How the Katana Sword Became a Symbol of Samurai Tradition

A pair of swords, Edo period, 17th century. Sold for €8,650 via Sotheby's (December 2007).

The katana sword was first adopted as a Samurai blade in the late 13th century. Since then, katanas have become an iconic symbol of the Japanese Samurai tradition. Characterized by a long (up to 37-inch) curved blade with a single cutting edge that faces outward, Japanese katana swords were designed to allow for fast, intimate combat; ideally, the wielder would be able to unsheathe the katana sword and transition to a deadly strike in one swift, fluid motion.

Today, Japanese swords (Nihontō) are highly sought-after among collectors who consider them to be important historic relics. The katana blade in particular is admired for its embodiment of Samurai culture: mannered refinement coupled with the capacity for incredible ferocity.

The History of the Katana Sword

The roots of the Samurai way of life extend well over a thousand years in Japan. The katana sword was somewhat of a late innovation in their history; other Japanese swords, like the slender tachi or the rigidly straight chokuto, had been used prior to the 10th century.

A Katana with Cloisonné Saya and Handle. Meiji period. Sold for CHF4,000 via Koller Auctions (May 2012).

Katanas were developed in the year 1281, during Kublai Khan’s conquest of Japan. Older blades proved ineffective in combat with the Mongolian mounted cavalry, chipping or breaking against the invaders’ hardened leather armor. Swordsmiths were forced to experiment, trying to produce a weapon that was sharp enough to pierce armor yet durable enough to reliably use throughout a battle. Their eventual solution was the katana blade. The superiority of the katana Samurai sword allowed the Samurai to do what no army from China to Poland could accomplish during Kublai Khan’s campaign: effectively resist the conqueror’s army.

Katana Sword Design

Traditional katanas can be distinguished by the presence of a Hamon, a visual wavelike effect present along the length of the blade. The Hamon is a byproduct of the fusion of rigid steel that runs along the edge of the sword to the more elastic “spine” of the blunt edge. This combination, attained by the tedious process of differential quenching, allows well-crafted pieces to retain a razor-sharp edge without becoming overly brittle, as would be the case should the blade be made of a singular type of metal. To illustrate this, the first millimeter or so of a master-crafted katana sword from the 16th century can be rated up to four times harder than the steel present on the other “side” of the Hamon.

A Japanese katana, signed minamoto yoshimune tsukuru, 1932. Sold for $2,125 via Freeman’s (March 2015).

Modern manufacturers for the mass market often attempt to reproduce the appearance of a Hamon through etching the surface of the blade. These pieces are usually not constructed in the manner above, but rather consist of a single piece of steel which has been cosmetically altered, and as such, are less far less durable and desirable.

Other than the blade itself, a fully outfitted katana sword is comprised of the handle (Tsuka), the pommel (Kashira), a handguard (Tsuba), and a lacquered wooden scabbard (Saya). These pieces were often intended to reflect the fashion of the wielder. As such, there are many ornamental differences between katanas. Some include accessories, such as pocketknives or hairpins stored within compartments on the scabbard. Cherry blossom motifs were often included as a decorative element, as the flower is significant to the Samurai way of life.

The Decline of Samurai Culture

When his reign began in 1868, Emperor Meiji sought to establish a western-style military. To that end, his government began to dismantle the set of legal codes that had enshrined the Samurai as the elite class in Japan since the 12th century. There were 1.9 million Samurai living in Japan at the time.

Throughout the 1870s, a series of edicts were issued that slowly weakened the traditions of the feudal system in which the Samurai prospered. First, Western hairstyles were encouraged amongst warriors who had traditionally worn a topknot. A few years later, the government established a national army in which young men of any background were allowed to serve.

A pair of swords, Daisho, Edo period. Sold for €8,650 via Sotheby’s (December 2007).

No blow proved as fatal to the Samurai code as the Sword Abolishment Edict of 1876, which prohibited the wearing of swords in public. Before this, donning a Daisho, a combination of a longsword (usually a katana) and a short sword (such as a wakizashi), was the mark that set the Samurai apart from the average civilian. Without a katana blade, the distinction between commoner and warrior blurred and eventually passed into irrelevance. The sword made the Samurai; without it, they ceased to exist.

Many swordsmiths were put out of business or forced to produce other products in the Meiji era. Mass-produced swords, known as guntō, were given to officers of the new, westernized military. These swords are frequently labelled by a serial number, rather than a craftsman’s signature, and made of lesser materials such as stainless steel. Today’s collectors may still consider these examples to be of interest, but they are far less valuable than the katana sword and other traditional blades from earlier periods.

Katana Blade Storage & Condition

When a katana blade is not being displayed, it is commonly kept in more minimal storage mounts. These undecorated wood cases are called shirasaya, and consist only of an undecorated scabbard and handle. The necessity of a good and sturdy case cannot be understated, as katanas can degrade over time if they are not stored and cared for properly. Oil from one’s hands will cause the metal to rust, so choji oil is traditionally used to clean the blade after handling. Additionally, the katana blade will need to be “aired out” from time to time to prevent mold from growing on the surface.

Japanese katana in shirasaya. Sold for AUD650 via Lawsons (July 2014).

Katana Sword Values

When purchasing a fully mounted katana, be sure to inspect the value of each element individually, since they will not necessarily reflect the quality or age of the actual blade. It is possible to purchase individual components, should one wish to remount a sword.

These days, it is very rare for a historical masterwork to hit the open market, as many are kept in museums or considered family heirlooms and passed down through generations. Some of the most well-known museum-quality katana swords are of such value that their sale has been prohibited by law. When antique katana Samurai swords do emerge in the market, these rare and beautifully-crafted pieces can fetch prices well into six figures. In 1992, a single blade from the 13th century was auctioned for $418,000. This remains as the most valuable Nihonto ever sold.

Traditional katana swords are still produced in Japan by craftsmen using pre-modern materials and techniques. Legendary swordsmiths put enormous effort into creating the highest quality blades possible, and some modern masters carry on that legacy today. These practitioners of traditional Japanese sword-making can only be licensed after a minimum apprenticeship of 5 years, for which they are not compensated monetarily.

Two Japanese Katana Swords (detail). $1,000 – $2,000 via Grogan & Company (June 2018).

On the other hand, modern manufacturers often reproduce the appearance of a katana sword using inferior techniques. Machine-made swords are typically ornamental and prone to breaking if used in any fashion except display.

Katana blades forged by modern masters are of an exceptionally high quality compared to most machine-made reproductions and are as such considered to be “authentic” katanas by modern authorities. Where a midrange machine-made piece may be valued at a few hundred dollars, an authentic modern katana sword can easily fetch over $10,000.

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