over 200 swordsmiths in Japan, although perhaps only ten percent of this total can make a living from their art. With the prices of modern made swords close to those of centuries old masterpieces, few collectors have the desire to purchase contemporary blades. The situation is exacerbated by government control over the output of swordsmiths, restricting them to only two long swords a month. This has created an artificial shortage which keeps prices unnaturally high. Despite the high prices and the anachronistic nature of the sword, it continues to embody the virtues of the Yamato damashi, the Ô‡„Japanese spiritÔ‡¾, and as such, it remains a tangible reminder of the origins of the samurai mystic.
The Making of the Japanese Sword
The design and construction of a sword presents a paradox; a blade must be hard to take and hold a sharp edge, yet must be resilient enough to bend, not break, when subjected to impact. These conflicting requirements typically forced swordsmiths to compromise; they made a blade of medium hardness that could both keep a decent edge and not shatter when struck. The Japanese sword represents a unique and highly ingenious solution without compromise; the Japanese sword has been made in basically the same way for one thousand years; a high carbon, laminated steel skin is wrapped around a low carbon core, hammered into shape, and then differentially tempered using an insulating jacket of a clay-based refractory material and a water quench. What makes the Japanese sword unique, and functionally, the best cutting blade the world has ever known, is the high purity of the steel and the differential hardening of the blade. As a result of the materials and construction technique, the high carbon edge is extremely hard, able to take and maintain an extremely sharp edge. The body of the blade, while hard, is much softer than the edge as a result of the hardening process. The soft core of the blade absorbs shock and allows the blade to bend but not break. The metallurgical science needed to explain these phenomena wasn't available in the West until the 19th century, yet was fully employed by the Japanese smiths in the 9th century!
The traditional material for making the Japanese sword is called tamahagane, or "jewel steel". The making of tamahagane is in itself an art; it is thought that the technology originated on the continent and was brought to Japan in the sixth or seventh century. By the ninth century, the tatara, or steel smelter, was used throughout Japan by small groups of steelworkers, making steel for tools and armaments. By the Muromachi period, production became more centralized, and steel was made in mass quantities, then distributed throughout the country. A tatara is essentially a large, clay-lined pit which has several openings for air to be blown in through a bellows system. Alternate layers of charcoal and satetsu, an iron ore in sand form mined from river beds, are placed into the tatara, and a fire started. After three days of continuous burning, the iron ore has been converted to steel. The two ton steel slab, called a kera, is then lifted from the tatara and broken into small pieces, each having a nonhomogeneous carbon distribution. This steel is extremely low in the impurities typically found in western steel smelting processes and is even further refined by the individual smiths in the course of making a blade.
To make a blade, the smith starts with small chunks of the basic material, tamahagane. The pieces are heated in a small forge until malleable, and then beaten into flat pieces. These pieces are then sorted into groups based on hardness. These small flat pieces are then stacked together in a billet, set on a small, flat, steel plate at the end of a steel rod, and wrapped with a piece of paper that has been soaked in a clay slurry. This wrap holds the pieces together in the fire and prevents the steel from oxidizing. When the billet is at welding temperature, it is removed from the fire and forge-welded into a solid piece. This solid mass is then reheated and beaten into a bar, cut, and folded. This process is continued 10 to 15 times. As a result, impurities are driven out of the steel and the carbon is uniformly distributed. Many different folding schemes exist and are unique to each swordmaking school. As a result of the repeated foldings, the steel surface of a Japanese sword contains beautiful patterns, similar to damascus steel, but much more subtle.
While many different construction schemes exist, perhaps the simplest is called the kobuse. In this method, a low carbon steel core, which is quite soft, is placed into a higher carbon steel jacket. These inner and outer pieces are then welded together, and hammer formed into the blade. More complicated techniques exist, using a medium hard steel for the back ridge, for example.
After the blade has been hammered to shape, it is allowed to cool. The next step is the heat treatment of the blade. To differentially harden the blade, a clay coating is applied to the blade. The area along the cutting edge is thinly coated, while the back and rest of the blade surface is thickly covered. When the clay has dried, the blade is heated to an exact temperature, judged by the color of the heated blade. This takes considerable experience, timing and judgement. When the blade is at the correct temperature, it is quickly removed from the fire and quenched in water. The scream of water vapor exploding from the bladeÔ‡¼s surface is the sound of life-a Japanese sword has been created.
The smith will then check the blade for flaws, correct the curvature, and rough-file the blade into shape. It then goes to another specialist-the togi-shi, or polisher, who will use a series of water stones to give the blade a mirror-like finish and razor edge. If the polishing hasnÔ‡¼t revealed any flaws, the blade will be returned to the smith, who will then chisel his name, date, and sometimes other information into the nakago, or tang, of the blade. It then goes to a habaki-shi, who makes a small collar which fits around the blade to secure it in the scabbard. After that, the blade is sent to a saya-shi, scabbard maker, who will make the wooded cover, shira-saya, which holds the blade. In the days when blades were worn, the blade would be given a koshirae, or mountings; these consist of a lacquered saya, scabbard, and a wooden handle, wrapped with ray skin and silk cord. Additionally, metal pieces, such as a tsuba, or hand guard, menuki, and fuchi-gashira, would be added to the handle to protect it. These small metal pieces evolved into a unique art-form in their own right and are vigorously collected today apart from the blades.
The entire process of creating a blade, having it polished, and a shira-saya constructed, usually takes at least 4 to 5 months.
The Terminology of the Sword
There exists a rich and varied lexicon of terminology associated with the Japanese sword. Understanding at least the basic terms is necessary for any type of collecting, as even in the West, collectors have adopted the Japanese words used to describe the blade and its mountings.
The following is a very basic listing, from the tip, to the tang, of the parts of the Japanese sword:
boshi: pattern of the harden edge in the kissaki
yokote: the line dividing the kissaki from the blade proper
sakihaba: the blade width at the yokote
ji: blade surface above the hardened edge
shinogi: the ridge line that runs down the length of the blade
hamon: the pattern of the hardened edge
shinogi-ji: the area above the shinogi
sori: the curvature of the blade, measured at its deepest point
mune: the back of the blade
hamachi: the notch marking the beginning of the sharpened edge
munemachi: the notch marking the top of the tang
motohaba: the blade width at the hamachi
nakago: the tang
mei: smithÔ‡¼s signature
nagasa: the length of the blade, measured from the munemachi to the end of the kissaki
Additionally, there are many terms used to describe the pattern of the hardened edge, the hamon:
notareba: regular undulations
chojiba: a clove-like pattern
midareba: irregular waves
hitatsura: fully hardened
Many combinations of the above exist in various sizes, for example, a o-choji-midareba (a large irregular wave pattern with a clove pattern inside).
The ji, or steel surface of the blade also contains different patterns resulting from the many layers of folded steel. These are called:
masame: straight grain
itame: wood grain like quarter sawn lumber
mokume: wood grain like a tree trunk sawn on end, producing concentric circles
ayasugi: a sinusoidal pattern
As with the hamon, many combinations may exist in any one blade. Sometimes the patterns exist in large, easy to see form, and other times they are extremely compact and difficult to see.
Again, this is only the most basic of lists; hundreds on terms exist to describe every sort of shape, pattern, and phenomena.
Similarly, a plethora of terms exist to describe the koshirae, or mountings, and the kodogu, or metalwork of the koshirae. The koshirae comes in two basic types: the tachi koshirae, for the blades meant to be worn edge down, and the buke-zukuri koshirae for blades worn edge up. General terminology is as follows:
tsuba: hand guard
same: the ray skin wrapping the handle
tsukaito: the silk cord binding the handle
menuki: small metal pieces bound under the tsukaito
fuchi: the metal piece protecting the tsuka at the tsuba
kashira: the metal piece protecting the tsuka at the end opposite the tsuba
habaki: the metal collar around the blade holding it in the saya
seppa: flat metal spacers on both sides of the tsuba
koiguchi: the mouth of the saya
kojiri: the end of the saya
kurigata: the knob on the saya through which a flat cord passes to secure the saya to the wearerÔ‡¼s obi (sash)
kogatana: a small utility knife often found in the saya
kozuka: the handle of the kogatana
waribashi: a set of metal chop sticks sometimes found in a pocket in the saya
kogai: a metal tool sometimes found in a pocket in the saya
Collecting the Japanese Sword
There are two ways to collect Japanese
swords: the hard way, and the harder way. Perhaps the best advice
for those interested in collecting Japanese swords is to buy all of the
books you can afford, read them several times, and spend hours with trusted
collectors who can teach you the basics before you spend any money on swords.
This is the "hard way". Many people bitten by the bug simply begin
by buying everything in sight; they frequently meet with disaster, spending
excessively on blades not worthy of collecting, amassing an impressive
pile of fakes, unrestorable blades, and those simply too worn out to be
valuable additions to any collection; this trial and error method can sometimes
result in success, but frequently leaves one bitter and cynical about the
field. This is the "harder way".
Sword collectors classify swords by age into the following periods:
koto: swords made before
Sekigahara (roughly 1600)
shinto: swords made from 1600-1739
shinshinto: swords made from 1739-1867
kindaito: swords made from 1868-1945
gendaito: swords made after World War II
Prior to 1600, five classic styles of swordmaking evolved, each with their own characteristics; in order of appearance, they are: Yamato, Yamashiro, Bizen, Soshu, Mino. After 1600, as smiths migrated to castle towns, the distinctive traits of the original five traditions became less clear, and a new tradition emerged, called the Shinto tradition, which consisted of an intermingling of the earlier five groups. Many smiths continued to hold to one of the earlier traditions, while others combined methods. As a result, swords made after 1600 are a bit more difficult to judge down to the actual maker.
When judging a Japanese sword, there exists a standard procedure for determining age, place of construction, and the school or style used by the smith. This process is called kantei, which means "judgement", and is practiced today across Japan by collectors and students of the sword in organized meetings. Typically, 5 blades are put on a table for viewing, with the handle attached so the maker's name is hidden from view. Participants have three chances to name the maker of the blade, much like a wine tasting where a vintage is identified by a blind tasting.
When looking at a blade, one may determine the period of production from the shape. The length, width, curvature, and point changed subtly through the periods as the style of fighting changed. Sometimes smiths made copies of older blades, so one must always consider all the characteristics together.
The pattern in the folded steel, the color of the steel, and the various metallurgical features within the steel help to identify the place of production. Prior to 1600, steel was made and used locally, thus a knowledge of the regional character of each swordmaking area allows one to identify the place of production. After 1600, steel making was centralized and steel was distributed nation-wide; as a consequence, the regional flavor was lost, and it becomes much more difficult to place a blade.
The pattern of the hardened edge, the hamon, usually can point to an individual smith or group of smiths; in this way, the hamon is akin to the smithÔ‡¼s signature.
It takes years of study to be able
to correctly identify a maker through a blind examination.
Suggestions for collecting:
1. Start by buying books, joining sword societies, and networking with advanced collectors. Resist the temptation to make uneducated purchases, especially from collectors you donÔ‡¼t know well. New collectors usually serve as a dumping ground for the more knowledgeable; their early mistakes become yourÔ‡¼s.
2. Actively pursue opportunities to view good swords. Educate your eye to recognize the difference between a good sword and a bad sword, a good sword and a great sword. Learn what flaws to look for in a blade before purchase.
3. Find a mentor. A good friend is hard to find in any collecting field; competition and the profit motive bring out the worst in human nature. With persistence and sincerity, eventually you should be able to locate someone with scruples willing to help you.
4. Never buy from a dealer without an introduction from someone you trust. Sadly, sword dealers are notorious for shady dealings; this isnÔ‡¼t a recent phenomena-it dates back hundreds of years.
5. Try to choose one area of study and become an expert. The field is too broad to ever obtain a deep understanding of everything. Focus on a time period, a school, a geographic area.
Care and Preservation of the Japanese Sword
The Japanese sword, as a steel composite, requires regular maintenance to prevent the blade from rusting. The polished surface of a Japanese sword is absolutely never to be touched, nor should a blade ever be sanded, polished with metal cleaner, etched with acid, or otherwise abraded. The consequences of amateur attempts to restore a blade are severe; most blades have their surface geometry changed and are ruined irreparably, becoming valueless. Blades should only be restored by trained professionals, called togi-shi; togi-shi undergo a ten year training apprenticeship and are recognized as artists in their own right.
The most important aspects of preserving blades is to protect them from developing rust and scratches. A special type of oil called choji abura is used to lightly coat the blade as a rust preventative. Blades are first dusted with a fine powder made from ground limestone, called uchiko, then gently wiped with a clean flannel cloth. Finally, a very thin coat of oil is placed on the blade with a piece of oil soaked flannel or tissue. Blades should be cleaned and oiled in this manner every few months, more or less depending on the climate.
The following precautions are recommended by the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (The Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords):
regular care and oiling, a blade may develop rust in places.
Generally when rusting takes place where the scabbard touches the
blade, it must be taken to and repaired by a saya specialist. Or, when
the scabbard is very old, its interior may well be contaminated with
rust and dirt, thus causing the steel to rust. In such a case, a new
scabbard must replace the old one at once.
the formal mounting functions as an outfit for dressing up, a
blade needs to have a plain wooden scabbard and hilt which would be, as
it were, casual wear for a blade. It is much preferred to rest a blade
in its casual outfit so that when the blade surface starts to rust the
wooden scabbard can readily be cleaned inside by splitting it open into
vertical halves, which are simply fastened together with a paste made
from cooked rice.
substances may be used to fasten the parts of the scabbard
a blade should start to rust, no inexperienced repair such as
rubbing the rust off with a spatula or coin's edge would improve the
condition; rather it is likely to aggravate it and necessitate extra
work in smoothing the damaged area. It must be taken to a polishing
specialist at once just like a sick person would need to go to see a
a blade is particularly vulnerable to rusting soon after
polishing, cleaning and oiling should be done preferably every ten days
for about six months.
when the polished blade surface condition is more stable,
clean it regularly, at least every six months.
preserving swords, it is improper to keep them in a leaning
position because it would cause the oil to go down along the blade
surface and make a pool at a point. It is necessary to keep them in a
dry place, laid down.
be ideal to keep them in drawers made of paulownia wood. Use
of camphor balls or naphthalene to protect the chest from borers should
be avoided. It would cause rust on the steel.
dry conditions are preferable for swords, the wooden
containers or mountings require moisture. Therefore, the place for
preserving swords must be carefully selected.
In the last few years many new books and periodicals have been published in English to assist the collector. Below is a brief list of books, periodicals, and societies which are recommended as sources of further information.
General Introductory Books
The Samurai Sword, Kanzen Sato
The Samurai Sword, John Yumoto
The Craft of the Japanese Sword, Leon and Hiroko Kapp, Yoshindo Yoshihara
More Advanced Books
Nihonto Koza, English Translation
by Harry Watson
Shinto-hen/Koto-hen, Matsu Fujishiro, Yoshio Fujishiro, English Translation by Harry Watson
Each of these groups publishes a newsletter regularly:
The Japanese Sword Society of the
The British Token Society
NTHK - (NPO)
The Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai