Nihonto Glossary                    Nihonto History 

Brief History of Nihonto
by Sato Kanzan


Early History (- 8th C.)

    It took thousands of years for the Japanese sword to take a curvature in its shape. The primeval inhabitants on the Japan archipelago must have used any weapons of sword-like made of stone or bronze, but it was the Northeastern Asia Continent who introduced the sword made of iron for the first time to Japan. About the second to fourth century, a large number of immigrant swordsmiths from the Continent worked throughout Japan. According to the Dedication Catalogue of Shosoin Repository, which possesses about 70 pieces of the early swords, frequently mentioned the terms of Kara-Tachi (Chinese Sword), Koma-no-Tsurugi (Korean Sword), Kara-yo-no-Tachi (Chinese style sword), or Koma-yo-no-Tsurugi (Korean style sword), the craft of the Japanese sword at the early stage was under the great influence from the Continent.

    The sword in this age generally had straight blade of Hira-zukuri. Then, Kiriha-zukuri (pen-shaped in section) began to appear which apparently developed from Hira-zukuri by adding much sharpness on the blade. Tsurugi-no-tachi frequently expessed in the Mannyo-shu (the Japan's oldest national anthology compiled in the eighth century) is presumable to be Kissaki-moroha-zukuri that appeared later than the previous two types. Besides the Shosoin pieces, there are more examples existing such as Heishi-shorin-no-Ken and Shichisei-no-Ken at the Shitennoji Temple, Kanto-no-Tachi of the Komura Shrine, and Suiryu-Ken kept in the Tokyo National Museum. It is surprising that there is a close similarity between the beauty of these blade textures and that by the later Yamato or Soshu school blades which represents the best age of Japanese sword, telling the craftmanship of these ancient blades had already achieved a remarkable development in such an early age. As for the Hamon, they mainly exhibit Suguha and a slight midare. Some of the excavated pieces - found in quantity out of old mounds throughout Japan - show variation in undulating edge patterns that are important as foreshadowing the future development of fine "Watering," suggesting a subject for further study. The blades of the Shosoin swords and Shichisei-no-Ken are decorated with the gold inlaid design of the clouds or constellation, reflecting the custom of the worship for the astronomical materials of Chinese andother Southern nations.

    Judging from the straight-blade sword, in those days main military force was provided by infantry, for curve becomes naturally reqpuied to swing the sword  down from the horseback.

    With the transfer of the capital from Nara to Kyoto (794 A.D.), the Heian period began, but the sword world maintained its basic design without change. Representative relic, Futsu-no-mitama-no-Tsurugi in the Kashima Shrine can be datable from this age with only the point of the blade texture that conveys somewha the Heian flavor.

Middle Heian - Early Kamakura Period (9th - Middle 12th C.)

    An important step in the construction of sword was taken when Japanese swordsmiths came to produce a curved-blade of Shinogi-zukuri, that is considered to have innovated from the experience of wars occurred in succession at the turn of the 10th century. The swords of this age are marked with gracefulness. The shape is slender with strong Koshi-zori (waist-curve), the foible curving inward, and the blade tapers toward the Kissaki with the ratio of width of the ricasso (the base of the blade) to that of the top is as 10 to 5.5 or 6, proving to be an effective weapon to make a blow and to aim toward enemy's throat from the horseback. In appreciation, those features, needless to say, added effect of beauty on sword as artistic asset.

    The habit of carrying a dagger thrusting through the sash as the second sword to the Tachi became the custom now. They had slender and small blades curved inward. The most famous dagger of the time is the one, that is oldest in date, at the Itsukushima Shrine bearign the three-character inscription to the effect that Made by Tomonari (of old Bizen School) which is traditinally told to have donated to the shrine by Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358).

    From the late Heian Period on, ornamented carving on the blades made appearance. Sanscript monogram, Kurikara (dragon-entwined sword), Suken (sword), Koshihi (waist trough), Buddhist images and the like were their subjects, all closely connected with the maker's or user's religious deisre, and not mere decoration but meant pray for proection by Buddha or Gods and for the repose of souls of the people who were killed with the sword.

Middle Kamakura - Late Muromachi Period (Late 12th - Middle 14th C.)

    The Shogunate Government newly established in the Kamakura period after the decline of the noble class enforced regime of life, encouraging thrift and developing a militaristic spirit. the 1274's invasion of Japan by the Mongols was also an important forming power (Japanese had got wind of this threatened aggression and been under national precaution against.) in characterization of the Kamakura swords remindful of the beauty of heroic prowess. The swords were heavily built with greater width and the more elongated Kissaki. The curve followed the previous style, namely Koshizori but it extended in the same direction as far as the top and the whole length was of approximately same breadth. As the age went into the end of the period, these trends were getting increased more and more.

    Spurred by the experience of hand-to-hand fighting with the Mongols, the craft of dagger production rapidly progressed; so-called Yoridoshi (thrusting armor) was of with much thicker mune almost triangular in section possessing extreme rigidity that strong enough, as the name implied, to penetrate armor made of hard-dried leather and thick iron plates (e.g. Yoroidoshi by Atsushi Toshiro). Between the former and this periods, small Tachi about 65cm in length had a short vogue.

    This period was indeed the flowering era of Japense sword, and was productive of so many talents: the Yamato school was characterized by the skillful hammerwork of straight wood grain texture; the Soshu school by the large wood grain combined with Chikei;, the Bizen school boasted to bring out the wood grain with Utsuri, etc. Concerning the edge patterns the swords showed Suguha, Choji, O-Midare, Hitatsura (patterns not limited to the edge but extending all over the blade face),

Nanbokucho Period (Middle - Late 14th C.)

    From the view point of Japanese sword history, the Nanbokucho period should be an individual category, although the chronology of general art history does not separate it from the Muromachi Period. To put it into brief, the tendency of long and wide sword of the kamakura period is exaggerated in this age; the extreme example of which is so-called Seoi-Tachi (Tachi carried on the back), alias No-dachi which boasts its long and broadened figure. Its opposite is Tachi and daggers whose blade are so slender and short as never existed. Such two extremes were the characteristics of the Nanbokucho Period.

Muromachi Period (Early 15th - Late 16th C.)

    This was a prolic time of sword production in response to the need of the civil war which had been recurrent for a hundred years since the latter half of the 15th century. Those Kazuuchi (mass produced swords) were dealt in a lot called Tabagatana (a bundle of swords) at the market. On the other hand, sword cutlers did Chumon-uchi (specially ordered swords), in which makers desired to display their talent. To incise an user's signature on the tang was practiced in this age for some of the Chumon-uchi works, that played an role as an owner's sign after his death at the battle field. As the sword in Japan has been taken seriously with an idea that it is essence of warrior's spirit, to won best possible sword was dream of military people. Turning from the exaggerated style of the preceding period, the sword cutlers of the time tried to be faithful successors to the great Kamakura style, the revival boom grew out from the fact that the Muromachi Shogunate deemed the kamkura Government as their model for the political institution.

    Another form of the second sword to Tachi called Uchigatana achieved its distinction during this era. It is worn through the sash with the sharp edge upward so that the action of taking it out of scabbard immediately makers a hard blow at the enemy; so sufficient weapon as subsidary sword. Original length of them is the same as Tachi, shorter ones between 60cm and 30cm were called Wakizashi.

Early Period of Shinto (Early - Middle 17th C.)

    All swords made earlier that Keicho era (1596-1614) were classified as Koto, or Furumi (old blade), and those made since then as Shinto, alias Arami (new blade). So called because the Momoyama age (middle-late 16th c.) was a time which witnessed the disintegration of th eold order of the thigns and the rise of a new culture under the reign by military rulers who reunited Japana after a long civil war age. those military rulers were straight-forwarded men unfettered by conventionalities and gave free scope to their tastes. It was only natural that the swordsmiths who came gathered and worked in the new rising cities and towns reflected the ruler's taste in their works. That is, so long the civil war age in duration that classic art of tempering sword had been submerged by the prevailing custom of rough making sword. Another new wave of this time is the use of Nanban-tetsu (Western steel) brought from Holland and Portugal mixed Wagane (inherent Japanese steel). Although widely used by swordsmiths throughout Japan, only Yasutsugu in Echizen province clearly incised on the tang as Used in Nanban-tetsu with a pride of skillful use of Western steel, that relates the habit of their secret use of Western steel. Modern science had discovered that it is more difficult to use Nanban-tetsu to make Japanese swords compared to Wagane.

    The use of a large Tachi had virtually disappeared by the Momoyama period, exerted the practice of Suriage. So-called Keicho Suriage, Tensho (1573-1591) Suriage swords were loved by high-class military people, and from them followed the Shinto. Therefore, one finds Koto flavor of hada and hamon in Shinto blades.

    Horimono proliferated in a variety of designs according to localities of produce, tended to have more decorative element and less religious element. The style of the engraving became elaborate, while the past works conveyed simple and pithy force. The shape of tang became gentler than those of the prior time and the curve of the blade did not extend into the tang but they were almost straight. The Shinto katana carried smith's name inscribed on the opposite side of the tang compared to Tachi, because the katana were worn with the blade edge upward with the smith's signature outward. They were called Tachi mei and Katana mei respectively.

    The custom of wearing Daisho (Set of katana and wakizashi) was established in this age.

Shinto of Edo Period (Late 17th - Late 18th C.)

    It was around Manji, Kanbun eras (1658-1661) that the Shinto emerged from the imitation of the Suriage types and came to be established as a form of the Shinto. The stabilized social life on one hand reduced demand for Katana of military people and increased demand for Wakizashi as the sword of affluent merchants on the other, who were members of newly-rising class. Two representative swordsmiths, Nagasone Okisato, alias Kotetsu in Edo, and Tsuda Sukehiro in Osaka: The former was noted for his superior hamon called Juzuba (hamon looks like juzu -Buddhist rosary) enriched with deep Nioi, Nie and noticeable ashi. The latter specialized in the edge pattern name Toranaba (turbulent wavy hamon) enriched with serene Nioi. Then Tanba-no-kami-Yoshimichi in Kyoto was succeeded in his efforts to bring out another new hamon, Sudare (bamboo hamon).

    In general, horimono was not so popular as before, dealing with both of the religious and the mere decrative subjects. The new formation of tang in this period is the appearance of Kesho-yasuri and the long inscription denoting not only the swordsmith's name but the title and his place. The sword of this age were not the property of the soldier only. Wakizashi by Nagasone Okisata, the direct follower to Kotetsu, made in the 2nd year of Empo (1674) showed that the owner was Munekiyo who was a powerful merchant in Edo.

Shinshinto of Late Edo Period (19th C.)

    The next move came around the Bunka (ca.1804) era that formed a class by itselfcalled Shinshinto. There arose a movement in political world to restore national rule from the Tokugawa Government to Imperial Court and in art world to desire of restoration of the Yamato-e of the classic Heian Period. Warried about the decline of style of the classical sword, the swordmakers of the time centering Kawabe Masahide in Yamagata prefectrue in Northern Japand and Nankai Taro Choson in Kansai distric were well-versed in ancient mannrs and spirit in craft of swordmaking. As it combined with the general trend of the time, the new movement grew rapidly to the extent that a great number of swordsmiths rushed to Masahide. His passion was embodied by his able pubil Shoji Naotane, whose skill was best displayed on copies of the Bizen and Soshu blades. They skillfully approached to the classical swords in blade shape, however, far inferior to the old masterpieces in essential quality of the blade texture and edge pattern. Gassan Sadaichi was the last great cutler who adorned the history of Japaense sword before the modern age. Regretfully enough, the had to discontinue his work when young as the decree banning the wearing of swords was announced in 1876. At the end of the Meiji era he was appointed ad Court Artist, and gave a great influence of the subsequent modern swordsmiths.

Gendaito and Shinsakuto (1868 - )

    The adoption of the modern arms ended the sword's importance as a weapon, however, Japanese sword is found to serve an important function from the sense of tradition for its unique beauty of steel work. After the WWII, swords have become essentially works of art by the establishment of New Constitution, clearly abandoning any means of every war. Most recently these has been a tendencey to revert to the faultless beauty of Koto in which, we believe, lurk the true beauty and dignity of Japanese sword.