History of Japanese Swords
Oldest swords on record in Japan are the two that were sent as a present to queen Himeko from China during Wei-dynasty in 240 a.d. In 280 a.d. many more iron swords were imported from China to Japan.
It is believed that the art of forging a steel sword came soon after from China and Korea, but the details are unknown. We do know that in the 5th century steel swords were already made in Japan. These were of the straight, single-edged type called chokuto. The method of hardening the steel that is so typical of Japanese swords was first used in 6th century.
The era of the straight sword lasted until the 8th century. Then the predominant style of warfare changed from fighting on foot to fighting on horseback. To accommodate horseback fighting the swords became curved. These long, curved single-edged swords were called tachi. There were many intermediate forms between chokuto and tachi. The most common of these were kogarasumaru (a curved, two-edged sword) and kenukigatatachi. The term Nipponto or Nihonto (literally “Japanese sword”) is usually reserved to swords with curvature.
Japanese History and Sword Evolution.
Heian Era (794-1184)
As emperor Kammu came to power, the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto. The whole era was characterized by the prevalent tendency toward accepting what came through the Chinese influences that had came over the sea during the previous centuries and making them Japanese. Many of the cultural idiosyncrasies that we hold typically Japanese were born in Heian period.
In this era was also created the method of forging a sword with hard outer surface and soft core.
This was the era of tachi. It became customary to sign the blades. The oldest signed blade is probably one tachi forged by Sanjo Munechika. The oldest tachi with date as well as the name of the smith engraved on the tang is from 1159 and was made by Namihira Yukimasa.
During the Heian era two clans, the Minamotos and the Tairas, who rose in power and importance. The end of the era is marked by the battle in Dannoura, where these two clans clashed together.
Kamakura Era (1184-1333)
After defeating the Taira clan at Dannoura, Minamoto no Yorimoto – now the de facto ruler – moved his shogunate to Kamakura. Emperor Gotoba, the formal ruler, remained in Kyoto. This also marked the beginning of the rule of the samurai class.
Kamakura became a cultural capitol, and swordsmiths from all over the country gathered there. Perhaps the most famous of them was Masamune, one of the masters of the soshu-style. The overall style of swords became more flamboyant, more in tune with the newly found power of the samurai. Kamakura period is often held to be the golden age of Nihon-to.
A typical Kamakura sword was wider than before, with little difference in width between the top and bottom of the blade. Kissaki (the point) was often of the type ikubi (“bull’s neck”).
Late in the Kamakura period came the two Mongol invasions (1274 and 1281) by Kublai Khan. The encounter with the new weapons and tactics of the Mongols demonstrated some weaknesses in Tachi. For example the point was easily broken and could not be repaired. These experiences affected the design of later swords.
Nanpokucho Era (1334-1393)
In 1334 the samurai from the provinces started a rebellion and overthrew the shogunate with the aid of the imperial court. Emperor Godaiko gained the control of the country, but was able to hold on to it for just two years. Ashikaga Takauji renounced emperor Godaiko and raised emperor Komyo to power instead. Godaiko held court in Yoshino and Komyo built his government in Kyoto. The north and south courts warred for close to 60 years.
This continuing war raised the need for swords. As the foot soldier raised in importance once again, a very long sword, suitable for delivering devastating sweeps when used with two hands, was created. Some of these odachi or nodachi had blades over a meter long, as long as 120-150 cm. (Some swords with blades over two meters long exist, but these were ceremonial.) Many of these odachi were later shortened and used as a katana.
The situation was finally resolved in a compromise, but Ashikaga and the north court were the factual winners.
Muromachi Era (1394-1595)
After the long war between the north and south courts, a short period of peace ensued. Shogun Ashikaga was, however, effectively powerless, and the true power was held by the daimyos.
The battle for the true power began in 1467 with the so-called Onin-war. The whole country was in a constant state of war for almost a hundred years, until Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi managed to wrestle the power, and pacify the country. This era is called Senkogu – “the time the country was at war”.
The swords of this era can be divided to three groups:
Early Muromachi (1394-1466)
As the armies grew, the mounted soldiers became ever more rare, and the main force of armies consisted of foot soldiers. While many tachi were still made, the time of the katana was already dawning. Shorter blades were easier to carry and faster to draw. The center of curvature of the blade moved forward as the blades were being designed for use on foot. Most swords were 69,7-72,7 cm in length and narrowed towards the point. Near the end of this period almost all the swords produced were uchigatana.
Mid Muromachi (1467-1554)
As the mobility of troops became strategically more important, the swords got even shorter. Most swords manufactured in this period were 60-65 cm long and had even width all the length of the blade.
This was the heyday of katana. Katana is a relatively short sword that is carried in the belt with the cutting edge upwards. This way it is possible to draw the sword and cut in single motion. (Tachi was carried hung from the belt with the cutting edge pointing down.)
The ever-increasing need for swords also meant that not all swords were manufactured to the same high standards as before. The term kazuuchi was used to denote the mass-produced swords from the quality swords. Around 100 000 swords were even exported to Ming-dynasty China.
Late Muromachi (1555-1595)
In the 12th year of Tenmon, 1543, the face of warfare in Japan was changed forever. This year the Portuguese first introduced firearms to Japan.
Even if the early guns were not accurate and it took a long time to load them, Oda Nobunaga used them to great effect in the battle of Nagashino in 1573. The mounted troops of the Takeda clan – held to be the finest in the country – were swiftly decimated by a group of gunmen.
The mounted troops were powerless. The battlefield belonged to tight formations of footsolders, armed with guns. The armor became heavy and thick to protect from bullets. Accordingly the swords became longer, heavier and more robust to cope with the armor.
When Oda Nobunaga finally fell, the country was unified under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the long era of war became to end.
Edo Era (1596-1867)
After Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi had unified the country, the political power was taken over by Tokugawa Ieyasu. He created a centrally governed feudal society that lasted virtually unchanged for hundreds of years.
The swords became more refined in this era. The raw materials became more easily available and the smiths were able to exchange skills and experiences. Since the difference between the swords produced before and during Edo period is so large, people talk of “old swords” and “new swords”
The swords are often divided by age:
bullet jokoto (“ancient swords”) – 795
bullet koto (“old swords”) 795 – 1596
bullet shinto (“new swords”) 1596 – 1624
bullet shinshinto (“new new swords”) 1624 – 1876
bullet gendaito (“contemporary swords”) 1876-1953
bullet shinshakuto (“modern swords”) 1953 –
As a long period of war was superseded by long period of peace, a great number of samurai found themselves suddenly redundant. Many of the schools of sword fighting were born in this era. (I have been told of over 600 different schools on record, but I am not sure how this figure was reached or how accurate it is.)
Modern time (1868-)
When Tokugawa shogunate finally fell, and emperor Meiji took the power, began the time of modernization known as Meiji-restoration. The samurai were deprived of their old privileges – including the right to carry daisho, the pair of long and short swords that had been the sign of their class.
With no market for swords most smiths had to find some other source of income. While the growing militarism and later the war once again made swords necessary, most of these were mass-produced in factories.
A further blow came, when the Americans forbade the manufacturing of swords after the Japanese had lost the war. Also about 400, 000 historically and artistically interesting swords ended up in the USA. The art of the Japanese sword was on the brink of becoming extinct.
Luckily in 1953 the manufacturing of swords became legal again, and the almost dead tradition could still be revived. There were still old masters alive who could teach the next generation. Now there are some 250 working smiths, producing swords matching in beauty and quality even the finest produced in the past.