Samurai sword history
The history of samurai sword and the mythical beginnings of Japanese sword making
Samurai sword history are shrouded in mystery and legends. One of these stories point out to a master swordsmith by the name Amakuni from Yamato Province.
It is said that around 700 AD, Amakuni found the Emperor disappointed by his swords, which were easily broken by sturdy armors of the enemies.
After working for thirty days with his son, Amakuni emerged from the forge with the most famous among all ancient Japanese samurai swords – the long single-edged, curved katana.
The warring landowners
Accurate accounts on samurai sword history however trace Japan’s sword-making in 8th century when elite families were in constant warfare against each other. Although there were already swords made before this time, they were not of excellent make.
They were not also useful for the warring clans that wanted to control Japan’s limited agricultural land, which is only about 20% of the country’s total land area.
Having a strong military army backing up the landowners was a matter of survival. Thus sword-making flourished for 300 years, a period now known as the Heian period. Katanas were indispensable for the landowners and in their fight for supremacy.
It was during this time that folded steel process was observed, and single-edged katana were routinely manufactured. The industry was greatly helped by the trade coming from China in the 10th century. Sword-making techniques were improved and, if lucky, discovered.
Iron ores were refined to perfection, and mixed with carbon and anvil water under meticulous eyes of master swordsmiths. The swords made within this period are highly prized now and are called koto (which means old swords), as they are considered art masterpieces and products of Japan’s genius in sword-making.
The design of katana may be well explained by its functionality. The warriors, or the samurai, who wielded katana are usually mounted on the horseback. This tactic was necessary because the battles of the clans were often in the form of ambushes and surprise attacks.
It was thus fitting to have a long weapon, so that soldiers can slash enemies on their way. It was also fitting to have a curved weapon, so that the force of an upward slash – and its resulting damage - would be considerable.
Swordsmiths have to abandon such design when the Mongols led by Kublai Khan invaded the country in the 13th century. The samurais were forced to give up the military horseback tactic for they were proven powerless against Mongol arrows and bombs. The delicate katanas, which were no match to the Mongol’s thick armors, were replaced with thicker and straighter swords.
Sword-making as an art-form
The demise of legendary sword-making techniques of koto started to take place in 15th century. The winds of civil war fanned vigorously, and the whole country was engulfed in a bitter battle against itself. Now better known as Sengoku Jidai, the civil war needed not the beautiful, glistening swords of samurais, but the disposable, easier and faster to manufacture, and sturdier combat weapons.
Japan’s art of sword-making further deteriorated when firearms were employed in the battlefield.
Master swordsmiths at the middle of 17th century tried hard to rediscover the old techniques, but were unable to achieve such goal. Suichinshi Masahide, writing in 18th century, admitted that the new artistic swords called shindo, which proliferated at his time, did not and could not surpass the artistry found in the making of ancient Japanese samurai swords.
Samurai swords in modern times
Samurai sword history is just a part of literature now, not as an integral part of life as it used to be. Nowadays, both genuine shindo and koto adorn national museums in Japan and in art centers of Europe, America, and Asia. They have long ceased their utilitarian, fearsome, and destructive purpose, and are now being viewed as a reminder of what was once a proud art-form of sword-making.