-- Katana
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Time Period: 15th century to present
Location: Japan
Common Construction: Steel

The katana is a single edged sword usable with one or two hands, and is one of the three major weapons in Japanese history alongside the bow (Yumi) and the spear (Yari). In English, katana is a catch-all word for Japanese swords. The Japanese are far more discriminating in their definitions of swords, and terms such as tachi, uchigatana, chokuto are largely misunderstood by the average westerner.

The katana evolved over time to match the needs of the people, although all forms of the sword beginning in the 15th century are generally referred to as katana. When talking about a specific sword, one also refers to the swordsmith who made it or period in which it was made, which can be determined by its length, curvature, and shape.

In 1645 the government regulated the acceptable length of swords, shortening the legal size and forbidding non-samurai to have them unless special permission was given. This gave katana a definitive length measured in shaku. A tanto was less than 1 shaku, a wakizashi between 1 and 2 shaku, and a katana or tachi 2 shaku or greater. When Japane converted to the metric system, they changed the shaku to be roughly 30cm, so a katana is a sword greater than 60cm long.

Construction and usage of these swords was steeped in ceremony and tradition, and the katana is a work of art as much as it is a weapon. The blade forged from a single piece of steel, but the hardness of the steel is not uniform. The cutting edge is composed of martensite, a very hard form of steel, while the rest of the blade is composed of pearlite, a softer more flexible form of steel. To create this variation, the blade is covered in clay before it is tempered, and the thickness of the clay determines how much heat is allowed to pass through to the blade. The clay is very thin towards the cutting edge and thicker on the back and sides of the blade.

The swordsmith's use of clay also determines the artistic quality of the sword. Varying levels of thickness create a mix of pearlite and martensite on the blade called a hamon. The design of the hamon is distinctive in different time periods and different smiths, and is often the defining feature in the artistic quality of the blade.

The construction of a katana was not left up to a single swordsmith. In addition to apprentices which help with the more mundane tasks, there are separate professions for polishing the blade, making the scabbard, and creating a handguard (tsuba).

In the modern day, katanas have reached legendary status. Books, movies and video games portray Japanese swords as mystical, magical, and impossibly powerful, just like the samurai who wield them. In reality, the Japanese perfected a swordsmithing technique almost 1000 years before similar results would be developed in the west. This is quite a technical achievement, and perhaps one of the reasons that such reverence is bestowed upon these swords.

CE 15th Century, CE 16th Century, CE 17th Century, CE 18th Century, CE 19th Century, CE 20th Century, General Term, History, Japan, Present, Sword, Weapon

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