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It can be difficult to pull the history out of the legend when you are talking about samurai swords. This is because the samurai sword, or katana, has been revered all the way back to ancient times. Even today, the katana is considered to be one of the most innovative weapons ever created by human hands. The Japanese government has even gone so far as to claim that thousands of katanas have so much historical Japanese significance that they may not leave Japan and can be bought and confiscated if they are put up for auction.

The art of katana making still exists today, but many believe that much of the ancient techniques for making them have been lost throughout the katana’s tumultuous history. These swords have been forged to perfection at times and banned at other times. At times people attempted to mass produce them, and at other times those mass productions were destroyed. At times the art of forging them was thought to be lost and at other times the forging techniques were discovered again.

So what is the story of these marvels of human ingenuity?

From what is known of the katana it appears that the very first of them originated from Chinese double bladed straight swords. In Japan, the sword evolved, and sometime around 700 A.D. the sword began to be produced with a rudimentary curve. The first curved blades were only curved down at the tang and did not look like the katana we know today.

Somewhere around the tenth century A.D., the “tachi” sword became common. The tachi sword is a direct ancestor to the katana. The two swords look very similar. In general however, the tachi was longer, heavier and had a signature on the opposite side of the blade when compared with the katana. The tachi was used frequently in mounted combat and would be hung with its blade down on the wearer’s belt.

Sometime in the early thirteenth century, the uchigatana sword came into existence. The uchigatana was a smaller blade, similar to the katana. The uchigatana was a lower quality sword. It was used by low level soldiers on foot. This blade was smaller than the tachi and was worn with the blade facing upwards. When the blade is worn upwards in this fashion the wielder can draw the blade and attack in one motion, unlike the tachi which took two movements to draw and attack. All of this made the uchigatana more useful in close combat. It has been said that the first uchigatana swords were made out of tachi swords that had been broken in combat. Because of their low quality, none of these swords exist today.

Around the same time, but after the Mongolian invasions of Japan in the late twelfth century, combat began to change in form. Close combat became more the norm and fast action became more necessary. Uchigatana became more popular. Eventually, it came to pass that the great samurai lords would have to fight on foot more frequently. Because of this their tachi swords became unwieldy. The samurai lords began to commission high quality uchigatana, and the katana was born. This was not the end of tachi use, but as the popularity of the katana grew, use of the tachi waned.

Although there is no clear historical record of when exactly the first tachi or katana was forged, one legend attributes its creation to a blacksmith named Amakuni. As the story goes, Amakuni was the emperor’s top blacksmith and was charged with making all of the swords for the imperial army.

After a battle, the emperor and his army were returning home past Amakuni’s smithing forge. Neither the emperor, nor anyone in the army gave Amakuni any form of greeting and this upset Amakuni. Taking a closer look, he realized that many of the soldier’s swords were damaged or broken. Amakuni was horrified and shamed. Amakuni and his son Amakura, after examining the blades, came to the realization that they had not forged the swords properly for the type of combat in which they were used.

Amakuni wanted to regain favor with the emperor, and so he and his son made vows that they would craft a perfect sword. They entered the forge, locked the door and offered prayers to the Kami spirits of Shinto, hoping to be granted divine inspiration.

For seven days and nights they prayed. Finally, during the last night, the divine inspiration they were seeking came to both of them in the form of a dream. In each of their dreams they saw the same thing: a blade that was glowing in their minds. It was curved slightly with only a single edge.

When the morning came they both rushed to the forge. Neither of them spoke, but both of them knew what had to be done. Using the best iron sand they could find, they worked for thirty-one days. When they finally emerged from the forge they carried with them the shining steel blade from their dream.

The other smiths thought Amakuni was crazy, but that didn’t stop him from creating more of the curved swords and improving on the technique. Finally, one day, as the emperor was returning yet again from battle, he passed by Amakuni’s forge. As Amakuni looked on he saw that none of his blades had been damaged. The emperor commended Amakuni, calling him an expert. Amakuni had regained the emperor’s favor and was happy again.

However it came to pass that the katana was created, what is clear is that it was the sword of choice in Japan from the early eleventh century to the late fifteenth century. However, times were changing in Japan and with this change came a change in katana quality.

In the mid-1400s the central government of Japan collapsed and for the next 100 years provinces fought amongst themselves for power. War necessitates weaponry, and the katana was in high demand. Since the sword was in such high demand, however, the smiths eventually became overwhelmed and the quality of the katanas being produced deteriorated. Further, by the mid-fifteenth century, guns were brought to Japan and many of the smiths began to focus their attention on them. All of this caused much of the knowledge of the art of katana-making to be lost.

After the civil wars ended, Japan was once again unified. Along with this unification came a mandate that civilians were no longer allowed to be armed. Even more importantly for the art of katana-making, guns were rejected in Japan. Since there was no competition with guns, and since samurais were the only class allowed to carry a sword, the art of katana making was revived, although never to the perfection of the past. Still, the smiths were now once again creating high quality katana swords for the elite classes. These katanas were called Shinto, or “new blade,” and although still deadly, were more of an ornate nature than their ancestors.

For the next 400 years, Japan had a period of peace. For about 100 years up until 1876 there was a revival of the old traditions of katana making. These newer swords were seen as superior to the Shinto swords but still inferior to the ancient swords.

Unfortunately for sword makers however, the imperial government began to take steps to modernize Japan. In 1876 a ban was placed on the carrying of swords in public. Sword smiths could not make a living. As the country modernized, the samurai class was abolished. Towards the end of the 1800s the samurai rebelled. This rebellion is called the Satsumo Rebellion in the western world. It was named after a region where many samurai resided after losing their status, but the rebellion reached much farther than this region. There were over 12,000 men fighting for the rebellion, and they came equipped with rifles and artillery. The imperial army had around 34,000 soldiers and they were equipped with drastically more weaponry.

The rebellion lasted around eight months, ending in September of 1877, and in the end, although it had taken a great toll on both sides, the samurai were annihilated.

For a while after this, not even the imperial soldiers used Japanese swords. Instead, they were armed with western type swords. These swords were the first type of swords known as “gunto” (military swords).

As World War II approached, Japanese nationalism grew. The government ordered all soldiers to carry swords. Some of the great antique katanas were actually put back into action at this time, but the need was much greater than the supply. There was a resurgence of katana making using traditional resources and traditional methods, but most of the swords produced at this time were not katanas. The problem was that the need was too great and the resources to make a katana were too few. Further, the art had deteriorated, and there were not enough smiths with the skills to make a katana.

Because of this, the mass-produced swords of that time were generally not made with tamahagane (the steel used to forge a katana), and they were generally not made in the traditional fashion. These swords were named “showato.” They are not considered to be real katana swords. In fact, the Japanese government seems almost embarrassed by them, so much so that if they learn that a person possesses one, they will have it confiscated.

After World War II the US disbanded the military forces of Japan and banned edged weaponry throughout the country. However, a man named Dr. Honma had a meeting with General MacArthur and got this ban amended, Dr. Honma brought with him multiple swords from different periods throughout the history of Japan. Upon showing the swords to MacArthur, MacArthur was able to distinguish the difference between the blades that were valuable as works of art and history and the blades that were purely weaponry. MacArthur understood, and the ban was altered so that blades holding artistic value could be retained. However, all of the millions of gunto were supposed to be destroyed. Many of them were, but over a million of them wound up in the US, sold for cheap by the Japanese.

The production of katanas dwindled by this time, but Dr. Honma founded the “Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Sword.” Their efforts were fruitful and many of the old techniques for katana making were discovered once again.

Today there are still katana makers in Japan that make katanas out of genuine tamahagane by using traditional methods. However, these smiths are regulated by the government and may only make two swords a month. Further, these new swords are considered to be objects of art and must be certified by the government before they can be owned legally.

It is true; you will see many “katanas” out in the world today. Some of them are of excellent quality and many of them are not. You can get a good, functional katana sword for under $1,000, but to get the best, traditionally-made, quality katanas today, you could pay upwards of $25,000.

The samurai sword, the katana, has survived for thousands of years. In fact, some actual katanas have literally survived for thousands of years. The reason why these swords are still in production today is because they are, without a doubt, one of the best examples of human ingenuity. Beyond that, they are beautiful works of art. Finally, they are deadly sharp, yet flexible, killing tools.

Hollywood and the media are both infatuated with katanas and because of this their popularity is actually on an upswing. More of these swords are being forged and modern methods and resources are being combined with tradition in an attempt to create swords superior to the ancient katana. However, although these innovators may succeed in one way or another, there will never be a substitute for the katana of old. When you own a true katana, you own a piece of history. You own a testament to the genius of the human mind. You own the perfect combination of form, function and beauty, and modern replicas and innovations can never compare to this.