The history of the Japanese sword. Part 1
The katana is as much a weapon as it is a work of art. Symbol of power, martial spirit and honor, it represents the soul of the samurai, the Japanese warrior.
Blade forged by Ikkanshi Tadatsuna in 1709, at the end of his life.
Representative masterpiece of the art of this craftsman active in Osaka in the middle of the Edo period.
Ikkanshi got into the habit of adding the words "forged and engraved" to his signature for pieces with such finely chiseled patterns.
Listed as Japanese Important Cultural Heritage.
Nihonto could be translated as "ancient saber", but also means "saber forged in Japan".
Indeed, in the Nihontō exist the Jōkotō, the Kotō, the Shintō, the Shinshintō, the gendaitō, showatō, and finally the shinsakutō or shinken, all of a different period from the oldest to the most recent.
The first weapons appear in Japan as early as the Yayoi period, from 300 BC.
The Nihontō, or Japanese sword, was born from a desire for purely technical improvement. But it turns out that swords were indeed considered respected pieces of art very early in Japanese history, and the first blades (Jōkotō) were also objects of worship.
From sword to saber there is a big difference (the sword is two-edged whereas the saber is single-edged) and the Japanese saber or katana as we know it saw its ancestor appear in the middle of the Heian period (794-1099) with the first swords called Jōkotō.
The first curves appearing however towards the middle of the Asuka era (645) with in particular the blacksmith Amakuni from 700 (One of the main figures of the Japanese forge, creator of the tachi). There are then many types of Jōkotō: tsurugi (jian), warabite no tashi, tosu and especially tachis, direct relatives of the katana.
The forge developed enormously during this period. the powers of the government diminish in favor of the clans which split Japan. Many wars appear and therefore explain these technical innovations. Although we then find many bad quality Jōkotō (heating techniques no doubt poorly carried out, and poor quality metals) there are some exceptional swords that have nothing to envy to modern katanas.
Tachi said "to Hyôgo-gusari" is a saber in which the bail (obitori) fixed to the upper part of the scabbard consists of several chains like those intended for military equipment. The weapon of choice for Imperial Court nobles and warriors during the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) eras, this type of sword was also later forged to serve as an offering in Shinto shrines. and Buddhist temples.
On the surface of the sheath lacquered with dense gold powder (ikakeji) is visible a motif of a cloud of birds drawn according to the maki-e process (powdered motif in relief). The hilt, as well as the fittings of the scabbard, are decorated with the same motif, which is also found, chiseled in openwork, on the saber hilt (tsuba), gilded on a silver background.
The blade of this tachi, which was forged in Bizen province (south-eastern part of present-day Okayama prefecture), by a craftsman from the so-called "Ichimonji de Fukuoka" school (literally: school of "character a "), carries engraved on its silk (nakago), as a signature, the number" one ". It would appear that the sword itself and its mount (koshirae) date from around the same time, which is a case of which few are known. This sword was passed down within the Uesugi family, who would then donate it to the Shinto shrine of Mishima. It is therefore also referred to as "tachi Uesugi". During the Meiji period, it was offered to the Imperial Household.
Listed as Japanese National Treasure.
They appear around the second half of the Heian era, up to the aria Muromashi. They are again stains, but this time they become more and more curved: we discover that the result is better cutting abilities and better impact resistance. Naturally, the blades bent during forging: indeed it is a physical consequence when the edge is close to the back of the blade. However, the steeper the edge and the closer to the back of the blade, the sharper the weapon. The blacksmiths decided not to avoid the bends, but on the contrary to work them. The Kiriha-zukuri then give way to the Shinogi-zukuri, an evolution of the point making it stiffer (or thin) at the level of the cutting edge and the area just after it. The blade is then much sharper (it is the structure still the most used).
Sharper also means weaker against weaves when this sharp aspect comes from a refined wire (more acute angle), the risks of breakage are increased. This is where the difficulty of Japanese swordsmithing already appeared at the time: obtaining the right balance, with an ever sharper weapon without compromising its solidity. Playing with angles then becomes essential (later other techniques will make katanas more flexible and therefore less brittle in the face of shocks, with the appearance of composites for example). It only took a few “failed” Jōkotō with unwanted and poorly caught bends, as well as good observations, to realize that these bends allowed the weapons to be much more incisive. The Kotō was born. These swords are not yet called katana, but tachi.
the quenching lines (hamon) are considerably better made, the nakago (tang of the blade) are also better made, and excellent pieces are becoming less rare: forging techniques are much better mastered. The first traditions appear with the Yamato Den tradition and its first school, the Senjuin school around 1184, inspired by the blacksmith Amakuni. Then around 1187 the Awataguchi school, using the techniques of Sanjo Munechika, allows the Yamashiro tradition to be born, and finally the Bizen tradition to emerge with the Ichimonji school. It is the Bizen tradition which will quickly meet the most success, followed closely by the Yamashiro tradition.
Some tachi will subsequently be used mainly for cavalry, with a metal scabbard and a larger sageo (braiding on the scabbard) to avoid friction on the saddle. The tachi blade is also much more curved. The optimal impact zone (called "mono-uchi") is therefore located in the first third of the blade, while the middle of the katana blade is the most effective zone thereof. It measures on average 70cm and at least more than 60cm, the size is therefore also close to the katana
Toshinaga was a major member of the Nara school, the oldest representative of this type of craft at that time. Already highly esteemed during Edo, he was considered one of the three greatest craftsmen of the Nara school along with Sugiura Jôi and Tsuchiya Yasuchika.
This round, thick iron guard is adorned with a tiger on a rock in front of a cave, between clouds like boiling steam and choppy waves. These latter motifs are cut in relief with a chisel, while the cave is cut in notches. Although it is a work full of strength and relief, the stripes on the tiger's fur and the foam of the waves give way to gold and silver damascens giving it a touch of delicacy.
Following the Heian era, comes the Kamakura period (1185-1333) or is established a new Shōgun (military government), the first Bakufu ("government under the tent") is set up. This is the period when many blacksmiths appear across Japan, developing original and increasingly personal techniques. Schools develop (Bizen, Yamashiro, Yamato, Sōshu) and swords generally become less refined. They are indeed longer, wider at the level of the tang, and especially more incisive because the kissaki (point of the katana) is lengthened. The tempers are better, the steels more resistant, and the Soshu tradition which is largely at the base of these modifications meets a great success (tradition born of the blacksmith Yukimitsu member at the beginning of the Yamashiro tradition).
The Nanboku-chō era from 1333 to 1392 finally saw the appearance of different long blades, which until then were only tachi. The nodachi make their appearance, but it is above all a remarkable period because the beautiful already imposing forms of the Kamakura period are taken again to be even more enlarged, the swords then become very imposing, this does not at all call into question their excellent quality. technical.
The Muromachi era (1392-1573) finally saw the disappearance of the Kotō-type tachi which were then largely replaced by the katanas. Indeed the fights change, and it becomes important to be able to draw and strike at the same time (Nuki Uchi). The tachi, which is too curved but above all too long, does not allow this maneuver and is therefore worn downward sharp, while the katana is carried upward sharp. The blades lose the aggressiveness they had acquired during the Nanboku-chō period to get closer to what were made in the Kamakura era, with blades of 70-73cm (standard size called Josun), even 60cm during the Sengoku period.
The Nambokuchô period (1333-1392), marked by struggles between clans and civil wars, saw the flourishing of decorative art on weapons and saber mounts. This precious short saber (koshi-gatana) with sophisticated ornamentation is a beautiful illustration. The bronze handle is first plated in silver, then covered with gold leaf. Above, we have adjusted a gilded copper ring forming an openwork pattern of peonies. The scabbard is covered with lacquered and polished "shagreen kairagi", with again at the end a decoration of peonies chiseled in high relief.
Often of rather poor quality, generally intended for low-ranking warriors, we begin to distinguish the sizes and to give the names katanas and wakizashis in common use. The term Uchigatana will disappear over time to make room for these new terms. Bad quality indeed, because the civil war of Ōnin generated a mass production, and the famous blacksmiths are less and less numerous. Katanas are produced in the simplified Bizen and Mino tradition, and are called kazu-uchi mono or tabagatana (mass produced swords), of lower quality, differentiated from chumon-uchi (high quality and custom swords, generally made for the Lords).
Composite forging continues to develop with the appearance of kobuse and makuri applied to katana, blades made of different grades of steel, to have a hard surface and a softer and flexible blade interior for better shock absorption.
Next comes the Azuchi Momoyama era. Many modifications will allow the craft in general to develop enormously. Unification eliminates the blacksmith schools (the five great traditions), but great masters are appearing all over Japan. In addition, kenjutsu and the wearing of daishō are developing enormously. We speak of Shintō ("new swords") which are very different from what was done before.
Nevertheless, the quality of the grain of these Shintō is generally less good than that of the Kotō, this is due to the massive importation of lower quality steel from Portugal and Holland (nanbantetsu or even hyotantetsu or konohatetsu as opposed to watetsu , Japanese steel), and the use of poor quality Japanese steel from the west (steel containing too much phosphorus, which increases the risk of blade breakage). But the term Shintō is justified: these new swords are of an indisputably superior quality with regard to the forging techniques which have developed enormously since the end of the Muromachi era, in parallel with this rapid and massive production. The old techniques have disappeared, but are rediscovered little by little, and new techniques are added to create an art of forging of excellent quality.
The Edo era, also sometimes called the Tokugawa period, saw the reappearance of the desire to make aesthetic and refined katanas like the Kotō were. We always talk about Shintō, although there is therefore a big difference between the first Shintō, and the latter which in addition to being more aesthetic are also often of better quality.
The curvatures are revised to less imitate those of the tachi, magnificent hamon (quenching lines) develop. We speak for these tempers of Shinto Tokuden, a new art. A difference between east and west appears, we speak of Osaka Shintō and Edo Shintō. Osaka being a cultural city we have more sophisticated katanas, while in Edo, a new city where the Bushidō code is extremely strict, we often have more imposing katanas, whose technical quality takes precedence over aesthetics. We then speak of wazamono to designate katanas cutting very well, since it is a period during which cutting tests (tameshigiri) are common, and some people are officially employed by the government to do these tests.