The Samurai Sword
Created | Updated Dec 12, 2005
The Samurai sword, or Katana, is considered by lot of people to be just an ornamental item that goes in the living room, proudly placed over the fire to enhance the decorative feel. However, a closer look at it reveals a whole new picture; you'll start to see an ancient history.
The swords constructed for the Samurai were thought to have powers and lives of their own. Mythology gives the creation of the first sword as a weapon created by the god Izanagi who used it to kill his son the Fire God. This was because he had caused Inzanami, his mother, such extreme pain at birth that she abandoned Inzanagi, and crept away to the underworld. Inzanagi also had a daughter, Amaterasa Omikami, the Sun Goddess, who gave the sword to her grandson Ninigi-no Mikoto. He was given this to reign on Earth, and this was the first sword to arrive in Japan, according to mythology.
The sword obviously meant a lot more than just a weapon to the Samurai. They showed respect to the sword and even developed a strict code of etiquette for handling and maintaining them. Soldiers defeated in battle prayed at the shrines of the War God Hachiman, asking why their swords had lost their spirit.
Because of the importance of the sword and the mystical significance attached to them, the swordsmith was an honoured and highly respected class. The swordsmith was a very dedicated and religious man who took great pride in his work.
One of the great things about the Samurai sword is the keen sharpness of the blade. One story tells about famous swordsmiths who were considered almost equal in skill. They decided to have a contest to see who could make the better sword. As a test for the sword, it was held upright in a swift running stream and every dead leaf that drifted against the edge of the sword was cut neatly in two.
The Making of the Sword
To make a blade like those used in the Katana, the Japanese swordsmiths had to overcome a problem that had baffled all armourers for years. Swordmakers could make steel very hard so that it would hold a sharp edge, but by doing this they made the blade very brittle. However, soft steel would not break so easily but would not hold a sharp edge and would quickly dull in battle. Most swordmakers would go for something in between, so it was reasonably sharp and sturdy.
One way the Japanese swordsmiths solved the problem was to hammer together layers of steel varying in hardness, welding them into a metal sandwich. This was then reheated and hammered out thin again. This process was carried out dozens of times until the steel contained thousands of paper-thin laminations of hard and soft metal. It was then hammered into the right shape and was ready for the final step. This is where the swordsmith would cover the top half of the blade with a layer of adhesive material, which usually consisted of clay. The blade was then heated to a temperature that made the blade glow to the smith's liking, and then a prayer was said and the blade was plunged into water. The exposed edge cooled instantly while the rest of the blade, protected by the clay, cooled slowly and remained comparatively soft. The final result was a sword blade of a soft non-brittle metal that shows on the bottom a thin line that was to be sharpened to become the actual blade. This produced an extremely sharp and robust sword.
This was not a speedy process and did not come cheap as it took many days to make and several people to help with the process of heating the blade, but the end product was, and still is, regarded as a priceless item. To make an inscription on the sword was not uncommon. The swordsmith usually put on his name, his titles and where it was made.
This did not conclude the lengthy process, as the sword also needed a handle and guard. These were pieces of art in themselves. The bone of the finger of a defeated warrior, which again shows the great spiritual value that the sword held, often replaced the wooden peg that held it all together. Once the sword was complete, the swordsmith would then test the sword for sharpness and durability.
There are several stories that are told to describe the process of testing the sword, but the main tests that were found to be most effective were the most brutal. The cutting test was sometimes used on live bodies in the form of condemned criminals, but far more common was to have the sword's power tested on corpses, or on bundles of rushes bundled around a bamboo core. A corpse was sometimes hung up and cut through either sideways or downwards. Although it sounds a bit over the top for testing a sword, it was not just an offensive weapon for the Samurai. It was also used as a defensive weapon, because the Samurai never carried a shield, and the sword was a two handed weapon. This weapon in the hands of a Samurai, among the greatest warriors to have ever lived, was the most deadly of them all.