From the medieval period to the modern, the Samurai sword has evoked fascination amongst warriors and laymen alike and was believed by the Samurai to be joined to his soul. When a child was born to a warrior, a sword was present during delivery and on his death, a Samurai word be buried with his trusted weapon by his side, ready to serve him again in the after life.
According to mythology, the first sword was created by the god Inzanagi who used it to murder his son, the Fire god. This was because he had been such a painful conception for his beloved wife, Izanami, that she ran away to the underworld.
At the beginning of the process of making a new sword, the sword-smith would often be blessed and spiritually purified by a priest. Inazo Nitobe stated in his book, ‘Bushido: The Warrior’s Code’;
“The sword-smith was not a mere artisan but an inspired artist and his workshop a sanctuary. Daily, he commenced his craft with prayer and purification, or, as the phrase was, ‘he committed his soul and spirit into the forging and tempering of the steel’.”
What made the Samurai sword unique was that it overcame an age old problem in sword making. To keep a sharp edge, a sword had to be made of hard steel but this would be very brittle, increasing the chances of the weapon breaking in battle. Alternatively, the sword could be made with softer, more pliable steel but this would lead to blades dulling during prolonged combat.
The Japanese sword-smith overcame this by hammering together layers of steel of varying hardness, then reheating and hammering them out thin again dozens of times. When the right shape was achieved, the top part of the blade was covered in clay and it was re-heated once more.
After a prayer was said, the blade was dipped in water to cool. The top part cooled much slower as a result of the clay, making it soft and flexible while the edge of the blade was hard and very sharp. To test the weapon, rushes bundled around a bamboo core were usually used although it was relatively common to use corpses or even condemned criminals.
To make the swords requires a great amount of technical skill and craftsmanship making them not only weapons of note, but also works of art in their own right. This did not only apply to the blades, the hilt and scabbard were sometimes carved from ivory and depicted a story from Japanese mythology and along with the hand guard, were often embedded with silver or gold.
Master sword-smiths would often sign their names on their work, signifying the quality of the sword. One who usually refrained from this practice was the legendary Musumane, believed by many to be the greatest of them all. Legends sprung up around the sword smiths and their abilities. One of Musumane’s contemporaries, Muramasa, was said to make the blade so well that one of his creations would hold an upright position in a swiftly flowing stream and any dead leaf that the current brought against it would be effortlessly cut in two. However not to be out-done, Musumane’s blade was said to be so sharp that when thrust in the water, leaves would actually avoid it!
A samurai was usually armed with two swords, the Katana, the bigger of the two, and the Wakizashi. The katana was the main fighting sword and the smaller weapon was mostly used for removing the heads of enemies killed on the battlefield. If defeated, the samurai were expected to end their own life rather than face the humiliation of capture and it was the wakizashi that was often used. The warrior would disembowel himself in the ritual known as seppuku, before a second removed his head to relive the excruciating pain.
Learning to use the sword properly was considered a life time study and a samurai was expected to be a dedicated practitioner of the martial arts, especially Kenjutsu, (the art of sword fighting). A strict code of ethics and rituals surrounded the sword, which had to be handled and maintained correctly at all times.
There were five basic attacks to be mastered in kenjutsu, as in its modern day equivalent kendo: from top to bottom; left to right; right to left; side to side; and a straight-ahead thrust aimed at the throat.
Samurai were trained in the art of war first and foremost but also participated in one-on-one duels with each other. These fights were often over very quickly when masters were involved as both would move almost simultaneously, with one move usually being enough to determine the winner; the loser usually would be killed or wounded.
Sometimes both fighters would be killed in the fight but it was not always necessary for someone to die to determine who won the bout. However with the level of skill involved when two warriors of a high standard fought, more often than not the loser paid with his life.
Although the samurai traditions were officially banned in the mid-nineteenth century, much of it lives on. The modern art of Kendo (Way of the Sword) preserves the techniques used by the samurai for almost a thousand years, along with many of the spiritual aspects of the relationship between the samurai warrior and his sword.