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You will not see an army today winning any battles with a katana. Likewise, you will not see katana duels on the streets. Although in the past the katana has been the deciding factor of many battles, today we tend to stick with guns, bombs and the like. It is odd, then, that to this day everyone knows what a katana looks like, and most people have at least some respect for it. In fact, the katana seems to be growing in popularity as the years go on. So let us look at the katana of today. Perhaps we will begin to understand its continued, and growing, popularity.

One of the more prized features of a katana made in the traditional manner is the use of folded steel. Today, katanas can be purchased with or without folded steel. However, in Japan, katanas must be made in the traditional manner. Katanas are not to be made as weapons in Japan, but rather as works of art. To be sure, a Japanese katana is just as deadly as it has ever been, but today their purpose is strictly beauty. Therefore, if you want a true Japanese katana you have to purchase it with folded steel.

The reason why the smiths of ancient times folded the steel was to increase its quality. The simple fact is that back then, the technology to create, and the ability to find, high quality steel in Japan was very limited. The smiths had to work with lower quality material. Over time, they learned that when the steel was folded it got stronger. Today we understand that this is because by folding the steel, impurities are pushed out, and the carbon atoms in the steel will eventually disperse more evenly. Besides the practical reasons for folding, folding gives the finished product a unique look. You can see the folds in the blade, and it simply captivates the eye.

Today, the availability of high quality carbon steel is pervasive. Smiths outside of Japan can start with steel that has carbon already evenly dispersed. They can purchase multiple steels with varying amounts of carbon. Therefore, the folding process is essentially unnecessary. Because of this, one can now find katanas that are of a similar quality to the traditional Japanese katanas available without folded steel. If you will be using the sword for martial arts, or if you just want great performance, you do not need folded steel. In fact, if the katana will be in use, you are essentially wasting your money with folded steel.

So then why would you want to spend that extra money on the folded steel katana of Japan? Again, the traditional Japanese katana is a work of art. The folds have an aesthetic value that you really do have to see before you can understand. Each sword is unique. When the steel is not folded, there are no patterns in the end product; it is just a shaped piece of metal. Further, when you buy a Japanese katana you are buying a piece of the history that led to its creation. You are holding thousands of years of innovation.

Another difference in modern katanas and traditional Japanese katanas is the smiths that create them. There exist today sword smiths outside of Japan that have acquired the skills to make very high quality katanas. Some may even have the ability to make the highest quality katanas available. However, if you are able to get your hands on a true Japanese katana, you know you are getting quality.

In Japan, since ancient times, Japanese smiths have been perfecting the craft of sword making. During some periods in history many of the skills were lost, but when those periods past, smiths were diligent about rediscovering said skills. Today’s Japanese sword smith is regulated by the government. They may only make a limited number of katanas a month, they may not make a katana until they have been through many years of apprenticeship, all smiths must be licensed by the government and all katanas must be certified with the government. The fact is the entire country of Japan takes great pride in their katanas. Therefore, although you can find good katanas made outside of Japan, if the katana is made in Japan, you know it is of the highest quality.

We have seen that although folded steel is not necessary in order to get a quality modern katana, you still need very high quality steel. Further, it is also clear that in order to get a quality katana it must be made by a master sword smith. So what else is required in a good quality modern katana?

First, a true katana is made from a softer steel core and a hard steel jacket. The two steels are fused in the forging. This gives the katana the ability to hold an edge yet still take a blow without shattering.

Further, an essential for any good katana is heat treatment. Steel hardens when heated. However, if steel is too hard it will be too brittle, and if it is too soft it won’t hold an edge. Therefore, with a katana, the edge must be hard steel and the back softer steel. This is accomplished by using a form of clay in varying amounts on the katana during the treating process. The clay insulates the blade, and so with less clay on the edge it will cool faster and get harder than near the spine. You can see this result by looking at the hamon. The hamon is that wavy pattern on the blade.

Next, the blade must be properly polished. This is not just for aesthetic value. In order for the blade to slice correctly it must be smooth. As for the aesthetics, if you are buying a katana for this reason, you will need it to be fully finished in order to be able to really appreciate all of the details in the folding and the hamon.

Finally, if you are not planning on going into battle any time soon, you should probably purchase the katana that looks the best in your eyes. Pick the one with your favorite scabbard and your favorite handle. Maybe get the one with the cool gem on the pommel. Get what you like, but realize that if you are going to pay the extra money for the extra feature, that feature should actually exist on the sword you are purchasing. Be careful of scams like a fake hamon or lies about steel quality. Buy what you like, but don’t get the wool pulled over your eyes.

There are countless movies and television shows that feature katana use. In the United States this phenomenon is actually becoming more and more prominent. Some examples are: Highlander, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Matrix Reloaded, Equilibrium, The Walking Dead, The Last Samurai, Kill Bill and tons of other made for American kung fu movies. There are many more examples as well, especially if you look outside of the United States.

Katanas are also prominent in comics, cartoons, music and video games. Essentially, katanas are increasingly flooding the media markets even though there are weapons like guns that, let’s just be honest here, are much more deadly.

One of the reasons for this may be that there is something that seems nobler in a sword fight as opposed to a gun fight. Another reason is that visually, a swordfight is much more interesting than a gunfight.

Further, there is philosophy and history that comes with the use of a katana, and an understanding of these things is automatically imparted to a character that has mastered the use of the sword. If a hero or a villain can effectively wield a katana, he is assumed to have an understanding of the Zen mentality. We picture them being trained atop a mountain in a monastery with thousands of steps leading up to it. Essentially, putting a katana in a characters hand instantly gives him or her a backstory.

Unfortunately, many of the things you see regarding katanas in popular culture are severely misleading. Many techniques are poor, many abilities of the sword are false, and many of the things done with a katana would make even a samurai cry. However, people do still practice in the use of the katana. They learn the philosophies and the techniques. These people are practitioners of martial arts such as Kenjutsu, Iaido and Kendo.

Let’s be clear from the outset: you will not be sparring against a live opponent using a katana in any martial art. If you find a school that does so, stay away. However, if you ever want to find yourself holding an actual katana while performing a martial art, you should look into Kenjutsu. The term Kenjutsu is a term that encompasses most forms of martial arts that teach sword fighting techniques. Most of the time when you are learning technique you will be using a stick or wooden sword, but if you were to reach higher levels of skill in some schools, you could wind up practicing katas with actual dull swords. Katas are groups of specific movements that are performed with a partner. They are the martial art’s version of a choreographed dance.

Sharpened blade use in Kenjutsu is relegated to solo slicing techniques where you would slice at an inanimate target or for katas when two practitioners have reached the highest levels of skill. One should note, however, that when a practitioner has attained the highest levels of Kenjutsu they will win fights without using a blade. They understand their opponent’s movements and can quench a battle without drawing a sword. So, really, the goal of learning how to use a sword is learning how not to use one. That last statement should also make it clear that when you learn Kenjutsu, you will also be learning about Zen philosophy.

With Iaido it is likely that you will be starting out with an actual sword, albeit with a blunt edge. Very experienced Iaido practitioners use a real, sharp-edged katana. Iaido is essentially the practice of using one fluid movement to draw the katana, slice the opponent, wipe the blood off of the blade and sheath the katana. This art is an individual art and is purely kata forms (there is no sparring). Again, you will find Zen underpinnings in Iaido.

Finally, if you want to learn about sword fighting, you need to look into Kendo. However, if you decide to practice purely Kendo, you can leave your Katana at home. You will be using bamboo. Regardless of this, since Kendo literally translates to “way of the sword” and since the basis of Kendo is samurai katana technique, you might want to take a look.

Kendo does not just teach you how to use a sword. It also teaches you how to use your head. In fact, none of the stated purposes mention the word, “sword” at all. With Kendo, the sword is a tool for mastering yourself. You are seeking to improve your character by learning how to use a katana. Zen-ophobes beware; you will be spending a lot of time with Zen philosophy.

Even though you will not use a sword in Kendo, you will do an awful lot of sparring. Since you are using bamboo swords, and since you are covered in armor, there is a lot of physical contact in Kendo. So, if you really just want to fight with a sword, put the sword away, pick up a Kendo stick and get ready to become confused in Zen philosophy.

Comparing these three martial arts, you can see that you will learn different things from each. Perhaps the most well rounded sword fighter will practice each, but if in the end the goal is self-realization, then maybe your first stop should be to the bookstore to purchase a book on Zen philosophy. Maybe you are just better off meditating in front of your sword display.

Thus we can see that the fascination with the katana is alive and well. It is a true work of art for the connoisseur, a piece of history, legend and culture for the Japanese, a goal for the sword smith, a fantastical opponent-annihilator for the moviegoer, and a way to find inner peace for the martial arts practitioner. For these reasons, one could easily claim that the katana is, indeed, the ultimate sword.