Katana: Sword of the Samurai

The Katana is a Japanese sword used by the samurai class of warriors in Japan from the feudal period up to the modernization of the Meiji era. They generally exceed 24 inches (or about 60 centimeters). The hilt is made to accommodate two hands. It usually has a small circular or square cross guard. The blade itself is long and slender and slightly curved back from a single sharp side. The maker normally puts his mark on the outward facing side of the sword-tang or nakago, which is the part of the blade that extends beyond the cross guard and to which the hilt and pommel are usually attached.

Katana: Samurai Sword

Some of the parts of the katana from top to bottom include: kashiri - the pommel, tsuka - the two-handed hilt, tsuba - circular crossguard, habaki - blade colar, mune - back side of sword, yakiba - sharp side of blade, kisaki - the pointed part of the sword.

The swords were and are very expensive because the process used to make them is complex. Typically two or more different types of steel are beaten together. High-carbon steel which is harder, but more brittle, forms the cutting edge of the blade and often surrounds on three sides the slightly softer steel that forms the inside of the sword and the non-sharp edge. During the heating process, the blades are covered with a clay like slurry which provides just enough insulation to the thicker part of the blade that the cutting edge gets heated to the highest degree (about 800° C). The steel is then quenched in water or oil. This cools it off quickly so that the metal is properly hardened. The sword is then polished for a long period (as long as three weeks) using finer and finer grains of stone.

The word "katana" was originally used to refer to any sword with a curved blade, even if it were a foreign sword or happened to be double-edged. However, modern usage has honed it down to mean the typical Japanese samurai sword. However, the Portuguese have borrowed the term catana to refer to the machete. A very large katana might be referred to as a tachi.

In fact, the katana is thought to have been a development of the tachi. Its smaller size made it a fast draw. The Katana was worn with the cutting edge facing up, tucked into the obi (or belt) of the user. A samurai could draw the sword, bring it upward and slice down in a single motion so quick that it would be difficult to block the surprise move in the best of circumstances. The katana was often paired with other swords, such as the smaller wakizashi or the tanto.

Using the Katana, like many activities in Japan, became an art form. There are various schools of thought on the best way to employ a katana, including methods of drawing and first strike. On the typical Japanese battlefield the early Samurai were mounted archers, but as most of the battlefields in Japan were on rough and wooded terrain, fighting on foot became more prevalent. Close combat became more likely, thus the sword was adopted as the most effective weapon and the horse used primarily for transport. In fact, the Japanese Samurai became so fiercely attached to the katana that it came to be considered the heart and soul of the Samurai.1 To live the life of a samurai was to follow the way of the sword, the way of the warrior knight, called the bushido.

Though Samurai swords would be carried into battle as late as the Second World War, they lost their effectiveness on the battlefield with the advent of firearms and rapid fire ranged weapons. This did not effectively happen in Japan until the Meiji Reformation when the Emperor of Japan, recognizing the advantages of the advancements inherent in western technology. He modernized the nation's military and social structure. The katana is now viewed as symbolic of a self-disciplined way of life.

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  1. Samarai Battles in Japan

Interesting Fact:

"Katana" has been adopted as a name for restaurants, comics, television shows and books.


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