It is not possible to talk about Samurai without talking about their swords. During the ages they radically changed in form and, at the end, even in meaning.
Japan early history is highly affected by the influence of the continent and its more ancient cultures. The culture of the Yayoi period was surely strongly subject to the influence of Korea and thru this peninsula the most important innovations arrived in Japan. Rice cultivation and iron tools and related technology were introduced at the end of the Jomon era. Iron tools and weapons helped the Japanese to enhance their living. In the first stage of its development Japan imported iron tools and weaponry from the continent and continental craftmen immigrated in Japan. Oldest metal swords on record in Japan are the two that were sent as a present to queen Himiko from China during Wei-dynasty in 240 a.D. In 280 a.D. many more iron swords were imported from China to Japan. Soon after the Japanese begun to forge and manufacture their own blades. 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. Very ancient sources as the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki already quotes swords as highly valuable weapons and objects of worship. This is confirmed by the number of swords found in Kofun and the high number of swords which belongs to Shrines. Its debated how many activities were visualized with the ancient polishing methods but is undeniable that, in early times, the beauty of the Japanese sword was only caused by the pursuit of its practical functions as a weapon. Already in the VI century b.C. we have the insurgence of a Japanese taste in fittings but the design of the blades was still strongly influenced by the continent, being the fighting tactics equally imported from China and mainly based on masses of footsoldiers with spears and shields. There is an old saying regarding Japanese swords: Orenai, Magarani, Yoku Kireru (shouldn't break, shouldn't bend and should cut well). These are the most important qualities a sword must have but they are in conflict with each other and Japanese swordmakers (Tosho) made great efforts in searching for improvement of the Chinese specimens. When fighting tactics changed due to the fight against Emishi for domain of the Kanto plain, the advantages of a curved sword for horseback fighting begun evident to the japaneses, that already showed their attitude to practicality and skillfullness in adopting foreign items adapting and upgrading them to their needs. As long as the original purpose of the sword is of a practical nature, it is natural that changes of fighting style and cutting targets have influenced the sword, especially in the shape. For this reason we can judge the approximate age of the sword from the Sugata (Shape) as well as Jihada and Hamon, that are strictly related to functionality. Is generally agreed that the fully developed Japanese sword appearance was around the 940 a.C., period in which we find the most ancient extant swords with all the characteristics needed in the "ideal" japanese sword : single edge differentially hardened with strong curvature. Some of these ancient blades already shows another peculiarity of the japanese sword : a softer steel inner core wrapped by harder steel. It's debated if all such ancient blades are made the same way, but at least some shows that this technology was already available and used in this period. As this “basic” shape has changed in its key features many times and quiet deeply during the centuries, we need to know the periods in which the history of the japanese sword is divided in.
Academically, Japanese swords are divided in periods as follows :
- Jokoto 上古刀 pre-938,
- early Koto 初古刀 938 ~ 1319,
- middle Koto 中古刀 1319 ~ 1460,
- late Koto 末古刀 1460 ~ 1596,
- Keigen-Shinto 慶元新刀 1596 ~ 1624,
- Kanei-Shinto 寛永新刀 1624 ~ 1658,
- Kambun-Shinto 寛文新刀 1658 ~ 1684,
- Genroku-Shinto 元禄新刀 1684 ~ 1764,
- early Shinshinto 初新々刀 1764 ~ 1818,
- middle Shinshinto 中新々刀 1818 ~ 1854,
- late Shinshinto 末新々刀 1854 ~ 1868,
- Gendaito 現代刀 1868 ~ today.
There is another term we usually find when talking about japanese swords : Shinsakuto 新作刀. This means "recently made swords" and is referred to swords made by a living smith and after 1952 when the 1945 ban of forging swords ended. It's basically a sub-group of Gendaito, because if the smith pass away, for the NBTHK (Nippon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai) Shinsa (judgement) the sword begins Gendaito. (Schiller, Guido)
Another thing we have to consider when fixing a date for a japanese sword is the Eto. Eto originally is a Chinese calender invented in the ancient period. It consists of ten ordinal signs and twelve zodiacal symbols and the combination of both characters makes a cycle of sixty years, the Sexegenary cycle. In Japan the Eto was used not only to count time by years but also to show time by hours (In this case one day is divided into twelve fractions.) and direction. Dates based on Eto can often be seen on the Nakago of the Japanese sword.
A third, very important thing to know about the japanese sword is the way the schools were placed along the eight main roads of ancient japan. In Japan there was a division of the local administration called Go Kinai Shichi Do. Go Ki consists of the capital Kyo (Yamashiro) and four neighbouring provinces. Shichi Do means the provinces along the seven main roads spreading throughout the country. There are eight provinces in the Sanyo Do, eight provinces in the San-in Do, six provinces in the Nankai Do, fifteen provinces in the Tokai Do, thirteen provinces in the Tosan Do, seven provinces in the Hokuriku Do and nine provinces with two islands in the Saikai Do. In Kantei (Attribution), it is very important to know the Go Kinai Shichi Do as the smiths of the same region are to show the regional influence in their work. Therefore the old administrative division is still used in studying the Japanese sword.
- Kinai: Yamashiro (Today's Kyoto prefecture), Yamato (Nara), Settsu (Osaka and Hyogo), Kawachi (Osaka), Izumi (Osaka).Sanyo Do: Harima (Hyogo), Bizen (Okayama), Mimasaka (Okayama), Bitchu (Okayama), Bingo (Hiroshima), Aki (Hiroshima), Su-oh (Yamaguchi), Nagato (Yamaguchi).
- San-in Do: Tanba (Kyoto and Hyogo), Tajima (Hyogo), Inaba (Tottori), Hoki (Tottori), Izumo (Shimane), Iwami (Shimane), Oki (Shimane).
- Nankai Do: Kii (Wakayama and Mie), Awaji (Hyogo), Awa (Tokushima), Sanuki (Kagawa), Iyo (Ehime), Tosa (Kochi).
- Tokai Do: Iga (Mie), Ise (Mie), Shima (Mie), Totomi (Shizuoka), Suruga (Shizuoka), Izu Sagami (Kanagawa), Musashi (Tokyo, Saitama Kazusa (Chiba), Shimofusa (Chiba and Ibaraki) Owari (Aichi), Mikawa (Aichi), (Shizuoka), Kai (Yamanashi), and Kanagawa), Awa (Chiba), , Hitachi (Ibaraki).
- Tosan Do: Ohmi (Shiga), Mino (Gifu), Hida (Gifu), Shinano (Nagano), Kozuke (Gamma), Shimotsuke (Tochigi), Iwaki (Fukushima), Iwashiro (Fukushima), Rikuzen (Miyagi and Iwate), Rikuchu (Iwate and Akita), Mutsu (Aomori and Akita), Uzen (Yamagata), Ugo (Akita and Yamagata).
- Hokuriku Do: Wakasa (Fukui), Echizen (Fukui), Kaga (Ishikawa), Noto (Ishikawa), Etchu (Toyama),
- Echigo (Niigata), Sado (Niigata).
- Saikai Do: Chikuzen (Fukuoka), Chikugo (Fukuoka), Buzen (Fukuoka and Oh¬ita), Bungo (Fukuoka and Oh-ita), Hizen (Saga and Nagasaki), Higo (Kumamoto), Hiyuga (Miyazaki), Ohsumi (Kagoshima), Satsuma (Kagoshima), Iki (Nagasaki), Tsushima (Nagasaki).
(Nagayama Kokan, Token Kantei Dokuhon)
History of the Japanese sword in relation to Japanese historical periods
Heian Era (794-1184)
When Kammu Tenno came to power, he moved the capital from Nara to Kyoto. The whole era was characterized by the prevalent tendency toward japanizing the Chinese influences that had came over the sea during the previous centuries. The method of forging a sword with an softer inner core wrapped into an harder steel one was developed during this period. The most ancient swords with this features belongs to the Ko-Bizen tradition and are dated around 950 a.D. This is the time which is going to change to a Samurai government ( Genji and Heike ) from an aristocrat government. After the war happened in the middle stage of Heian Era, the battle style changed. That is, they began to fight on horseback. There is an ancient legend that attribute this revolution in sword making to Amakuni, traditionally belived to be the maker of Kogarasumaru or ‘Little Crow’, the first curved NipponTo, now in the Imperial Household Collection. According to this legend Amakuni was the Emperor’s swordsmith. One day he saw his lord’s army returning from a battle and the Emperor ignored him instead to give the usual cheers for the good work made with the blades. Then he noticed that many soldiers had broken swords. They where chokuto or straight swords. He was so disappointed of this that he avoid to eat food and drink water for a week, studying a better way to make swords. According to the legend Inari, the Kami of swordsmakers, appeared in a dream to Amakuni, teaching him how to wrap a soft steel core in an harder one, and how a curved edge is more suitable to cuts and more resistant to shocks than the previous straight one. The day after Amakuni made Kogarasu Maru, the ancestor of all NihonTo. Heian was the era of tachi. In this period 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 Naminohira Yukimasa. The shape of a Japanese sword ( Tachi ) in this age is Mihaba ( width ) near the Nakago is wider than that of near Kissaki, so to speak, like a man who standing with keeping his feet. Kissaki is small ( Ko-Kissaki ) and Sori ( curvature ) looks like suddenly fall to the ridge side at right above Nakago. But Sori near Monouchi is little. This shape is refined in a sense. Hawatari (length ) is about 75/80cm. This size is fit to chop the enemy on the ground with riding on Japanese horses. The horses in this age were not like present ones but small and massive. Moreover, it fit to stab the enemy on the ground because the curvature near the point is little and Nakago (tang) is short compared with the percentage of the blade. Hamon is Sugu, straight.
During the Heian era two clans, the Minamoto (Genji) and the Taira (Heike), raised in power and importance. The end of the era is marked by the battle in Dan-No-Ura, where these two clans clashed together. We have here to remember another legend, still source of debates, that said in this battle was lost the Ancestral Sword, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi , part of the ‘Three Jewels’ the most important treasure still in possession of His Imperial Majesty. This ancestral sword was found into the tail of a dragon by the kami Susa no O no Mikoto, and was, together with the mirror and the claw-like jewel, the symbol of the Imperial Power. Accordingly to this legend it was substituted with another sword, the same we can see in the Imperial Treasure today, other sources said the sword lost was a fake, and the original one still remain in the Imperial Treasure.
Kamakura Era (1184-1333)
After defeating the Taira clan at Dan-No-Ura, Minamoto no Yorimoto 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 the cultural capitol, and swordsmiths from all over the country gathered there. These are the days of Masamune and his Jittetsu (ten disciples). Today is generally agreed that best blades were made in this period and, for quality and beauty, still remains at the top.
Kamakura swords can be divided into three sub-periods :
Early Kamakura (1184-1231)
In this period, the Kamakura shogunate and court nobles in Kyoto scrambled for political power. And internal trouble broken out in the Kamakura shogunate. Therefore, demand of swords increased all over the country. This period is a transitional period from the refined shape in the last stage of Heian Era to the mighty shape in next period. Sori ( curvature ) does not look like suddenly fall to the ridge side at right above Nakago and the center of Sori moved upper in comparison with the previous period. This type of Sori is called Koshi-zori. It means the sword curved at waist of a blade. The width near Kissaki (Monouchi) is not so different from that of near Nakago (Habakimoto), and Kissaki became little bigger. A standard length of this period is about 79cm. Hamon in this period is based on Sugu-ha, straight. The swords until this period are made in Ko-Nie. Swords made in Nioi did not exist yet.
Middle Kamakura (1232 - 1287)
After the war happened in 1232, Hojo family held real power and Kamakura shogunate reinforced their authority. Kamakura became the center of Samurai culture and the demand of sword increased. Kamakura shogunate called in some swordsmiths who have superior skill from Kyoto and Okayama. They moved with family and Kamakura became the center place of the production of swords. The shapes in this period did not remain copies of the older period but changed to be more mighty. The width became to be greater, but there is no difference between the width near the Kissaki and near Nakago. Thickness also became greater. Moreover, Kissaki became to be Ikubi and the edge became to be Hamaguri-ba because of the edge became to be thick. Hamaguri means a clam, and we call it because the cross section of the blade looks like a clamshell. Sori is Koshi-zori and the center of Sori moved more upper and Nakago became to be a little longer then that of former period. About Hamon, the brilliant patterns became to be conspicuous. Especially Fukuoka-Ichimonji school in Bizen ( Okayama prefecture ) made the so-called Obusa-Choji or Juka-Choji and they became to be popular. Obusa means the shape of the head of Hamon ( round part of Hamon ) looks like a big bunch of Choji and Juka means Choji overlapped each other. And a lot of Tanto became to be made from this period. The characteristic is Hira-zukuri and they curved toward the edge. That is, the blade curved contrary to the normal . We call this curvature Uchi-zori or Takenoko-zori. But originally the blade were straight, and the thin edge were polished again and again, then the width of the edge decreased. Therefore it looks as if it curved the reverse way. Hawatari is about 25cm.
Late Kamakura (1288 -1333)
The Mongolian invasions attempt of 1274 and 1281 greatly influenced the Japanese sword. Until this period the method of battle in Japan was based on single duels, with rituals as exchanging names and genealogies each other before fight with no organized formations and tactics. On the contrary Mongolians attacked suddenly in organized formations following tactics. Moreover, their armor were tough and they used weapons which Japanese have never seen before as gunpowder hand-grenades and rockets. Their armors were light and they could move fast. After that the Japanese armors became to be lighter and sword's shape changed to make them able to chop the light armor without being entrapped and then broken in them. The former blade was Hamaguri-ba. When you chop a hard thing, Hamaguri-ba is suitable, but the armors began to be light and thin in this period. So the blade in this period became to be thin compared with the one of former period. And Kissaki became to be Chu-Kissaki (medium length). That is, Kissaki got longer because when Ikubi-Kissaki was damaged, no room for restoration was available. When you stab the enemy, Chu-Kissaki is suitable. Ikubi-Kissaki was wider then Chu-Kissaki. Mihaba ( width ) becomes to be narrow. This shape looks like the refined one of the first stage of Kamakura, but Kissaki in this period is bigger and the center of Sori moved up. In this way, if the edge became to be thin, strength of the blade decrease. Therefore, you have to make Mihaba wide and if Mihaba become wide, Kissaki become to be bigger. The peak like this change is Odanbira in the next Northern and Southern Dynasties. The Mongolian Invasions influenced Hamon, too. Obusa-Choji and Juka-Choji was giving way to Choji-ha based on Sugu-ha or Kataochi-gunome, because the blade with very wide Ha is easy to break. Swordsmiths realized it from experience. Ha is harder than the other parts. If the harder part hold the most of the blade, the blade is easy to break because the blade can not absorb the shock. And the top of Hi (grooves) invariably stop lower. This is made to leave room for repair when Kissaki is damaged. In this period, Tanto increased in number and there is characteristic shape. That is, Nakago is curved. This Tanto is called "Mete-zashi ". Samurai put on this Tanto when they wore armor and they put it on the right-side of their waist, handle facing right to be easy unsheathed when armor were in contact with each other, as in a grappling close combat is expected. This Mete-zashi is to stab enemy through a crevice of armors or cut off his neck, so Mihaba is narrow.
Nambokucho Era (1334-1393)
Emperor Godaigo in 1334 started a rebellion to overthrew the shogunate in the attempt of restore the power of the imperial court and gained the control of the country. But after only two years Ashikaga Takauji raised his own Emperor (Komyo) to power. The power split in two courts : Godaigo held court in Yoshino and Komyo built his government in Kyoto. The north (Nan) and south (Hoku) courts fought for nearly 60 years giving the name to this period : ‘the Courts of the South and of the North’. Years of continuous war rised the needs for swords and changed the shape of the blades. The method of battle changed to a battle between group and group. The battle formation became that foot soldiers surround a leader riding on a horse. As the footsoldier raised in importance once again, a very long sword, more suitable for this new horseback fighting style was created. This long Tachi was for driving away enemy, so the length was from 85cm to over 1m was made. Some of these Odachi or Nodachi or Odanbira arrived to a length of 120-150 cm. The longer ones were used by footsoldiers to cut horses legs and open gaps into enemy spearmen lines. Mihaba of these Tachi were wide, so the Kasane were thin to lighten the weight. A thin Kasane is the characteristic in this period. Therefore, when looking at Nanbokucho Tachi to understand it is of actual period, you need check Kasane. If Kasane of the blade is thick, doubts about authenticity arise. As Mihaba is wide, the Kissaki become to be greater as a logical consequence. This is called O-Kissaki. This type of sword was too long to wear it , so usually the Samurai on horse give his Odachi to a follower for carrying and he grasp and draw it when needed. Therefore, if the follower is killed or driven away, the Tachi becomes to be useless. This is the reason because of a smaller Tachi (Kodachi) was carried hanging from the obi of the armor. This need was another reason for the rise of the Uchigatana that became to be made in this period. The length is about 70 cm and it was used together with the longer Tachi. All blades followed the fashion to be gigantic as Tachi were. Tanto in this period have peculiar characteristic. The length is about 35cm and they were made by Hira-zukuri. Mihaba is wide and Kasane is thin. They curved at middle of the blade. They are called Sunnobi Tanto and they remains Tanto even if legally, for their length they should be called Wakizashi. Naginata and Yari begun longer as well to fight against this longer Tachi. Fighting on a horse became to be disadvantageous. These too big blades all disappeared in a short period, soon after the end of the period. In effect the matter was formally resolved in a compromise, but Ashikaga and the north court were the factual winners. Someone suggests that some schools related to the Southern Court went extinct because of the defeat (the Hosho school founded by Sadamune son of Masamune). No strong evidences are given, anyway. Hamon in this period is Notare or Hitatsura etc. Due to their geometry the swords in this period were generally belived to have the most sharp blades ever. This is one reason because of in Edo period a lot of these long Tachi were shortened to fit size when put them on the waist (and to fulfil the Shogun edicts about swords length). The same happend to Nagamaki, Naginata and sometimes even to Omiyari, the long-bladed Yari.
Muromachi Era (1394-1595)
After the dynastic war a short period of peace followed. But the Ashikaga Shogun was “de facto” powerless, and the true power was held by the Daimyo. This very dangerous situation unavoidably left room for troubles. The battle for the true power began in 1467 with the so-called Onin-war That started the Sengoku-jidai - 'the age the country at war'. The whole country was in a constant state of war for almost a hundred years, until Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu managed to gain the power, and pacify the country. In Muromachi Era samurai gradually began to use Uchigatana instead of Tachi. They still used Tachi in this stage and the shapes looks like the first stage of Kamakura Era, that is, Mihaba is narrow and Kissaki is small. But Sori (curvature) is different. In Kamakura Era, the center of Sori is near Nakago or little upper, but the center of Sori in Muromachi Era moved ahead. Curved around Monouchi, the last part of the blade toward the point, is a characteristic often found of sword in Muromachi Era. This curvature is called Sakizori. This is a transitional period from Tachi to Katana, so starting from now it is hard to distinguish between the two types. Sword smith made both, and often the shape is not enough to make the difference. The only way to distinguish in between is to watch at the Mei, the swordsmith’s signature. The Mei must face out from the body when worn. Tachi were worn edge down and Uchigatana edge up. So the position of the Mei on the tang tells us which type of blade it is. If no signature is present, the difference is often merely in the mounting type. The swords of this era can be divided to three groups:
Early Muromachi (1394-1466)
As the armies grew, the mounted soldiers became ever rarer, and the main force of armies consisted of foot soldiers. Even if many Tachi were still made, the time of the Katana was already dawning. Shorter blades were easier to carry and faster to draw. The centre of curvature of the blade moved to the center as the blades were increasingly designed for a fast draw and to be used on foot. Most swords were 69,7-72,7 cm in length and narrowed towards the point.
Middle 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 the same width all the length of the blade. Such blades were suitable for chopping with one hand and for quick-draw. These Katana are referred to as Katate-uchi. Katate means one hand. There is no difference of width between Monouchi and Habakimoto and the shape has a strong appearance. Nakago became to be short to be suitable for one-hand grip. The Katana is replacing the Tachi. The ever-increasing need for swords also meant that not all swords were manufactured to the same high standards as before. The term Kazuuchimono or Taba-gatana was used to denote the mass-produced swords from the quality swords. Kazu-uchi means mass-produced and Taba-gatana means they were sold in a bundle as such swords were sold this way inside Japan and exported to Ming-dynasty China in their ten of thousand… These swords are disliked by collectors due to their low quality, but this doesn’t mean at all they weren’t very effective. Wakizashi also became to be made and the length are about 40cm. They were made in Hira-zukuri and have no Sori. Shinto deities and Buddhas or Sanskrit characters engraved on the blade. These engravings are called Horimono. This type of Wakizashi is characteristic of in this period. A particular type of Tanto, called Yoroi-doshi (armor-piercing began to be made. Yoroi-doshi is to stab enemy through a crevice of armor and the cross-section triangular. Very thick but not broad, with a very strong Kissaki, not very long.
Late Muromachi (1555-1595)
In the 12th year of Tenmon, a.D. 1543, the face of warfare in Japan was changed forever. This year the Portuguese first introduced firearms to Japan ,named Tanegashima Teppo from the isle in the southern Kyushu where the first portugueses casually landed. Japanese Daimyo immediately realized the potential of such a weapon, and soon Japan begun the country with the higher number of arquebuses all around the world. A Teppo is very effective and needs much less training in front of a Yumi the Japanese bow. Even if the early guns were not accurate and it took a long time to reload, Oda Nobunaga used them very effectively in the battle of Nagashino in 1573. The mounted troops of the Takeda clan - considered to be the finest in the country and invincible - were heavly beated by men that were simples Ashigaru, but trained to use gunlocks. The mounted troops were powerless. The battlefield belonged to tight formations of footsoldiers, armed with guns. Some armour became heavy and thick to protect from bullets. In the meantime the swords became longer, heavier and more robust, lacking in elegance. After the death of Oda Nobunaga, the country was unified under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Sengokujidai started his last run.
Into the late Muromachi we find the artistic revolution of the Momoyama Era, when the Katana finally replaced the Tachi as main sword of the Samurai. The difference between a Tachi and a Katana is, to make an incredibly difficult thing the easiest possible, the position of the Mei (signature). The signature must be on the part of the blade that faces outside. So as Tachi is worn edge-down and Katana is worn edge-up, the signatures are placed in opposite positions. In absence of a signature the mounting is often the only difference between the two types of swords. Obviously this change was more a slow evolution rather then a sudden revolution. So we have a lot of blades that are "in between" that can't be easily put in a specific category. The wearing of DaiSho (Daito/Shoto,long/short sword, meaning Katana and Wakizashi) begun in this period. Basically a backup blade was always carried by Samurai, but the fashion of having a matched pair of mountings for main and backup sword started here. This is a very crucial change in the japanese sword history and, as already said, is the result of an evolution. To explain the (slow) switching from the ancient fashion to the new one we've to deal with the meaning of the term Wakizashi. It's made by two words "Waki" (side, secondary) and "Zashi" (from Sasu, "to insert"). In the sword context it means "to insert between the Obi", i.e. a sword to be worn inserted between the Obi. Tachi requires another verb, "Haku", to wear "hanging" from the waist. Backup swords were carried by Samurai from the very beginning of their history, and they were usually inserted "between the Obi". So Wakizashi in ancient times referred to any sword that was secondary to the Tachi and worn inserted in the Obi with no reference to its lenght. In Koto times back-up blades spread from Yoroi-Doshi (armor piercing daggers), Chiisagatana (shorther then Katana) and Koshigatana, all always worn inserted in the Obi but the Koshigatana, that a few times was worn hanging from Obi. The length, in these times, wasn't an issue to qualify a blade as "Wakizashi" and the term "Daisho" in the meaning of "Daito and Shoto" (pair of long and short swords) wasn't in use yet. There is a document quoting that Oda Nobunaga wore (with the kanji used for the meaning "inserted between obi") a set of DaiSho. So is safe to say that was between Tenbun and Eiroku (1532 - 1569) that this fashion was adopted by Samurai, most likely having already been adopted by lower ranks troops sometime earlier. During the Momoyama were fixed the first official criteria to differentiate types of swords according to their lenght creating the categories we find later on, Katana, Wakizashi, Tanto and imposing who were allowed to wear what type of sword, but these regulamentations weren't really fully applied. The strict regulamentation was, anyway, only a matter of time.
In Shoho 2, (1645 a.C.) "The Order Regarding Dai-Sho Katana and Hair Style" fixed the maximum length of Katana to be 2 shaku and 8 to 9 sun (84.84 cm - 87.87 cm), and Wakizashi to be 1 shaku and 8 to 9 sun (54.54 cm - 57.57 cm). In Kanbun 8 (a.d 1668) the Tokugawa Shogunate issued the famous Muto Rei, (No Sword Order), a law that firmly prohibit the commoner class carrying/wearing any swords longer than "Ko-Wakizashi" (i.e., small wakizashi) unless specifically permitted by the government. According Muto Rei, "Ko-Wakizashi" is defined as a sword with blade length shorter than 1 shaku and 5 sun (45.54cm).
Others edicts followed to fix blade lenghts for high-ranking Samurai and Hatamoto when on duty in Edo and in the mid-Edo period we can find what is generally accepted as the today's standard lenghts for japanese swords blades :
- Tanto - to be shorter than 1 shaku (= 30.3cm)
- Wakizashi - to be from 1 shaku (= 30.3cm) to 1 shaku 9 sun 9 bu (= 60.297cm); but more
- Ko-Wakizashi (i.e., small wakizashi) to be from 1 shaku (= 30.3cm) up to 1 shaku 4 sun 9 bu (= 45.147cm);
- Chu-Wakizashi (i.e., mid size wakizashi) to be from 1 shaku 5 sun (= 45.45cm) to 1 shaku 7 sun 9 bu (= 54.237cm), and
- O-Wakizashi (i.e., large size wakizashi) - to be from 1 shaku 8 sun up to 1 shaku 9 sun 9 bu (= 60.297cm);
- Katana - to be 2 shaku (=60.6cm) and longer.
Blade lengths are always measured in a straight line between the Munemachi and the Kissaki.
Since the official adoption of the metric system in 1891, the traditional length units of "shaku," "sun" and "bu" are no longer used. The legal designations of Tanto, Wakizashi, and Katana by their length under today’s Japanese laws are as follows :
- Tanto - to be 30cm or shorter;
- Wakizashi - to be longer than 30cm but shorter than 60cm;
- Katana (and Tachi) - to be 60cm or longer
This legal classification sometimes doesn't match with the academic one that is more complex, implying the way in which the blade was originally intended to be worn (Tachi or Katana) and its purpose. Academically speaking a Sunnobi-Tanto, is so-called because it is always a little longer then one Shaku (30.3 cm) and is these days legally speaking a Wakizashi. (Takeuchi, Alexander)
Here starts the Shinto time. Shinto means "new swords" and entered the common use in Meiji time. It refers to swords made with new materials and new methods, both enhanced by a better technology. This is true especially for the process of extracting steel from ore, that now gives a much better starting material for smithing. More, in order to fulfil the huge demand for blades that lasted for 100years, swordsmiths mass-produced swords and during about this 100 years, most of them did not use inherited method from ancestors. Therefore, inherited methods from Koto time largely begun extinct.
The increased transportation facilities made them able to travel and settle wherever they wanted and begun to live in castle towns or big cities. Due to this ability to travel and learn and because of the loss of most of the knowledge of Koto times for the already mentioned period of mass-producing, they started to mix the old styles and the old classification in five schools was no more. Therefore, individual characteristics appeared much more pronounced than before Tamahagane was mass-produced in this period, becaming more uniform and of better quality, with less impurity. So even local characteristic of materials are, from now on, no more of help for determining the provenience of a blade. An easy-to-find (but not definitive neither exclusive) difference between between Koto and Shinto is the Boshi shape. Koto time Boshi was Midare-ba matching the Midare-ba Hamon, whether in Shinto time became to be Sugu-ha thought Hamon on the blade was Midare-ba.
Edo period is divided in five sword periods, the last two being the ShinShinto period.
Keigen-Shinto period (1596 - 1623)
Keigen is a name of an era in Shinto time made by mixing the initial part of the eras Keicho and Genna. Swords made during these eras, Keicho and Genna, are called Keigen-Shinto. In this period a lot of Tachi made in the Nanbokucho period were shortened to adjust the size at about 70cm in order to wear them in the waist as requested by the new fighting style (and fashion). Mihaba near the Kissaki and near Nakago is almost same size and Kissaki is O-Kissaki. This shape became to be popular, but the difference between Nanbokucho blades and Keigen-Shinto is Kasane. Kasane in now is thick. These shape will appear again in the end of Edo Era The influence of the European culture increased with the increasing of commercial exchanges. Goods where excanged between Europe and Japan in this period and european iron was imported, too. The japanese name for this iron is Nanban-Tetsu, "steel of the Southern Barbarians". Smiths begun to proudly sign on the tang of their creatures "made with NanbanTetsu" because european items were really fashinating japanese people, but Kokan Nagayama quotes in his "Token Kantei Dokuhon" that such a steel wasn't better then Tamahagane for making NihonTo due to the impurities in it, especially phosporus. This foreign steel is brigter then the japanese one and soon the fashion went out.
Kanbun-Shinto period (1658 -1683)
In this period the center of swordmaking were Edo and Osaka, and new style of sword appeared. This sword has extremely little Sori. In 1683, Tokugawa shogunate prescribed the maximum size of Katana and Wakizashi. Therefore, swordsmiths commonly made long swords around 70cm. These two main centers of swordmaking had different features reflecting the different nature of the cities. Being Edo the center of the Military power, the Shogunate, swordsmiths put emphasis on the sharpness and functionality of the blade, as expected by a military point of view. Shape was functional and Hamon wide. The waves of the Hamon lowered round the Monouchi, that’s the part used for cutting and the more exposed to shocks. Lowering the hardened part means to leave more softer steel there, allowing a better shocks-resistance. Kotetsu is the most famous example of the edo production in this period. On the other hand, Osaka was the business heart of the nation. Being the traders considered much lower then Samurai in the actual cast system, we find much more Wakizashi made in this school of swordmaking, being the traders forbidden to own a long sword. Nonetheless this wealthy class begun to show their real status wearing extremely well made koshirae and pretending top-quality swords. Sukehiro is the most famous smith of the Osaka school in this period. As Kotetsu’s ones, their blades are rated as Sai Jo O Wazamono, the top of the top in cutting ability. Tests were made to fix such a classification, but this tests weren’t performed with Koto blades, considered too valuable to risk them in Tameshigiri, so this classification must be taken with a grain of salt. Most swords in this period shows Yakidashi and from now on the hamon type called Toran-Ha becomes in fashion.
Genroku-Shinto period (1684 -1763)
Genroku is belived to be a golden period for art and manufacturing. People (including Samurai) fell into luxurious habits and begun corrupted. In this time famous Yoshimune held the eighth shogunate and acted in order to recover social conditions, especially of the Samurai that were highly indebted toward the traders class. In 1719, Yoshimune ordered each Daimyo to make a report stating the names of swordsmiths living in his territory. After this, Yoshimune asked the Daimyo to select representative swordsmiths of their territory and called them to Edo Castle, commanding them to make swords there. Yoshimune choose three most excellent sword smith and allowed them to engrave Aoi-mon (an emblem of Tokugawa family) on their works. Nothwithstanding Yoshimune's efforts, the age became to be a sufferings time for swordsmiths due to the decreasing martial spirit of the Samurai. In this time a good finance was better then a good fighting ability. Therefore, the demand of swords dropped sharply. The shape of a sword in this period was not as straight as in Kanbun, but it returned curved and the width near Kissaki was smaller than near Nakago. Swordsmiths in order to achieve orders begun to gave full play to their technique on Hamon making hardened edges as drawings. Mount Fuji, Mums on water and repeated fantasy designs can be found in Hamon of this period. Very skilfully made but far to achieve the feel of more traditional ones.
From 1764 starts Shinshinto period. it's divided in two sub-periods.
The characteristic of swords in this period is that swordsmiths made attempt to make swords using the methods of Koto time. The characteristic of Shinshinto is it's wave of Hamon started from Machi like Koto contrary to the vast majority of Shinto Hamon that started straight from Machi and then waved ). Boshi also waved if Hamon on the blade waved, maintaining a sort of matching in styl all along the Hamon. These swords are shiner then the previous ones and Jihada don't apperar clearly, giving a less eye-catching look.
First Half of Shinshinto (1764 - 1829)
As Sukehiro and Shinkai were highly praised by Kamada Natae in his book wrote in this period swordsmiths begun to imitated their works making strong shape and Hamon in Toran-Ha. Swords in this period imitated the Osaka style. Then Masahide ( one of most famous sword smith in Shinshinto time ) advocated in his book that "we should made swords by the method of Koto time." Whit this final target swordsmiths begun to create their own steels trying to reach the quality of the ancient one. Combining materials which have different quantity of carbon,a good Jihada will appear. Therefore, swordsmiths used a lot of materials like old nails and the like to adjust the quantity of carbon to be suitable for swordmaking.Even today this steel is called Oroshi-gane. As already said an easy way to produce Tamahagane was available in Shinto time and swordsmith could get good quality Tamahagane. Therefore, it seems that most of them didn't make their own Oroshi-gane. But some swordsmiths like Kotetsu or Hankei followed Masahide suggestions and reached a top-quality level combining ancuient iron/steel with modern one. in effect Ko-Tetsu means "ancient steel".
Latter half of Shinshinto (1830 - 1868)
Till to 1868 swords which more emphasized mighty shape were made in this period. Mihaba is wide and the length is longer then the previous ones. They look like the the Tachi in Nanbokucho. Sword smith tried to reproduce the sword in Koto time as suggested by Masahide. But from 1868 important political changes occurred and the production and quality of swords were highly affected by them. Tokugawa shogunate finally fell, and emperor Meiji took the power, began the time of modernization known as Meiji restoration.
The Modern Era
In order to modernize the nation Meiji Tenno needed to delete the ancient classes and establish more modern ones. The samurai were deprived of their old privileges - including the right to carry the Daisho, that has been prerogative of their class for almost 250 years. Nonetheless, Meiji Tenno can be considered a Nihonto lover and he took many steps to preserve the ancient traditions in this art. His actions were a mere necessity.
With no market for swords most smiths had to find some other source of income leaving the production of blades. A lot of knowledge has been lost here, as already happened before. While the growing militarism colonial wars once again made swords necessary, most of these were mass-produced in factories and so can't be considered NihonTo.The period from 1895 to 1925 was an harsh one for the Japanese sword, and most of the tatara were lost, as well as tradictions and schools. With a strong army at power and the nationalism pushing ofr national proudness the Japan in the 1930’s saw a brief re-born of traditional sword manufacturers, and the Yasukuni Jinja Tatara is surely the best of this period. The best swords made in this period are from Yasukuni, and the school produced some good smith. All of the "Yasukuni smiths" have their name beginning with the "Yasu" Kanji.
A near-deadly blow came after the Japan's surrender, when the Americans forbade the manufacturing of swords. About 400.000 historically and artistically interesting swords ended up in the USA as war trophy, including the favourite one of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Honjo Masamune, kokuho National treasure. Many works have been given back in a later time, but not "Honjo". It's still missing together with other top-quality ones. Countless (assumed to be more then 1.000.000) were destroyed, including perhaps very fine blades of ancient time. The art of the Japanese sword was on the brink of becoming extinct.
From 1946 to 1953 only sixty swords were smithed for the great ceremony of the renewal of Ise Shrine, a ceremonial that dated more then 1000 years. Allied forces granted permission for smithing such blades, but they were requested, by the ceremonial, to be of the ancient type "Jokoto", not curved ones. In 1953 the ban was retired and the japanese sword begun to be produced as an art object, in a different and better way then made in the post-Meiji time. Still maintaining their full and legendary functionality they increased their spiritual and artistical meaning, being no more an effective weapon.
The following layout shows the main (NOT all) Sugata (shape) changes of the japanese sword with period and lenght (in shaku, 1 shaku = 30.3022 cm or 11.93 inches) from right to left, first line first. Obviously an infinite number of possible mix are found, but these are the most common ones. When you're reading about a Samurai fighting in the late Kamakura, most likely his sword had the shape you'll find hereunder. Thanks to Valdek Laur for it.
01) Kanzan, Sato - "The Japanese Sword"
02) Kokan, Nagayama - "Token Kantei Dokuhon"
03) Tokuno, Kazuo - "Toko Taikan"
04) IIda, Kazuo - "Shin NihonTo Kantei Nyumon"
05) Yumoto, John M. - "The Samurai Sword"
06) Souemon + Kiyoshige - "NihonTo Koza" vol. I,II,III,IV and V
07) Irvine, Gregory - "The Japanese Sword"
08) Fujishiro, Matsuo - Nihon Toko Jiten vol. I and II
09) Fuller + Gregory - "Military Swords of Japan 1868-1945"
10) Tokyo National Museum Catalogue "Masterpieces of Japanese Art" 1990
Articles by Schiller, Guido and Takeuchi, Alexander S. (attribution given in the article's text)