The ancient and battle ready katana sword
Our knowledge on original katana is based largely on the many stories we find from Japanese animation shows. An exciting tale tells us of two master smiths named Masamune and his student Muramasa standing on the riverbank.
The swords of each smith were standing upright on the stream, with the cutting edge facing against the current. When a blade of grass passes by the sword of Muramasa, it is cut cleanly into two. But when it passes by the sword of Masamune, it is healed back to its original shape.
Another legend surrounding the skill of antique katana sword is the story of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s sword called wakizashi. There was no question he had some katana training, as he was a notable militarist.
However, the leader did not always want to carry it along and was rarely seen in public to have unsheathed it. When asked about this, the leader answered that his wakizashi was bloodthirsty, and would only return back to its scabbard when it had drawn blood.
Indeed, these stories have engrossed many generations. And today, they are being kept alive with the production of many modern day genuine katanas.
Katanas are classified into two groups: the antique and the battle ready. Antique katana swords are those that can be found in national museums and in affluent private collectors. Some of them are considered national treasures, objects that symbolize the identity of Japanese culture, tradition, and nationality.
Original katana swords began to appear in 14th century. They became a preferred weapon for horsemen as a replacement to the longer tachi, whose length reaches to 75-80 centimeters. The length of the tachi required quite a time to be drawn out from its scabbard, which might delay and be dangerous to the samurai soldier. With katana drawing the weapon from the scabbard was quick and may be even be used as a slashing attack.
Examples of antique geniune katana are usually referred to the name of the smiths that made them. Hence, the some of the swords of inestimable value are Masamune sword, Musashi sword, and others. They are ranked highest among others in terms of artistry, beauty, and significance.
On the other hand, the battle ready katana refers to a group of swords forge in modern times but the process and the means of production resembled closely to those observed in ancient blacksmithing. The objective of producing this type of weapon is to manufacture Japanese sword replicas, as well rediscovering the lost art-form of ancient katana metalworking. (for a more comprehensive discussion, read it from the articles What is a katana sword)
Characteristics of Original Katanas
Identifying modern-day sword products and original katana swords may be difficult at times. Collectors have one universal philosophy that they follow: real, antique katana swords have about two hundred possible parts while modern productions have usually less. Below are some of the major characteristics of these ancient Japanese weapons:
• Length Varies from about 60 centimeters to 70;
• Shape One-edged, two-handed, curved blade with a plunging sharp point, as opposed the tapered point found in European medieval swords;
• Appearance Mirror-like, shiny, extremely sharp cutting edge with a dark unsharpened edge; shiny dots can be found in the area between the two edges;
• Blade Has a characteristic temper line called hamon (wavy-like, straight, or rounded) separating the cutting edge to the unsharpened edge. There are many other distinct marks on the surface of the blade such as dots and crisscrossing doodle-like lines, which can be traced to a particular smith’s or a blacksmithing school’s signature;
• Hilt (Tsuba) Round metals, about eight centimeters in length, oftentimes decorated with etched illustrations like Mt. Fuji landscape, family crest, battle scene, etc;
• Tang (Nakago) Full, unpolished, dark, has the signature (called mei) of the smith, as well the province and date from which it was forged, with about four to five holes for wooden screws for the grip. The tang is regarded as highly important identifying marks of antique katana swords;
• Scabbard (Saya) Metal-covered for battle, wooden for traveling, and lacquered for religious rituals.
The Japanese government has encouraged its citizens to emulate the examples of the great smiths of the past. It is necessary to remember that in the history of katana swords, the American soldiers who occupied the country banned the production of swords in the aftermath of World War II. The ban was lifted in 1949, when the Japanese honored a national Shrine by presenting swords made by modern-day artisans.
The Japanese Art Sword Preservation Society established the annual Sword Making Competition in 1955. Battle ready or functional katana were routinely manufactured since then, continuing the legacy of ancient masters. How the katana is made is considered one of the criteria for judging. Other qualifications include the result of sharpening of katana, its steel properties, sharpness of edge, beauty, shape, weight, and flexibility.
Because of the competition, there are now many smiths that have dedicated their lives entirely for producing bladed weapons for the sake of art. Japanese government has promulgated stringent policies governing the manufacture of functional katana.
• Only two groups of master smiths are recognized: the Mukansa (masters who have repetitively been awarded) and the Ningen Kokuho (considered Living National Treasures who have shown exemplary artisanship).
• All Mukansa are only allowed to produce two long swords each month or 24 blades in one year.
• All works must be duly licensed in Agency for Cultural Affairs.
Shinken is a Japanese word for battle ready katana. The works of Mukansa and Ningen Kokuho are called gendaito, and are the top of the line in the industry. As their production is limited and demand high, their price tags start somewhere around $6,000.
Paul Chen katana is an example of a shinken not made by any of the smiths accredited by the Japanese’ Agency for Cultural Affairs. The quality of the weapons is somewhat suspect, as there are no governing bodies regulating the production. They however are very useful to Japanese martial arts enthusiasts.