If there’s one thing everyone knows about Japanese history, it’s the katana. Samurai and their swords are perhaps the most iconic image of Edo-period Japan in our mass media consciousness, and they get used whenever a piece of fiction wants to evoke the warrior ethos of the period. Characters in cyberpunk novels are referred to as street-samurai, let’s not even start on anime characters and their huge swords, and if you’re familiar with the Star Wars Expanded Universe then you’ll know the impact of the Katana fleet (if you’re not familiar with the EU then, uh, neither am I). Given all this, it isn’t really surprising that a lot of myths have sprung up about them. Fortunately, I’m here to set the record straight.
Description time! A katana is a sword with a single-edged blade that is longer than 60cm and moderately curved (unlike the older tachi). It has a grip intended for two hands, a square or circular guard, and is worn with its scabbard thrust through your sash (obi) and the blade facing up. Only samurai were permitted to carry them.
A similar sword with a shorter blade (between 30cm and 60cm) is a wakizashi. This is a companion sword for the katana, used as backup, for close-quarters fighting, and sometimes for ceremonial purposes. Wearing both weapons together was the distinctive and official feature of the samurai, although the merchant class were permitted to wear wakizashi and often did so when travelling.
Samurai would also carry weapons with smaller blades (tanto, under 30cm) and occasionally longer (odachi, over 90cm), but they were less commonly used. The katana/wakizashi combination had become the main weapons of the ruling samurai class, and represented their power and personal honour.
The main advantage of a katana is you can get your first stroke in fast. The reason that katana were worn with the blade facing up is so the wearer can draw the sword and cut in the same motion. A fight between two samurai would be over in a few seconds (or a few hours, if you include all the screaming and posing TV shows seem to think is necessary). They were also easier to have with you – the tachi, the main sword in earlier times, required a specialised piece of equipment to carry. Katana were straight enough to be useful as a stabbing weapon but curved enough to concentrate force on a small part of the blade. In short, the katana was superbly crafted as a weapon intended to cut through a person as quickly and thoroughly as possible (which is appropriate, considering that the collective hard-on the internet has for these Japanese swords is so large and rigid you could probably use it to cleave a man in two).
So now we know some facts about katana, let’s turn to some fictions.
A katana can cut through anything!
A katana is a good sword. It’s not some weird combination of Excalibur and a lightsaber, however. They were intended to be used with a draw cut, meaning the blade slices as well as shears, which delivers a truly fearsome cut to unarmoured bodies. The drawback is it doesn’t work at all well against hard things. And changing the blow so it’s more of a shearing strike won’t help matters – katana had a relatively thick blade with a sharply beveled cutting edge, so even more material would have to be moved aside. Katana were made from hard steel, which gave them a very sharp edge and made them quite resilient. It also made them more likely to chip or nick and less flexible, however, so if you want to cut through an APC you’ll have to find another can-opener.
They were made from steel folded thousands of times, which is why they’re so strong!
No, they weren’t. They were made from steel folded between 8 and 16 times, which did produce thousands of layers but that’s not the same thing. The whole folding process was in order to improve the strength of the steel being used, and it had several advantages. Impurities were burnt off and spread through the blade instead of being concentrated at weak points, voids in the metal were eliminated, and it had a laminating effect by alternating layers of differing toughness. But after 16 folds there was no more benefit to be had from the process.
This method was very necessary, not because the swords demanded such an exacting procedure but because Japanese steel at the time was shit. There’s no other way to say it: low quality iron ores combined with poor smelting methods to produce raw steel that was so brittle European metalsmiths referred to it as “pig iron”. The folding process produced steel that was of more even quality and could be used for swords, but it wasn’t some sort of miracle material.
They were tempered with living bodies, because every blade needs a soul!
Here’s a fun fact: tempering is a process in which heated steel is rapidly cooled, in order to harden it. That heated steel is malleable. So what do you think would happen if you shoved a malleable sword blade into a human body full of bones? That’s right, it gets deformed and ruined (if you thought it would become super-strong and sharp, then I have this fantastic sword for you to buy…). Japanese swordsmiths used clay to insulate the different parts of the blade so they would temper at different rates, thus letting them control the properties of the steel produced, but they still tempered the blades with water. There is some truth in the story, though – after production, blades were sometimes tested on cadavers and occasionally criminals who had been sentenced to death. This sort of testing could add a lot to a blade’s value, unless you got someone who had swallowed stones to ruin the blade.
They’re the best swords in the world!
Best for what? This is the sort of argument that people love to debate furiously, which is all the more ironic because most of them have already made up their minds which one should win. One side believes in the inherent superiority of anything from the Land of the Rising Sun, a more elegant and highly-evolved society in their eyes. The other automatically rages against anything they associate with weeaboo shit – or, more likely, anything that contradicts their own cosy view of the world. Once things get to that point there’s little hope of an actual discussion taking place.
So who would win in a duel between a rapier and a katana? For what it’s worth, the opinion of most real sword experts is that the fighter with the rapier would impale the katana-wielder first. Of course this would take place a few tiny fractions of a second before he was sliced in half by the katana, rendering the exercise pointless (like most arguments on the internet). Just so it isn’t entirely wasted, however, I’m going to take this opportunity to provide a public service announcement: if you or someone you know might be at risk of becoming a weeaboo, help is at hand.
With all that tucked into your sash, you’ll be well-equipped next time someone starts spreading misconceptions about Japanese swords. And when they do, remember the words of Ryoma Sakamoto: “I never do verbal battle with others, since even if I win an argument I can’t change the other person’s way of life.”
Question of the post: What other things attract misconceptions the way samurai and their swords do?