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The Samurai Sword: The Ritual and Etiquette of a Legend

A samurai sword conjures up many different images in the minds of people everywhere. One might imagine a dignified samurai fighter, poised with his sword (also known as a “katana”) in hand, ready for battle. Or one might envision a samurai sword mounted proudly in a museum or historical landmark. Hollywood representations of samurai warriors have created the image that most people think of when they think of feudal Japan and the samurai legend. However, the culture and rituals of the samurai are filled with rich, symbolic details that explain the samurai legend and way of life. The samurai are more than just Hollywood caricatures. And the swords they carried and used in battle told others many things, including rank, intentions and level of expertise. Samurai warriors used their swords to show respect, defend themselves (or their masters) and to climb the ranks in their society. The samurai earned their respect in society. In fact, the samurai were so prevalent in ancient Japan that they eventually rose to levels of leadership in feudal Japan.

Today, samurai swords are used for a variety of purposes, including personal collections, theatrical performances or filmmaking, historical reenactments, museum and/or historical society displays, as an accessory in Japanese martial arts or as decorations and artistic representations. Samurai swords are rarely used in battles nowadays (except in a professional dojo), although some tribes do continue to use them. However, for most intents and purposes, displays and collections are the primary uses of samurai sword collectors in modern times.

Samurai sword collecting is still incredibly popular amongst collectors of ancient weaponry. In Japan, many museums have elaborate samurai sword displays. The Sword Museum in Tokyo hosts one of the largest public sword collections in the country. Today, ancient samurai swords are appreciated as works of art and cultural artifacts. They are intricately designed and crafted in a specialized manner that makes them very valuable and exciting for art collectors.

A Culture Rich in Tradition

To fully appreciate the value and history of samurai swords, one must look to the history of Japan and its celebrated culture and customs. Japanese culture is rich in symbolism. Samurai swords are just one aspect of that, memorializing their warrior culture, the respect and admiration of their samurai warriors and the dignity that surrounds this region. Authentic samurai swords are one of history’s most powerful symbols, harkening back to a time when respect, tradition and honor took precedence on the battlefield. Ancient Japanese war craft was dignified, a practice in the art of war. Ancient samurai were fighting for respect and land. They were defending their families and their masters. The art of war can be traced back to feudal Japan and the science of the samurai. A samurai’s most prized possession was his sword. Samurai were also known as “Bushi,” which is another word for warrior.

Samurai were typically educated men held in high regard in society. They were an elite class of warriors whose main purpose was to serve their lords, who were also known as “Shoguns.” Samurai were second in society only to those in leadership positions. Even women who were married to samurai men were held in high esteem. Those in the samurai class had access to the best education and were skilled in many different arenas apart from warfare. They were interested in culture, art and poetry.

There are many different types of samurai swords in existence, and each type represents a different time period or era. Of course, swords that are this rich in history require a high level of respect and etiquette when handled in order to preserve their legend. This is an important aspect of samurai swords because the Japanese culture is a proud and meaningful one, and by showing respect for their swords, you are showing respect for their culture and people.

The history of the manufacturing of samurai swords dates back to the 5th century. Prior to this, swords were not manufactured, but it has been recorded that swords were given as gifts to Queen Himiko, the first known ruler of Japan. Of course, the shape, size and techniques to craft samurai swords changed throughout history. In the beginning, swords were straight and single-edged. Eventually, the swords evolved to being made in a curved design, as combat changed to being conducted on horseback in the 5th century.

War played a big part in early Japanese culture, due to warring factions fighting for control of regions. Wars during this time mainly concerned control of land for farming. Farming-capable land was scarce, and thus, wars were conducted in order to gain rights to this land and to protect land that had already been acquired. Early warriors developed armor and weapons in order to protect fighters in combat. The weapons used included bows, arrows, spears and, of course, swords. Early armor consisted of breastplates, helmets and other types of protection for the rest of the warrior’s body. Armor was constructed from leather and iron plates.

Early samurai warriors carried swords of different lengths. Warriors became very attached to their swords, often bestowing them with names as a sign of respect. Swords came to be known as the soul of the warrior and were treated with the same respect.
Early swords were constructed of iron and carbon. Swords were shaped, polished and then tested prior to being used in battle. Ancient sword-makers used different types of steel (hard, medium and soft) to craft the blade. Today, swords are primarily made from three types of steel: 420 J2 stainless steel, high carbon steel and folded (Tamahagane) steel.

Samurai Culture and Bushido

Another major aspect of samurai warriors was known as “Bushido,” which derives from the word Bushi. Bushido, which translates roughly into “way of the samurai,” was a way of identifying the values of the samurai warrior, including dignity, nobility, loyalty, frugality and honor until death. It was the code of the samurai warrior, and was so prevalent in samurai society that some aspects of Bushido were later incorporated into formal Japanese law.

There are seven virtues associated with Bushido. They are listed here:
• Gi: rectitude
• Yu: courage
• Jin: benevolence
• Rei: respect
• Makato (or Shin): honesty
• Meiyo: honor and glory
• Chugi: loyalty

The relationship a warrior has with his opponent is also steeped in the virtues of the Bushido. Combat was not the place for “playing dirty,” to use a more modern term. Combat with an opponent was a place to show of feats of strength and fighting prowess, not to talk down to an opponent or use cheap tricks. Fighting was dignified, because the warriors believed in the dignity of what they were fighting for. There were unspoken rules of combat that both warriors abided by. Again, honor was of the highest concern.

The way a samurai warrior held his sword was also symbolic and indicative of status and intention. Samurai warriors typically carried two swords: a long and a short sword, although the short one was more of a dagger, or dirk. Higher-ranking warriors wore their swords horizontally, while lower-ranking men wore theirs almost vertically, closer to the body. Other rituals concerning the sword included surrendering the sword upon entry to someone’s home or estate. A servant would collect the swords and keep track of them in a closet near the entryway. The superior person, when handing over his sword, would use one hand and the inferior person receiving the sword would typically use both hands, another sign of respect.

Samurai were an extremely tough and proud group of men. In fact, samurai were so proud that ritual samurai suicide was a common occurrence. This was known as “seppuku” and could occur for a few reasons, one being that a samurai would rather take his own life (and die with honor, in his mind) than die at the hands of an enemy. A disgraced samurai could also be driven to suicide (known as obligatory seppuku) if he brought shame onto his tribe, lost a battle or performed other egregious acts. The sense of honor in the samurai world was perhaps their most important attribute. They would rather die at their own hand than bring shame or dishonor to their tribe. As you can see, a samurai was not someone to be messed with.

Many of the samurai fighting rituals were derived from religions like Shinto, Confucianism, Buddhism or Zen. For instance, meditation was derived from the Zen religion as a way to calm the mind of a samurai. Samurai culture also had rituals concerning naming rights, karma, fashion, hairstyles and food, especially tea.

Displaying Your Samurai Sword

As you can see, the samurai history is rich and filled with ideas that are not prevalent to life today. However, we can still appreciate and marvel at the artifacts from this time. Samurai swords are perhaps the most famous symbol of samurai life, and as such, they are highly valued collector’s items today.

You can imagine that, although samurai are not active anymore, the sense of honor that once encompassed this elite fighting class carries over to today. Everything, from the way samurai swords are maintained to the way they are displayed, should be done with the sense of reverence for the people who made up the samurai class.

These days, as swords are not used for battle anymore, the ritual involved in displaying swords is very important. Swords can be displayed horizontally (on a tiered stand) or vertically, on a stand. They can also be mounted on a wall.

If you have a display with several tiers, the samurai swords should be in this order: the Tanto should be on the top tier, the Wakizashi should be on the middle tier and the Katana should be on the lowest tier. This order is directly related to the order that the swords were worn on the samurai’s body. Swords should always be displayed in their scabbard (a sheath for holding a sword). If a sword is displayed without its scabbard, it could be seen as a sign of aggression.

The direction of the sword is also important. Swords should be displayed blade side up with the curve facing down. Traditional samurai would place their swords on their left side. Most samurai were right-handed and this allowed them to easily grab and wield their swords. If a samurai wasn’t naturally right-handed, he quickly learned to be. The orientation of the grip of a displayed sword is also relevant. If the grip is facing right, it connotes aggressive intentions. The grip should be facing left if you want to convey non-hostile intentions. It is customary that swords displayed in homes, offices or museums have the grip facing the left.

Another way to display a sword is on a vertical stand. In this case, the edge of the sword should be facing inward and the handle side is down.

Own a Piece of History

As you can see, the purchase of a samurai sword is not something to be taken into lightly. There is much ritual and reverence that goes along with it. This honors the history of the samurai people and the Japanese culture. However, it can be greatly satisfying to own a piece of history like a samurai sword. They are obviously weapons and should be handled with great care.

For your samurai sword purchasing needs, please come to the experts at Swords of the East. We realize that there are many different reasons for purchasing a samurai sword. Whether you are an expert sword collector, or an amateur samurai aficionado, we have the type of sword you are looking for. Our experts know and respect the samurai history, and we instill this into our customers looking to purchase their own samurai sword. We offer a variety of different styles, and have many accessories, display cases and sheaths to suit your individual needs. Please find us online at and or visit us on Facebook at