For many Japan lovers around the world, one of our earliest introductions to the culture, art and history of this great country probably comes from our appreciation of the samurai. These noble warriors, with their colorful armour, stories of heroism and treachery and their own, unique code of honour, Bushido.
Of all the iconography surrounding the samurai and their legends, probably the most widely-known item in the samurai arsenal is their sword, the katana. It is as beautiful and elegant as it is destructive and deadly. Able to slice through opponents in one stroke, and yet still aesthetically pleasing enough to hang on your wall, the katana is the focal point where Japanese militarism, art, culture and science merge into one.
So, how exactly is one of these blades made? What process goes into making these beautiful blades and how long does it take?
First of all, just how exactly should an ideal katana look? The blade (not including the handle) should be between 60 and 73 centimeters long. Outside of these parameters the weapon would be classed under a different name. A blade shorter than this would be called a wakizashi, or tanto if it is very short, like a dagger. The main difference between a wakizashi and a conventional katana is that a wakizashi’s handle is short enough to allow a single-handed grip. Conversely, a longer blade would be classed as a nodachi.
Nodachi also tend to be heavier than conventional katanas and can sometimes be more than double the length of a conventional katana. Much like the legendary Scottish claymore, or European broadsword, the nodachi was as much a bludgeoning weapon as it was a cutting one.
Weight is also an important consideration in determining a true katana too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to handle various types of bladed weapons in my time of studying martial arts. One of the main differences between a real katana, which can cost thousands of dollars, and those fake blunt ones you can pick up on Ebay for 50 dollars is in the weight.
Real katanas are noticeably heavier, weighing more than 1 kilo. The ideal weight should be between 1.1 and 1.3 kilos.
Manufacture of the katana using traditional methods, along the lines of those practiced by legendary sword smiths such as Muramasa from the 15th century onwards, is a highly complicated and time consuming process.
Though the quality of materials used varies depending on the quality of blade, and of course the price paid, generally speaking, a high-grade katana should seek to blend Japanese hard steel (Hagane), medium steel (Kawagane) and soft steel (Shigane).
These three types of metals are blended together using a traditional smelting process to create a metallic compound specifically used in Japanese sword making called Tamahagane. The two important points of this process are to remove the impurities from the metal, and to balance out the carbon content within the metals. Carbon content is important in determining the pliability of the blade. In battle you need a sword that is neither too soft to resist strikes from the enemy nor too brittle to withstand impacts without shattering. This is achieved by heating and folding the low and high carbon metals together several, sometimes dozens of, times. At this point the age of the metal is also important. Whilst most laymen would think that newly forged steel would made the best blades, this isn’t strictly true. Actually, steels that have aged over time (that’s aged, not rusted) tend to have a higher oxygen concentration which makes them easier to fold and manipulate during the forming process. It also makes it easier and less time consuming to hammer out any remaining impurities in the steel.
Once this is complete you have the early formation of a blade, however at this early point it lacks both the curvature of a classical katana and the groove in the centre of the blade. These features are obtained in the next phase of the blade’s development. First, the blade is super-heated and coated in several layers of a clay based substance. The recipe used to make this substance is a private affair, unique to each individual sword maker. This clay mixture is applied more thinly to the edge of the blade and thicker layer is applied to the sides and the spine of the blade. When it is later cooled quickly in water, or in some cases oil, the differing densities of the mixture on each side of the blade cause it to harden at one end, and to a lesser extent at the other. This difference in steel density is what leads, via further applications of the process, to the gradual curvature of the katana blade. This also causes the formation of the hamon, the distinctive groove that runs through the middle of the blade. Further sharpening and polishing of the blade makes this groove much more distinctive as time goes on. This is also what creates that beautiful whistling sound when you cut the air with a high-grade katana. This polishing process is perhaps the most delicate and arduous stage of the sword-making method and can take up to 3 weeks to complete.
Whilst most modern day replicas use a form of synthetic plastic in the blade handle and tsuba (the circular hand guard at the top of the handle) traditionally these elements are made with a finely lacquered wood, similar in some regards to that used in traditional lacquered bowls and jewelry boxes from the Meiji Era. This is then wrapped in tightly woven textiles coloured to the preference of the buyer. Typically, a samurai would have his swords handle and sheath coloured to match the banner either of his own family, or that of the clan in which he served.
Also, for any avid collectors out there, an important note: whilst swords are banned in the UK and many other countries, katanas that can be proven to have been manufactured in Japan before 1954 are considered antiques and are exempt from the ban. Additionally, if you are a practitioner of a sword-fighting martial art such as Iaido, then you may also be exempt, if you can prove that you use this blade in your training.
As always, treat these weapons with caution. Like a good woman, they are stunning and elegant, but deadly dangerous if not given the proper respect!