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History of Samurai Swords


The history of Samurai swords is closely intertwined with the history of Japan and the dynasties ruled the country throughout the centuries. Swords that are identified as “samurai swords” share the some general features:

  1. made of steel
  2. single bladed
  3. tempered steel
  4. curved blade

Interestingly, and contrary to the public belief, the art of sword making was first introduced to the island by the Chinese and Korean smiths.

The samurai sword periods can be divided to 4 major periods:

Chokuto/Ken Period (Up to 900 AD)

Also known as the ancient swords, swords made in this period were manufactured by Korean or Chinese smiths as well as the early Japanese smiths in Yamato and Mutsu region. There are a very few example of these swords in existence today. Although the blades were made of steel, tempering was faulty. The majority of samurai swords from this period were straight or “Chokuto” type.

Koto Period/Old Swords (900 to 1530)

Swords made in this era are from the Heian and Kamakura period in the Japanese history. After periods of relative peace under Fujiwara clan rule, Japan entered a period of pro-longed war and hostilities lasting for centuries. It was during this period that the Japanese successfully repelled the Mongols attempted assault to invade Japan. During this era, power was only obtained through warfare.

Samurai swords made during this period were designed for the warriors on horsebacks. The cutting edge of swords was four feet or even longer. The straight sword of Chokuto period gradually changed to single-bladed sword with curvature. Unfortunately there are a few of the swords from this period still in existence.

Numerous schools of smiths were established throughout the country. These schools were predominantly close to major centers of administration where demand was high as well as regions with deposits of iron and charcoal used for forging. The five provinces where the majority of the schools of smiths were located were known as the five schools; Mino, Yamato, Soshu, Bizen and Yamashiro.

During the Sengoku period, between 1467 to 1530 AD, due to a series of feudal civil wars throughout the region, the demand for swords increased exponentially and smiths turned to mass production. This led to a decrease in sword quality.

Pictured above:13th century Fukoka Ichimonji Sukezne

Pictured above: 12th century Naminohira Yakiyasu Tachi

Shinto Period/New Sword (1530 to 1867)

More than half of the swords found today are from this era. The civil war was over and Japan enjoyed peace brought by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oda Nobunaga. This led to the Samurai sword losing its practical value. The length of the sword was shorted to about two feet. The Samurai wore these swords between the hip and the sash. The tradition and unique methods of Five schools were vanquished and what is now known as Edo, Tokyo became the center of sword making and attracted many excellent smiths.

Toward the end of this period, the art of sword making declined. Sword makers paid more attention to the aesthetics rather than practicality and usefulness. Many swords from this period have extravagant engravings of dragons and flowers r qather than the grooves and Sanskrit characters of the old swords.

Pictured above: 17th century Kanbun Shinto Katana

Pictured above: 17th century Wakizashi

Shin-Shinto Period/Modern Sword (1868 - current)

This is the era marked the beginning of modern Japan and with it the downfall of the art of samurai sword making. Under Meiji Restoration introduced by Emperor Meiji, swords could no longer be worn by Samurai. Many swordsmiths lost their trade and turned to making horseshoes, knives and ordinary blacksmithing. At the beginning of 20 th century, many swords were exported to France and United States. 

American collectors took a keen interests in Japanese swords and many present-day swords and sword mountings in the US Museum exhibits are from these collections. Post-World War II, many American servicemen brought back swords with them as war souvenirs. 

An estimated 250,000 to 350,000 swords were brought back to the US and there are currently more Samurai swords in the United States than there is in Japan.

Tiger Elite Katana by Paul Chen

Pictured above: 21st century Tiger Elite Katana by Paul Chen Hanwei

Practical Plus Katana by Paul Chen

Pictured above: Practical Plus Katana by Paul Chen Hanwei

If you are interested to learn more about the Samurai Swords, we recommend you reading The Samurai Sword - A Handbook by John M. Yumoto.

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