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One 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.

The Samurai sword history 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.


.1. Fuchi-kashira 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.

2. The tsuka is 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.

3. Menuki 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.

4. Sageo 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).

5. The nakago is 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 katanas.

6. Tsuba. 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.

7. Seppa are metal washers used to fill in spaces between tsuba and habaki to keep them tight together.

8. The habaki is 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.

9. Nagasa is referred to as the entire blade of the katana from the nakago to the kissaki.
10. Sori 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 flat.
11. Mune is the back edge of the samurai katana sword blade. This is the part of the blade which is not sharpened.
12. Shinogi is the ridgeline at the widest point of the samurai blade.
13. Mono-uchi – 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 saya made of honoki wood.
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

1. 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 malleable steel.

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).

2. Folding the blade katana blade (Orikaeshi Tanren)
Folding 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.

3. Combining the steel (Kumi-awase)
A layer 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).

4. Clay Coating and Heat Tempering
A rapid 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.

5. Decoration
Apart 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.

Katana markings
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.

b) Signature
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.

6. Sharpening katana blade and polishing (Togi)
The 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.

7. Assembly
When the 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 (saya).



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