NIHON-TO: THE JAPANESE SWORD
Most likely, there is no weapon that has played such a dominant and symbolic part in the cultural history of a people as the sword has in Japan. The Japanese people consider themselves as chosen and as mythology has it, their emperor descends directly from the sun-godess Amaterasu Omikami. One of the three regalia of the emperor, besides a mirror and crown jewels, is the sword the god Susanoo gave to Amaterasu after he defeated a dragon with eight heads.
The typical Japanese sword as we know it today, can be traced back to the eighth century, when mounted soldiers already used a relatively long variety (tachi). The tachi was carried on the left thigh with the edge downward, thus enabling the soldier to deliver a long, upwards cut without losing his own defense. According to a smith named Amakuni, a curved blade proved to be much stronger and more effective than its straight counterpart. In time, the length diminished and the weapon became suitable for man-to-man fights on firm ground.
It was only in the sixteenth century that this type of long sword (daito, katana), together with a shorter one (shoto, wakizashi), was worn in the samurais belt with the sharp edge upwards (daisho), thus opening the way to true iai. At the end of the turbulent Muromachi and Momoyama periods and during the more or less quiet Edo era in Japanese history, until well into the nineteenth century, the samurai reigned supreme and developed the versatile etiquette of the feudal class, in which other art forms, apart from the martial arts, played an important role as well.
THE MODERN AGE
After the Meiji-restauration, which began in 1867 and which opened Japanese society to influences from the West, wearing the daisho was prohibited. This meant a shrewd blow for almost all martial arts traditions, to be compared with the ban on weapons during the American occupation following the Second World War. However, a new iaido and kendo movement was primed in the first decades of the twentieth century, which finally gave birth to modern iaido. Actual applications on the battlefield have now given way to the individual education of its practitioners.
SMITHING PROCESS AND PARTS
Appraising Japanese swords is an art in itself. They consist of different parts. The blade continues under the hilt, which is fixed into place by a bamboo peg. On this ‘invisible’ part of the tang the smith has often inscribed his name. Not only are all swords built throughout the centuries accompanied by official documents; even some contemporary smiths are recognized as living monuments of Japanese cultural heritage by the authority of the state! During the process of forging, when the steel is folded many times to spread the carbon evenly, the blade has been given a relatively soft core and a hard surface. The many layers can be clearly seen in the structure of the metal, especially after polishing. This renders the sword extraordinary sharp but still flexible, and thus difficult to break.
The edge is additionally hardened and has a different grain, reducing the possibility of damage to an absolute minimum. This section can be identified by a certain pattern on the surface of the blade (hamon), which emerges when the smith heats it to a higher temperature and cools it quicker than the rest of the blade by using layers of clay. Traditionally, the hilt is made out of ray- or sharkskin, wrapped with cotton, silk or leather string. Ornaments in relief provide the swordsman with a better grip. The handguard is forged and is seen as a work of art in its own right by collectors. A wooden scabbard (saya) protects the blade; it is attached to the belt around the waist with a special braid (sageo).
If you want to learn more about the japanese sword, take a look at the website of Token Sugita Europe or contact the Dutch Token Society.