Antique Japanese Sword Eras
Posted on November 5th, 2012
The antique Japanese sword and its development have closely mirrored the major events that saw the rise and fall of the samurai class in Japan. Prior to the Heian period, circa 900 AD, swords in Japan had straight blades – a design that was directly modeled after Chinese and Korean swords, since most of the craftsmen of the time hailed from China. These blades, called Chokuto, had a single cutting edge and were extremely thin – they were most likely used for ceremonial purposes only.
The Koto era, also known as “old sword era” was a tumultuous time that witnessed many wars across Japan. The Heian period saw the first nihonto – authentic Japanese swords made from smiths with their very own styles and techniques. Samurais used many different types of weapons in battle – the preffered weapon being bows, even while fighting on horseback. The naginata (spear) was common with foot soldiers. Even though swords were also carried in battle, they were considered to be a secondary weapon – used only if the bow or naginata failed.
It was only in the Kamakura period that swords gained prominence as the weapon of choice, a period that also saw the emergence of the samurai class. The daito (long sword) changed from a straight blade to the signature curved blade that we now commonly associate with real Japanese swords. The most popular daito at that time was the tachi – which has become a prized antique Japanese sword. It was widely used by warriors on horseback, its curved blade making it easier for them to strike from above (thrusting). This eventually eclipsed the bow as the samurai’s primary weapon. The tachi had to be long, as well as be light enough to hold with one hand – this sword was, as a result, designed to be slender, with a cutting edge of 3 feet. The tachi is representative of the category of authentic Japanese swords commonly referred to as the Koto (Old Sword) blades .
The signature Japanese forging technique of real swords originated from the Kamakura period. Swordsmiths at the time had to come up with a blade that was hard enough to take and maintain an sharp cutting edge, while being flexible enough to not crack, chip or break under a heavy blow. The Japanese smiths achieved this breakthrough by wrapping a hard (high carbon) steel around a softer (low carbon) steel core, and hardening only the edge of the blade via heat treating.
The Kamakura period was witness to the Mongol invasion of Japan – a period that saw a resurgence of close-quarters fighting. The tachi blades of the time became wider and heavier – requiring two hands to wield. These antique Japanese swords were obviously no longer used on horseback, but by foot soldiers. The edge of these swords also grew broader to withstand the rigors of battle by allowing them to be polished/sharpened many times. The development of the tanto became more prominent as well – their foot long blade making them extremely convenient for hand-to-hand combats.
During the Nambokucho period, five swordmaking schools emerged across Japan, each with their own distinctive methods and traditions. These schools, called the Gokaden (Five Traditions), were: Yamashiro School (Kyoto), Yamato School (Nara), Mino School (Gifu Prefecture), Soshu School (at Kamakura), and Bizen School (Okayama Prefecture). Almost all the authentic Japanese swords produced over the next several centuries were attributed to one of these schools.
The Muromachi period was one of intense fighting across the whole country. Demand for real swords became huge, leading to mass-produced blades that were vastly inferior in quality. However, the most important development to come out of the Muromachi was the Uchigatana, a uniformly curved companion sword that could be used with one hand.
Towards the beginning of the Momoyama period, the Uchigatana had evolved into a pair of blades that could both be worn at the waist – making them practical for indoor fighting. The longer sword (24-30 inches) was called Katana , and the shorter one (18 inches), the Wakizashi. The Shinto era (“new sword era”) was thus born. The slightly shorter katana, a direct descendant of the tachi, gained prominence as the primary weapon of choice for ground combat. Contrary to the tachi, which was worn with the blade facing down, the katana was worn with the cutting edge facing upwards, allowing the samurai to swiftly draw and attack in one single move. Together, the katana and the wakizashi became the trademark of the samurai.
The katana was forged with a wider hamon than the tachi. Different ores and forging techniques of the time resulted in shinier blades, making the katana a much more flashy weapon to wear. But in the late 1500s, at the cusp of the Edo period, Japan was unified and war was all but over. Commoners were forbidden to own swords, and sword ownership quickly became a status symbol.
The Edo period of the Shinto era was a peaceful one – the romance of that time saw the trend of decorating the samurai sword with various artistic forms of expression, such as dragons, flowers, etc. Some of the most exquisitely decorated antique Japanese swords hail from the Edo period.
It was during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) that the symbolic value of the katana was tied with the samurai’s honor. The meticulous etiquette around the proper way to wear, touch, and use the Japanese sword was established during that period. Even though the philosophy of the Bushido (Way of the Warrior) originated from the Muromachi era, the Bushido code that governed the way of the samurai life was only formalized into law by the Tokugawa shogunate. When Tokugawa Ieyasu famously said that the sword was the ‘soul of the samurai’, it forever cemented the association between the samurai and a katana.
The Edo period was however a rather ironic one for the samurai class. Samurais and their katanas reached legendary status, mainly via widespread artistic interpretations and pure myths, even while an absence of battle deeds saw the samurais fall out of favor. The rise of the merchant class resulted in a proliferation of beautifully decorated authentic Japanese swords worn by civilians as a symbol of prestige.
However, the traditional craft was soon lost as the quest for profits and a culture of corruption too center stage. Quality became compromised as smiths found it harder and harder to earn a living. The finest real swords of the time were the ones commissioned by the wealthy – those make up the majority of the much sought after swords of that period.
The Kamakura, Nambokucho and Muromachi periods are now regarded as the Golden Age of the samurai swords. Antique Japanese sword smithing reached its peak, producing such legends like Masamune – whose work is now considered a national treature in Japan. Around 1780 AD, there was a revival in interest in the Five Traditions and in the great swords times past. It lead to a period of experimentation, leading to an era of sword making called the Shinshinto (“New New Sword Era”). Authentic swords from that time were very flashy and artistic. This barely lasted 100 years however – it all ended during the Meiji Restoration, when the samurai class was banned and wearing of swords in public were forbidden.
Modern swords from the Gendaito era were military swords – they were mass produced and had very little in common with the antique swords of the previous era, except for their overall curved shape. Most of these have been destroyed after the two World Wars. The Americans even banned the production and possession of swords in Japan until 1953.
The resumption of swordmaking after the prohibition has since been a government controlled affair. In our Shinsakuto era (Newly Made) swords have to be made as objects of art, not as weapons. There are tight restrictions on who can manufacture a sword – swordsmiths have to follow a 5-year apprenticeship under a master before getting their license. There are also monthly production limits on each smith, and each authentic Japanese sword must now be registered with the police.