When Was the Katana Invented? History overview


The katana, with its sleek curve and razor-sharp edge, is an important symbol of Japanese craftsmanship, discipline, and warrior ethos. Katana was invented in Heian Period, about 1000 years ago from now, this unique sword has traversed the annals of history, rooting itself deeply in Japanese culture, martial arts, and even modern-day pop culture. From the hands of ancient samurai warriors to the screens of contemporary films, the katana's legacy is timeless and profound.

many katana displayed in museum

Kofun Period Swords

The history of the Japanese sword dates back to the Kofun period, which was from around 250-538CE. During this period, iron processing and ironmaking techniques were introduced in Japan, marking the beginning of sword production in the country. This was a significant development in Japan’s military technology.

kofun period warfare

The sword, “金錯銘鉄剣” (Gold-Inscribed Iron Sword), which was excavated from the “Saitama Kofun Group Inariyama Kofun” in Saitama Prefecture, has 115 characters inscribed in gold in the center of the blade. From its content, it became clear that the power of “Emperor Yuryaku” (Yuryaku Tennou) had reached Kanto by the year 471 (15th year of Emperor Yuryaku).

This sword has been designated as a national treasure. It is a double-edged straight sword with a total length of 73.5cm and a blade width of 3.15cm, and the handle is not very long.

“金錯銘鉄剣” (Gold-Inscribed Iron Sword)

Chokuto and Early Swordsmithing

Before the katana or its direct predecessors came into being, the chokuto was the mainstream swords in ancient Japan (before Heian period). These were straight, single-edged swords influenced by the Chinese Jian and Korean designs of the era, they were made for the purpose of striking or stabbing. Made using a simple forging technique, these were effective for their time but had their limitations in durability and cutting capability.

However, the main weapons from the Kofun period to the Nara period were spears (yari) and bows (Yumi), so most of the swords produced were used for religious ceremonies or as burial goods in tumuli, serving the purpose of ceremonial tools.

A chokuto sword

The 丙子椒林剣 Heishishourinken, which is also a national treasure, is a straight sword with a total length of 65.8cm and a blade length of 65.1cm. The blade is slightly curved inward, and the ridge/ridge is slightly curved outward.

Among the ancient swords, it is considered to be one of the best made. The blade is clean and slender, with a thin straight blade pattern that narrows slightly towards the tip/cutting edge, making it slender and elegant.

Amakuni: The Pioneer of Curvature

The early Heian period (around 700 CE) marked the birth of the first curved Japanese swords that would evolve into the modern katana. Legend narrates the story of Amakuni, a master swordsmith, who observed that many samurai returned from battle with their straight swords either broken or damaged. Recognizing the need for change, Amakuni and his son, Amakura, embarked on crafting a more resilient and effective blade. This innovative process birthed the first curved Japanese sword. The curve, or 'sori', of the blade allowed for a more effective cutting motion, especially from horseback, making it superior to its straight counterparts.

a tachi sword

童子切安綱: The blade length of Dojigiri Yasutsuna is 80.3cm. It is a shinogi-zukuri with a high waist curve and a slender long dimension. The small kissaki/cutting edge is slender and beautiful, giving a sense of grandeur. According to legend, the mid-Heian period warrior “Minamoto no Yorimitsu” (Minamoto no Yorimitsu) directly requested Yasutsuna to make the sword.

Tachi: The Cavalry's Blade

tachi striking from horseback

As battles and warfare tactics evolved, so did the needs of the warriors. The tachi emerged during the late Heian period as a response to the demands of mounted combat. Longer and more curved than its successors, the tachi was worn hanging edge-down from a belt, allowing swift drawing and slashing while on horseback. Its intricate fittings and often ornate decorations signified the high status of its bearer.

Uchigatana and the Birth of Katana

Daisho set

The rise of infantry battles and more foot-based combat tactics in the Muromachi period paved the way for the uchigatana. This was a shorter, more maneuverable weapon than the tachi, designed to be effective in close combat and quick-draw scenarios. As the uchigatana gained popularity, the manner in which it was worn also shifted. While the tachi was worn edge-down, the uchigatana (and later the katana) was worn edge-up, thrust through an obi (belt). This facilitated a quicker draw and immediate strike, known as "iaijutsu."

With the peaceful Edo period, samurai transformed from warriors to bureaucrats, and their swords became more symbols of status rather than purely functional weapons, the koshirae of their katana are getting more and more exquisite . However, the legacy of the blade's development and its martial significance remained intact.

The journey of the katana is a testament to the relentless pursuit of perfection and adaptation. It embodies the essence of Japanese craftsmanship and the spirit of its warriors. To know and understand the history and evolution of the katana is to appreciate the blend of art, science, and strategy. It is a symbol that transcends its physical form, representing the soul of Japan, and becoming acquainted with its origins enriches our own understanding of history and culture.

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