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Nihontō 日本刀

One of the more confusing subjects you are likely to encounter as a Japanese martial arts practitioner is the topic of Katana (Samurai Swords) and Iaito (Blunt Samurai Sword). With such a vast array of different blade types, forging processes, fittings, Tsukamaki types, Koshirae, Sageo types and then the terms for each individual part of the Katana it can quickly seem like a nightmare to understand.

In this article i am going to endeavour to make understanding the world of Katana a little easier by breaking everything down into easy to understand sections. So where do you start?

The first thing to point out is why we use the term Nihontō 日本刀, Nihonto is a more general term for all Japanese Swords, literally Nihon 日本 (Japanese) To 刀 (Swords). The Nihonto most commonly seen used by martial arts practitioners today are the Katana (Long Sword), Wakizashi (Short Sword) and Tanto (Dagger) but their are a huge variety of Japanese Nihonto, some that date back to the Kofun period (250 – 538 AD). The most commonly associated Nihonto are the Tachi with their distinctive curved blades which date back to the Heian period (794 – 1185, the period is named after the capital city of Heian-Kyo modern day Kyoto). The Katana was actually a later evolution of the Tachi although it is commonly viewed as the most iconic Nihonto of them all.

Let’s take a more in depth look at all of the Nihonto variations as many of them have specific functions and battlefield applications aside from their historical significance.

All Nihonto are constructed in roughly the same way, All have a Tsuka (Handle), Ken (Blade), Habaki (Ferrule) and Saya (Sheath). The diagram below will help you to familiarise yourself with the specific terminology used for each part of the Nihonto.

The Koshirae are ornamental aesthetic fittings used to decorate the Nihonto and comprise of a Tsuba (Handguard), Seppa (Spacers) Fuchi (Handle Collar), Menuki (Handle Ornaments), Tsuka Ito (Handle Wrapping) and Kashira (Pommel). These were often relevant to the Bushi (Warrior) and were designed with their clans Kamon (Crest), favourite animals, Kami (Gods), Oni (Demons) and anything else that may have been relevant to that individual. The sword was viewed of as the soul of the Samurai and as such would be presented in a way which represented this fact, It was often the single most valuable item the Samurai owned.

The variety of Nihonto available are as follows.

  • Chokuto 直刀 – A straight single edged sword most commonly found in the Kofun period prior to the 10th Century. Chokuto were forged in a simple manner somewhat similar to a machete without differential clay tempering or folding of the steel. Their is some speculation that the Chokuto is actually the precursor to the Ninjato (Ninja Sword) depicted in Ninja movies and popular culture however it is generally considered that the straight bladed Ninjato was never actually used by the Shinobi of the Sengoku Jidai period (1467-1603) who would have favoured the Shinobigatana (Shorter Ninja Katana) or standard Katana obtained from fallen opponents on the battlefield or by some other method.
  • Tsurugi/Ken 剣 – A straight double edged broadsword that was produced mainly prior to the 10th century without folding or differentially clay tempering the blades. Tsurugi are considered to be divine swords and are often used now by Shinto Priests during ceremonies. The Tsurugi is so old in fact that no techniques recorded on animal skins or bamboo slithers on its usage have survived the passage of time however it is still considered to be of significant importance with the Tachi and Katana as the illustrate the historical evolution of the Japanese nation.
  • Tachi 太刀 – A large curved sword designed to be worn with the curvature (Sori) of the blade facing downwards when hanging from the Obi (Belt). The Tachi often had a longer blade with a more pronounced Sori starting at the Nakago (Tang) or the centre of the blade, This provided a far more efficient cutting edge by comparison to the earlier Chokuto and Tsurugi due to the smaller area of cutting space creating far more pounds of pressure per square inch on contact with the target enabling the Tachi to cleave through it with far less resistance. The Tachi was mainly worn suspended from the Samurais belt (Obi) on his armour (Yoroi) and this served a very practical purpose, the plates of armour surrounding the wrist made it almost impossible to draw the Tachi in the same fashion that you see most modern Kenjutsu practitioners drawing their Katana today, with the curvature (Sori) facing upwards when worn directly through the practitioners Obi. The Tachi was mainly popular up until the 15th century when forging processes improved the need for more practical swords arose.
  • Uchigatana 打刀 – The Uchigatana was the evolution of the Tachi in the 15th century, unlike the Tachi the Uchigatana was worn with the curvature (Sori) facing upwards. During the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) the use of the Uchigatana became widespread in Japan, although generally the Uchigatana was only used by low ranking Ashigaru. Uchigatana when translated means “Sword to strike with”. It was during the Momoyama period (1573 – 1600) that the Tachi was almost completely abandoned by the higher ranking Samurai and replaced with a set of Daisho, a set of long and short Uchigatana which became the dominant symbol of the Samurai class. The Momoyama period was during the final stages of the Sengoku Jidai (Age of warring states period) when the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan. No early examples of the Uchigatana have survived to this day as initially they were considered disposable and were not forged to a high standard.
  • Katate Uchigatana 片手打ち – A shorter single handed variant of the Uchigatana developed in the 16th century, The precursor to the Wakizashi. Usually called A Shoto when worn with Daito forming the Daisho two sword set of Uchigatana.
  • Katana 刀 – The Katana was the evolution of the Uchigatana and was the sword of the Samurai class during the Edo period (1600 – 1900). The Katana can be forged in a variety of styles with different cross sections and geometric specifications, some of which are famous historical treasures such as the Bizen Osafune and Soshu Kitae blades produced by the famous Katana Kaji (Swordsmith) Masamune. The general specifications for a Katana are a blade over the length of 60cm with a shallower curvature (Sori) than the Tachi, however the blade length was not limited to any length in particular but it is rare to find a katana over 80cm in length. The Katana was always worn through the Obi (Belt) with Sori facing upwards in the same way as the Uchigatana, This enabled the Katana to be drawn and a cut to be performed in one single simultaneous motion.
  • Wakizashi 脇差 – The Wakizashi was the companion sword to the Katana in much the same way as the Katate Uchigatana / Shoto was the companion sword to the Uchigatana / Daito to form the Daisho pairing. The Wakizashi was always worn with the curvature facing upwards in the Obi and is generally between one and two Shaku in length (30cm – 60cm). The Wakizashi was also the only sword that was allowed to be worn by anyone other that the ruling Samurai class and was predominantly produced during the 1600’s.
  • Kodachi 小太刀 – A smaller variant of the Tachi mostly found before the 13th century. It was exactly the same as the Tachi in every way just with everything scaled down, a Tachi precursor to the Katate Uchigatana and Wakizashi. The Kodachi has the same pronounced Sori from the Nakago as the and translates as “little big sword”.
  • Ōdachi 大太刀 – A battlefield variant of the Tachi measuring at over 100cm which translates as “Great Sword/ Big Sword”, Sometimes referred to as Nodachi “Battlefield Sword” due to its intended application. The Odachi was mainly produced during the 14th century and they were used to dismount charging enemy cavalry by cutting the legs off of the horse. Their are obvious practical drawbacks to the Odachi due to its length which make it near impossible for an individual swordsman to draw at any speed and very heavy to use. This meant that often Samurai would carry them tied to their backs using Tasuki (Sleeve ties) or Sageo (Saya Cord) and have the swordsman next to them draw their Odachi whilst they drew out the Odachi on their back forming a similar stance (Kamae) to a Tori Gate. Sasaki Kojirō 佐々木 小次郎 was a master swordsman renowned for his use of the Nodachi (1585 – 1612) from Fukui prefecture.
  • Nagamaki 長巻 – The Nagamaki (Long Wrapping) is a form of Nihonto which has an extremely long Tsuka (Handle) measuring 26.75 inches with a blade at a 24 inches making the Nagamaki 54 inches in length when mounted in full Koshirae. The blade of the Nagamaki is similar to a Tachi or Katana but with and extended Nakago (Tang) at a length of 20 inches and it was used by the samurai class of gradual Japan. The exact origins of the Nagamaki are hard to determine but it is most likely that they were first produced during the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333) as their are no known examples before this period and then reached their peak of usage during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). Although the blade type was important they were somewhat interchangeable and could be forged in different Kitae (laminating methods) and blade geometry’s, By definition the primary aspect of the Nagamaki was the distinctive long Tsukamaki wrapped handle. Nagamaki were often used by Sohei (Warrior Monks) as well as the Samurai classes.
  • Naginata 薙刀 – The Naginata was a traditional polearm used by the Samurai which comprised of a long wooden shaft with a short sword (Wakizashi) attached to one end and is the signature weapon of the Onna-Bugeisha a form a female nobility who were warriors trained to use the Naginata. The weapon was not just exclusively used by the Onna-Bugeisha but the Samurai, Ashigaru and Sohei Warrior Monks as well. It’s important to explain that their were several variations of Naginata but most distinctively the O-Naginata used by the Samurai and Sohei and the Ko-Naginata used by the Onna-Bugeisha, This was to compensate for the difference between the Onna-Bugeisha and armour (Yoroi) wearing Samurai. The Naginata is an extremely effective weapon with exceptional cutting capability so it was often an essential part of any warriors arsenal.
  • Yari 槍 – The Yari is a traditional Japanese spear that comes in a wide variety of different blade types, The most common being the Su Yari (Straight Spear) measuring roughly one Shaku (30cm) in length but other variations include the Jumonji Yari (Cross Spear), Sankaku Yari (Triangle Spear), Ryo-Shinogi Yari (Diamond spear), Fukuro Yari (Socket Spear), Kikuchi Yari (Single Edged Yari), Yajiri Nari Yari (Spade Spear), Jogekama Yari (Alternating Cross Spear), Karigata Yari (Downward Cross Spear), Gyaku Yari (Cross Horn Yari), Kama Yari (Sickle Spear), Kata Kama Yari (One Sided Sickle Spear), Tsuki Nari Yari (Moon Shaped Spear), Kagi Yari (Hook Spear), The list is endless. The art of spear fighting is called Sojutsu in Japan and is extremely extensive.
  • Tanto 短刀 – A Tanto (Short Sword) is a form of Nihonto that was essential for every Samurai and date back to the Heian period. The Tanto was a single edged dagger mainly designed for slashing and stabbing with a blade ranging in length between 15 – 30cm. The Tanto was mounted in full Koshirae and was generally used for close quarters combat or as a last resort when disarmed and are often used now to practice Tantojutsu (Knife Fighting). Their are a huge variety of blade geometries available for Tanto such as Shinogi Zukiri (Common Tanto), Kanmuri Otoshi Zukiri (Thin Tip Tanto), Unokubi Zukiri (Cranes Neck), Kissaki-Muroha (Double Edged). Often the two Tanto you are most likely to encounter are the Shinogi Zukiri Tanto and Shinogi Zukiri Aikuchi, The Aikuchi is simply a Tanto without a prominent Tsuba usually used to stab in between plates in Yoroi (Armour).

Another important factor to consider is that traditional Japanese Nihonto production in divided into time periods:

  • Jōkotō 上古刀 “ancient swords” around 900 A.D.
  • Kotō 古刀”Old Swords” 900–1596
  • Shintō 新刀 “New Swords” 1596–1780
  • Shinshintō 新々刀 “New New Swords” 1781–1876
  • Gendaitō 現代刀 “Modern Swords” 1876–1945
  • Shinsakutō 新作刀 “Newly Made Swords” 1953–present

The second major factor to consider is the forging and laminating process used to produce your Nihonto, Contrary to popular belief owning an antique Daisho set used by a 16th century Samurai doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll own the best quality Nihonto available, in fact its highly unlikely unless they are historical treasures, In which case they should be on display in a museum not used for martial arts practice.

The fact is the overall quality of traditional Japanese Tamahagane (Iron Ore) isn’t great quality which necessitated the development of enhanced forging processes to create high quality Nihonto that were resilient yet flexible. This was achieved by laminating layers of steel with varying carbon purity levels into cross sections called Kitae. The varying gradient of steel meant that hard, medium and soft steels could be laminated into layers that provided the blade with the hard sharp cutting edge needed to cut efficiently while providing the softer steel needed for the blade to flex and not shatter if impacted.

The diagram provided below demonstrates how the blades are constructed conforming to traditional laminating methods know as Kitae which form a pattern when viewing a cross section of the blade.

When looking at buying Nihonto online you will often see numbers like 1045, 1065, 1095 but what does that mean exactly? These numbers are indications to the steels carbon purity levels or to put it another way how soft or hard the blades are, the general guideline is the higher the carbon purity level the stronger the steel is.

This becomes more complicated when you start looking at swords forged in certain Kitae however. 1045 carbon steel, 1065 carbon steel and 1095 are all Maru Kitae (Single Steel) and when you begin to progress past them you will start seeing blades forged in Kobuse Kitae (Hard Case, Soft Core) and Gomai Kitae (Hard spine, Soft Core, Hard Case) which are forged using the traditional methods used by the Samurai themselves.

Generally 1065 and 1095 Maru Kitae blades are good for martial arts provided that they aren’t being used for cutting practice (Tameshigiri) on hard targets, 1095 Carbon Steel Maru Kitae blades are perfect for cutting mats with a bamboo core.1045 Carbon Steel is usually used in decorative display Katana and wall hangers so it’s not advisable to use a Maru Kitae blade forged from 1045 Carbon Steel as that’s not its intended purpose and it will likely bend or warp the blade.

It should be mentioned that live Shinken (Sharp) Katana should never be used in the dojo in any other situation than when practicing Tameshigiri (Test cutting on mats) or Sumnogiri (Test cutting on free standing targets) and this is only ever demonstrated by experienced martial arts practitioners. Most of the time Bokken (Wooden Swords) are what you should train with inside and outside the dojo except in the case of Iaido where Iaito (Blunt blades) are used.

Accidents can and do happen when training with live bladed Shinken Nihonto so it’s important to treat them with the respect they command.

My third and final point to consider is the Koshirae you mount onto your Katana.

When you first buy a new Nihonto its in pristine condition and then within the first few hours of trying out your new sword you will catch the Saya on something and dent it, or perhaps drop the sword itself damaging the edges of the Koshirae on the Tsuka. This is unfortunate but inevitable and one thing that surprised me when i first started building Nihonto was that people would see this as ruining their sword because they had damaged it in some way, A sword is intended to be trained with unless it is being kept as an heirloom in which case it shouldn’t be used in the first place. The Saya and Koshirae are replaceable on your Nihonto but for some reason people assume Nihonto shouldn’t be capable of incurring any form of damage and once any damage is done then the sword needs replacing entirely.

This just simply isn’t the case, it was common practice, as mentioned previously, for the Samurai to customise and change their Katanas Koshirae in a way that was representative of the things they held dear. When you buy a new Nihonto the most important factor to consider is blade quality, everything else is replaceable, usually a replacement blade would be kept mounted in Shirasaya 白鞘 (White Scabbard) which are simple plain wooden fittings used primarily for storage over prolonged periods of time and for protection of the blade.

Keeping a Nihonto mounted in Koshirae for extended periods of time is actually detrimental to the blade as it allows condensation and moisture to build up inside the Saya which over time will cause the blade to rust.

Shirasaya 白鞘 were traditionally made from Nurizaya wood and were very simple fittings consisting of a Saya, Tsuka, Mekugi and the Nihonto itself so when the Samurai knew his Katana would not be used for a while or needed repairing he would remove the original Koshirae and mount the blade in Shirasaya until it was needed again. Shirasaya were never intended to be used as a standalone Nihonto in their own right but they often get mixed up with the Shikomizue (Stick Swords) commonly seen used by the Ninja.

Try to view your Nihonto as something that should be built upon and personalised, it’s often difficult for any Kenjutsu (Sword Art) practitioner to buy the sword that feels right for them, that’s because often you need to strip it back to its base and build it to the specifications that suit your needs.

Now obviously thats not quite as easy as it sounds as it takes a long time to learn and develop the skills necessary to build Nihonto but their are a number of services available that for a reasonable fee will undertake any repairs and customise your Katana for you to your specifications. Everything is replaceable on your Katana so its easy enough to source replacement parts such as Saya, Tsuba, Fuchi, Kashira, Menuki, Habaki, Sageo, etc. Please feel free to contact us at www.ningu.co.uk

You should also consider the intended use for your Nihonto, you don’t train with live bladed weapons in the Dojo so often only high ranking martial arts practitioner invest significant sums of money into their Katana as they have the skill needed train with an expensive blade without the fear of writing it off entirely. You should never train with Shinken Katana if your a beginner, ever, its far to dangerous, stick with Bokken until you are proficient in your art enough to train with Iaito and then finally Shinken Nihonto.

In conclusion use common sense, Nihonto are extremely dangerous and expensive, treat them with respect, its your responsibility as the owner to conduct yourself in a safe and respectful manner or otherwise you will inevitably seriously injure yourself or somebody else.

In my next article I will take an in depth look at Tsukamaki (Handle wrapping) styles for Nihonto.