Of Thoughts and Swords

A blog about Science, Philosophy, Wargaming, Literature and other things, in three or more languages.

The Origins of the Japanese Sword.

This is an article which sadly never got published, because of differing circumstances which prevented that. Therefore I publish it here for everyone to read. Maybe some good will come out of it.


                  The Origins of the Japanese Sword.

         Swords on the Japanese Islands from 300 B.C. to 1000 A.D.


The Japanese sword, subsumised under the phrasing nihontō, has been of great and long-standing importance to the Japanese people. The word nihontō covers all different kinds of blades forged from steel, it encloses single-edged longswords (tachi, katana), double-edged longswords (ken or tsurugi), shortswords (wakizashi) and daggers (tanto), as well as the blades of polarms namely of the Japanese glaive (naginata) and two types of spears (yari, hoko) (Kapp, 2002: 18). Regarding this article, I will focus only on the longswords and not the rest of the nihontō. Although it got its status as the soul of the samurai under Tokugawa rule in the 17th century, we find pictures of the admiring of swords already in the Kamakura period (Takaiwa, 2006: 41-43). However, the beginnings of the Japanese sword are to be inspected, especially by a closer look at Yayoi to Nara periods.

The main questions which are pursued throughout the course of this article are:

Since when is spoken of and since when can be spoken of Japanese swords and what periodizations are applied? What kind of blades from which time frames are classified as nihontō, what are their differences and similarities to swords from mainland East Asia of these times? This will give answer to the first part of the question, “since when is” spoken of Japanese swords? To answer the second part of the question, “since when can be” spoken of Japanese swords, there are additional questions necessary, namely: What are the defining characteristics of the Japanese sword? What should and what can be used as criteria to define a blade as a Japanese one? This actually is the attempt to pinpoint the differences in Japanese and mainland East Asian swords and their treatment, in order to find the swords that are undisputable Japanese. After this has been achieved follows the last question: Are the current periodizations of Japanese sword history feasible?

Even though the words “sword” and “blade“ are anything but synonymous, they are used interchangeably in this text. This is because unfortunately most of the time, nothing but the blades and their tangs (nakago), the extended part of the blade where the hilt is mounted, remain from the ancient swords to be studied today.

As Satō Kanzan said the long tradition of appreciating Japanese swords has produced a wide array of specialised terminology for describing the appearance and features of such blades (1983:14). This specialised vocabulary is sometimes necessary, so I will introduce it along with the most common translation when it appears for the first time. I will reduce the use of this terminology to a minimum. At the end of this article, there is also a glossary for terms concerning nihontō. As the characteristics of the discussed swords are inspected in detail later in this article, some information about the blades under survey are needed beforehand.

Swords from greater East Asian area in these times are made of bronze as well as iron, for this article only the iron ones are of interest. Blades of the Yayoi to Nara periods appear as both double-edged as well as single-edged blades. The respective Japanese terms for them are tsurugi or ken for the double-edged ones and tachi for the single-edged ones.

In order to provide a frame for the time and situation Table 1 gives a short overview of the polities in East Asia during the discussed time periods.

Table 1: Rough chronological table of political units in China, Korea and Japan:

Year China Korea Japan
500 B.C.0 A.D.800 A.D. Warring States (475-221 B.C.)Qin (221-206 B.C.)Han (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.)Three Kingdoms (220-280)

Jin (280-420)

Southern & Northern (420-581)

Sui (581-618)

Tang (618- 907)

Han – Commanderies (-57 B.C.Three Kingdoms Period  [Koguryo,Paeckche,Silla] (57 B.C.–668A.D.)Unified Silla (668-935) Jōmon (-300 B.C.)Yayoi (300 B.C.- 250A.D.)Kofun (250-596)Asuka (596-645)

Yamato (645-710 )

Nara (710-784)

Heian (784 – 1185 )


For answering the question from which point onwards Japanese blades can be found, a short introduction to the periodization of Japanese blades is necessary.

Like normal history, the history of the Japanese swords is segmented into different periods: jōkoto, kotō, shintō, shinshintō and gendaitō. Table 2 gives an overview about this periodization.

Table 2: Periodization of the Japanese sword:

Jōkotō (上古刀) 645 – 900 / 710 – 900 / 527-900
Kotō (古刀)    900 – 1596
Shintō (新刀) 1596 – 1781
Shinshintō (新新刀) 1781-1876
Gendaitō  (現代刀) 1876 –

This periodization is a product of the 20th century and as such, a backwards projection of knowledge about sword types and shapes. The kotō, shintō and shinshintō categories are the core of this periodization, as those are the three catgories that are most clearly defined. Both, the jōkoto and the gendaitō period, are subjects to discussion. According to the theme of this article, it is the jōkotō category that needs a closer look. Because of this, the different given numbers for the beginning of gendaitō are not reproduced here. As seen in table 1, there is more than one year given as the starting point of that era as it is often associated with the start of the Yamato (645) (e.g. Tsuchiko, 2002:13) or Nara period (710) (e.g. Sinclair, 2004: 9), both of which are distinct polities in Japanese history. In this case, the year 527 is used according to a nihontō jiten (Ōsawa, 2008:42) which gives this year as point of the oldest artefact. On the other hand, it includes the jōkotō period into the kotō period because it has no defined beginning itself.

Some periodizations just list everything produced up to the year 900 as a jōkotō blade (e.g. Yumoto, 1995: 26). It seems that there are some difficulties in pinpointing the start of that period. What are the reasons for that? To answer that question, we must take a look at the origins of swords on the Japanese Islands.


                                      Chinese Iron and Warfare

To be able to follow the way of the sword onto the Japanese archipelago it is necessary to follow the way of the iron used to forge it.

The iron, as well as the swords, took its way from the plains of China over the coasts of the Korean peninsula to the Japanese Islands. Therefore, our journey starts on the mainland of Asia.

The widespread use of iron started around the fifth century B.C. in the lands that were to become China (Farris, 1998: 70) and gained prominence as material used for weapons in the Warring States period (Lewis, 2007: 129).

There were two distinctly different procedures of iron production used in the Chinese lands. With a blast, furnace high carbon iron can be produced, which, due to even that carbon is quite brittle therefore needs to be cast into forms to be used as weapons or anything else, hence the name cast iron. On the other hand, the so-called wrought iron was produced at lower temperatures without any added carbon. The result was an iron that could and needed to be forged into proper forms for usage. According to the form of iron, this is often referred to as the ‘bloomery’ method (Barnes, 1999: 150). It is assumed that the ‘bloomery’ method was the first one being used in Chinese lands, but the blast furnace followed very quickly around the end of the Warring States period (Wagner, 1993: 263). Actually all iron swords were produced from wrought iron (Wagner, 1993: 195), which seems plausible as cast iron is often too brittle to be forged. In addition to this, the multilayering techniques necessary to produce a blade with the desired qualities were in use from an early stage on in the Chinese lands (Wagner, 1993: 283).

During the Warring States period there were mainly bronze weapons in use. The state of Qin, who eventually conquered all other states, was the first one to use iron weapons throughout the army which contributed to their victory. Despite burial with iron weapons being the rule in the state of Qin (Ledderose, 1990: 211), the famous terracotta army was nearly completely armed with bronze weapons, leading some scholars to the conclusion that Qin actually had no great access to iron technology (Blänsdorf, 1999: 139). I would argue that this may indicate that iron weapons simply were too precious to be wasted. Besides that, I would also agree with Wagner’s conclusion that iron weapons were underrepresented in graves of that time (Wagner, 1993: 197). Even if one considers the megalomaniac undertaking of his tomb, the First Emperor could not afford to unarm his military, not in a state that, as Lewis argues, was completely organized for war (2007: 50).

In the Warring States there were double-edged swords made from bronze and iron used. The first single-edged swords appeared as well, also made of bronze as well as iron. China had a policy of jealously guarding their knowledge about iron production and forging techniques which culminated in a state monopoly on the iron industry in the year 117 B.C. (Wagner, 2001: 8). One reason for this monopoly was restricting the barbarian’s access to iron (Wagner, 2001: 54). Nevertheless, it is supposed that already around the year 400 B.C. iron made its way to the Korean Peninsula (Farris, 1998: 70). It took about three hundred years to reach the southern parts of the coast from where it was brought to Japan.

Who actually putted swords to use is another question. Its use was widely promoted in the army of Qin, but the sword simultaneously was preserved as a noble weapon carried by officers and noblemen – it needed a more sophisticated wielding than the sabre which mainly was a slashing weapon (Lind, 2001: 251). Among the weapons of the army, the sword was used as a weapon of self-defence after the long-reach weapons lost their advantage when the enemy had closed the distance (Blänsdorf, 1999:133). Besides that, the main weapon of this age already was the crossbow (Peers, 1995: 18).

The shape of the single-edged blades was also quite identical in Chinese, Korean and Japanese lands. They normally were straight, decreased in thickness from back (mune) to edge (ha) and had defined points. The ridge-line (shinogi) seems to be a relatively early invention, as it considerably strengthens the blade. Concerning the quenching of the edge, there were oil-quenching techniques as well as water-quenching techniques applied from the Warring States onward (Wagner, 2001: 64). Oil-Quenching confers an increase in hardness and sharpness to the blade, but it is far safer than the water-quenching technique, which produces even sharper blades but has also a greater chance of damaging it.

Differences in blade-length also appear, but despite that it is almost sure that the swords were used with a single hand (Satō, 1983: 29).

The transition from a double-edged to a single-edged blade also transformed it from a mostly piercing weapon to a weapon that allows both piercing and slashing usage, thus it increased in versatility and needed a new approach of wielding it. In addition to this, a sword required a far greater degree of training in order to be used properly, making it a weapon of limited use for an army of conscripts.

Korean Iron and Blades

As in China and Japan, bronze and iron weapons existed simultaneously on the Korean peninsula: the double-edged, mostly classified as daggers, as well as the single-edged Chinese blades (Barnes, 2007: 73). In several tombs many bronze daggers of the same type as the Chinese and Japanese ones were found. Iron technology entered Korea around the year 400 B.C. (Barnes, 2007: 65) and spread over the peninsula in two waves, mostly brought by fugitives from the Warring States (Seyock, 2003: 69). As it had great importance for the domination of the Qin in China, iron became a critical factor in the rise to power and prominence for the tribes on the peninsula (Kidder, 2007: 57).

It seems that the bloomery furnace and not the Chinese blast furnace was mainly used on the Korean peninsula, making their iron production a more locally enterprise than the centralised production in China (Farris, 1998: 70). This local production enabled many regions to produce the wrought iron the swords are made of.

In tombs in the area of former Silla single-edged swords of clearly Chinese type were found. Actually besides the bronze daggers, hardly any double-edged blades were found (Ito, 1971: 62). A search in 94 tombs only unearthed two double-edged blades which makes them a rarity. Even in the proto-three kingdoms period no double-edged iron swords but only single-edged ones were found, on the other hand many double-edged bronze blades appear in the tombs. (Barnes, 2007: 74).

Archaeologists also found swords with different pommels: from blades with no pommel at all to pommels with detailed engraved tigers, dragons and phoenixes (Ito, 1971: 64).

During times of turmoil, which after all was quite often the case, there were emigrants on the peninsula which fled to the islands of Japan (Kidder, 2007: 53), besides refugees there were also craftsmen who went on their own accord or were sent by their respective polities to the Japanese Islands (Farris, 1998: 109).

Japanese Iron and Swords

In the Yayoi period the first iron implements used to strengthen the already existent wooden farming tools appear, increasing their effectiveness (Barnes, 1999: 187). Next to the iron implements, the first swords were found in graves. Actually swords are already deposited in graves in the middle Yayoi period, iron tools on the other hand are known since the Kofun period (Barnes, 2007: 164). During the Kofun period, swords became widespread on the Japanese Islands. Even though swords were far from being the main weapon used in armed conflict of these times, the main weapons were the hoko (a thrusting spear), shield and bow, as well as crossbows which, however, fell rapidly into disuse, despite that swords became very popular (Kidder, 2007: 80/ Varley, 1994: 5). Judging from the wide distribution in the mounded tombs of the period, it can be assumed that the sword was a symbol of status, as the mirrors and beads of this time. Through the same argument the burial in the tomb itself is assumed being an indication of high status and  the people who used, but foremost possessed the swords, were of a high social status. In different kofun both double-edged and single-edged swords were found. In some of them there were large amounts of swords pilled up inside, for example in the Ōtsuka Kofun near Ōsaka nine double-edged and eleven single-edged swords (Yokohamashi, 2004: 28). Up to 169 swords were found in a single kofun (Farris, 1998: 72).

In the early years there seems to exist no differentiation between the two kinds of blades. Ironically, the single-edged blades are normally referred to as “Chinese type” single-edged blades and the double-edged ones as “North East Asian type“. In China, the double-edged one would eventually prevail, the single-edged one falling into disuse after the Tang period, while in Japan the single-edged type became the more popular one. This does not mean that the double-edged ones ever fell into non-existence. The ken is also seen as an alternative incarnation of the Buddhist deity Fudo Myō, who is often depicted wearing a double-edged sword (Tsuchiko, 2002: 33). Today Fudo Myō in his incarnation as ken or as a deity is often used as an engraving (horimono) on sword blades.

The massing of swords in tombs also supports the high status assumption. One famous picture from the Nara period, for example, shows Shōtoku Taishi with his children (Satō, 1983: 35). He is wearing a sword at his side. In the ancient period the sword used to be a weapon of the nobility (Farris, 1998: 74), or at least we percieve from previously mentioned picture that only the nobility used swords.

Inscribed iron swords were used as a means to cement political alliances and show allegiances. For example, two of the most famous swords, the Seven-branched sword and the Sakita-Inariyama sword, are seen as proof (Barnes, 1999: 242).

The dates on which the first iron weapons were produced is unclear, ranging from the first to the sixth century. Iron was imported to the Japanese islands from China as well as from the Korean peninsula (Farris, 1998: 72). With the formation of Kaya in the third century, the people of Wa had a secure access to iron (Kidder, 2007: 88). With the destruction of Kaya around the year 550, the Wa people lost their main access point of iron (Farris, 1998: 74). Maybe it was the end of their easy access to mainland iron that promoted domestic iron production.

The first self-produced iron in Japan was made around the fifth to sixth century in the Kinai region. It seems that they had adopted the use of the Korean favoured bloomery smelter until after the discovery of iron sand, the tatara smelter was invented (Farris, 1998: 72-73).

Earliest assumptions place the usage of iron sand into the late fifth century (Nagasaka, 1993: 75). In the seventh century Envoys from Silla still carried iron with them as gift for the Yamato state (Kidder, 2007: 89).

The use of iron weapons was one of the contributing factors of the rise to power of the Yamato state, just as it has been of significant importance for the domination of Qin over the other Warring States in China. Concerning this point, it can be assured that the usage of iron was restricted as it secured the grip on power, making the interests in iron from the Korean peninsular iron by the Wa people quite a political one (Farris, 1998: 73).

At this time, some swords were even called Korean swords or tang tachi for the imported types. The word Tang-style tachi was used for swords made as copies of Chinese blades (Satō, 1983: 29). The ring pommels first invented in China were also found on Korean swords as well as Japanese ones (Farris, 1998: 74). The elaborate pommels with a dragon or phoenix pattern matched the same patterns on the peninsula (Farris, 1998: 74). In the late Yayoi and early Kofun periods single-edged blades as well as double-edged blades with ring pommels were found (Sagakendate, 1979: 22/24). In the middle Kofun period, both types of blades can be found with tangs which have no forged pommel as ending (Sagakendate, 1979: 112). Blades with elaborate pommels still existed in the late Kofun period (Sagakendate, 1979: 141). Swords with and without pommels existed next to one another at least from the middle Kofun period onwards. Today no blades with pommels are made as nihontō.

The famous Sakita-Inariyama sword which possibly can be dated 471 or 531, up to today, it is not possible to discern which of the two possible dates is actually the right one, is a double-edged iron sword made in Japan (Anazawa, 1986: 383). At least everyone thinks of it as a Japanese sword. As previously mentioned, it is double-edged which is a completely normal form for that time and age, even when such shapes already began to fall into disuse around that time. Besides that there was a double-edged dagger and four single-edged iron swords buried along with it (Anazawa, 1986: 379). According to the inscription it could be a ceremonial sword, therefore it was maybe never actually used in combat. If it is a ceremonial one, being double-edged could be taken as a reminiscent of the old Chinese weapons, as the double-edged daggers found in Korean graves could be as well. As bronze weapons became more and more ceremonial, they still were stuffed into the graves, but with a different purpose. Either way, ceremonial or not, it is considered as a Japanese sword. Concerning the time when the first iron was produced in Japan, the sword could be made from Japanese iron, but it as well could be not. Actually this is one of the rare cases in which a material analysis not only gives clues but can assure us of the origin of the iron. The Sakita-Inariyama sword has been forged from magnetite ore which contains a specific amount of copper, an ore which only was available in southern China at that time (Anazawa, 1986: 383). This proves that the iron from which it was crafted, must have come from China. This is a good example, that the origin of the iron can hardly be used as a criterion for the sword making it Japanese.

However, the Sakita-Inariyama sword is widely known because of its name. This brings me to another way of identifying swords belonging to a region or certain persons, the naming of blades.


Meitō (銘刀、名刀)

The word meitō is used for blades signed by famous smiths (銘刀) making it possible to identify the person who made it, but it also is used for blades that have a name of their own (名刀).  A blade which bears the signature of a famous swordsmiths naturally has a higher market and collecting value, than one lacking such feature. Nowadays smiths generally sign every single one of their blades, but in former times that was not the case, therefore forging signatures dates back at least to the Edo-Period, but probably started much earlier (Kanzan, 1983: 176-178).

Famous smiths appeared early in Japan, the first smiths were Ama-no-maura (584-549 B.C.) and Amakuni (564-631 B.C.). The dates mark them as clearly fictious craftsmen and of course no blades with their signature are known (Hütterott, 1884: 54).

Another Amakuni said to have lived in Yamato at the beginning of the eighth century (Satō, 1983: 32) was the first smith to sign a blade, but despite the popular sayings the late ninth or early tenth century appear to be a more probable lifetime for this man (Hütterott, 1884: 89). The practices of signing ones work therefore could be used to identify a blade as a Japanese one, but only if the existence of such a smith can be ascertained, something which often is rather difficult.

The tradition of naming blades was already existent in the Chinese lands during the Warring States period (Wagner, 1993: 111-114). These normally were weapons with attributed special properties or had a history and bore a name resembling their feats or deeds. The Chinese term for such swords was bao jian (precious sword), but not every blade that bore a name qualified as a bao jian (Wagner, 1993: 111-112).

The Seven-branched sword from the fourth century is also an example for a named blade, but its name just derives from its shape as it features six small branches protruding from the main blade.

Already the swords in the kojiki have given names, even though most of them are just measures of their length, e.g. the Ten-fist sword. However, there are also exceptions with the blades bearing names corresponding to their temperaments and abilities (Kidder, 2007: 84). So the first weapons ever to be mentioned in a Japanese script are already named ones. In fact, there are at least 51 named swords listed in contemporary nihontō jiten (Ōsawa, 2008: 263) with history and time of appearance. The conclusion is that at least from the 8th century on, when the kojiki was compiled, the practice of naming swords was existent and obviously mattered to the people.

Concerning naming in the kojiki I come to a different matter. As mentioned before, in the Japanese language the words tsurugi (剣) and tachi (太刀, 大刀) are used for double-edged and single-edged blades respectively. These two are the main distinction with many subtypes which are not of concern here. So we have a clear distinction in name for the two types of blades. In the kojiki the kusanagi no tachi is named as the weapon which eventually will become part of the imperial regalia (Kinoshita, 1940: 24), but the kusanagi is a double-edged blade, and it is listed as kusanagi no tsurugi in afore mentioned list (Ōsawa, 2008: 264) being of the North Asian type. So we clearly have a difference here that should not be existent.

After this not yet cleared mystery about the kusanagi no tsurugi, we now will take a closer look at the characteristics that make a blade Japanese.


Characteristics of a Japanese Blade

What are the defining characteristics of the Japanese sword? What should and what can be used as criteria to define a blade as a Japanese one? To answer these questions a closer look at possible criteria is required.

Today the word nihontō is used to name a category which encompasses all blades that are made in shapes and through techniques which are said to be Japanese. The modern picture of Japanese blades is the picture of a curved, single-edged steel sword. From this there seem to be three characteristics which can be applied to the question when to speak of a Japanese sword.

A traditionally forged Japanese blade must be made from tamahagane, steel that is produced in a tatara-smelter and has a high carbon grade. Nihontō are forged with the steel being folded again and again until the desired properties are achieved. Together with the inserting of a bar of softer steel in between the folded steel, it confers the great stability, durability, flexibility and hardness to the blade (Kapp, 1996: 31). This technique is not dissimilar to the ones already applied to the blades in the Warring States period.  The main condition for a nihontō therefore is that it is made of steel.

Older blades made from bronze are never considered to be nihontō. Accordingly, every blade made of steel is of interest to our purpose.

The curvature (sori) is often attributed to the Japanese sword. However, this signature curvature was developed around the year 900 to 1000 and hence some hundred years after the here discussed periods. Iron blades from this period had straight edges. Because of this, they are often referred to as straight blades (chokutō) (Yumoto, 1995: 26), and even today straight blades are forged and they also fall into the nihontō category. Also there are excavated blades which seem to have a curvature that points to the back of sword, while having a straight back (mune) (e.g. Seyock, 2003: 192) and sometimes they are also depicted with a curved mune (e.g. Seyock, 2003: 126). The frequency of occurrence draws misleading conclusions that these blades actually were forged that way. As the drawing of different early sword types in the work of Bryant shows (1991: 16), the early sword is actually depicted as having such a curvature. Constructing a blade in this manner indeed would not provide any advantages in usage – on the contrary, it would weaken the blades stability and shorten the reach of anyone who used it. Such a curvature was never employed by the swordsmiths; it is just a effect of corrosion. As steel corrodes very fast in the warm and humid weather that is normal on the Japanese islands, rust could easily sit in on these blades. As the edge is naturally the thinnest part of a blade, it also is the first one to break down into dust, therefore this curvature appears. Besides that the mid-part of the edge is the most used part of the blade and therefore is the one mostly repaired. Both procedures, as well the repairing and the corroding, can have a bending effect on the back of a blade. Some old blades that are preserved in a good condition until today do actually have a sori which curves toward the back. However, this so called uchi-zori also is a product of repairing or overpolishing (Kapp, 2002: 22).

In summary, the curvature is a characteristic which can not be applied to the oldest Japanese swords.

The single-edginess also cannot be used to definitely mark a sword as being of Japanese origin. Even if they are seldom forged, there are double-edged nihontō made today, some of them with a complete double-edge, some even have only a second edge at the top of the blade, the remaining part being single-edged. Double-edged blades are made with and without curvature. In ancient times, the single-edged and the double-edged blade existed alongside each other, as they are still doing today. Therefore, single-edged is another characteristic which cannot be used.

The tempered edge, which shows itself in the wavepattern of the temperline (hamon) on the blade, is another criterion to define a Japanese blade. The hamon is produced during the quenching of the blade (yaki-ire) which is one of the most challenging and difficult aspects of the swordsmiths craftmanship. Because most of the surviving blades are far too corroded to allow a definite statement on them having a tempered edge, this is something which is hard to prove. Though, we also have blades that date from the sixth century A.D. that show definite signs of polishing to a degree that only is sensible when a hamon is present that is made visible through this polishing (Takaiwa, 2006: 41). In the third century B.C. in China, oil quenching techniques were applied in order to produce hardened edges on iron swords. Although it is impossible to discern the quenching technique used on the old blades, it is safe to assume that quenching swords to produce hardened edges was used on the Japanese islands from an early stage on. Even though the earliest produced blades (often actually replica of Chinese) were quenched, and the process was often incomplete (Yumoto, 1995: 26). Hence, the hardened edge is not a usable criterion, as it again was a technique introduced to the islands of Japan from mainland East Asia.

The overall shape of the blade also could possibly be a criterion for definition as a Japanese blade, as could be the tangs and mounts.

Unfortunately, mostly almost nothing remained from the sword mounts of these days. Therefore, definite statements are rather hard to achieve, besides that choosing the mounts as criterion would deviate from the attempt to search for a defining difference in the blades. Although, given enough evidence they possibly could be used as criterion, but that would be part of another disquisition.

Far more can be said about the tangs. The first Chinese swords had no separate tangs, the blade just went from the point of the blade to the pommel in one piece. Swords of this type also found their way to Japan. In the late Yayoi period, the first tangs are forged so that the pommel of the sword would be mounted on top of it. However, tangs also developed in mainland Asia. Therefore, this as well is a not applicable criterion.

The sword structure (tsukurikomi) could be thought of as another usable criterion. The sword structure mainly refers to the existence or non-existence of a ridge line (shinogi) on a blade. The nihontō jiten lists fifteen types of blade structure (Ōsawa, 2008: 60-62), three of which only refer to polearms. Out of the twelve structures that are left four are presented and only three of them are of interest here, the Hira-zukuri, Kiriha-zukuri and the moroha-zukuri.



From Left to right:               hira-zukuri;  kiriha-zukuri;  shinogi-zukuri;  kissaki-moroha-zukuri


Picture 1: Sword shapes (tsukurikomi). Drawing by the author.

The hira-zukuri type of blades is the first one to be found. It describes a blade with a visible back but from there it simply decreases in thickness to form an edge. This form is found everywhere on mainland East Asia and on the Japanese islands. They were also the first known forms of single-edged blades. The kiriha-zukuri is the next logical step in the evolution of single-edged blades. It places a ridge line close to the edge thus separating a section for the edge from the main body of the blade. This considerably strengthens the blades stability and eases the formation of a sharp edge. This step was taken early in the Chinese lands and was adopted on the Korean peninsula and the Japanese islands as well. The kissaki-moroha-zukuri type was developed at the end of the Nara period. Because of this, it is of little interest here. This type features two edges at the point of the blade, but has a definite back at the lower part. However, it was also found on Chinese blades of this time period.

The last one depicted here is a blade of the shinogi-zukuri type which places the ridge line near the back of the blade and at the thickest part of it. The shape of a shinogi-zukuri often comes to mind when thinking of a Japanese sword, but as this type was developed in the Heian period it is of no further concern here.

There is no special category for the double-edged ken in the tsukurikomi, but they can be easily attributed to the categories. For example many blades are crafted with a ridge line in the centre where the blade is at its thickest making it effectively a shinogi-zukuri, but without the sori which normally is a criterion for this category. There are also blades with two ridge lines near the edge just like the kiriha-zukuri and blades which are made without a ridge line making them hira-zukuri type. Again, we find those types of blades also on the mainland so we can not ascertain a special purely Japanese shape of blades.

Steering away from form and technique, there remain other possible criteria for making a sword a Japanese one: place, person and origin of material. Place is a hardly applicable and plausible criteria, it would mean to exclude any blade forged not on the grounds of Japan. Leaving aside the existence of different polities on the Japanese islands in these times, this would be a statement impossible to prove, as swords were a traded good at that time and age. To tie the Japaneseness to the smith who forged it is also an unusable criterion. Almost none of the early swords have surviving signatures, even if the smiths of this age signed their blades at all. Besides, the question which persons can be labelled a Japanese and which can not is impossible to answer for these time periods, so the Japanese smith cannot be an argument to make a sword Japanese. The same arguments apply to the question of the origin of the used material. Even after iron was produced on the Japanese Islands, there still was a huge amount of imported iron to be used in the production of blades. Although it is possible to narrow the place of mined ore through the analysis of the elements of which the ore is composed, but only seldomly after it has been smolten down and forged, unless it has some very special elements to it. This makes it nearly impossible to pin down the origin of the used metal. Unless in such rare cases as the afore mentioned Sakita-Inariyama sword, therefore this also is not a sensible criterion.

The practice of naming blades, may it be after some specific or imputed characteristic or for other reasons, is also a practice found on mainland East Asia in former times. Therefore this cannot stand as a criterion for defining a blade as Japanese.


As the last chapter has shown, it proves to be nigh impossible to find criteria defining a sword from the ancient times as a pure Japanese one and that way as nihontō. All aspects of the blades up to the end of the Nara period, and in fact, most blades up to the mid-Heian period as well, differ in no special way from the mainland Asian blades. So far, we can say there is no difference in material, technique or shape. The weapons in use and later in production on the Japanese islands were just like the weapons used in other parts of East Asia of the time and according to this must be seen as a part of the East Asian cultural sphere of that time. Because of this, the time period distinction used up to now is rather questionable. Certainly, neither the Asuka nor the Nara period can be used as sensible starting points. As surely blades were forged in earlier times and these period borders do not signify any drastic or even visible change in the swords of the day, they are applied as simplification. To that end, the distinctions that simply states that every sword before the year 900 is a jōkotō is the better one, but it just does not address the issue.

At the moment the tenth century could be the only plausible starting point, with the development of the sori and the increase in attention for crafting beautiful hamon, from which on can be spoken of blades which are Japanese and Japanese only.

But  as a matter of fact this only adresses blades from the kotō times not from earlier periods.

To make a sensible and meaningful statement over the early Japanese blades, criteria should be found and a time frame be defined. Actually a combination of criteria, which is unique to Japanese swords, would be the best way to define swords as being Japanese.

Due to the nature of archaeology and the fact that it is the only source that we can rely upon in this matter and the nature of historical processes, it never will be possible to pin down one blade and say: That is the first Japanese one that was ever made. However, I think a periodization which does not rely on the time frame of polities to define the changes in a technical field is possible and it should be sought and found.


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Picture reference

       Glossary of sword terms:

Chokutō 直刀             “straight sword”, term applied to blades with no curvature

Gendaitō 現代刀         “modern swords”, period name of sword history, starting point debated

Ha        刃                    “edge”, The cutting edge of the blade

Hamon 刃文               “temper line”, line that seperates the hardened part from the rest of the blade

Hira-zukuri 平造        Sword structure: a blade with no ridgeline at all

Hoko    矛, 鉾 ,戈 , 鋒, 戟   “spear“, an old spear form with a socket at the base of the blade

Horimono         彫物     Engravings on the side of the blade

Jōkotō 上古刀                        “very old swords”, period name of sword history, starting point debated

Ken 剣                       “sword”, term applied to double-edged swords

Kiriha-zukuri 切刃造     Sword structure: a blade with a ridgeline close to the edge

Kissaki-moroha-zukuri  鋒両刃造    Sword structure: a blade with a second edge at the top of the blade

Kotō 古刀                  “old swords”, period name of sword history, ca. 900 – 1596

Mei      銘                    “signature”, the signature of a smith on the tang of the blade

Meitō 名刀                   “named blade”, a blade with a name of its own

Meitō    銘刀                 “signed blade”, a blade which bears the signature of the smith

Mono-uchi 物打                        The mid-to-upper part of the blade, the part which is most likely to hit a target

Mune 棟、峰             “back”, the back of the blade

Nagamaki長巻             A polearm with a glaive-like blade and a handle as long as the blade

Naginata 長刀, 薙刀      A polearm, very much like a glaive

Nakago 茎                    „tang“, the edgeless end part of the blade on which the hilt is mounted

Nihontō 日本刀          “Japanese swords”, category for all Japanese blades

Shinogi 鎬                 “ridgeline”, the thickest part of the blade, standing out on both sides

Shinogi-zukuri 鎬造    Sword Strucure: a blade with a ridgeline near the back

Shinshintō 新新刀      “very new swords”, period name of sword history, 1781-1876

Shintō 新刀                “new swords”, period name of sword history, 1596 – 1781

Sori 反り                     “curvature”, the bending of a blade relative to its length

Tachi  太刀, 大刀          “horizontal or great sword”, single-edged swords with or without curvature

Tantō    短刀                 “dagger”, a short blade, found in many structures, with one or two edges

Tsukurukomi 造込み   “sword structure”, the overall shape of a blade

Tsurugi 剣                    “sword”, term applied to double-edged swords, synonymus with ken

Uchizori 内反り         A inward curvature towards the back of the blade, effect of overpolishing

Wakizashi 脇指          “short sword”, a blade longer than a tantō but shorter than a tachi

yaki-ire  焼入れ                        The quenching of the blade in water, produces the hamon

Yari      槍 , 鎗 , 鑓       “spear”, a spear with a tang at the blade


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