The Origin and History of the Katana: From Weapon to Art Form

katana history

The katana is one of the most iconic weapons in history that has made its way into pop culture, thanks in part to the influence of martial arts films, manga, and anime. For centuries, the sword has been associated with the samurai, Japan’s elite warrior class during its feudal days. Currently, the katana has turned into an art form that serious antique and sword collectors appreciate and understand. 

Despite its popularity though, there is only a small percentage of people who are aware of the katana’s origins, let alone the methods employed when crafting the blade. With the blade’s colorful history, the katana deserves its story to be known to everyone, especially its dynamic evolution. For that matter, read on if you wish to know more about the katana. 

Meaning and Etymology of the Katana

Before diving into the origin of the katana, it’s best that we are aware of where the term came from, as well as its features. According to historical texts gathered from the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) in 720 CE, katana is a combination of the Japanese words kata, meaning one-sided or one side, and na or blade. For that matter, the katana is considered a nihonto

or a long sword with a single-edged blade. 

Officially, the katana is also called an uchigatana. Though both words refer to the same type of blade, the uchigatana refers specifically to any blade that has the exact specifications of a katana. On the other hand, the katana refers to any type of Japanese sword. The reason why the katana became the more common term would be discussed later. 

What Are the Features of a Katana?

As a longsword, the katana has a nagasa (blade length) of 2 shaku. Shaku is a unit of measurement for measuring the length or distance used in feudal Japan, which is equivalent to approximately 30.3 centimetres (11.9 inches). While the length of a katana could be anywhere between 60 and 80 centimetres (23.62 to 31.5 inches), the sword itself normally has an average length of approximately 60.6 centimetres (23.8 inches). Depending on the overall size of the blade, the sword may weigh from 1.1 to 1.5 kilograms. 

The saya (sheath or scabbard) of the katana is generally made of lacquered wood. The koshirae, or the embellishments on the sheath of a katana when worn by a samurai, may range from fish skin, as well as metal ornaments like copper or brass, among others.

The katana has a distinct curvature (sori), which is less pronounced than the tachi, another daito (longsword) which served as a precursor to the latter. This sword comes with a two-handed tsuka or grip and a tsuba or guard, which may either be in the shape of a square or round disc. 

Where Did the Katana Originate?

As mentioned earlier, the samurai used the tachi, which had a longer blade and more curves than the katana. In the 10th century, the samurai fought by dueling on horseback using the bow and arrow. With this fighting system, the tachi proved effective because of its long and curved blade, which enabled the mounted warriors to reach and slash at the foot soldiers with ease. 

However, as the decades wore on, battle styles eventually changed from dueling to close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat. Such a fighting format made the tachi ineffective because it required the wielder more space to swing the sword. In response to this strategy, the samurai decided to reduce the length of the tachi to provide more movement while engaging the enemy at close range. The resultant blade from the shortened tachi became known  as  the katana.

Classifying Swords Based on Time Periods

Japanese swords can be distinguished according to the period they were produced. This method serves as a timeline of sorts which helps historians and sword collectors identify the eras when a katana came into existence. these periods are as follows:

  • Koto 
  • Shinto
  • Shinshinto
  • Gendaito
  • Shinsaku

Koto (Old) swords were constructed anywhere between 900 CE to 1596 and covered five historical periods (Heian, Kamakura, Nambokucho, Muramachi, and Momoyama) which spanned for centuries. Shinto (New) swords were produced from the late Momoyama and mid-Edo Periods and spanned from 1597 to 1780. Shinshinto (New new) swords, on the other hand, were produced from the mid-Edo to the Meiji Era, which started from 1781 to 1876. 

Gendaito (Modern) swords belonged to the category of blades produced from the years 1876 to 1945. These swords covered the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa Periods. Blades created after World War II up to the present timeline (composed of the Showa and Heisei Eras) are considered Shinsaku (Newly Made) swords. 

Evolution of the Katana Throughout Japan’s History

From the Kamakura to Momoyama Eras (Koto and Shinto)

The katana evolved from a tanto short sword known as a sasuga to the curved, lengthy blade that we are familiar with today sometime during the Namboku-cho Period in the Muromachi Era (1336-1573). Similar to the sasuga, which existed during the Kamakura Era (1185 to 1333), the katana served only as an ancillary sword. The naginata, yari (spear), yumi (bow), nodachi, and other weapons that offered range advantage served as the primary weapons during that period. Likewise, it was also during the Kamakura Era that the word katana was used to distinguish this sword from the tachi. 

Unlike the tachi, the katana was worn with the sharp edge (ha) facing up. This method enabled the samurai to perform cutting or killing blows at the moment the sword is drawn from the scabbard. However, this concept began as a trend in response to the swordsmiths who inscribed mei (signature) on the opposite side of the tang (nakago) of the blade. By tradition, the samurai should be wearing the sword with the mei facing away. Since the mei was on the other side of the tang, the katana, thus, had to be worn in such a way that the blade is facing upward. 

During the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period), particularly in the Onin War, the word uchigatana was used to refer to the low-quality swords that the ashigaru (foot soldiers) wielded in battle. At that time, the katana was used as a secondary weapon as opposed to the naginata, which was the preferred primary weapon. It was also during this period that the katana was produced in high volumes, which unsurprisingly resulted in poor quality blades. 

Furthermore, this period saw the battlefield tactics change, which eventually led to the obsoletion of the longer blades, such as the nodachi and the tachi. As a result, the katana became the primary weapon when the samurai engaged in close-ranged fighting, while the tanegashima or musket, yari, and yumi became the widely used ranged weapons. 

At that point, the katana paved the way for the rise of katana swordsmanship or kenjutsu, and became an integral part of the country’s practice of ko-budo or old martial art. Battojutsu, or the art of drawing the blade in response to a sudden attack, also rose in prominence during this era. 

From the Edo to Showa Eras (Shinshinto and Gendaito)

The beginning of the Edo Period ushered in an era of peace as the Sengoku Jidai ended. During this period, the katana started to take on a new shape because the forging and crafting of the katana began transforming into an art form. It was at this point that the katana started to shift away from its practical function as a weapon to an aestheticized tool. Such trends that were popular during that period were the incorporation of elegant designs on the tsuba, as well as metal fittings adorned the lacquer-coated saya, and the use of silk on the tsuka.

The Tokugawa Shogunate allowed samurai to wear a katana, as well as a short sword, all the time. The shoto, or short sword, could be either in the form of a wakizashi, ko katana, or a kodachi. This assembly became known as the daisho, which was the combination of the words daito and shoto. The daisho was exclusive only for the samurai, since the swords were representative of their honour and social status. 

Koshirae or the ornate mountings on the daisho became a fashion statement for the samurai during this period. Such adornments may range from tsuka with rayskin and silk and tsuba fitted with copper, brass, and other precious metals, among others. 

The Meiji Restoration put an end to the shogunate, as well as the samurai as a social class. With the 1876 Haitorei Edict, the Japanese government banned virtually everyone from carrying a katana, other than the military and the police. During this period, katana production decreased and swordsmiths switched to forging other items, as the Japanese military began to modernize. 

However, the interest in katana returned once more in the mid-19th century when the country started to adopt a militaristic attitude. Thus, in the years prior to World War II, military officers were required to wear swords. Unfortunately, the katana constructed in this period had a different, non-traditional forging process and were dubbed as showato. Because of the method used in the creation of these blades, the Japanese government did not consider the showato as true swords, as compared to the ones that came before it and were forged traditionally. 

Showa and Heisei Eras (Shinsaku)

After the 2nd World War, the production of the katana went on after being banned for nearly a decade from 1945 to 1953. With the ban lifted, the Japanese government imposed a restriction on swordsmiths and the process of becoming one. These limitations were mainly focused on the requirements of becoming a katana bladesmith and that bladesmiths throughout the country should produce no more than two swords per month. 

Nowadays, apart from turning katana smithing into an art form, the katana has become an integral part of martial arts. The sword remains popular throughout the world through the practitioners of iaido, battojutsu, and kendo. With that said, the katana is also used when conducting tameshigiri or test-cutting and performing kenjutsu kata.

Process of Making a Katana 

Tamahagane, also known as Japanese steel or white steel #1, is the main ingredient used in creating a katana. This material is produced by smelting iron-sand or pig iron mixed with charcoal. Tamahagane has high carbon content, which, if forged and prepared properly, gives the katana blade its durable composition. 

The process of smelting takes around more or less three days. In this procedure, the katana craftsman would heat the iron-sand or pig iron in a tatara (furnace), allowing the carbon and iron to fuse at such high temperature. 

Once the tamahagane is ready, the bladesmith would start forging the steel into workable billets, a process known as tanren. In this procedure, the swordsmith would fold and beat the billets several times to remove all the remaining impurities and inclusions from the steel. The craftsman would then combine the hard and soft steel together, with the former taking up the outer layer, while the latter forms that core of the blade. 

At this phase of the forging process, the steel has not yet obtained its signature curve. This feature only transpires when the steel is subjected to differential quenching, which is a method in which the bladesmith cools the sections of the steel at varying temperatures. This procedure is made possible through tsuchioki, or the application of a type of wet clay paste on the steel in varying layers. 

In this manner, the tapered, outer edge of the steel becomes martensite, which is an extremely hard type of steel. Moreover, pearlite, a ductile, soft type of steel, takes up the outer core, while the softer ferrite takes up the inner core and inner edge of the blade. 

Interestingly, what was once a symbol of the samurai — Japan’s defunct elite warrior class during its feudal era — the katana had been elevated to an art form. This eventual evolution of the katana is what serious sword collectors appreciate about the blade. This procedure also provides the blade with the distinct hamon line or the wavy pattern which outlines the hardened, sharp edge of a katana. Swordsmiths call this process yaki-ire.

Afterwards, a katana craftsman would polish the sword, giving the surface of the blade a mirror-like finish. This step is also called shiage. Decorations, which may be in the form of a hi (more commonly known as blood groove) or a horimono or carving, would be engraved on the blade. Finally, the craftsman would put a signature on the nakago, or tang of the blade. 

  • Katana and Uchigatana: What’s the Difference?

Though the uchigatana is the official term for the katana, both swords differ in one aspect, and that is from the way each sword was crafted. As mentioned earlier, the uchigatana gained popularity during the Sengoku period, during which a large-scale war required a massive volume of weapons, chief among these was the katana. 

Such was the urgency at that time that the uchigatana were not produced the way a swordsmith would have crafted a katana. That’s because a katana would have taken months to produce, even by today’s standards, whereas the uchigatana might have only taken weeks. For that matter, the term uchigatana is used to distinguish a low-quality katana. 

Why Is the Katana Valued Highly in Japan?

As swords, the katana was designed as weapons. At the same time, however, the katana were also seen as objects of divinity, a belief that is rooted in the culture of the samurai, which upholds honor and courage, among anything else. For this reason, the practice of rewarding a samurai with an exceptionally crafted katana became a form of reward system sometime during the 13th and 14th centuries. Even Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi Toyotomi had their own katana collection which they might possibly have handed out to their generals and loyal retainers. 

This custom, in effect, did not just elevate the katana to the status of a divine, ceremonial weapon, but it also increased its value as a work of art. Nowadays, this tradition remains alive not just among sword collectors around the world, but also among katana enthusiasts throughout Japan. 

Final Word — The Origin and History of the Katana

From pop culture to serious sword collectors, the katana has become more than what it is today: a symbol that transcends beyond the memory of the samurai. Once regarded as an auxiliary weapon and used only as a last resort in battle, the katana has evolved out of necessity and ingenuity throughout the centuries.

Moreover, because of the amount of skill and craftsmanship poured into the creation of the katana, the sword became more than just a weapon: it became a valuable gift. For that matter, the katana was regarded as a ceremonial blade that is highly esteemed not just by the samurai themselves, but also by the people who look up to the nobility of Japan’s elite warrior class. 

Jordan Rosolenne

Hi, I’m Jordan Rosolenne, the founder of I’ve been a sword enthusiast all my life and I consider it a serious hobby of mine. I love everything about Swords, Katanas, Medieval Weapons, Anime, and much much more!

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