The Crossguard #7: Japanese Swords

This is the seventh post on my article series on the development of hand protection in sword fights. The articles so far:

The first three general articles already suggest that the regional available resources was one factor in the design of weapons (which is easily understandable), number four gives an overview on steel and sword production, which helps to understand the reasoning and this article here.

After we done the basics, we could look at the several “regions” to find out, why the swords produced there had no straight crossbar or elaborated hilts like the prominent European swords in medieval times since the 10th century had. With little surprise, we see that limited resources are the main factor, but by far not the only factor.

The current article in the series is about the famous Japanese swords. No introduction needed for this weapon, but the very special development will help us to understand, that the question of resources are not enough to explain the development of a handguards.

This article will finally answer the open question to the Chinese Steel and Swords, which was heavily influenced by Japanese sword design. The article will show, that not only the limitation of resources play a role in weapon design, there are traditions, social and trade aspects, and politics defining the design of swords and the handguard.


Usually the disclaimer chapter holds some warnings regarding the fake items, or problems and hindrances to open research, be it rewritten history or social and political limits to access. This time the disclaimer is about terminology. Not only from the European point of view the modern image of the Japanese sword is no sword, but a knife or sabre. This viewpoint is shared by Japanese history and old language. Nevertheless, in this article any Japanese bladed weapon is called “sword”. It helps to be readable by the modern reader.

Japanese Iron and Steel

The historical understanding in diffusion of cultural diffusion is best explained with two major historians. Arnold Joseph Toynbee, active in the midst of the 20th century claims, that there had been no substantial contact between civilizations (A Study of History). Each one progresses according to internal dynamics and not external influences (if not overcome by war etc). Fernand Braudel, active in the same timeframe, told us that cultural goods are constantly on the move. A civilization asserts itself in its refusals to borrow, i.e. by outperforming or own cultural innovations (Le modèle italien, and On History, 1980). These two continental viewpoints on history is combined in the island viewpoint by Keji Imamura, which summarises as follows: rice cultivation had to achieve a certain level of efficiency before it was suitable for use in Japan. This occurred when China was intensifying its agriculture, a development which then spread to Korea and on to Japan. (Prehistoric Japan: New Perspectives on Insular East Asia; Keiji Imamura; 1996, 2000). Rice cultivation and iron tools are linked, as both defined the beginning of the Yayoi culture around 400 BCE according to the common viewpoint (which may need to be updated by recent finds).

Bronze Dōhoko (ritual spear blade) 300 BCE – 300 CE, from the Kojindani Ruins

The following quote of Charles T. Keally is probably the best opening on this part of the article:

The first metal objects to come into Japan were practical iron tools from Korea — knives and axes — which are found in the oldest Yayoi sites in the western part of the country. One iron object has also been reported in a Latest Jomon site in Hokkaido, which would date to around the beginning of Yayoi in western Japan. Bronze objects came later and were predominantly ritual objects, first mirrors, swords and spears from Korea, then mirrors from Han China. Eventually most of these objects were manufactured locally in Japan, rather than being imported. The bronze swords and spears produced later in Japan are mostly very large and clearly not for practical use as weapons. The ritual dotaku bronze “bells” appear to be mostly a local innovation produced locally.

Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo

Metallurgy is said to be also introduced from the Asian mainland during the Yayoi Period (4th century BCE to the 3rd century CE). In opposite to many places with a connection to the Bronze age main trade routes, iron came somewhat earlier than bronze to Japan. How much earlier is open to debate due recent AMS C14-based dates in South Korean sites supported by the iron finds in Japan at the Magarita site in Fukuoka Prefecture (Hayamaru Yayoi 2003). Yuusu I pottery of the Earliest Yayoi period found nearby provided a radiocarbon age of about 700 B.C. or older (see Harunari et al. 2003). These radiocarbon dates led to heavy debates, because they would put iron on the island of Japan earlier than Chinese finds (see Bad Science and the Distortion of History:
Radiocarbon Dating in Japanese Archaeology, Charles T. Keally, May 2014). Due new finds at the Barabash village, 70km away from the border between Korea and Russia in a direction of Vladivostok, gray cast iron workshops in this region could be dated to the 7th to 5th century BCE. Assuming an early trade over the channel, iron could have been introduced in the 7th century BCE in Japan.

"Doka and Magatama," Yayoi Period, 3rd - 2nd centuries BCE, (a halberd head excavated in 1665 from the Manai site); total length 31.2 cm, engraving "Ayasugi"; Tokyo National Museum (Tohaku)
Bronze Doka (dagger axe), Yayoi Period, 3rd – 2nd centuries BCE (excavated in 1665 from the Manai site); total length 31.2 cm, engraving “Ayasugi”; Tokyo National Museum

Tools made from iron or bronze had been imported as finished products or product metal parts from the region of Korea as well as from the Han Chinese, or casted from imported pig metals in the early Yayoi period. The skills needed to produce these objects had been advanced and not been a endemic innovation, but imported knowledge in the later period. Small objects like arrowhead had been produced from the 3rd century BCE as finds show in Imakura, Fukushima. Bronze swords and spearheads were introduced and produced in the 1st century BCE.

Iron Doka (dagger axe), Yayoi Period, 2nd – 1st centuries BCE (Excavated in Suita, Yasu Town, Asakura District, Fukuoka Prefecture), Tokyo National Museum

The academic research sees the bronze Dōhoko (ritual spear blade) as “predominantly ritual objects” because of the outer form. A definition we find as well in writings on European bronze swords before experimental archaeology proved this theory as not very plausible. The fact, that casted iron objects existed, did not put the bronze weapons into decorative objects of rituals. Casted iron weapons are not sustainable and recommendable as much as those bronze weapons. The high resolution images show damages on the edges, which seem to be results of usage as martial objects.

Being an island with limited natural resources the Japanese traded with the Korean Peninsula. This trade with China came to a pause after the second and final attempt by Mongol China to attack Japan in 1281. A new trading relationship began with the new Ming dynasty in the 14th century. By this trade Zen Buddhists came to Japan, steel swords had been exported to China.

History of Iron and Steel Production in Japan

The role of the Korean peninsula, the Kingdom Pyonhan and the region around Guya (present-day Gimhae) were the main sources of iron recorded in Chinese history books such as Chen Shou, a Chinese historian of the 3rd century, wrote in the Records of the Three Kingdoms using the ancient name of Wa for Japan: “Pyonhan produces iron. People from Han, Ye and Wa all come to buy it. Iron is used for buying and selling, and Pyonhan also supplies iron to the two Chinese commanderies of Lelang and Daifang.”

The oldest forged iron object excavated was dated to the earliest Yayoi period around 300 BCE (or updated 700 BCE – see above). The object is the tip of a plate-shaped iron axe found in the remains of a home in the Ishizaki-Magarita ruins in the town of Nijo, Itojima County, Fukuoka Prefecture. Plate-shaped iron axes, chisels, yariganna (an edged tool for chopping trees), and unprocessed raw materials dating back to the second half of the Yayoi Period have been found at the Ayaragi ruins (in the city of Shimonoseki).

Excavations have shown extensive trade in iron in various forms between Japan and the mainland. The great demand for iron and the need for access to iron sources from the Yayoi period upwards was a crucial factor in many important political and military events in Japan during the Kofun and Yamato periods.

Japan depended strongly on iron and steel import. While Japan was a resource-rich country, that exported silver, and extremely much copper, iron and steel had always been imported goods. It is not that the Japanese had not been capable of creating good steel from the Iron Sands called Satetsu (砂鉄), from iron ore called Mochi Tetsu (餅鉄) of high purity, and from foreign iron/steel billets from mainly Korea, Sri Lanka (and some provinces of China, while other provinces lacked in this resource!) and later from Europe generally called Nanban Tetsu (南蛮鉄). In fact the quality of the process was much better in comparison to European standards. But it was never developed as an industry with water driven bellows and hammers. The following paragraphs will take you on a short journey through the history of iron/steel production in Japan.

Stone, Bronze and Iron Age at the same Time

Yayoi period excavation objects include swords, halberds, arrowheads, axes, chisels, point planes, knives, spade-shoes, reaping knives, sickles, needles; and fish-hooks. However, stone implements were still the main source for weapons and agricultural tools up and certainly used up to the 1st century BC.

Yayoi Period Polished stone daggers with handles, imported from the Liaotung region of the Korean peninsula

Bronze objects holds the opportunity to be traced back to origin by its metals. Therefore, it can be deduced, that without greater influence on the metal trade with Korea and China, Japanese metal workshops had been active at least since the middle Yayoi period. The famous The Wei mirrors found at the end of Yayoi were Chinese- as well as Japanese-produced. Mirrors and bells had been casted locally using raw materials in the form of lead ingots from northern China to supplement recycled bronze material. Out of 53 made in Japan mirrors, as well as two of the oldest bells were found to be made of recycled Korean bronze, 33 were made of Chinese bronze from the Former Han period and 18 were made of bronze from the Later Han period.

A Realm of Many Cultures

Seeing Japan as a centralized nation does not fit the historical island cultures. The chronicle Nihonshoki of the 8th century gives us an impression how cultural divers the Japanese realm was even on the mainland. In the north-east the horse culture of the Emishi (or Ezo/Yezo) as well as the culture of the Ainu probably developed their own methods of metalwork, partially different from the Yamato core culture. While trade with the continent and Korean peninsula was formative in the south-west, the north-east and Hokkaido developed more independently, often seen as “barbarians” by the southerners. The evidence of tools link the southern part of Japan with the Korean model of (Scythian inspired) ironworking instead of the Chinese one. The appearance of certain furnace types in the north might have been either a local development or are influenced by trade on the northern route to the continent, as the Emishi maintained direct contact with peoples across the Sea of Japan.

The final word on how Ainu and Emishi are cultural or genetically interwoven is not spoken in research and not a subject of this article. But we must keep in mind, if we look at Japanese sword and steel development, that the differences and interchange of cultures influenced the design greatly.

By the late Kofun period furnaces have been found in various shapes. According to the interpretations by Hashiguchi Tatsuya in (Iron production in ancient Kyushu, Japan, 1992) the Japan islands hold the remains of one of the first bloomery, and an early ancestor of the Tatara furnace. By the 9th century the rectangular chamber furnace became the standard in southern Japan. In the “Eastern provinces” a half-buried, cylindrical vertically oriented furnace was common. A style that diffused to the south around the 10th century and is connected with the Warabide-tō sword type. But the sword type did not travel southwards with the technology.

Iron and steel production of the early 19th century in Japan was very similar than it was in the early 17th century, and to a degree similar to 500 years before that. The earliest written source documenting steelmaking in Japan is a provincial survey called Izumo No Kuni Fudoki from around 733 CE.

Mining and Purification of Iron Sands, 19th century

Most documentation on iron and steel production from Japanese and foreign sources is from the 17th century. From this time the highest output of pre-industrial production is noted. Already in the 15th and 16th century the output of the iron and steel production was running at peak to support the exports of blades to China, Korea and Vietnam. There are various reports in the Muromachi period (1336–1573) of of exhausted ore deposits, and opening new ones, which changed quality and altered transport routes. Yoshindo Yoshihara, Leon and Hiroko Kapp did an estimation of the steel output in their book “Art of the Japanese swords: The craft of swordmaking and its appreciation”, 2012. They wrote that in the end of the 16th century Japan had been able to produce 1000 metric tons of iron and steel per year. In comparison we can look at Sweden, which profited as well from high purity ore.

Collection of Iron Sands, 19th century

In the 14th century already Sweden had an annual production of steel in the estimated at 2000 metric tons, which was less than a third of the estimated production from the German region in the same century (but still Sweden exported to northeast Germany). Japan reached the output of the 14th century German furnaces in the 19th century.

Mass mining and production of steel started in Japan based on imported technology in the 19th century at the end of the Edo period. Around the same time there were 3400 puddling furnaces producing a total of 1.6 million tons of iron per year in Britain 1860 (of which 60 thousand metric tons were converted into steel in Britain).

Tatara illustration 18th century

The traditional way of producing steel was already altered in organisation and size. In the “Tetsuzan Hisho” (Tetsuzan’s Secret Book) written by Shimohara Shigenaka (1738-1821) the Tatara is praised, but first comes the Iron Sand, than the Mountain, responsible for the charcoal used. Charcoal is distinguished in osumi (“greater charcoal”), used for smelting the iron, and kozumi (“lesser charcoal”), which is the charcoal used for the smithery work or general use. The increase in size of the Tatara in the Edo period increased the scale of charcoal needed. Depending on the quality of the ressources, one cycle consumed 8 metric tons of ore and about 12 metric tons of charcoal, producing a bloom around 1.5 metric tons. The ratio of ore to bloom thus is around 5:1, which holds up to furnacles used in the Roman era. Records from a furnace in 1875 show that the people needed to operate one included 5 managers, 20 general managers, 393 involved in sand or clay extraction and furnace building, 530 in charcoal and 262 in transport (see “Smelting iron : Rediscovering lost techniques for a sculptural use” by Katie Louise Surridge, 2018).

The German book “Archiv für Bergbau und Hüttenwesen” by Carl J. Karsten, printed 1818 is often mentioned as the introduction to the shift in technology. Takato Oshima was responsible for Japan’s first Western-style blast furnaces built on the Hashino Iron Mining and Smelting Site in 1858. But Japan’s shift to industrial scale production with foreign technology is not part of this article. Thus, the journey into this part of history ends here.

Tatara illustration 19th century

Hiroshi Arai did a “Iron Prices in Ancient Japan and the International Comparison” in 2005. For the international comparison he used wheat in England and rice in asia. I ignore the international comparison because of good reasons, but the internal change of price ratio is very useful. The price ratio stayed stable from 8th century to the 15th, during the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Era) it dropped around 1580 to less than half the ratio and kept stable again up to the middle of the 19th century when it dropped again nearly to the half of the old value. It would be too easy to put these two shifts in price in correlation with European technology, but it surely was a factor (when I say European technology, it is to be understood as a result of technological improvements from many places that was accumulated in the said region at this time). In both points in time the opening to European technology seems to have had a huge impact on Japan.

It is safe to say that Japan had been able to produce iron and steel to an amount that it was never enough. While it exported final steel products like blades in large amounts, they imported ore, steel and raw materials. And they adapted technology when useful in rare periods of opening, which changed partly the design of military and martial objects (like the nanban dou gusoku armour).

The History of Japanese Swords

In ancient times in the beginning of iron swords, the bladed weapons did not look much differently from the bronze weapons. Probably due the late introduction of bronze items this was not the case in Japan. Bronze swords, and stone daggers had been double edged. The strange flat bronze swords of the late Yayoi period raised the idea of them being ritual weapons.

Flat bronze sword, Late Yayoi period, Length 47.4 cm, Tokyo National Museum

Japanese iron or steel swords had not always been in majority single edged. During the Kofun period from about 4th century to the mid of the 6th century, two edged iron/steel swords of the Ken type (Ken 剣 literally meaning “sword”) had been popular, the single edge Tou type (刀 associated with the term “knife”) existed parallel.

Ken Type Sword, late Kofun Period, excavated in Eda Funayama kofun, Kumamoto Prefecture, Kyūshū Island, Southern Japan

Ken type swords had been mounted identically to the single edged Tou type knife-swords. A mounting method different to the pommel fitting of European swords, which was never introduced as a practical method to become common in Japan.

By the Heian period (794 – 1192) the Ken Type sword completely disappeared from martial practical use. It stayed as ritual or symbolic weapons like the sankozuka ken (sword with vajra hilt) in esoteric Buddhism, dedicated to shrines, similar to the dagger below.

Heian or early Kamakura period blade (late twelfth to early thirteenth century), gilt-copper vajra hilt of the early Nambokuchō period (mid-fourteenth century); Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Warabide-tō, a single edged short sword(between 40-50cm, existed from the Kofun Period up to the Nara Period on Hokkaido and the neighbouring provinces of the Japanese main island. It differs from the usual mounting pattern by having a small crossguard plate and a pommel plate forged to the blade. It is assumed, that these swords had no wooden pommel, but organic material winded around the handle. The majority of blades are curved, even though the image below shows a straight example.

Single edged straight Warabide-tō, Kofun Period, excavated in Kaminakamura, Rokugohigashine, Rokugo-cho, Semboku-gun, Akita Prefecture, Length 49 cm, Tokyo National Museum

The similarity of the single edge blade of the Warabide-tō and the other early period swords is undeniable. The sword itself was only popular north. The single piece hilt and handguard design of the Warabide-tō was never famous in the south and it disappeared over time. With the few exception (especially with the kabutsuchi type) up to the Nara period (beginning of the 8th century) swords had little but no handguards at all. If there had been handguards, they had been made from other materials as the blade.

Straight Swords, Kofun Period, 5th to 6th century CE, excavated from Eta Funayama Kofun, Kikusuimachi, Kumamoto Prefecture, Tokyo National Museum

With exceptions of the fascinating but rare Kenuki-gata type (Heian period) from the 10th century upwards the very typical construction principle of the hilt was set. The influence of southern sword construction principles won over the northern concepts, while it seems that at the same time the iron production methods were adapted by the south.

Late Kofun Period sword (7th century) from the Nakamura No. 1 Tomb

Japanese smiths developed own decoration modifying the imported styles from the continent, but did rarely alter the features or construction principle of the sword.

Three sword pommel types from left to right Kantō, Keitō and Kabutsuchi from before the Nara Period (early 8th century).

Even the bulbous pommel of the Kabutsuchi type was mounted by similar principles to the blade. This way of mounting the handle and pommel to the blade is close to the way knifes had been mounted all over the world, with only little difference depending on tools and material. The blade holds two or three holes (Mekugi ana), in which pegs can be put through to hold the handle. The handguard is held in place by some pressure and tightness, with a soft metal collar between the handguard and the blade, to reduce stress on the blade, and to allow a tight fit and readjustment of a loosened handguard.

Kinginso kabutsuchi no-tachi

The striking advantage of mounting a blade this way is that it can be done and repaired by anyone without any skill or knowledge of forging iron or steel. Imported blades could be finalized by local specialists, as well as regional blades made by the rare early Japanes masters. If the handguard or anything on the handle needed repair, it could be done with little effort and few tools.

The huge disadvantage of this mounting method is the inability of the handguard to take lateral forces without loosening. This problem was fixed in German large knifes in the late 15th century by hammering a nail through a hole in the blade, which fixed the tight fitting crossguard on the blade. This method stressed the blade and may have resulted in breaks on the other hand.

Overall length: 105.4 cm; blade length: 72.1 cm; blade width: 3 cm. Adapted from Hakkutsu sareta Nihon rettō 2017 [Excavations in the Japanese Archipelago, 2017] (Bunkachō [Agency for Cultural Affairs], ed., Kyodo News, 2017).

The Japanese sword blade did not alter much in comparison to European ones in more than thousand years. The image below entitled “Changes in the shape of the Japanese sword” should be altered into “Little changes if any in the shape of the Japanese blade”. These little changes are due traditions and a established and seemingly unchangeable production chain with craftsmen claiming their place in the chain and society.

“The Beauty of the Japanese Sword, History and Traditional Technology” by Michihiro Tanobe, the Japanese Sword Museum

Effective Production of a High End Product

In the early times of steel production the Japanese sword design “suffered” from the same problems as all other sword producers world-wide did without an extended supply of steel. Up to the 13th century the Tsuba (sword handguard) was commonly made from other materials than iron or steel (sometimes even from leather). Casted bronze had been a common material. Those materials did an excellent job as handguards (see the blog post about the development of handguards and armour for arm and hand).

Tsuba made from folded, forged iron became common in the 16th century. Wrought iron was used (not rarely imported) and forged. It was much cheaper and had much less quality than the steel used for the swords (see “The Techniques of the Japanese Tsuba-Maker” by Elaine I. Savage and Cyril Stanley Smith, 1979). The metal consisted inclusions, slags and showed often the process of forging. At the same time the art of decoration of the Tsuba improved heavily. This seemingly existing contradiction is easily dissolved by the wish of individualism of a mass product.

Tsuba made by Taira Yohihiro from imported metal of the Southern Barbarians (Portugese), Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The Japanese sword was an extremely successful product on the local market as well as a asked export object, which did not need improvements in development to get better, but to get cheaper and faster produced. The production was optimized without major improvements in technology. Tsuba smithing had been an art of itself, but in general the craftsmen used simple forged folded plates with cut-outs and little decorations, or casted metal. The well developed art of inlays and metal cutting was reserved for high priced individual products. The Japanese sword makers even did import Tsuba from the continent (Nanban Tsuba) already in the 8th century partly because of economical reasons, partly because of foreign decorations becoming very fashionable.

We know from the price tags on the tang of the blades and from records that the price for an excellent sword in the 15th century was valued up to 20 kan, a good sword was to buy for 1.5 kan, and a mass product came for 0.3 kan, a cheap one could even come for 0.2 kan. Casted Tsubas were much faster produced than a forged one, why this was used for exported weapons. The sword production was highly effective in its output. It had to be with the prices dropping on export goods (see on Chinese import of Japanese blades). They did not have any wish or need to become less effective by changing the product to a larger degree. A development of crossbars, or complex hilts would mean the opposite of getting more swords done in a days work. And while the expensive and highly decorated swords had been the product of much effort and skill, they still followed the common style and tradition like anywhere else in the world.

Guilds and Brotherhoods

Socially the craftsmen taking part into the final product are separated into the blade smiths, the blade polishers, the makers of the handguard, sword fittings, and decorations, the metal workers producing the collar between the handle/tsuba and the blade, the woodworkers making the handle and sheath, the lacquerers preparing and decorating the woodwork, and finally the craftsmen putting the all the parts together. These craftsmen had similar organisations like the guilds in Europe from the 11th century, and they knew very well how defend their business grounds (even battling about right to use the road to access certain markets). Brotherhoods had to compete for access to raw materials too, with the final goal being to establish a monopsony over any raw material necessary for the production of other commodities.

During the Muromachi period (1336–1467) the merchant and craftsmen brotherhood raised to economical power. Brotherhood members paid tax to their patron in return for a license to trade goods or produce them. The fragmentation of licenses depended on the local situation as well as on the patron. A strong fragmentation of sword production would produce more income by the licenses, but smaller numbers in production as well as higher final prices. The producers of the Tsuba i.e. changed through history (according to Dr. Torigoye). Early Tsuba had been made by sword makers, who produced a sword from the blade delivered to him. From the 9th century they are made by metal workers as well as the fittings. In the beginning of the 13th century the mirror makers stepped in manufacturing cast bronze Tsuba, as well as forged Tsuba by the Helmet and Armour makers, and of cause the sword makers still in the business. In the 14th century the Tsuba making became a special craft and trade, an art of its own with various schools.

By tradition and social structures the high effective and flexible production chain developed into a strict system of production with little room for changes. The feudal regime of the Edo period added cement to the structures. The brotherhoods already created families of craftsmen and merchants having the same trade since generations, the feudal system made this “family” or “clan” principle the general rule.

The patronage system of the decentralized brotherhoods was replaced by central organisations with strict rules in regard of metal works (especially copper, silver, gold). The Tokugawa regime abolished brotherhoods of the medieval type with private patrons, but the regime did authorize and employ some brotherhoods to establish state control of certain artisans and trades in the 17th century (see Brotherhoods and Stock Societies: Guilds in Pre-modern Japan, Mary Louise Nagata, 2008).

Like in most parts of Europe the sword was not only an object to be used in martial or military conflicts, it was a statement by the wearer. It was a sign of the social state in the ranks of society. While in Europe the large improvement of technology offered the option to alter the design, this did not happen in Japan.

In Europe the symbolism of the sword changed during the centuries, i.e. due regulations. The way the society saw and accepted violence changed and the sword changed with it. City regulations forbid (with exceptions) to have two edged swords outside the house and by this the long knife became the symbol of a person of some rank on a civil deed or folly, while the sword became the symbol having an official duty or having a military or martial intention. A pointy long dagger was carried at places and occasions, when a sword could not be carried. A habit that was replaces by the courtly smallsword later. All those changes, which happened in Europe never occurred in Japan.

It was not the Sword that made a Samurai

To understand the aspect of sword symbolism we first must accept that the sword was one weapon under many. This needs to be said, as our image is formed by samurai movies and not by historical facts. There had been a lot of weapon types used in combat and battle, even such bulky ones like the Kanabo (a huge spiked club).

Edo period Japanese woodblock print showing a samurai holding a Kanabo

During the 8th century the Korean nomenclature switched to the Chinese nomenclature as a cultural shift happened. The authenticity of the so called Taika Reform Edicts of 647 are doubted, but the content of the edict 4, that “each person shall contribute a sword, armour, bow and arrows, a flag, and a drum.” for public defence is compatible and similar to many feudal edicts of similar periods in the world. The sword was a weapon to have, but from symbolism the bow was stronger (maybe indicating the hunting rights of the higher classes), very prominent with the cultures in the north.

The Heian period (平安時代) from 9th to the 12th century defined in a slow process the symbolism of the sword in Japanese medieval society in connection with the Imperial Court and specialised warrior clans, which made a living and a tradition in military services. But it was still the Bow, which was the symbol of the higher ranks (probably combined with the right to hunt similar as in most parts of the world). The Kamakura period (鎌倉時代) from the 12th to the first half of the century bound the sword as a symbol even more to traditions and the imperials or shogun officials as the bearer of such weapons. Clans and traditions played an enormous role in the way weapons in general and the sword specifically were seen.

The Sengoku period (戦国時代,”Age of Warring States”) from 1467 to 1615 put an end to the de facto clan warrior monopoly, allowing fighters to climb up the social ladder by their martial skills and success in battle. Furthermore, by the introduction of pikemen, guns and regular infantry, the sword did not only became a cheap mass product, it partly lost its meaning as a symbol. The symbolism of the sword became abstract from the concrete object, that could be seen everywhere. The bow, which was an old symbol of the feudal system as well as of the warrior clans (and the new warrior class of the Tokugawa class system in the 17th century), was replaced by the arquebuses and later guns. At this time, it was the gun that made a man a warrior or samurai.

Budōgeijutsu hiden zue shohen (武道芸術秘伝図會 初編), by Masatomi Ōmori and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1855

It were two Swords that made You look like a Samurai

But the social mobility ended due the law by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (himself a profiteer of upward social mobility), that only the “samurai class” was allowed to carry weapons. This could have re-established the sword as a symbol of a higher class, but it failed widely. While the Samurai as landlords made only about 7% of the population, and had the right to wear the two swords, the number of men, who could own swords and wearing them on occasions had been much higher.

The 1588 decree of Toyotomi Hideyoshi went that, Farmers of all provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms, or other types of weapons. The samurai who received a grant of land (and proved he cared about it fairly), and the deputies had to collect all the weapons described above and submit them to Hideyoshi’s government. From these smelted weapons a huge image of Buddha should be constructed in Nara. By this decree the “ferocious Japanese military dictator, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ordered the notorious Sword Hunt” (quoted from one of the many copy-paste American blogs of obvious NRA supporters). Actually it did not work.

At that time a huge amount of the male population had been de-facto samurais, they had been members of local militia, any of the police forces, imperial or local office, or clan organisation, or had completed military services in one of the many military events. A simple sword was not an expensive or exclusive object in the 16th or 17th century. In some southern provinces most of the male adults owned and carried weapons as a statement of being the patriarch of the household. Outside the directly controlled central provinces around Osaka by Hideyoshi and the provinces Shinano and Mino, the collection of the weapons did not change the number or distribution of weapons in the society greatly. The eastern provinces controlled or supporting Tokugawa leyasu in the Kanto region had little interest of sending all weapons to the government. The southern provinces, and especially the pirates operating from island Kyushu or the province Nagato had no intention to do so. The Sword Hunt was intended to end the Ikkō-ikki, buddhistic inspired bands of armed peasants and warriors from various local wars, and bring peace to the country to enable safe farming conditions. While it did not reduce the numbers of swords to a noteable amount, it did not fail entirely to install peace, eventually by its existence alone. The threat to disarm did not need a full forceful implementation.

Samurai Family in Nagasaki, 1870

The Western view on the bakuhan taisei, the political and social feudal system is coloured by samurais acting either as tyrants, or as patriarchs following the benevolent rule (jinsei), or as wandering swordsmen on their path to an heroic death. In historical numbers the Edo Shogunate had been a period of inner peace, huge commercial improvements, and a grow in population. It was without question a feudal system based on dictatorship, but the political system was not fixed. It was flexible with minor and major reforms reducing arbitrariness and corruption, and increase the effectiveness of the jurisdiction and administration like the aitai sumashi rei (private settlements without court), tokusei (tax relief), kienrei (debt moratoriums).

The sword was a symbol of an inherited class affiliation, the martial art associated with the sword was kept alive as a tradition. And so we must distinguish the samurai in the definition in the feudal system as the landlord with subordinated people paying taxes, and the huge amount of men identifying themselves as samurai in regard of the right own and to wear two swords because of family, clan or whatever reason they had. For our case it is essential to recognize, that sword and its design was strictly bound into the tradition, with no room for change until the Meiji-Restauration.

An Adaption that did not happen

When the Portuguese arrived in 1539 and Daimyo Õmura Sumitada allowed them to do trade in Nagasaki 1571 they did not arrive with weapons having simple crossbars. The Colhona (nuts) sword called in english speaking sources “Carracks Black Sword”, or “Crab Sword”, was commonly used by the soldiers during the “Age of Discovery”. It was often given as a gift to high ranking officials or nobles, thus it is found at places with strong Portugese influence in the exploration and exploitation era. In Japan the Portuguese met a civilisation with a strong tradition of using two handed swords (or one and a half handed to speak in collectors terminology). Even though two handed swords had not been completely out of fencing traditions in Europe, the Europeans arriving in Japan in the 16th or 17th century had little use of such weapons in their naval expeditions. But they had guns and armour, which could withstand those guns.

Two Colhona, a Portuguese swords treated to be proteced from saltwater, the one on the right was discovered in the Kongo region and is probably a local copy

The Iberian and Portuguese Montante, two handed sword, was probably known to the sailors and officers, but has in usage and application extremely little in common with the way of Japanes sword fighting. Nevertheless, there is one occasion told in Portuguese sources, in which the Montante was embedded in the heroic death of a Portuguese noble in a sea battle against Chinese forces in 1522. “He was the last to fall for he wore European plate armour and kept the Chinese at bay with a heavy Montante until he was eventually taken down by a cannon shot” (Portuguese Sea Battles – Volume II – Christianity, Commerce and Corso 1522-1538, Saturnino Monteiro, 1995). But Chinese sources claim to have captured the Portuguese captain of a small Nau carack, and he was probably executed gruesomely and humiliated (“The Eagle and the Dragon: Globalization and European Dreams of Conquest in China and America in the Sixteenth Century”, Serge Gruzinski, 2015).

And if the opponents should enter the ship, in such a case the spears and swords and the two-handed swords (montante) are the best weapons, and for such a case it is the deck-cover (jareata), so that they do not enter inside, and they need to climb over them and our men are below, with their pikes. They should give them such terror, that it is convenient for them to jump into the sea.

Likewise, if our men jump on their ship, the first ones should carry two-handed swords, which is the best weapon in such a case, and those cuirass-wearers (coselete) with sword and buckler. Having entered them, they must work like this: while one fights the other must cut the trunks, so that the ship comes down.

Espejo de Navegantes, Alonso de Chaves, 1537

According to comparable sources on the Italian Spadone there was the chance, that a ship had two or three two handed swords on board following the advice of Alonso de Chaves in his book “Espejo de Navegantes”, 1537, quoted above. It was mostly found on the bigger vessels. So the chance that the Japanese saw Portoguese using a Montante was very low.

Deck covering Jareta/Xareta, S. João de Patmos, Mestre da Lourinhã, 1516

The Portuguese had simply nothing to offer here, that could improve the martial system of the Japanese sword. When at April 19, 1600, the Dutch ship Liefde arrived, it carried 19 canons, many rifles, fire-arrows and assorted weaponry. The rapiers and early cutlass of the Dutch were of little interest for the sword makers for the following reasons.

Taken from Keji Imamura points about diffusion of knowledge (see quoted above about rice cultivation), the martial art of the Europeans had to achieve a certain level of efficiency before it was suitable for use in Japan. Otherwise it would not overcome the established structure, which was extremely deep embedded into the society as told in the chapters above. In case of the guns and armour the martial and military application was far more effective than the existing weapons and large parts of the armour. But in regard of bladed weapons like swords, there was little improvement. The production chain of the Japanese sword proved still very effective and enormously productive in combination with the existing resources. The Tsuba could be produced even cheaper by the European traded metal. Even blades had been produced using foreign steel in the 17th and 18th century. Sadly, the source of the steel is not known for sure, it could be any place producing steel with contact to the Portuguese or Netherland trade routes.

A Yasutsugukatana made from Namban Tetsu signed with aoi mon, early edo period (joykyo era: 1684-1688) (link to further information on this sword)

To change the process of production to a pommel based construction of the sword would not create any improvement or profit. The German method of fixing crossbars with the nail was not known to the Portuguese, and when the Dutch arrived already out of usage again. Therefore, this was no knowledge to trade. The Europeans had nothing to offer, which could improve the Japanese sword as a product. The debatable martial advantage to have a complex hilt on the sword was not enough to create a demand by the customers until the 20th century.

It is to note (and thanks to Maxime Chouinard for pointing me to it), that the Japanese smiths would technically be capable of producing weapons like rapiers, because there exists still one, which was produced by methods of Japanese craftsmen. The Minakuchi Rapier from the 1st half of the 17th century owns a screwed pommel, to allow the same disassembling properties like the Japanese swords. The very expensive weapon was for understandable reasons not a successful product, but it shows the level of skills available.

Finally, I have to admit that the title of this chapter is not fully correct. An adaption took place, but very late in the 20th century. The Meiji Restoration opened Japan and put 1876 and end to the open carry of swords as symbol of the samurai. The military and the police force was established under the government control and equipped with standardised weapons, taking inspirations from modern Eurpean military weapons.

Japanese Police Sword of 1868

With the switch to single handed usage and industrial production methods of swords, the French sabre style handguards became interesting enough to Japan to be introduced and mass produced. It became the Imperial Officer sword in 1875. The sabre like handguard stayed until nationalism demanded traditional swords, and a step back to the katana was made around 1937. This step back to traditional style created interesting stories of reused ancestral blades from centuries before, next to the machine-made blades in the same style of army swords.

Meiji-Tennō, 1880 by Takahashi Yuichi (please note the handle of the sword)

One thought on “The Crossguard #7: Japanese Swords

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.