Katana, a sword forged in Japan, is the symbol of the spirituality and authority of the samurai. Katana means sword in Japanese. A curved, single-edged blade characterizes it. Skilled sword makers take about three months to create a katana’s blade, known for its lightness, sharpness, and strength. It is primarily used for open combat, to cut the enemy swiftly. It has a long handle for a two-handed grip. The blade is curved to enable the samurai to draw it quickly and slash the opponent in a single swift motion.
Who invented the katana?
Very little is known about Amakuni Yasatsuna and his son, who created the katana, with most of what’s known about them passed down through legends. Amakuni is still recognized as the inventor of the katana. Amakuni was a blacksmith, and he and his son created the first long single-edged curved blade or tachi in 700 AD. On the other hand, historians say Japanese swordsmiths invented the katana, with the first mention of the word occurring during 1185 to 1333 during the Kamakura Period.
The katana’s key contributors (and evolution)
- Amakuni YasutsunaFirst Japanese swordsmith
Amakuni Yasutsuna is considered the first swordsmith in Japan. It is believed that he lived during the 8th century. He was one of the earliest sword makers in Japanese history, although there is very little information about him. However, the credit for creating a single-edged katana goes to Amakuni. His forge was located at the armory of the emperor.
- Emperor GotobaLearning from the masters
Emperor Gotoba, the 82nd emperor of Japan, was an early swordsmith. He hired many sword makers for his royal armory. He displayed a keen interest in making the blades and learned from the masters who came to work at his forge. He later became an excellent swordsmith and even established a swordmaking school.
- Gorō Nyūdō MasamuneMost famous katana maker
In Japanese history, the most famous swordsmith was Masamune. He developed a bladesmithing technique that used martensitic crystals arranged in a pearlite matrix. It made the blade look like having stars. Masamune designed and finished about 41 to 61 swords in his lifetime. The Japanese government considers his blades as national treasures.
- Hikoshiro Sagami Kuni SadamuneSon of the master
Historians cannot agree whether Hikishiro Sagami Kuni Sadamune was Masamune’s biological or adopted son. Nevertheless, he learned swordsmithing from Masamune and became a highly accomplished student. One of his most famous swords was the one he designed and created for General Toyotomi Hideyoshi called the Rope Cutter.
- Muramasa SengoWarring States shoguns’ favorite
Muramasa Sengo lived during the Warring States Period of the Muromachi era. He was a favorite of the elite samurais, including Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. But because he lived during the Warring States, many dark legends surrounded him. According to folk tales, his blades were cursed, especially since his blades were used to kill the grandfather and son of the shogun.
When was the katana invented?
According to history, Amakuni Yasutsuna, assisted by his son, Amakuna, invented the single-edged curved longsword in 700 AD. As they watched the soldiers return home after a battle, they noticed that many of the swords were broken. He and his son prayed to the Shinto god for seven days and seven nights and had the idea of a curved, single edged katana through a dream.
A brief history of the katana
The oldest known Japanese swords came from the Kofun era, created at Ibaraki Prefecture’s Kashima Shrine. Most of them were straight swords like the chokutō, while others had unique shapes. During the Heian period (8th to 11th centuries), techniques from Hokkaidō and Siberia influenced the swordmaking techniques in Japan. Hokkaidō was the home of the Ainu people that used Warabite-tō swords, which influenced the creation of the katana. Amakuni was credited as the inventor of the katana and the folded steel process.
The first use of the word katana was during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). The katana has a long curved blade that can be as long as 37 inches. It has a single cutting edge that faces outward. The unique design allows the wielder to unsheathe the katana and strike the enemy in one fast and fluid motion.
Feudal Japan’s (1185-1600) military nobility, the samurai, primarily used katanas. In the early days, samurais used long poles and longbows as weapons. However, with the changes in close-combat warfare, the samurais started using the katana in the late 13th century and added a companion, the shorter wakizashi.
When the 12th century arrived, civil wars erupted in Japan. Thus, there was a considerable need for swords. The ferocity of the close encounters required better swords, and swordmaking techniques grew during the Kamakura period because soldiers needed more disposable and practical weapons. The increased production of katanas reached its height during the Muromachi period.
Several swordmaking schools were established in selected areas in Japan. Along with the schools, a few excellent katana makers became very popular, such as Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, Hikoshiro Sagami Kuni Sadamune, and Muramasa Sengo. Masamune achieved the highest fame among the three, with his katanas considered a national treasure by the Japanese government.
There was peace during the Momoyama period. But the techniques of the ancient and older swordsmiths were lost during the wars, and the new swords (shintō) were inferior to their predecessors. They focused more on the artistic side instead of the function of the katana.
In modern times, Yoshindo Yoshihara is the most famous. His family created katanas in the traditional method for over ten generations. He used to make swords following Masamune’s Soshu tradition. But after 1970, he switched to the Bizen tradition. He had trained nine apprentices, one of which was his son, Yoshikazu.
The age of samurais and katanas ended during the Edo Period.
The katana’s timeline
- Koto to Nanbokucho PeriodsChokuto and Tachi swords
The traditional Japanese sword, the chokutō, was straight-edged. It led to the creation of the tachi, produced between 900 and 1596 AD. The tachi was longer and already displayed the graceful curvature inherent in the katana. Swordsmiths made changes to the design and shape of the tachi during the Muromachi era. During the Kamakura period, smiths focused on strengthening the blade. Finally, the function of the tachi became the focus of swordsmiths during the Nankobucho Period.
- 15th centuryUchigatana
The Nihonto (traditionally crafted Japanese swords) underwent more changes in the 15th century, creating the uchigitana, the precursor to the katana. It was nearly 24 inches long, and the user can wield it with one hand because of its weight and size. The uchigatana was ideal for battles fought on foot and in close quarters.
- Late 15th centuryBirth of the katana
More changes to the Nihonto led to the birth of the katana. Early katanas sported 24-inch blades with a broader base. But the katanas created during this time were of inferior quality and broke quickly. The late 15th century was the Sengoku era, which was an era riddled with armed conflicts.
- Momoyama PeriodFocus on the blade
Although wars continued across Japan, swordsmiths started focusing on creating better katanas. They focused on the katana’s blade, a development that showcased the skills of the master sword makers. The katana’s blade became longer, reaching lengths between 24 to nearly 30 inches. They also increased the width and thickness of the top and bottom parts of the blade and moved the curvature to the blade’s upper part.
- Edo (Tokugawa) PeriodReduction of sword length
The government passed a law requiring all sword lengths to be reduced to less than 24 inches. Thus, katanas’ lengths were between 17 and 21 inches during this period. It was also the first time that the daishō, the pairing of a katana and a wakizashi, received recognition.
Where was the katana invented?
The katana was invented in Yamato Province, Japan, where Amakuni Yasutsuna lived. The first time the word appeared was in Nihon Shoki of 720. Katana is a compound word—comprising ”kata” meaning one-sided or one side, and ”na” meaning blade. The samurai, feudal Japan’s military nobility, were the main users of the katana. It became their preferred weapon for close-combat warfare because they could quickly draw the katana and cut the enemy in one motion.
The importance of the katana
- Embodies the spirit of Japan
Katana, the samurai sword, is the generic term for how the Japanese developed their swords. In the early days, Katana (tachi, uchigatana), wakizashi, and tanto were Japanese swords’ names. Katana makers have different classifications: Toho (sword craftsman), Tosho (swordmaster), and Katana kaji (swordsmith). Their techniques are still applied today, with Japan renowned for its sharp knives and scissors.
- Soul of the samurais
The shape of the katana symbolizes the soul and skills of the samurais. Shrines and Imperial families treasure legendary swords such as the Kasunagi-no-Tsurugi, as a symbol of power.
- Not only a weapon but an art-craft
Katanas were used as weapons by the samurais. However, the creation of the katana led to many innovative techniques. The way the sword makers forged the steel to make it stronger yet lighter and the artistry of the fittings make the katanas an art form all its own.
- Compatibility of strength and tenacity
Through hard work, dedication, and experimentation, the makers of the katana developed their unique techniques to make the katana blade harder through the folding process. It created thousands of layers to make the blade hard and prevent the swords from breaking during battle.
- Extreme sharpness
Each sword maker has their trademark skills and expertise. But overall, katanas are known for their extreme sharpness, which can cut through bones. A katana is called the strongest cutting tool in the world. The blade can cut paper falling on it because of the paper’s weight.
Katana by the numbers
- 200,000It represents the number of katanas exported to China during the Ming Dynasty at the height of the Muromachi period. China wanted to slow down the production of Japanese weapons and prevent the pirates near the area from arming themselves.
- 1,000,000One million katanas were sold to American soldiers when the U.S. forces occupied Japan at the end of WWII. After that, the Americans banned the production of katana except for those with government and police permits.
- 30Thirty centimeters (one foot) is the equivalent of one shaku, which is the unit of measurement for Japanese swords.
- 8-10Eight to ten is the number of folds a blacksmith does to steel to strengthen the katana blade. It includes repeated heating, folding, and hammering the steel to remove impurities and bubbles from the metal. Simultaneously, it spreads the homogenized carbon content through the length of the blade.
- 1.0 to 1.5The number is the weight of a katana and other longswords in kilograms.
- 3It takes three months to produce one katana blade. The entire process includes the preparation of the metal and the nine other steps to finish the blade.
- 418,000The number is the amount in U.S. dollars a bidder paid during a 1992 auction for a 13th century kamakura katana, the most favored katana of most samurais. The Japanese Legislation considers this a work of art. The owner of this type has to accept a set of responsibilities for its care.
- 36Thirty-six is the total number of primary parts and subparts of a katana.
- 5It takes five years of apprenticeship before the individual can start making a katana under the tutelage of a master swordsmith. The apprentice works full-time without pay. After finishing the internship, the person must pass an eight-day certification test offered only once a year.
- 177In 2017, the Japanese Swordsmith Association stated that only 177 swordsmiths remaining in Japan use traditional Japanese swordsmithing. The number is just a bit over one-half of the 1989 figure of 300. However, only about ten percent of them do swordsmithing as their primary occupation.
- 105The number represents US$105 million, which is the appraised value of the rare 16th-century Samurai Tachi longsword owned by a powerful warlord in feudal Japan, Fukushima Masanori. It is currently at the Tamoikin Art Fund Museum.
- 8One thousand one hundred samurai swords from the collection of Dr. Walter Ames Compton sold for eight million in one day.
Five facts about the katana
- Part of Japanese tradition
The art of Japanese swordmaking can be traced as far back as the Kofun period, which is around 300 to 538 AD. However, in the early days, samurais used bows and arrows. But later, the katana became the symbol of the samurai class. Even after the abolition of the samurai class in 1868, the ancient tradition of Japanese swordmaking continues to this day. Historically known for its swordsmiths, Seki City still holds the Hamono Matsuri, an annual autumn festival where the traditional swordsmiths show off the new blades they created.
- Signature Hamon line
Hamon is a Japanese term that translates to blade pattern. The pattern is etched on the katana blade as it is heat-treated. The heat treatment hardens the blade’s cutting edge. Throughout history, the different swordsmiths have a signature Hamon pattern to differentiate their work from other sword makers.
- The sword polisher is equally important
The swordsmith and the sword polisher have a symbiotic relationship. After the smith finishes the blade, its main features are not visible. It is the job of the sword polisher to bring out the quality of craftsmanship of the sword maker. Polishing highlights the grain and temper line of the steel blade. These features are vital to the overall value and appearance of the sword.
- The shape indicates what era the katana came from
A Japanese sword expert can identify the era the katana came from by looking at the sword’s main features and shape. For example, during the late Muromachi period, the swords were shorter because they shifted to mass infantry instead of cavalry warfare.
- Preserving the art of Japanese swordmaking
In 1900, the Japanese government founded the Token Kai. The agency’s tasks were to research Japanese swords and preserve the traditional craftsmanship. The government realized that their traditional swordmaking techniques would disappear if there were no organization to protect them.
FAQs about the katana
- What is the length of a katana?
The average length of a katana is 3.5 shaku or 41 inches. The blade must be more than two shaku, equivalent to 23.6 inches. The tsuka or handle is around one shaku (11.9 inches). So, more or less, you can find a katana with a total length between 39.4 and 43.4 inches.
- What does katana mean?
A katana is a Japanese sword with a curved, single-edged blade. It has a square or circular guard and a long handle to accommodate a two-handed grip. It became the symbol and weapon of choice of the samurais, the hereditary military nobility and officer caste of feudal Japan. According to Western historians, the katana is one of the finest cutting weapons in world military history.
- What are the main parts of a katana?
The katana consists of a single-edged blade called ha. The set also includes the tsuba or guard that protects the user’s hand from the opponent’s blows. The tsuba also prevents the hand from slipping into the katana’s blade when the user is attacking. The other part is the tsuka or handle.
- What is a wakizashi?
he wakizashi is an auxiliary or backup sword used for close-quarters fighting. It is a companion sword to the katana, and when worn together, the pair is called a daishō, which means big-little. A wakizashi could be 12 to 24 inches long.
- How many swords does a samurai carry?
Typically, a samurai had a pair – the katana, and the wakizashi. In addition, they often carried a shōtō, a 36-inch sword and a tantō, a single or double-edged small blade, typically about 8.5 inches.