Katana on display

The Birth of the Katana

The popular Japanese sword, katana (刀) was made iconic by the samurai class during feudal Japan and is commonly known as the samurai sword. It is defined by its characteristic curved, single-edged, thin blade with a rounded or square guard and long grip so it can be held with both hands. It is known for its strength and incredibly sharp blade. But how did the katana design come to be?

Katana

Early origins of the katana

The earliest origins of katana can be traced 1300 years back. The first Japanese swords were variations of the Chinese jian (chokuto). But during the early Heian period around 700A.D., the precursor to the katana began to take shape.

The first katana did not have the familiar curved blade. It was a straight, double-edged iron blade similar to the Chinese swords. By the end of the 10th century, the Japanese cut off cultural ties with the Chinese and went on to develop their own culture and society. The military warriors protecting the people became the first samurai and the Japanese began to pave their way toward creating the katana that we know today.

The legend of Amakuni

Amakuni Yasutsuna is the legendary swordsmith who is credited to have created the first single-edged longsword (tachi) with curvature along the edge in the Yamato Province around 700 AD. He was the  head of a group of swordsmiths employed by the Emperor of Japan to make weapons for his warriors.

As the story goes, Amakuni and his son, Amakura stood by watching the return of the Emperor and his warriors from battle. As the Emperor passed, he did not give Amakuni any sign of recognition as he did so on occasion. This was thought to be a sign of appreciation. Amakuni also noticed that almost half of the returning warriors carried broken swords.

Japanese swords and scabbards

Amakuni vowed to make things right by creating swords that would not so easily break. He and his son prayed to the Shinto gods for seven days and nights and after, selected the best iron sand ore. Without rest, he and his son worked tirelessly. On the 31st day, they emerged weary and gaunt carrying a single-edged curved sword. They went on to forge many types of improved swords bearing the similar design in preparation to arm the warriors for the next battle to come.

The following spring, the anticipated war came. As the samurai returned, while passing by Amakuni’s shop, he counted more than 31 swords returned with perfectly intact blades. As the Emperor passed, he smiled and commended Amakuni for his skills as a swordsmith. It is said tha Amakuni gained immortality from the blood spilled from the blades he created.