Antique Katana: The Samurai Sword


Before the 8th century Japanese swords were indistinguishable from those made in China. The earliest swords recorded in Japanese history were a pair created in china and given as a gift to the queen of Japan, Himeko. The gift was presented to her in about 240 AD and the greater gift on the knowledge of iron working soon followed.

The earliest swords actually produced in Japan we can speak of with any authority were not made until sometime in the 5th century AD. These swords were straight and single edged. It would not be until changes in the methods of warfare that the Japanese sword would begin to resemble the famous curved style most people are familiar with.

Before the 8th century nearly all fighting in Japan was done on foot. The introduction of cavalry to Japanese warfare provided the impetus to redesign the swords. The 8th through the 11th centuries is referred to as the Heian period. It was during this time that Japanese sword making made a number of important leaps forward. Like much of Japanese culture at the time, sword making was strongly influenced by Chinese but other influences were beginning to seep in.

The Hokkaido part of Japan was then occupied by the Ainu people and their sword designs, as well as designs from Russia led Japanese sword smiths to question the dominance of the Chinese method. Under these new evolutionary pressures Japanese tradition holds that a smith named Amakuni invented the first truly Japanese swords and the important steel folding process that made the katana possible. The new swords curved blade made it perfect for slashing from horseback.

The next great influence on Japanese sword making also came from the Asian mainland but in a much less friendly exchange than with the Chinese. In the 13th century the Mongols, who had better armor and swords than the Japanese, threatened invasion. In response to the better armor Japanese sword makers began making blades with heavier non-cutting edges and sharper points.

The Manufacture Method

Katanas were made using a method of repetitive heating and hammering or folding the steel. This process was developed in response to a high level of impurities in steel due to the low temperatures in the manufacturing of steel. The process, while highly effective, was extremely labor intensive.

The meticulous folding process has a number of beneficial effects of the blade. It eliminates any air pockets left after the initial forging and makes sure that all the elements in the steel, magnesium for example are evenly distributed throughout the sword. Folding also adds to the beauty of the weapon by creating layers of decarbonized steel on the surface of the blade. This gives katanas their trademark grain and patina. By eliminating impurities folding added to the strength of the blades.

Generally speaking the folding process would be repeated at least a dozen times. However, it was not uncommon for the process to be completed more than hundred times for swords made for warriors of particular note or wealth.

It has been theorized that the amount of labor required for production added to the mystique of the swords and their makers. The sword makers protected their secrets jealously and wrapped their craft in a mantle of ritual and specialization. Many sword smiths were experts at only one stage of the craft; some mastered the folding, some the sharpening, and others simply the polishing.

An interesting step in the procedure involved applying an insulating layer of clay to the dull edge of the blade before the quenching process. The clay made the back of the sword cool more slowly and contributed to the curve of the blade by reducing the contraction of the covered edge.

Collecting

The enthusiasm that many collectors show for Japanese swords is easy to understand. The weapons are masterworks of craftsmanship and awash with historic and romantic associations. Accordingly, they are not cheap to acquire.

I recently saw a beautiful 14th century katana made by the Komihara School, one of the better sword makers of the period, selling for nearly $15,000. The sword was, while in very good shape, not perfect. Some restoration had been done and the blade had been shortened to match a users height at some point. This shortening process while not uncommon can weaken a blade and often reduces its value.

The only word of advice I can offer a prospective katana buyer is never, never buy an antique katana if the seller cannot provide documentation of its lineage and history. Unless of course the price is so good its worth the risk.


Loretta Crawford is a free-lance writer on a variety of topics including: food, wine and antiques. She can be reached at Content and Solutions.com.

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