Iconic Weapons: History of the Katana

Antique Japanese katana

This month, we will be following the theme of looking at iconic weapons from throughout human history, starting with the katana. This legendry sword design comes from Japan and is renowned as one of the most effective cutting tools ever made. The iconic sword features a curved, single-edged blade with a small guard. The word “katana” may be interpreted to mean ” a curved sword with a one-sided blade.” It is longer than a tachi, another sword of Japanese origins sometimes described as a precursor to the katana. Traditionally, the katana is worn with the cutting edge face up along with a wakizashi – a smaller blade similar in shape. The image of an armored samurai with their unmistakable katana is as timeless now as that of a Spartan soldier with their spear and shield.

Samurai with a katana
Samurai with a katana

The Japanese samurai are famous for their mounted fighting style, employing archery and swordsmanship from horseback. I have read some sources which say the katana emerged as a longer, more curved sword than the tachi which was superior for use on horseback. I have also read some sources which claim the katana was invented specifically in response to the Mongol invasions of Japan and their thicker armor necessitating sturdier, more powerful swords as the tachi was known to chip and break against Mongol armor. Regardless, the katana was certainly useful for cutting targets on the ground from horseback and for engaging more heavily armored Mongol warriors. Smaller blades such as tanto and wakizashi enabled samurai and other warriors to engage more easily in close quarters and indoors, something which became more prevalent throughout Japanese history with new conflicts leading the battlefield to different arenas.

Forging a katana using the traditional method employed by Japanese swordsmiths could take several months to complete one sword. First charcoal and iron sand are burnt in a furnace known as a tatara for three days. The process purifies the metal and creates tamahagane steel. The pieces of tamahagane are broken up, examined, and sorted according to their carbon content after they have cooled. The pieces are usually heated back up and adjusted to further refine their carbon content. Some pieces will make the hard edge of the blade, while others are used to forge the soft body. The pieces are again heated and hammered into bars, which are then folded several times into layers. The soft and hard pieces of the sword are forged separately and then fused together. Traditionally, the katana is tempered with water after it has been fully forged. The sword is heated it to red hot and then submerged in water to harden it for battle. This is of course a very brief overview of the swordsmithing process and excludes many of the finer details. An in-depth explanation of how a traditional katana is forged may be read here.

A diagram of all the different named parts of a katana

Conventional methods of forging a katana involve cutting it from a sheet of purified steel; working the metal into shape; and then tempering the blade with water or oil. The conventional method is much quicker and can also produce more durable swords which last longer and require less maintenance. Although, the conventional method does not naturally produce many of the intricate designs inherent to the traditional folding process.

The katana is an iconic piece of human history, a symbol for many that is synonymous with strength, courage, bravery, and honor. To me, it also represents human ingenuity and our ability to invent novel tools and devices. Learning about the process that goes into making a single katana using traditional methods is inspiring. The commitment to the craft is immense, and the weapon itself is a thing of beauty. I also admire the expertise needed to wield a weapon such as a sword, the time and dedication it takes to hone one’s skills with such a long blade.

What do you think about the katana? Do you see it as just a piece of shaped metal, or an important symbol with powerful meaning? What does it represent to you, if anything?

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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