Start free trial

Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Blog Entry > Razor-Sharp and Designed for War—Traditional Japanese Swords

Razor-Sharp and Designed for War—Traditional Japanese Swords

by David Pike (05/30/12).

Japanese swords are fearsome weapons and the forging of the steel for the making of the blades are their defining characteristics.

Japanese swords are fearsome weapons. In a day and age when firepower is the norm, it is startling to be in the same room the first time with a piece of steel that is as sharp as a razor and designed for war.

Sword Periods
The grouping of Japanese swords is broadly divided into five periods. Koto, made before the year 1596; Shinto, from 1597 to 1780; Shinshinto, from 1781 to about 1876; Gendai, about 1877 to 1945; and Shinsaku, post-1945. These broad divisions are further divided into sub-periods. All Japanese Army officers’ swords forged during the Second World War are called Shin-gunto and were made during the Gendai period.

The forging of the steel for the making of the blades is the defining characteristic of Japanese swords. Traditionally, the forging is a ceremony-infused process that takes many days or weeks in which more than one specialist is involved.

The two sides of the tip of a katana.

Three types of steel are used for the construction. Soft, medium and hard steel are continually heated, folded and hammered together. This process is repeated many times, producing a mass of steel that has many thousands of layers and has been purged of impurities. The folding process also produces a characteristic grain to the steel. The grain is manipulated to produce a desired look and there are many names for the different grains, many of them referring to types of wood grain.

The actual positioning of the steels—soft, medium, hard—depends on the desired construction method, of which there are many. The simplest method uses a single, hard steel that is shaped into the desired form. The more intricate and stronger methods use a combination of soft, medium and hard steel, amalgamated together, to form the sword. The softer steel will be either in the center or sandwiched, with only exposure in the back of the blade. The cutting edge of the blade will always be of hard steel. The sides will often be of a medium-hardness steel. The use of steel with different hardness allows the sword to keep a razor sharp edge while being very strong.

Blade Types
Generally speaking, blades are divided into categories based on length. Less than 30 cm. would be called a tanto; between 30-60 cm. would be called a wakizashi; and longer than 60 cm. a katana or tachi.

• 太刀 Tachi is, on average, 75 cm. or longer. It is slightly longer and has more of a curve compared to a katana. It was used primarily on horseback and was useful for cutting down foot soldiers. The tachi preceded the katana in history. As this type evolved into the katana the only differences became how it was worn and the fittings for the blades. Many tachi were cut down into katana-length when that blade became more popular.

Katana in a stand.

• 刀 Katana. This is what is usually referred to as the “samurai” sword. It is distinct in its appearance; single edged blade, curved, slender with a squared guard. The grip is long enough to be held by both hands. Like all Japanese blades it is extremely sharp. The length has varied over the history of this type of sword. The earliest blades were between 70-73 cm. long, shortening for some time before returning to the 70-75 cm range. The katana was first seen in the Muromachi period, 1392-1573. The katakana was a reaction to a need for a faster blade, one that could be drawn and used in a single motion. It was worn with the blade edge facing up so when it was drawn it was in position to cut down an adversary. The tachi was worn with the cutting edge facing down.

• 脇差 Wakizashi. This is a companion blade to a main blade. It averages about 50 cm. They were usually worn together with the katana, this one serving as a kind of backup weapon. These were also used to behead enemies or disembowel oneself if you had to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. It was always kept at one’s side, often placed under the pillow when sleeping. The wakizashi was not checked when entering a building as the katana would have been. It was kept as a smaller, backup weapon even if in buildings where ones main sword had to be checked.

Tanto in a stand.

• 短刀 Tanto. Short sword. There are many types of tanto blades. This type of blade includes the “kubikiri” tanto. The kubikiri has a curved blade. The name in Japanese means: kubi = neck, kiri = cut. It is direct and seems to be literal in reference to its usage. The actual history of the blade seems to suggest that is was used to remove the head of enemy soldiers

• 槍 Yari. A type of pole blade, halberd or spear, as is the naginata, 薙刀. The poles of these types of blades were about two meters long. The traditional use of spears was by women when the men were not around.

It isn’t possible to list all the smiths that have produced blades in the 1,000 years or so that swords have been made in Japan. But there are systems set up to judge blade quality and certificates of authenticity issued by at least six organizations. The two major issuers are the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kai, NBTHK, and the Nihon Token Hozon Kai, NTHK. The names translate as such: Nihon = Japan(ese); Bijutsu = Art; Token = Swords; Hozon = preserve(vation); and Kai = association.

The certificates they issue are called “origami.” There are many fake origami around, so confirming authenticity in the certificate is also an important element to confirming authenticity of the blade.

The origami for each organization has a format that is consistent within each organization, though not across each.

Nihon Bijutsu Tanto Hozon Kai certification papers.

Another set of NTBHK certification papers.

A third set of certificate papers.

The NBTHK origami read, from right to left, top to bottom:

1. Authenticity
2. Length
3. Type of blade and then the school or blacksmith
4. Level of quality. There are currently four levels issued (in the past there were five) levels. The current levels used came into use in the 1980s, so it is possible to have a certificate issued by the NBTHK that is issued in 1 of 9 quality levels.
5. Continuation of the above.
6. Date of the examination of the blade. It should be noted that this shows the date of the examination for the purpose of issuing this certificate, not the date the blade was made. The date should fall between 1950s and the present.
7. Name of NBTHK and seal.
8. A photograph of the bottom, nakago, of the blade.

Selection of Blades
The two main areas to look at in selecting a blade are the overall form and the tempered pattern around the cutting edge. The pattern is called the hamon in Japanese. The pattern is formed during the forging and tempering process. The overall form of the blade should be strong and natural. The hamon should have an uninterrupted line from the bottom of the blade near the handle up through to the tip. If the hamon is broken or interrupted that is a sign of a less than ideal blade.

Detail of the hamon on one blade. Also, notice the age and discoloration of the tang on the bottom image. A clean tang could be suspect.

The surface of the steel should contain patterns that were caused by the forging of the steel. Resembling the grain of wood in many cases, they won’t be present on the blades of mass produced steel.

Good steel and forging are a must for a sword to be considered a true “nihonto,” i.e., a traditional Japanese sword. There are many types of steel available today, but for a true hand-forged Japanese blade, you need one that has been forged in the traditional folding method. The steel will have been heated and folded back in on itself many times, giving the steel a distinct grain that is visible to the naked eye. The forging will include tempering by a method that differentiates temperature from the front, cutting edge of the blade, to the back. This is done by application of clay to the non-cutting part of the blade. The clay will slow the cooling down after the steel is removed from the heat. The cutting edge of the blade is left to cool quickly so as to make a hard edge that keeps a good edge.


Detail of the grain in a tanto blade produced by the traditional forging method.

The heat treating causes a pattern in the steel that is instantly recognizable. Care should be taken, since many unscrupulous makers use acid etching or polishing techniques that give the impression of the blade having been fold-forged and heat treated.

In addition to design and shape, balance is also important. The design should be natural with no sudden changes in either the line of the blade or the “clouding” in the surface that is caused by the forging/heat treatment. Any such sudden changes should be taken as a sign that either the sword isn’t a true Nihonto and/or that it has been repaired. Either case makes it worth much less than a traditionally forged blade.

A detail of the mounting of a katana.

The mounting material for a katana.

Unmounted blades that have a clean tang could be suspect. The rust on the tang is one major area looked at in order to establish authenticity. The flip side to this is if you have what you think is a traditionally made Japanese blade, don’t clean it, especially the tang.

Blades range in price from less than a $1,000 up. Age, shape, quality rating and a host of other factors play a part in what they are worth. To buy a sword, it is best to avoid auction sites where you can’t personally inspect the blade unless you want a fake. True Nihonto are not cheap and reputable dealers will, at minimum, guarantee what they sell for at least the time it takes to receive it and inspect it.

I would like to thank Ed Marshall for his generous permission to use his pictures to illustrate this story. For more information, visit his website featuring antique Japanese swords.

David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan, including porcelain.


WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth

One Response to “Razor-Sharp and Designed for War—Traditional Japanese Swords”

  1. Dean Kelly says:

    Interesting article David.

Want a picture icon with your comment? Sign up with Gravatar to get one.

Leave a Reply