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An Introduction to Japanese Swords

Japanese swords combine beauty with functionality as a weapon. There are many people interested in swords because they commonly appear in anime and video games. This article will explain the history of Japanese swords and give you some tips on how to appreciate them!

What Are Japanese Swords?

The term for sword in Japanese is "touken." This is a general term that refers to both single-edged swords (katana) and double-edged swords (ken). The word "nihonto" more specifically means weapons created using characteristic Japanese methods. In particular, it refers to swords with a traditional curve to the blade.*
Nihonto Japanese swords are made of pure tamahagane steel, and are forged using a traditional iron manufacturing method called "tatara iron manufacturing." These swords are characterized by their strength and sharpness. The beautiful, functional simplicity of their form has enchanted people since ancient times. These days, Japanese swords are treated as works of art and can be viewed in museums and other institutions. Points of particular interest are the temper patterns on the sword's edge and the overall curve of the sword's blade. There are many stories about swords as well, like one surrounding the famous Raikiri sword, which was said to have cut lightning.

* Strictly speaking, the term nihonto can be used to refer to swords and spears, including other weapons like naginata (long swords) and chokuto (straight swords).

The History of Japanese Swords

Japan began focusing on producing swords more in the Kofun period, which spanned from around the mid-3rd century to the late 7th century. Early swords tended to be straight swords that were influenced by continental styles. Over time, however, Japan developed its own sword making techniques. Japan entered its golden era of swordsmithing during the rise of the samurai in the Kamakura era (1185 - 1333). This era also saw the birth of various stories about samurai and famous swords. As time passed, the sword became such an important weapon that it was referred to as the "soul of the samurai." However, as the wars ended and peace continued through the second half of the 17th century, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon of the swordsmithing industry. While the end of the Edo era (1854 - 1867) saw a period of upheaval begin again in Japan, the creation of a law that banned the wearing of swords in public in 1876 sent the swordsmithing industry into sudden decline. Currently, there are only around 30 swordsmiths making a living from this craft in Japan.

How Japanese Swords Are Made

Swordsmithing is a complex process, but this section will simply focus on the most important points.
First, tamahagane, which is steel made from iron sand, is heated to high temperatures and pounded with a hammer and other similar tools until it's sufficiently flat. Once the blade is flat and long enough, it is folded in two and forged again. This process is repeated over and over again in what is called "ori-kaeshi tanren" (repeated folding and forging). After being folded 15 times, there are around 33,000 layers (2 to the 15th power) formed in the steel. This creates a strong and viscous material.
Next, the sword is shaped into the swordsmith's design. At this stage, a process called "tsukuri-komi" is carried out, which involves wrapping the softer iron with harder steel. This method creates high-performance swords that cut effectively without breaking or bending.
The next critical step, "yakiire," is to rapidly cool the heated sword blade by tempering it in water. This process determines the sword's strength and appearance, and also gives the blade its curve. This step is so vital that the details of the process were passed down in secret from father to son since ancient times. After tempering, the blade is polished by sword sharpener specialists. After this process, the blade is complete.

Japanese Sword Parts

The sword consists of several parts in addition to its main blade. First, the part that you hold with your hand is the hilt, or "tsuka" in Japanese. The hilt is attached to the blade at the tang, calld "nakago" in Japanese. The rest of the blade is called the sword blade ("toshin"), which is stored inside a sheath called a scabbard ("saya"). The sword is also equipped with a piece located between the blade and the hilt called a guard ("tsuba"), which protects the hand. There are many different types of hilts, scabbards, and guards, and many elaborate forms of decorations. The blade itself is also appreciated on its own as a unique work of art.

Types of Swords

Swords are classified by their use and their corresponding form and size. First, there are "tachi", or long swords, that are designed for horseback battle. Tachi swords are characterized by an edge that is around 70 - 80cm-long with a fairly large curve. The "uchigatana" (striking sword), on the other hand, is designed for battle on foot. These are comparatively shorter than tachi swords, with a length of 60cm and above, and have a less pronounced curve. Museums display tachi swords with the blade facing down, and uchigatana have the blades facing up, so keep that in mind when you're looking at them in person. "Wakizashi" (short sword) is another major category of Japanese swords. The blades on these swords are 30cm to 60cm in length, and were designed to be worn on the body for self-defense or similar purposes.

There are further classifications for swords based on the era they were created, such as "koto" (old sword) and "shinto" (new sword). Other classifications include sharpness of the blade, or whether it is ridged or flat.

Famous Historical Swords

National Treasure: Dojigiri Yasutsuna

The Dojigiri Yasutsuna tachi sword is the most renowned sword in Japan, and is one of the five Tenka-Goken ("five best swords under heaven"). This sword bears the signature of Yasutsuna, Japan's oldest known swordsmiths. Its length is 80cm, and it has a 2.7cm curve. Folklore says that a warrior known as Minamoto no Yorimitsu killed a monster called the Shuten Doji by cutting its neck with this very sword. This sword has been passed down among powerful figures in Japan, and is now in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

National Treasure: Mikazuki Munechika

Mikazuki Munechika is another of the five Tenka-Goken swords. It is 80cm in length with a 2.7cm curve. This is one of the few remaining swords created by the swordsmith Munechika, who lived in Kyoto around 987 - 989. Legend says he worked together with divine spirits in his swordsmithing. This sword belongs to an old era of Japanese swords. It has a distinct appearance and is characterized by its unique temper mark, which resembles a crescent moon. Its perfectly curved shape has earned it a reputation as Japan's most beautiful sword. This sword is currently in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

National Treasure: Heshikiri Hasebe

The Heshikiri Hasebe sword was once the favorite of famous military commander Oda Nobunaga. It is 64.8cm in length, with a curve of 0.9cm. It is said that when a person who angered Nobunaga hid from him under a shelf, this sword cut completely through with the pressure of the blade alone. This episode made this sword famous for the tremendous sharpness it hid. It is currently in the collection of the Fukuoka City Museum, and is scheduled to be displayed from September 7, 2019 to November 4, 2019 in a special exhibition called "The Exhibition of SAMURAI."

Museum Recommendations for Viewing Swords

Here are 3 recommended museums for those looking for places to view famous swords, including swords that are designated national treasures. All these museums have displays that change at different times, so be sure to always check their official website before visiting.

The Japanese Sword Museum

The Japanese Sword Museum is a museum in Tokyo dedicated to preserving and displaying swords. It has three national treasures in its collection: "Tachi with Nobuyoshi Signature," "Tachi with Kuniyuki Signature (Rai)," and "Tachi with Kuniyuki Signature (Taima)." There are many other famous swords in the collection, including the "Tachi with Nobufusa Signature," which is a designated important cultural property. Helmets, armor, and clothing are also on display here. This museum is around a 7-minute walk from Ryogoku Station.

Admission to general exhibitions: Adults 1,000 JPY, Students (High school, university, and technical school) 500 JPY

The Japanese Sword Museum

1-12-9 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

Tokyo National Museum

Tokyo National Museum is located in Tokyo's Ueno Park. This museum boasts of having Japan's largest collection, with close to 100 national treasures on display here. There is so much to see that you might not be able to get through it all in one day. The above-mentioned Dojigiri Yasutsuna and Mikazuki Munechika are in this collection. There are many other swords to see as well, including the Ishida Masamune, a designated important cultural property. English, Chinese, and Korean pamphlets and information panels are available.

Admission: General 620 JPY, University students 410 JPY

Tokyo National Museum

13-9 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum has over 100 years of tradition. It collects and displays Japanese works of art, with over 10,000 pieces in its collection, and also features a permanent exhibition of Japanese swords. The famous national treasure "Tachi with Yasuie Signature" is available for viewing during special exhibitions. Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean audio guides (500 JPY) are available.

Admission to Collections Gallery (regular exhibits): Adults 520 JPY, University students 260 JPY

Kyoto National Museum

527 Chaya-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Want to Learn More About Swords?

Bizen Osafune Token Village / Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum

Bizen Osafune Token Village / Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum, located in Okayama, is a museum dedicated to Japanese swords. In addition to the approximately 40 swords on permanent display here, this museum also has sections that give information about various topics, like the historical background of swords. A workshop is located on the premises where visitors can observe craftspeople making Japanese swords. Once a month, an ancient tempering display is held to show the forging of 1,200 degree Celsius steel made from iron sand, which attracts many sword fans. Don't forget to check out the Fureai Bussan-kan for local products while you're there. Display swords and other souvenirs are also available for purchase.

Admission: General 500 JPY, University and high school students 300 JPY

Bizen Osafune Token Village / Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum

966 Osafune, Osafune-cho, Setouchi-shi, Okayama

There are many other spots in Japan other than the ones introduced in this article where you can see famous Japanese swords. Look them up if you're interested!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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