Complete History of Japanese Samurai Swords

A Japanese sword is one of many types of traditionally made swords from Japan. Swords have been made from as early as the Kofun period, though most people generally refer to the curved blades made after the Heian period when speaking of “Japanese swords”. Many kinds of Japanese swords differ in size, shape, the field of application, and method of manufacture. Some of the more generally known types of Japanese swords are the katana, tsurugi, wakizashi, odachi, and tachi.

History of Japanese Samurai Swords

The first evidence of the existence of samurai swords in Japan dates from 240 BC, during the Yayoi period when the queen Himeko sent a fee to the Chinese dynasty Wei, two swords. At the same time, in 280 BC, they shipped numerous iron swords from China. It is assumed that the art of forging the steel came immediately after that from China, through Korea, but the details are still unknown.

In the 5th century, the first samurai katana sword arrived on a major scale. They were straight and they were called Chokutō. The method of strengthening the steel, very specific in Japan, as far as the manufacturing of the swords is involved, was used for the first time in the 6th century. The age of the accurate swords lasted until the commencement of the Heian period (the 8th century) when the combat style changed, and the fight on horseback became dominant. 

In order to cope with the use of swords with horse riding, they became curve, more extended, having a unique blade, too, being called tachi. Between Chokutō and tachi there are more intermediary styles, the most popular being Logarasumaru (short sword, having two sharp edges) and Lenukigatatachi. The term Nipponto or Nihonto (which means “Japanese sword”) points to curve swords.

Heian period, which is deemed the starting point of the history of Japanese swords, is characterized by the fact that many beliefs were imported from China and they were adjusted so that they become Japanese. Most of the things which we consider nowadays particular to Japan appeared during this period. During this period, too, developed the idea of manufacturing swords by smithing, so that the outer surface was rough and the center was soft.

The folded steel samurai swords produced and used during this period belong to the class tachi. In the same period, during this time occurred the habit of signing on the sword blades, therefore apparently, the oldest tachi sword bears the signature of its manufacturer: Sanjo Munechika, and the oldest Japanese sword which was signed, and which also bears the date of its production, was made by Namihira Yukimasa.

The loss of the Taira clan by Minamoto no Yoritomo was the story that marks the inception of the Kamakura period, but at the same time, it is the event that marks the taking over of the power by the samurai warrior class. It is said that this is the golden period of the Japanese swords, and they became bigger and better from all the points of view, including the aesthetic one. A feature of the swords referring to that period is the width of the blade – bigger than in the previous period, a small difference between the width of the blade at its base and at its end, and the shape of its end, which most of the times associated to the Ikubi type.

Towards the fall of the Kamakura period, two Mongol invasions took place (1274 and 1281). The identification of new samurai weapons, technologies, and policies, proved some weak points of the tachi swords, for example, the fact that the end of the blade could be simply broken and it couldn’t be fixed. These issues swelled during the battles affected the future design of the swords.

When the power of the Kamakura shogunate dropped down, the supreme imperial court took the leadership over again, but for a short time – at the start of the Muromachi period.

This period is characterized by almost constant and endless war. The historic conditions defined the growth in importance of the foot soldier, and at the same time the existence of long swords, for both hands, used for robust, crushing strikes.

Muromachi swords were named Odachi or Nodachi, and they were larger than 1 meter (they sometimes measured 120-150cm). These long katana swords, which sometimes mark almost 2 meters were used for precisely for ceremonies. After a brief peaceful period, in the midst of this interval, the fight for control started again in 1467. The whole country was involved in a perpetual war for over 100 years when finally, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded to unify again and to set peace in Japan. This phase is known as Senkogu (the period during which the country was on war).

The swords in this period are classified into 3 specific historical groups: 1394-1466; 1467-1554 and 1555-1595.

During the first period (1394-1466), when armies improved too, as we have already said, the number of soldiers on horseback decreased, which lead to an increasing of foot soldiers. Although tachi or odachi swords were still produced, the festive period of katana swords was diminishing for good. Shorter swords were more comfortable to wear and more easily to be taken out of the holder. The curve (Sori) of these swords moved to the end, is considered to be used standing. Most of the swords had a length of 69,7-72,7 cm, and they got more narrow near the top of the sword. Towards the edge of this period, almost all the swords produced are called Uchigatana.

During the second period (1467-1554), when the movement of the troops became a strategic point, the swords became shorter. Most of the swords produced during this period had a length of 60-65cm, and their width was almost equal to their length. 

This was a comparatively short type of sword, which was worn attached to the belt, in the scabbard, with the cutting edge upwards. This fact authorized to the sword to be taken out of the scabbard and the strike from a single move, whereas tachi was hanging at the belt, with the cutting edge downwards. At the same time, the requirement of a continuous source of swords determined the fact that not all the swords manufactured during this period had the high standards to which they rose during early periods. During this period Japan shipped about 100 thousand swords to China, which was ruled by the Ming dynasty at that time.

The end of the Muromachi period (1555-1595) marked the total transformation of the way in which the wars were conducted in Japan, by the introduction of firearms. In 1543 the Portuguese injected the first firearms in Japan. Even if the first arms of this kind were reliable from the point of view of the efficiency, and they required a long recharge period, Oda Nobunaga used them for the first time famously during the Battle of Nagashino in 1573. The horseback troops of the Tadeka clan (being known during that period as an elite formation in Japan) were slaughtered by a group of samurai, who were carrying firearms. Since that moment, horseback troops were completely useless. The battlefield was used then by little troops of foot soldiers, dressed with pistols. The armors became harder and thicker to protect the bullet holder, and the swords became once again longer, harder, and more firm, in order to be able to infiltrate the armors.

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