No era in Japan has attracted quite as much fascination as the feudal period, when samurai made up the army of powerful warlords. Coming into power in the twelfth century, when Japan was ruled by a military shogunate, the samurai enjoyed privileged status. They were the elite of the warrior class, a group entirely dedicated to the sword.
Over friends and above family, samurai warriors were loyal to their lords, sometimes to a fault. There is a story about 47 rõnin (masterless samurai), whose lord had been forced to commit suicide, and how they plotted for two years to avenge his death. When they finally killed the man they believed was responsible for their master’s death, they themselves took their own lives to atone for the shame of committing murder.
Their extreme loyalty was drawn from the bushido, the warrior code that they lived by. Alongside honor and an ascetic way of life, the bushido required the samurai to be proficient in martial arts, particularly in swordsmanship.
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Samurai were known for their skill with the blade, of which the katana, the Japanese equivalent of the longsword, is the most recognizable. In stark contrast to the knights of feudal Europe, samurai emphasized speed over power, mobility over heavy armor. They wore suits made of enameled light metal and bamboo. The swords they hung on their side were usually a katana and a shorter blade called a wakizashi. This pairing was known as daishõ (literally, “big-little”) and symbolized their rank (though most samurai could only ever use one sword at a time during battle). Widely known as peerless fighters, samurai would stake their lives on their swordsmanship alone.
There are many tales of samurai heroes told in books, television, and cinema. Miyamoto Musashi, the “Sword Saint,” won his first duel at the age of 13. Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the tragic hero of the Gempei War, was betrayed and forced to commit ritual suicide. These stories make up Japanese lore and the swords these warriors wielded formed a large part of this history.
Japanese blades are forged from intense fire and high-grade steel. Legend has it that forging a blade relies partly on the soul, both of the maker and of the one who bears it. Being his primary tool, the sword itself was said to be a samurai’s honor.
Despite its apparent simplicity, the elegant, curving blade of the katana is difficult to make and few, even in feudal Japan, could master it. The blade at its core is made of ductile metal that is then encased in harder steel, giving the sword an uncommon durability. The steel used is called tamahagane and comes from iron sand. Tamahagane is hammered into a small sheet, then folded and hammered again to remove the impurities in the metal. This process is repeated hundreds or even thousands of times depending on the smith’s technique, giving the edge of the blade a surface wave-like texture. It takes weeks or months to forge a katana, each custom-made for a specific warrior or clan. To own a sword crafted by a master reflected a warrior’s honor and skill.
Reforms that were introduced in the Meiji period (1868-1912) made samurai unnecessary. Though some families managed to retain the traditions of their ancestry, many warriors gave up their swords and assumed new roles in society.
What remained, however, was the tradition and art of forging blades. Today, there are smiths who actively pursue the craft employing time-honored methods. Sakai, a city in the Osaka Prefecture, parlayed its sword-making tradition into manufacturing kitchen knives (The city even has a museum where kitchen implements are displayed alongside relics of war). Mizuno Tanrenjo, one of the most famous forges in Sakai, has been in operation for more than a hundred years and its knives are highly valued by modern chefs. Japan has also established the Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai, or NBTHK, to preserve the art of sword making and the weapons that have survived millennia.
Today, owning one of these swords remains a great honor, just as it was in feudal Japan. And there is much to be said about possessing an early example of something that stood for power and rectitude in the hands of an ancient warrior class.
Photographs (still life) by Ian Castañares
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.