The Samurai Sword

The real sword of a samurai

The age of the sword could possibly be seen as the Edo period between 1603 and 1867 when there was comparative peace under the Tokugawa shoguns. The samurai warriorused to take two swords with them when going to battle: a longer one – more than 24 inches-, called katana and a shorter one- between 12 and 24 inches-, called wakizashi. Taken as a whole, the two swords were called daisho. Samurais even used to sleep with a wakizashi under the pillow. Samurais also had another weapon that looked more like a dagger and was called tanto.

There are many types of swords. They can have a straight or a slightly curved blade with two cutting edges set into a hilt or tang. They were first made of a combination between iron and carbon and were tested by cutting corpses or condemned criminals.

Japan’s official classifications of Nihon-to by blade length was very much established in Edo period as follows: 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 specifically, 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 oo-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.

Today the modern laws to regulate Nihon-to in Japan very much follow this Edo period tradition that had legally classified Nihon-to into specific categories of katana, wakizashi and tanto by their blade lengths (measured by the distance between ha-machi and kissaki). The only simplification of today’s legal classifications in Japan is that there are no finer distinctions within the category of "wakizashi" such as "ko-wakizashi," "chu-wakizashi," and "oo-wakizashi" as once specified. Shinken , also translated as "real sword", is a newly forged Japanese sword, usually for high level cutting practice. A shinken has a sharp edge and is hand-made by one of approximately 250 Japanese swordsmiths active at the moment, most of them members of the Japanese Swordsmith Association, but also a few amateurs who work outside the organization.

Only swords that originated in Japan can be called "nihonto". Thus, production or custom swords in katana style manufactured in foreign countries such as China, can never be classified as nihonto.

Ancient Japanese swords were not curved but straight and cast in a single piece from handle to point. By the 11th century the katana gained its famous curved edge but it is doubtful that at this stage it had achieved anywhere near its formidable reputation for cutting, as in this period the samurai were first and foremost horse archers rather than swordsmen.

Forgery of masters' blades was always a danger and the authorities created experts (called mekiki) with a keen eye to identify the genuine articles. It was a very important job because a good blade was worth a considerable sum. From the 12th century the mekiki signed a certificate or orikami which stated the name and residence of the maker of the blade, its length and mentioned any idiosyncrasy by which it could be identified, and then stating how much it was worth in gold. The certificate was sometimes signed by more than one mekiki with seals impressed on the other side of the paper. Sometimes it was only possible to identify a particular blade when it was shined in the light in order for the details to become visible.

From early Koto times through today, there was a problem concerning the distinction between authentic and fake Japanese samurai swords. For numerous reasons, the names of famous smiths (mei) have been added to sword tangs (nakago) of swords which were not made by them. While false signatures (gi-mei) are not a major problem with gendaito (swords made in the 20th Century), they can be a significant problem with swords of the Koto, Shinto and Shinshinto periods. It is usually the names of well known smiths which are forged. Swords by lesser known smiths pose little risk of having false signatures.

Very few people, and especially westerners have the expertise to judge accurately whether a signature is authentic or not. To be reasonably certain of the authenticity of the sword, it is necessary to submit the sword for shinsa (judging) by one of the major Japanese sword study associations (NBTHK or NTHK). These organizations will judge the sword and will give you appropriate papers (origami) attesting to the swords authenticity and/or historical importance. Shinsa are normally held only in Japan; rarely in the US or elsewhere. However, those who buy swords have to be very careful because there are fake "official" looking origami from fictitious Japanese organizations which are being sold to make some swords appear legitimate and more valuable.

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The samurai sword