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4 Samurai Swords that Defined an Era

samurai swords defined era

 

As a warrior class, the samurai were well equipped with a wide range of arms and armor that had evolved and developed over time, and that were used in different situations. These weapons ranged from bows, such as the yumi, to polearms, like the naginata, to razor-sharp swords, such as the katana. Some of these weapons also featured unique construction methods and characteristics that made them versatile and deadly in the hands of a samurai. The following article will examine four samurai swords, namely the uchigatana, the katana, the wakizashi, and the tachi.

 

The Uchigatana Samurai Sword

uchigatana samurai sword blade 1521 edo period
Example of an uchigatana sword, dated to the Muromachi Period c. 1521, via the British Museum

 

The uchigatana was a sword used by the samurai in feudal Japan and can be seen as the predecessor to the famous katana. It is thought that the uchigatana first developed in Japan during the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333) when the basis of feudalism was firmly established. The name uchigatana in Japanese means “to strike with sword” or “sword to strike with.”

 

The blade features a curve (sori) near the hilt (tsuka) that gets straighter towards the tip (boshi). In contrast to the earlier tachi that was worn with the blade edge facing down, the blade of the uchigatana was designed to be worn with the edge facing upwards. This significantly aided the user in their ability to quickly draw and strike simultaneously with the sword, a move known as Iaijutsu; this technique became symbolic of the samurai martial art over time and was practiced excessively until mastered.

 

Over time, the uchigatana evolved in order to serve a variety of functions with both long and short forms of the sword being forged. The longer form became the famous katana, whereas the shorter version became known as the wakizashi. The full tang and single-edged blade of these swords led to a deadly weapon that was incredibly efficient for combat on foot. Early forms of the uchigatana were considered to be low-quality swords and were, therefore, often discarded rather than repaired. Due to their function as temporary and disposable swords, they would often be melted down when they became damaged or broken and were recycled into new swords, meaning that there are very few historic examples of the uchigatana that still exist today. This presents an issue when trying to examine their evolution and history with reference to physical examples. They are, however, well-detailed with historical Japanese sources.

 

The Katana

samurai with two katanas
Samurai with two blades, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1847, via the British Museum

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The katana sword is the archetypal weapon of the samurai that developed as the longer version (usually more than 60cm/24 inches) of the uchigatana sword. When made in the traditional style, the katana is handcrafted from tamahegane, a type of steel from the Japanese sword-smithing tradition. The process involves folding the steel many times in order to create an incredibly strong blade.

 

To strengthen the blade, a process called yakibatsuchi involved coating the blade with a mix of water, clay, and ash before the heat treatment to allow the edge to harden more than the spine, thus creating a strong and flexible blade. This process also creates the iconic hamon pattern on the blade edge that gives the katana its impressive cutting ability. The strength and aesthetics of a traditionally crafted katana are still revered today by collectors and martial artists.

 

The art of tameshigiri is still practiced where a blade is tested through a series of test cuts. This could include cutting through tatami mats, bamboo, or thin sheets of metal plating in order to ascertain the efficiency of the blade.

 

Historically, the longer and sharper swords of the samurai were used to great advantage during the Mongol invasions where they were more than a match for the shorter swords and light armor of the Mongols. This advantage was critical for the development of the katana which eventually came to be a distinctive symbol of the elite warrior class after common people were forbidden to carry it in the 16th century.

 

Wakizashi

wakizashi samurai sword blade
Wakizashi Blade, 17th century, via the British Museum

 

The wakizashi is the shorter version (usually 30-55cm/12-22 inches) of the uchigatana sword and is often paired with the katana in a set known as daisho. During the Tokugawa or Edo Period (1603 -1867), all samurai were forced to wear daisho to identify themselves as military officers. This was a very clear visual representation of power in order to distinguish a samurai from a common person. As the shorter companion to the katana, it was acceptable to carry the wakizashi for self-defense in situations that forbade a longer sword. For example, if a samurai entered a building where the katana must be surrendered, the wakizashi could still be used for close-quarters combat and self-defense such as in a small room with proximity to others.

 

The other advantage of the wakizashi was that the short length allowed for extremely fast and precise movements against other weapons. The size was a key factor in effective defense against longer-range weapons such as long swords or spears. The quick movements required for stabbing and parrying allowed the sword to function effectively as a defensive and offensive weapon. Another important factor to consider with the wakizashi is that, unlike the katana, it was acceptable as a weapon to be wielded by common people. This was extremely important when traversing the often-dangerous roads across Japan such as the Tokaido road that connected Kyoto with Tokyo. The law during the Tokugowa Shogunate prohibited common people from carrying a sword longer than one shaku and eight suns (54.54cm/22 inches), leading to this length becoming the standard for the wakizashi.

 

Tachi

tachi samurai sword blade kamakura period
Tachi blade, 13th century, via the British Museum

 

In contrast to the other swords considered so far, the tachi was used for different purposes, although still serves as an ancestor to the uchigatana and therefore, the katana. With the other swords being used often for combat on foot, the tachi was designed primarily for use on horseback which meant it required a longer blade with a deeper curve in order to be drawn easily with one hand. Due to the depth of the curve in the blade, the tachi was more commonly used as a slashing weapon rather than for thrusting toward a target. The differences to the katana are also evident in the way it was worn. When on horseback, it was much easier for the rider to draw the blade with it facing downwards rather than upwards as is commonly practiced with the katana as it allowed for an arching movement over the horse.

 

One common feature of Japanese swords is the engraving on the tang of the blade which indicates the name of the swordsmith. As the tachi was hung with the blade facing down, the engraving was usually on the right-hand side of the tang, whereas it was more common for the engraving on a katana to be on the left-hand side, due to the sword being worn with the blade facing upwards.

 

Samurai Swords in Video Games and Popular Culture

samurai commander armour photograph
Samurai in his armor, hand colorized, by Felice Beato, 1860s, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Japanese samurai swords are also very common in popular culture such as films and video games. An example of this comes from the inclusion of an uchigatana sword in the video game franchises Dark Souls and Elden Ring. It is the starting weapon for the samurai class in the game and is utilized for its fast and aggressive attack that deals considerable damage leading to high blood loss.

 

Who Were the Samurai? 

high ranking samurai
Portrait of a high-ranking Samurai, by Utagawa Toyokuni, ca. 1803, via Princeton University

 

The samurai were an elite noble caste that emerged in Japan during the 12th century and lasted until the Meiji Revolution of 1868. These warriors lived by a strict code of honor, loyalty, and integrity with a focus on absolute sacrifice to their lords and commanders. Throughout their 700-year history, the samurai were at the forefront of decisive conflict both from outside of and within Japan. This included fending off an invasion from the Mongol Empire and inter-clan warfare between the large and powerful clans that existed in Japan itself. As part of the strict caste system that existed at this time, the samurai were given certain privileges over the castes below them such as the right to enact kirisute-gomen which means the “authorization to cut and leave.” This right allowed a samurai to mortally strike in self-defense if their honor was compromised. The condition for the legality of this action was that the defense must take place immediately after the insult was delivered as well as being sanctioned by a government official after verification from a witness.

 

Samurai Swords: Conclusions 

samurai armour hand coloured kusakabe kimbei
Three Samurai pose for photograph, colorized, by Felice Beato, 1860s, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The armory of the samurai was incredibly extensive and led to the development and evolution of many exceptional weapons. Each weapon was carefully and expertly crafted in order to perform a specific task such as single combat, use while on horseback or self-defense. This mastery of weapon smithing and incredible speed and skill gave the samurai their fearsome reputation that was sustained across the centuries.

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By Ben HumeMA Funerary Archaeology, BA ArchaeologyBen is an archaeologist specializing in funerary practices and the Iron Age with MA and BA degrees from the University of York. He received an award for his MA dissertation considering evidence of violence on human remains in northern Britain’s Bronze and Iron Age caves, which is now being reworked for publication. Ben has also worked in post-excavation and the museum sector to record and exhibit archaeological material. Ben can usually be found hiking up the nearest mountain or traveling when not working.

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