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Katana : Japanese traditional sword – Part 1-

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/20 Traditional Culture , , , , , ,

Katana : Japanese sword (1)

At first, I was going to post an article about “Muramasa”, a very famous cursed “katana”, but I thought it might be better to write simple explanations of Japanese traditional swords beforehand.

 

“Unbreakable, unbending and very sharp” sword

A sword has to be hard to be unbending and sharp, and has to be soft as well to be unbreakable.
To realise these two conditions, Japanese swords are produced by wrapping soft iron with hard one.
Soft iron contains a small amount of carbon and used as core of a sword, called as “shin-gane” (core iron).
Hard one contains a large amount of carbon, called as “kawa-gane” (skin iron).

“Kawa-gane” is produced by repeating two procedures; beating hot iron flat then doubling it over.
This procedure makes iron purer, makes contained-carbon in the iron homogeneous, and reduces amount of carbon.
(Impure substances come out as sparks when you beat an iron.)
If you repeat this too many times, the iron becomes too soft.
Usually around 15 times, so a finished sword will have nearly 33,000 layers of iron.

 

Types of Japanese swords

[Choku-tou (Straight katana)]

Almost straight katana.
Originally came from overseas and had been used until the first half of the 10th century.

It seemed that curved swords were begun to be forged after the insurrections (from 931 to 947) by Taira no Masakado and Fujiwara no Sumitomo.
The swords which were forged in this early times are categorised as “Jyouko-tou”.

This straight type of swords is mainly used for thrusting attacks like a rapier.

 

[Tachi (Broad katana)]

Tachi

"Tachi" blade without the hilt.

A long, largely curved sword used between the late Heian era (794 – 1185 / 1192) and the beginning of the Muromachi era (1336 – 1392).
The length of the blade is around 70 – 80 cm (approx. 2ft 4in to 8in).

Usually placed edge-down on exhibitions.
People hang it from their waist with edge-down.
Curved swords like “tachi” and “katana” are suitable for cutting.

Samurai with "tachi"

- Ukiyo-e by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1886) -
Note that "tachi" is hanging from the samurai's waist with edge-down.
From GATAG

 

[Katana]*

Katana blade

"Katana" blade without the hilt.

Around more than 60 cm (approx. 2ft) long, but a little shorter than “tachi”.
Used from the middle of the Muromachi era (the late 15th century) to the end of the Edo era (the middle of the 19th century).
When “tachi” becomes shorter by “suriage”*, it’s called as “katana”.
“Katana” is worn with edge-up, inserted into “Obi” (a sash for kimono).

Samurai with "katana"

- Ukiyo-e by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1886) -
"Saya", a scabbard for "katana", is inserted into the samurai's "obi" with edge-up (you can see it from the shape of the end of "saya").
From GATAG

*– The word “Katana” –
The word “katana” is also used for general Japanese traditional swords including “tachi”.
(Sometimes used for Western swords, too.)

*– Suriage –
Filing notches of a blade (“machi”) and cutting off the end of its tang (“nakago”).

Machi and nakago of a Japanese sword

A: "Machi"
B: "Nakago"

 

[Waki-zashi (lit. side-inserted)]

Between 30.3 cm (approx. 1ft) and 60.6 cm long.
Also worn at the waist with edge-up like katana.
Small ones between 36 to 40 cm (approx. 1ft 2in to 4in) are called “ko-waki-zashi” (small waki-zashi).
From around Azuchi-momoyama era (1573 – 1603) to Edo era (1603 – 1868), a waki-zashi was worn together with a katana as a spare.
A pair of katana and waki-zashi was called “Dai-shou” (Big and small).

 

[Tantou (lit. short katana)]

Tantou; Japanese short sword

"Tantou" blade without the hilt.

Its length isn’t over 30.3 cm.
Before curved blades were produced, this tantou was called as katana.

Tantou

- Ukiyo-e by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1891) -
Samurai before killing himself ("Seppuku", lit. cutting his belly) with "tantou".
Illustration from GATAG

One without “tsuba” (sword guard) is referred to as “ai-kuchi”.
Often carried in kimono. (Referred to as “kai-ken”. “Kai” is “futokoro”.)

Futokoro

- "Futokoro" -
"Futokoro" area (red circled) covered with kimono.
Illustration from Illust-ya

Tsuba

- "Tsuba" for a Japanese sword -
Photo from ASHINARI

 

[Ken / Tsurugi (lit. sword)]

Both-edged straight sword.

The word “ken” or “tsurugi” is frequently used for general (especially Western) swords, including katana.

 

Next: Japanese sword for civilians

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kara

A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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