The Japanese sword, Katana, has been said "Soul of Samurai” since ancient times. Its value is not only due to the fact it is a powerful weapon, but also to its production process, recognized as traditional craft and embodiment of the Japanese spirit. It is highly evaluated and there are many fans worldwide. When was Katana, a beautiful weapon, born and how did it develop? Let's unravel its history.
The beginning and development of Katana
Speaking of Katana, most people think of the single-edged, curved swords that samurai carry in historical drama. On the Asian continent, there are many double-edged swords with blades on both sides, but those with such a curve are rare. However, Katana did not have such a shape from the beginning.
The sword manufacturing technology was introduced from mainland China via the Korean Peninsula in the early Yayoi period. The sword at that time was a "straight sword" with no curve. The curve of swords was born in the Heian period due to the way of fighting, which changed from a walking style to a cavalry style. The curve was created to effectively fight against enemies from horseback.
In the Kamakura period, when samurai played central roles in political dynamics, the demand for swords that could withstand longer and bigger battles increased. They developed into "Tachi" with stronger warpage and longer blades for further effectively fighting from horseback. At the end of the Kamakura period when the battle between the North and South Dynasties took place, the longer swords "O-dachi (bigger Tachi)" also joined the force.
In the Muromachi period, infantry-based combats became mainstream than horseback fighting, and "Uchi-gatana" appeared. Uchi-gatana was easier to handle than Tachi and aimed to quickly cut enemies. Its blade length was 60cm or more and showed a shallow curve. This sword is what we call Katana today.
How did Katana become the "soul of the samurai"?
In the Edo period, samurai were required to carry two Katanas, one large and one small, as formal attire. Until then it was permitted for ordinary people to carry them, however, this became a privilege of samurai, then, an icon of the samurai’s prestige rather than just a weapon. The two Katanas were called the "soul of the samurai" and much appreciated.
As one of samurai privileges, it is well known that a system called "Kirisutegomen" allowed samurai to cut people without any punishment if merchants or farmers behaved unbearably rude. In fact, however, it was rarely exercised since it required to objectively prove the unbearable rudeness, or the failure to prove its legitimacy resulted in death penalty and the family being destroyed. It was the privilege to decide about the life or death of other people and, in other words, it required samurai to have higher discipline. Katana was the symbol of this samurai moral stand and spirit.
In the Meiji era, the samurai class was abolished and a sword ban was issued. As a result, Katana started to disappear. In addition, General Headquarters post WWII conducted sword hunting after World War II and confiscated many. The survival of Katana was at stake at one point, but some were spared from disposal after the Japanese government pleaded that they would like to preserve the famous Katana of artistic value for posterity. Currently, Katana are only allowed to be possessed as martial arts tools or ornamental items, not as weapons.
The Japanese sword was originally transmitted from the Asian continent, but it has developed independently due to the historical background and the evolution in the way of fighting, reaching its present form. Katana has various faces such as excellent weapons, beautiful works of art, and symbols of samurai and still fascinates many people worldwide.