The Katana Through The Ages - Part 2

Discussion in 'Articles' started by SifuPhil, Dec 16, 2012.

  1. SifuPhil

    SifuPhil Lucky Cat Is Lucky

    14thCentury: Nambokucho Period

    Helped by the samurai, emperor Go-Daigo restored imperial power in Kyoto in the year 1333. But he failed to satisfy those who helped him. Ashikaja Takauji and an imperial lord banished Go-Daigo. Two imperial courts appeared, the southern one headed by Go-Daigo and the northern one headed by Takauji, who appointed himself shogun. Each samurai wanted to show his bravery and chose a side to fight with. During little more than 50 years many wars the Nambokucho Wars occupied both clans. They fought in groups and for the first time a war in Japan concerned all the Japanese people.

    The samurai's attitude changed: they forgot their strong ideas about honor and fought treacherously. Moreover, they wanted to differentiate themselves from ordinary soldiers. The armor's ornaments became impressive and the katana became gigantic in order to intimidate. The blade became longer -more than 90 cm/35” -, finer and more curved. Handiness was not the main characteristic of this sword and the samurai had to carry it on his back. The use of a second sword became usual. This shorter katana, which warriors used with only one hand, was called Uchigatana, and Tachi was the name given to the other bigger one. Thanks to the works of the artist Masamune, smiths became able to mix metals of different densities.

    The first Itomaki-no-tachi were used in the Nambokucho period (1336 ~ 1392 AD). They had tsukamaki as well as sayamaki, i.e. there was wrapping at the upper part of the saya to prevent damage from rubbing against the armor. The itomaki-tachi became the tachi of choice for the following centuries for use in battle. Sometimes the lower part of the saya had a cover made of fur to protect it from the elements, which was called shirizaya (“butt saya”).


    Although the uchigatana (lit. "strike-sword") already had its predecessors in the Heian period, it became standard for foot soldiers during the Nambokucho period. Unlike the tachi, which was carried edge down and had two obitori (hangers) on the saya, the uchigatana is worn through the sash, edge up.

    15th– 16thCentury: Muromachi Period

    In 1392 the southern court finally wins. They captured the Muromachi district where north government buildings were located. This district in Kyoto became the political center of the reunited land. At the beginning the peace induced a diminution in the production of katanas. Even if some samurais had a tachi and an uchigatana, only the uchigatana was used. Tachi were still produced during the Muromachi period (1392 ~ 1573 AD), but the uchigatana became the most common daito. Kanagu other than the tsuba, up until now made from yamagane ("mountain metal", unrefined copper), was often made from shakudo, copper with 5% gold, patinated a deep black. Uchigatana still looked very much like tachi except for the obitori, and therefore were called "handachi", “half-tachi”; this style never really went out of fashion during the next 300 years.


    Since the early Muromachi period, the manufacture of tsuba became a separate profession; until then, tsuba were forged by swordsmiths, armorsmiths or Kagamishi - mirror smiths (polished disks of metal were used as mirrors). Early tsuba had sukashi, cut-outs in negative silhouette, but from now on brass inlays and positive-silhouette sukashi, especially from Owari province, became more refined. The Shoami family became one of the main manufacturers of tsuba, with many generations to follow.

    The interest of Ming China in the katanas established good trade relations. This event developed a new social class: the traders, who earned lots of money trading with China but also between different areas of Japan as well. The families composed of land owners, traders and samurai became more and more powerful and surpassed provincial constables. The influence of the emperor and the shogun declined to practically nothing and new feudal lords called "Daimyo" exerted the actual control over the different parts of Japan. Each daimyo wanted to extend his domination and Japan saw an age of civil wars which began in1467 with the War of Onin.

    The renewed demand for the production of katanas increased so much that the blacksmiths gave preference to the quantity rather than beauty and quality. The uchigatana became smaller 55-65 cm/22-26” and more curved. With those really small swords came "Iai's techniques": striking the enemy immediately upon drawing swords. In 1542 the first Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan and introduced firearms and Christianity. Christianity was welcomed, but the firearms induced the reinforcement of the armor. The small uchigatana was then abandoned and the two-handed katanas reappeared.

    1573 – 1603: Momoyama Period

    The daimyo Oda Nobunaga reunified Japan by conquering the whole country. The calm which followed and the discovery of gold mines allowed the whole country to grow rich and to develop arts and culture. The big early tachis came back into fashion. The samurai appreciated early tachis which had been just cut short or ordered katanas like small tachis. Each forge developed its own style and the relationship between a powerful samurai and his smith was very close. The Momoyama period is well known for its flamboyant koshirae with red lacquered saya and kanagu in gold. Those flashy mountings however were counterbalanced by Tensho-Koshirae (era name of emperor Tensho, 1573 ~ 1586 AD) with black saya and same', a tapered tsuka with leather binding crossed over a kashira made of horn. The new shogun makes one significant reform: he confiscated all the weapons of all farmers. Every ugly sword forged during the civil wars disappeared then. Subsequently only the samurai had the right to carry a pair of swords.

    17th– 18thCentury: Beginning of Edo Period

    After the death of the shogun Hideyoshi, his earlier partner Ieyasu became the most powerful man in Japan. He killed all the successors of Hideyoshi and the emperor appointed him shogun. His government was established in Edo (Tokyo) and the whole country was brought under tight control. He redistributed the land gained among the daimyo: more loyal vassals received more important domains. Each daimyo who moved brought with him his court and his smiths. This fact and the rising import of materials explain the huge changes in the styles of the smiths. Before this event each smith had a particular style. Earlier swords were named Ko-to and new ones Shin-to. New sophisticated fencing techniques led the smiths to forge shorter, less curved blades with a very pointed tip. Two styles emerged. In Edo, the political capital, the blades were plain, while in Osaka, the trade capital, the blades had to be more showy. During this time of peace samurai were educating themselves not only in martial arts but also in literature, philosophy and the arts.

    Part of the tsubashi from Kyoto moved to Akasaka in Edo, and produced many fine sukashi tsuba. The Myochin family switched from manufacturing armor to making tsuba. Echizen province tsuba were dominated by the families Akao, Nagasone and Kinai; the Kinai had, from their second generation on, a special relationship with Echizen Yasutsugu, the shogun's favorite smith. They not only carved the dragon horimono for his swords, but also the Aoi-no-Gomon, the family crest of the Tokugawa, on the tang of his swords. Both motifs are also very often found on their tsuba.

  2. i always thought that the katana's of around the mid 1600's were supposed to be the finest, is that so? also, just how sharp would the finest of a master smith's blades have been? ( not that seppuko is on my mind!) and finally' oh master of the toner,do many of these rare blades survive? the way, that old sect from india were known as "tuggies" (not spelt that way i know ) but .....i was wondering.................
  3. SifuPhil

    SifuPhil Lucky Cat Is Lucky

    There's a lot of controversy these days over both the quality and effectiveness of katanas from ANY period - you can find heated debates about Japanese vs. European, Japanese vs. Viking, Japanese vs. ...

    I look at in in two ways: first, we don't have enough pristine examples of the swords to really be able to test them, and secondly they were designed with very specific usages in mind, usages that are usually overlooked in the comparisons.

    The Thuggees primarily used garrotes, I believe - much stealthier.

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