The katanas are one weapon that we all associate with Japan, largely due to popular media and animes. Everyone thinks of the famous samurais and their curved swords as a pair. The swords are etched deeply into Japanese history, and the legendary warriors saw them as extensions of themselves.
The origin of the katana can be traced back to 700 AD, when the swordsmith Amakuni is said to have invented the first one. It gradually evolved to be the premier weapon of the samurai who followed the Bushido, the warrior's way.
The samurai were elite noble warriors, and the popularity of the katanas lasted from feudal Japan (1185-1600) to the Edo Period (1603-1868). After the rise of westernization and the arrival of guns, they were only held as a ceremonial honor by some military officials.
The katana was one of the three main weapons of a samurai, with the other two being a long sword and a short sword called the wakizashi. A martial art called Kenjutsu was created on how to wield the blade effectively.
Anyone who was not well-versed in Kenjutsu and how to handle his blade with skill was seen as uncultured. The culture of seppuku, a suicide ritual for dishonored warriors, also developed. Kaishakunin was the second person participating in the ritual to behead the warrior, who initially pierced his stomach with his sword.
Masamune, regarded as the greatest Japanese blacksmith, developed a revolutionary technique to make sure katanas were sturdy and sharp enough to cut through people in one strike. He put together four metal bars; one soft iron, two hard iron, and one steel. He then hammered them together to create a tamahagane steel blade.
The process was so crucial that Shinto Priests were invited to bless the forging, and a master swordsman would perform a test cut, called a tameshigiri, on dead bodies or criminals. It was seen as a protector of a newly born warrior and was laid to rest with him as he died.
One of the most crucial parts of a katana is the Hamon, a differential line created due to the unique forging method. It's also used to measure the sword's value. The Hi is a longitudinal groove that makes the blade lighter.
The Nagasa is the sword's length, Menuki is the unique ornaments on the hilt, while the saya is the distinctive wooden scabbard used for all the blades. There're separate names for each sword component, singular to the fabled blades.
After the Haitorei, or sword prohibition Edict of 1876, most swordsmiths closed business, and katanas became exclusive to the police or military. Two swordsmiths were chosen to service the imperial household to keep the art from dying out. Today, licensed swordsmiths forge katanas the same as they were over 1000 years ago!
Today, the art of forging a katana is a process whose legacy has been preserved. The katana is one of the finest and most iconic products of ancient Japan, and bladesmiths who know how to create these swords still take great pride in their skill.