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The Japanese sword

"To lose one's sword brings greatest shame and shall be punished harshly."
(Command of the Tokugawa Shogun)


The Japanese sword

Here you will find a short treatise on the topic.

Japanese swords are real masterpieces. But how can an original sword be identified? Here, you will find advice and basic information on the terminology.

Over the past years, the Western world has become more and more interested in Asian art, philosophy and not least in the Japanese sword. When one gets the opportunity to look at such a blade, one is fascinated by the perfect beauty of this smithery.

In Japan, good blades were passed on from one generation to another and they were taken care of. This is the only explanation for the fact that original swords originating from centuries ago can still be admired.

The periods of the Japanese sword

The most important requirement for the quality of a blade is the use of good iron. Up into the 16th century, the iron was obtained and processed at the regional level. From this emerged the blades of the so-called Koto Period. From about 1600 followed the blades of the Shinto-Period. At this time, there was an extensive exchange of goods and thus also of iron. Towards the end of the 18th century began the period of the Shin-shinto blades which ended with the Meji Restoration.

In 1876 carrying a sword in public was forbidden.
With the elimination of the Samurai-class and the ban on wearing a sword in public, this magnificent art of metalworking would almost have been lost. Fortunately, a few smiths could pass on their skills. Therefore today, there are first-class swordsmiths again.

Material and subsequent processing

As information about forging techniques and the polishing of Japanese blades can be easily found in high-quality specialist literature, only the most important facts are summed up here. The swordsmith nowadays uses Tamahagane as basic material. This is a special iron which is obtained from Satetsu, an ironsand, solely for the production of blades in the traditional steel melt Tatara. The subsequent processing like the regulation of the carbon content requires great expertise.

The steel is smithed and folded till it is composed of thousands of individual layers. Depending on the way of folding, different patterns will be seen on the surface of the blade. The most important structures are: Masame (layers horizontally to the blade), Itame (pattern like wood grain), Mokume (like a tree disc) and Ayasugi (waves). With this steel, a softer, little processed iron is enclosed, welded and finally smithed to become a real blade. There are also other methods as far as the mixture of hard and soft steel is concerned.

In some discussions about Japanese swords, modern industrial steels are praised with which Katana replicas are also produced outside Japan. There is only one thing to say about this, namely that the Japanese sword rises so much spiritually, culturally and artistically from theses pieces that any comparison is superfluous, even almost insulting.

The forged blade is covered with a mixture of clay which is produced by the smith according to his own secret recipe. Then the pattern of the Hamon is pressed into the still humid claycover in the area of the edge. Hamon means the entire appearance of the separating line or tempering line between the specially tempered edge and the body of the blade. It significantly affects the beauty of a blade. There are numerous variations of patterns, from the straight running Hamon to exuberant waveforms and patterns of which some have very picturesque names.

After the claycover dries, the blade is heated in the completely dark forge. The experienced smith knows when the right temperature is attained only by the colour of the blaze. This is one of the most difficult actions of the production of a blade. When the right time has arrived, the blade is chilled in water. The thin claycover in the area of the edge cools down very fast which makes the edge   temper in an optimal way. On the other parts of the blade, the clay is thicker. There, the blade cools down more slowly and the steel remains somewhat softer and therefore more flexible. The blade cannot break anymore.

Afterwards, the blade is transferred to the polisher who polishes the blade with a great many polishing stones of different granules. He renders visible what the swordsmith has created through smithing and tempering. Hereby, he must identify in which way he has to polish the blade. For a Katana, a good polisher needs approximately two weeks of net working time. For the restoration of  even strongly corroded antique blades, good polishers often work little wonders.

Just like in former times, there are even more craftmanships relating to the Japanese sword. The  blade clamp maker produces the Habaki, that is to say the part at the front side of the hilt which keeps the blade in the Saya.
The scabbard maker produces scabbards and hilts that meet perfectly, using the wood of the magnolia tree. There is also the hilt wrapper who tightens the artistically crafted hilt wrap made of cotton, silk and leather over the hilt which is covered with Same. In addition, there are professionals who cut grooves and artistical engravings into the blade. A little circle of craftsmen produces Tsuba and other sword ornaments.

What makes a good blade?

What makes a good blade, then? First, there is the shape. The curve, the length, the breadth and the thickness should harmonise. Then there is the smithing pattern which is visible as Jihada on the surface of the blade.  Through this, the professional can see in which way the smith folded the steel and of which quality the steel is. Another important criterion is the Hamon. A well applied Hamon impresses with its running pattern which suits the blade.

How can you recognise shape and quality?

The shape can be best recognised by holding the blade vertically with outstretched arms. Then you have to look at the Jihada, the Hamon and the Boshi (the pattern of the tempering in the point of the sword).
For this, you should look at the blade under artificial light which should preferably shine on the blade from above or from the side. The blade is swayed slowly until the best position is found. Now you can see the crystal structure of the Hamon.

On the steel surface so-called Hataraki are visible. These are features in the steel that result from the forging and tempering and which are composed of finest crystalline structures. There exist different shapes and and a variety of names for them. Only a trained eye can recognise this instantly.

Finally, you look at the tang and – if present – at the signature. With all this information, the colour and the density of the steel structure and the condition of the tang (patina, rust) you can find out  which period or smithing school a blade could come from – even when there is no signature. Attention should be paid if rust on the tang looks reddish or bubbles are forming. In this case, it is an artificially (with chemicals) aged piece.