The earliest swords found in Japan are stone and along with the Chinese-style straight sword. bronze swords. These may not have been functional weapons, as they appear to have been used primarily for ceremonial functions.
Steel swords first appeared in Japan during the Kofun period (250-538 AD), which was marked by the construction of large earthen tombs. Presumably, these early steel swords, along with the technology to work with steel and make them, were imported from China through Korea. Many such blades have been excavated from tombs, but they are not in the best condition. However, a number of early swords from the eighth century, believed to have been imported from China, have been preserved in perfect condition in the Shoso-in storehouse in Nara. As these swords hav
e been maintained, polished, and restored, it is possible to see what some of the earliest steel blades in Japan looked like. These swords, called “jokoto” (or “chokuto”), were made from at least the fourth or fifth century to the tenth or eleventh century.These early jokoto swords are straight, with flat sides. Later blades of this type, also found at Shoso-in, are called “kiriha-zukuri.” They have flat, parallel sides, with a large bevel or ridge line (shinogi) very close to the cutting edge. The sides of the blade taper down to the cutting edge from the shinogi, making the angle of the cutting edge rather obtuse. The Shoso-in storehouse holds another type of sword as well. These thicker and wider blades have a more functional appearance; some of them have a double edge extending back from the point a short distance toward the hilt. This type of sword, called “Kissaki-moroha-zukuri,” may exemplify the swords that were being made in Japan by the eighth century The earliest swords found in Japan are stone and along with the Chinese-style straight sword. bronze swords. These may not have been functional weapons, as they appear to have been used primarily for ceremonial functions. The sword shown at the bottom of the facing page is a near-exact copy (utsushimono) made by Yoshindo Yoshihara. It is adorned with gold dot inlays connected by gold lines in the shape of the Big Dipper star constellation. The original was a sword owned by Prince Shotoku Taishi in the seventh century during the Asuka period (593-710). This sword shape, called “katakiriha-zukuri,” has a very narrow, almost straight hamon along the edge of the blade. Such swords are very thin, and do not seem to have been practical weapons intended for combat. They are forged from steel, however, and the presence of a hamon indicates that the steel contains a high level of carbon.
HEIAN PERIOD ( 7 9 4 – 1 1 8 5 )
Jokoto swords have a narrow, straight hamon that generally lacks strength and clarity. From about the Asuka period, however, it appears that Japanese swordsmiths began using clay to form their hamon; from this point the jihada and hamon become distinct,with a clearly visible suguha (straight) hamon. These early jokoto swords are straight, with flat sides. Later blades of this type, also found at Shoso-in, are called “kiriha-zukuri.” They have flat, parallel sides, with a large bevel or ridge line (shinogi) very close to the cutting edge. The sides of the blade taper down to the cutting edge from the shinogi, making the angle of the cutting edge rather obtuse. Jokoto kiriha-zukuri swords were made up to at least the beginning, and possibly the middle, of the Heian period. The Japanese sword evolved during this time, and by the mia-Heian period blades that resembled modern Japanese swords had begun to emerge. Larger and longei than those from the Asuka period and the Nara period (710-94), these swords are curved, with a single cutting edge and a shinogi running lengthwise along the upper portion of the blade. The blades themselves are wider and thicker than those of earlier periods. By the end of the Heian period, a shape that was very close to the modern shinogi-zukuri style could be seen. The shinogi was moved higher above the cutting edge, closer to the back surface of the sword, which gave the cutting edge a much more acute angle than the earlier jokoto had. Wider and more complex hamon appeared, featuring patterns like choji; the modern type of point, with a boshi (hamon on the point), emerged as well. The most prominent smiths working at this time were Munechika in Yamashiro; Yasutsuna in Hoki; and Kanehira, Tomonari, and others in Bizen.
KAMAKURA PERIOD ( 1185 – 1333)↓
By the end of the Heian period in the twelfth century, the samurai (warrior) class had accumulated much more power and influence, and had also generated a strong demand for effective and functional swords. This trend continued into the Kamakura period, when the samurai class controlled Japan. Swords acquired more curvature, and were more robust and practical for fighting; the smiths who made them began to sign their work. At the same time, the koshirae (mountings) for ceremonial swords and practical weapons began to differ, as did their shape. Most ceremonial swords had straight kenstyle blades, and were clearly derived from the earlier jokoto swords.
The design of swords made at this time appears very close to modern Japanese blades. However, swords continued to evolve and improve from the beginning of the Kamakura period. The new shogunate promoted the production of better, more functional swords, and the Mongol invasion of Japan also led to changes in the design and manufacture of swords. Advances in The design of swords made at this time appears very close to modern Japanese blades. However, swords continued to evolve and improve from the beginning of the Kamakura period. The new shogunate promoted the production of better, more functional swords, and the Mongol invasion of Japan also led to changes in the design and manufacture of swords. Advances in sword design included a wider, more complex hamon and the addition of a soft steel or iron core forged into the center of the sword. There were probably improvements in steel-making as well. The first shogunate, which came into power at the beginning of the Kamakura period, summoned swordsmiths from all over Japan to the town of Kamakura, in Soshu province, to collaborate and produce better swords. This resulted in the foundation of the Soshu school or style of swordmaking. Sagami, the region where Kamakura is located, was a major sword-making area throughout the existence of the Kamakura shogunate, a period of about 130 years. t the same time, however, other sword-making schools were developing all over Japan. Many tanto (daggers) and naginata (polearms) from this period, as well as tachi (longswords), are still extant. Smiths often signed their swords with their name, the date, and the area where they worked. There were a number of important groups of swordmakers in the Bizen area in central Japan (near the present-day city of Okayama), in places like Fukuoka, Yoshii, and Osafune. Osafune and Fukuoka were the most prolific areas, turning out a large number of Bizen swords over hundreds of years. The productivity in Bizen was due in part to the availability of good satetsu (iron ore), along with abundant wood charcoal, dependable sources of water, and reliable transportation.
Bizen, which may have been where the modern Japanese sword was developed, was also the most productive area for sword-making from around 1250 in the mid-Kamakura period to the beginning of the Edo penod in 1603, a span of about four hundred years.
EARLY KAMAKURA-PERIOD SWORDS
Bizen no kuni Tomonari
Length: 79.2 cm Sori: 2.6 cm
Like the two blades shown on the facing page, this 31-inch Tomonari tachi is a long blade with strong curvature, and appears to possess its original shape. Tomonari lived at the end of the Heian period and worked in the Ko-Bizen (old Bizen) school of sword making, from which the Bizen school emerged. The hamon of this sword is narrow and complex along the entire length of the blade, with well-defined gunome or choji waves. The blade and the tang appear unaltered.
National Treasure SK
Late Heian or early Kamakura period
Length: 77.6 cm Sori: 2.5 cm
This tachi was made by Masatsune, who worked in the late Heian period. It has a similar shape and hamon to the three described above, and is 30.55 inches long. The sword is in very good condition, and the long narrow hamon and large boshi indicate that the hamon has retained its original shape. The hamon is very well formed, with frequent continuous gunome waves and ashi. The straight cut at the bottom of the tang, the rivet hole at the bottom of the tang, and the location of the signature (at the center of the tang) are all indications that the tang has been shortened.
To be Continue to next time….