of the most famous Japanese swords until today is the Katana sword also
referred as the
Samurai Sword. Made by the top sword smiths and from the
finest materials during the ancient years of Japan, it was considered a
sacred weapon representing honor and dignity of the Samurai warrior.
Learn about what is a Katana sword, its origin, and parts and know how to
maintain your functional samurai sword.
History of the Katana
The original katanas were said to have been made during the Muromachi era in
1392-1573 at the height of changing warfare styles in feudal Japan. From
curve swords with blades facing down called the tachi, they evolved into
still curve swords but with their cutting edge facing up. This made slashing
opponents easier right after a Samurai draws his sword out from its sheath.
These reverse swords were then named the katana.
Katana sword making was a revered process in itself. According to the
Japanese sword history, only the sword makers of the royals and the elite
were allowed to forge katanas.
Katanas were not the only Japanese Samurai swords. As a matter of fact, they
are only used by the Samurais as a last resort. Usually, the Samurai brings
with him a wakizashi short sword and a tanto knife. A wakizashi is the
companion sword to the katana and together they are called the daisho. Tanto
knives are used for the ritual suicide seppuku.
could be traced around 12th century. Samurais were widespread during feudal
Japan when military support was very powerful particularly during the
Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333) until some time in 19th century. The warlord
shogun ruled and governed Japan and gave the samurai control over civil,
judicial, and military matters.
The Samurais had different weapons with them like bows, arrows, spears, and
a tanto knife which they would use for the ritual suicide seppuku in the
form of hara-kiri. But two swords were considered important to him – a short
sword of 12-24 inches in length called the wakizashi and a long Katana
sword. A Samurai katana sword and a wakizashi together are called the daisho
which literally means big and small.
More than a weapon, the Japanese Samurai sword katana is a symbol of the
samurai spirit and pride. It was regarded very sacred that it was used by a
warrior as a last resort. The Samurai believe that the long sword is his
soul so it must only be drawn out in the name of his honor. To add, only a
Samurai warrior has the right to bring a katana.
Traditionally, the katana making & marking in itself was a revered ritual.
Only the best Japanese sword smiths working for the high classes of the
society are supposed to forge a Samurai sword.
The Samurai katana sword is usually 26-37 inches long.
OF THE JAPANESE SAMURAI SWORD
are those ring-like pieces of soft metal found both at the base and the top
of the grip of the katana. They are helpful in holding the handle together.
the grip, hilt, or handle where the tang of the sword is hidden and locked
in. Wrapped with a sageo, the tsuka has the elements habaki, tsuba, seppa,
and menuki all of which will be elaborated in the following numbers.
are a pair of ornaments – small statues of animals or mythical creatures
like dragons, rabbit on the moon, or lizards – that are placed under the
bindings of the tsuka. Though in modern times menukis are mere decorations,
by tradition, they represented the Samurai that owns the Katana sword.
are the silk or cotton wrappings of the tsuka. These are used to secure the
saya or scabbard of the sword to the obi (waistband).
the tang of the blade covered by the tsuka. This should be fully covered
(full tang) to support the entire katana sword and prevent it from falling
off when in battle. A full tang is a characteristic of authentic samurai
It is the guard that prevents the hand from slipping to the edge of the
sword. Found at the end of the tsuka, this gives more control of the sword.
The tsuba in itself is a valued part of the sword. In Japanese sword
history, a whole dynasty of craftsmen is dedicated to make only tsubas. A
tsuba was very valuable it could be passed on to younger generations as an
heir loom. Today, tsubas are also well decorated to add more beauty that
will attract sword collectors.
are metal washers used to fill in spaces between tsuba and habaki to keep
them tight together.
a small, square metal collar which encircles the base of the blade. It must
fit just right over ken (Japanese for the blade) and the tsuka so that it
can do well as a protection of the saya from dust and rain.
is referred to as the entire blade of the katana from the nakago to the
describes the curvature of the blade which is a result of a differential
quenching and hammering. Before the process, the blade is straight and just
is the back edge of the samurai katana sword blade. This is the part of the
blade which is not sharpened.
is the ridgeline at the widest point of the samurai blade.
– found between the kissaki and the nakauyi, this part is the very cutting
section of the sword.
14. The kissaki
is the tip most of the katana. This part is crucial to every samurai sword
for this determines the value of the sword. Forging and polishing this point
would require a highly skilled sword smith.
15. The scabbard
of the ancient Japanese sword is called the
made of honoki wood.
PARTS OF THE BLADE
Making katana sword
A sacred art in Japan history. It is a long and a ritualistic process that
would take days to weeks and could only create one sword at a time.
Katana making involves different stages and several swordsmiths. Each smith
is an expert to a specific stage – one in the forging and heating of the raw
metal, another in folding the steel, another one in polishing and furnishing
the blade. There are also craftsmen who specialize in making the scabbard
(saya), handle (tsuka), and hand guard (tsuba).
How a katana is made
Forging the Katana Blade
Type of Steel
Chunks of traditional Japanese steel called tamahagane (made from black
sand) are sorted according to carbon content. Higher carbon steel (kawagane)
is the hard steel while the lower carbon steel (shingane) is the more
Heating and Forging the blade
The chunks of steel are hammered into flat sheets then placed on a steel
scoop. The steel sheets are covered with clay water and drawing paper before
it is put inside the forge for heating. Covering the steel would prevent it
from reaching the melting point. If the sheets of metal are completely
dissolved, the metal will lose their distinct quality of hardness (for the
high carbon steel) and flexibility (for the low carbon steel).
Folding the blade katana blade (Orikaeshi Tanren)
is a famous stage in katana making. This draws out more impurities that can
weaken the blade.
The steel is folded vertically until it forms a stick. In every folding
made, the steel is heated, hammered, and quenched in water to cool. The
harder steel should be folded for at least a dozen times or not more than
sixteen times while the softer steel is folded for seven to ten times. Too
much folding will make the blade brittle.
Gradually, with the repeated folding, heating, and hammering, the weight of
the katana blade will decrease.
Combining the steel (Kumi-awase)
of lower carbon (softer) metal is placed between two layers of high-carbon
metal. Higher carbon steel (kawagane) is hard so it will be made as the
cutting edge part of the katana blade. Lower carbon steel (shingane) is
tough and flexible making it best for the back section and the body of the
blade. The combination and balance of the qualities of Japanese steel
tamahagane gives the extraordinary cutting ability of the sword.
The layers of steel are hammered on a long stick which will serve as guide
in forming the exact shape of the katana blade.
Chiseling brings out the details of the blade like the tang (nakago), the
tip (kissaki), and back edge (mune).
Coating and Heat Tempering
heating-quenching method is done to completely harden the cutting edge of
the katana. Before doing that, a mixture of clay, rust, and ash is coated on
the blade. The clay mixture is high temperature resistant. The thickness of
the coating will control the effect of heat to the blade. A thicker coating
is applied on the back edge and body while a thinner coating is applied on
the cutting edge.
The blade is then placed in the forge and heated up to 720-780°C. Once the
right temperature is achieved, the blade is taken out from the forge and is
immediately quenched in water. The thinly coated part will cool faster and
will result to a very strong edge.
The part of the katana blade with lower carbon (the back edge) contracts
more freely after the heat-quench method. This reaction will create the
natural curve of the sword. The smith must adjust the curvature once he
notices the sword makes deeper curve.
from its quality, a katana sword is known for its beauty. Almost all Samurai
sword blades are decorated with different marks. The design and types of
engravings on the blade would help determine the age, the swordsmith, or era
the sword was made.
a) File markings
Katana file marks are etched on the tang of the blade before it is signed by
the smith. Patterns would differ in depth, thickness, and spacing. Tools
used in marking (e.g. a hammer or a plane used for shaving iron) and style
would also vary with period, sword making schools, and sword makers.
Signed katanas would bear the name of the sword smith or the owner of the
sword. The signature is generally engraved on the tang together with the
province and colony where the sword is made. First recorded signed Japanese
sword is a tachi (an ancient long sword) from the Heian Period.
c) Blood groove (Bo-hi)
A blood groove (also known as fuller) is a narrow path found at the back
edge of a katana blade. It is made by removing or scraping off steel from a
section of the sword. On the contrary, some believe that fullers were
created by hammering it in to the blade to make a hallow part rather than
removing the steel.
The purpose of a blood groove is to reduce the weight of the sword and
improve its cutting ability.
d) Artistic Carvings (Horimono)
Horimono are artistic carvings on katana blades. These carvings are
religious and mythical figures like cherry blossom, dragons, and deities.
Generally, katanas with horimono are ceremonial swords because carved swords
often do not have good quality to be used as weapons.
Sharpening katana blade and polishing (Togi)
process of maintaining, restoring, and sharpening katana blade is summed up
in Togi – the art of Japanese sword polishing.
As mentioned earlier, several artists are experts at different stages in
making a katana. A togishi is a craftsman who specializes in polishing,
refining, and improving the katana sword’s aesthetic and artistic value. He
has to be trained for at least ten arduous years to master this craft.
Improperly polished swords can be considered worthless and of no spiritual
value. In studying the Togi or art of polishing, the craftsman would also
learn to be skillful in sword judgment, appraisal, and identification.
The two stages of polishing are the foundation polishing (shitaji togi) and
finish polishing (shiage togi). Foundation polishing is where the polisher
perfects the basic shape of the blade.
The details of a katana blade are enhanced during the finish polishing. It
is also at this point that the beauty of wavy patterns from heat tempering
(hamon) will become more visible. This final refining is a very intricate
process that only a master could fully comprehend.
blade is complete, it is time to assemble the sword by installing the
different katana parts.
The sword hilt (tsuka) is wrapped with a silk cloth (tsuka-ito). Wrapping
the handle is itself an art called Tsukamaki. With the help of bamboo screws
(mekugi), the tang is secured within the katana handle. The hand guard
(tsuba), metal washers (seppa), hilt collars (fuchi-kashira), and the square
metal (habaki) are fittings that will keep the sword parts stable. The
finished sword will be fitted into a lacquered and ornamented wooden sheath