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A Brief History of the Japanese Samurai Sword

The Japanese warrior tradition rose at around the start of the first millennium along with a class of aristocratic warriors who became known as the samurai. A samurai warrior was a loyal servant to his feudal lord or “Daimyo” until death parted them. The sword was more than just the weapon of choice for the samurai; it was a part of his identity.

Several legends surround the origin of the samurai sword, which is otherwise shrouded in mystery. In truth, it’s probably a derivative of other swords of the east, introduced into Japan from China and Korea. The very first samurai sword is said to have been forged by a man named Amakuni Yasutsuna, in the service of the emperor around 700AD. However, perhaps the most famous of all Japanese sword smiths was Gorō Nyūdō Masamune, who it is agreed made the majority of his legendary swords in the years between 1288 and 1328.

The Rise of the Katana

The familiar curved beauty of the katana, the sword which even today draws immediate association with the samurai of old, is actually a part of the Japanese sword’s evolution. The first samurai weapons had a very simple form with straight blades. The katana’s trademark curve is created by a quenching process which causes the metal of the blade to contract.

Samurai warriors wore the Katana with the blade facing upwards, for swift transition into an attack upon drawing the weapon. Unlike the crude but brutally heavy western swords of those early times, the katana was famed for being incredibly sharp, enabling the samurai to execute very fast and deadly attacks on their enemies.

The Demise – and the Resurrection

The katana and its partner sword, the wakizashi were worn together by the samurai and were items of religious importance as well as symbols of samurai integrity and worth. The tradition continued until the 16th century when guns emerged to become the dominant weapons of war, changing battle dynamics forever. Sinking into relative insignificance, the samurai sword became little but a decorative item. In the late 1800s, the wearing of swords even as a decorative status symbol was abolished.

However the Japanese sword saw a strong revival during World War II, when Japanese nationalism reached a fever pitch. Thousands of Japanese military officers took to wearing swords and actively used them in conflict. After the war, the general production of swords was banned under the occupation of Japan by the United States.

Many occupying American troops bought swords at bargain prices while in Japan and brought them home as mementoes and display pieces. By 1958 there were more Japanese swords in America than there were in Japan. A few Japanese sword smiths worked hard during this time to preserve the traditional manufacturing techniques, as a result of which, katana swords and other historic blades are still available in Japan today. However they are sold as art pieces, not as weapons and a certificate is required for anyone wishing to own an authentic, edged sword in Japan.