King of swords – was the katana the ultimate weapon?

It might be time to rethink what we know about ancient swords.

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I was having a discussion recently with a friend of mine who does Iaido. He’s working towards his first dan grade, which will take him about 18 months. The first kata, kneeling, has two cuts in total but there are (apparently) 140 mistakes you can make from start to finish. Seriously, what’s up with that? Personally, I would struggle to get excited about spending 18 months learning to use a sword that precisely. I mean, you could get a blue belt in Brazilian JiuJitsu in that time!

It doesn’t seem to really be about fighting with the sword, either, leaving that to Kendo to worry about. Of course, they do some two person ritualised combat stuff, but mainly they just spend their time trying to look Japanese, mysterious and spiritual, while cutting the air. People criticise kung fu for its “too deadly for the ring” mentality, yet Iaido, with its ritual drawing and cutting into the air, takes this further into “too deadly even for the training hall!” territory.

OK, I’m being facetious – doing the cuts in that video requires a lot of skill, but personally I’d rather be learning practical skills like how to really fight with a sword, not cut up tatami omote. Other people seem to love these things and that’s ok, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, as they say.

Inevitably talk of Iaido leads to discussion of the katana. The popular narrative, that the Katana is the king of all swords – the ultimate weapon – runs deep. From films like Kill Bill (A Hanzo sword!) to the Katana-wielding Michonne in The Walking Dead, we all know that if you want the ultimate sword, you need to go to Japan to get it. However, I’ve found that the more you look into Asian martial arts, the more the solid ground becomes quicksand, and the more the real becomes the unreal. The idea we have of the katana being the ultimate sword lies with the modern recreation of the samurai, the most fearsome warriors ever to walk the face of the earth, and bushido, the strict martial code they lived by.

These concepts and images permeate so many aspects of our culture, however, the truth is that much of Japanese history surrounding the samurai was re-written in the late 1800’s (by government decree) in order to bolster Japan’s own importance.

In his book “Inventing the way of the Samurai” Oleg Benesch writes of bushido, the strict moral code of the samurai:

“Rather than a continuation of ancient traditions, however, bushidō developed from a search for identity during Japan’s modernization in the late nineteenth century. The former samurai class were widely viewed as a relic of a bygone age in the 1880s, and the first significant discussions of bushidō at the end of the decade were strongly influenced by contemporary European ideals of gentlemen and chivalry.”

The book is expensive, but the dissertation on which it was based can be read for free online.

But it wasn’t just the Japanese who were romanticising and recreating their past – Europeans had a hand in it too. There has long been a western fascination with all things oriental, but this really took hold after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

“According to accounts of the time, the Japanese were using their swords during that conflict with surprising effectiveness. It was for a simple reason: every other nations were letting go of the sword as a weapon of war (and rightly so), but the Japanese were still training their men in fencing with a lot more energy. So of course when the Russians and Japanese met on the battlefield for duels (and some of them were recorded) the Japanese often won. It left an enduring image in the public’s consciousness as these stories got reprinted all over the Western world.” – Maxime Chouinard, posting in Martial Arts Studies group

We’re used to seeing documentaries that extoll the virtues of the Katana, like this one from NOVA:

In the description it says: “English archers had their longbows, Old West sheriffs had their six-guns, but samurai warriors had the most fearsome weapon of all: the razor-sharp, unsurpassed technology of the katana, or samurai sword.”

(Incidentally, I often wonder how much this idea of “unsurpassed technology” is again a modern construct, based on Japan’s status in the 1990s as the world leader in technology. It seemed like every cool piece of technology in that era came out of Japan, from cars and video games to Walkmans. This is just speculation on my part, but I think this is a reputation that Japan has never truly shaken off, and is often used to backfill history.)

But was the katana really that much more technologically advanced than European blades of the time? Not everybody thinks so.

From the Dimicator website: “Medieval European swords … were hi-tech weapons of their time, masterly crafted and mechanically superior even to the famed samurai swords… European blades flex back to straightness when bent.”

It would appear that, as with all tools, swords were primarily designed for the particular problems the users had to overcome. Medieval European blades tended to be designed for, and used, on the battlefield. The katana, in contrast, was introduced at a time of relative peace, and was used mainly for ritualised duelling. It was criticised for being ineffective on the battlefield, and the two person sequences were referred to as “flower swordsmanship”.

The katana is defined by having a curved blade. Indeed, curved blades are inherently stronger and easier to cut with than straight ones, but clearly the ideal design for a thrusting blade is straight, as most European blades were, indicating that the katana was more for slashing and cutting with than thrusting. This has often lead people to believe that the Kata was developed for fighting from horseback, however this idea has been refuted. There is also an academic paper by Michael Wert, “The Military Mirror of Kai: Swordsmanship and a Medieval Text in Early Modern Japan“, which observes that the Samurai’s main weapons were the lance and bow.

In terms of metallurgy, the European blades were every bit as sophisticated – they were just different types of swords, designed for a different purpose – often on the battlefield. Roland Warzecha from the Dimicator school comments:

“Katanas cannot flex because only the edge is hardened and the back is not. So when they are distorted to a particular degree, they either snap or remain bent. The distribution of high carbon steel and low carbon iron in a blade in order to make a sword both hard enough to keep an edge and cut but at the same time not too brittle to prevent breakage, is one of the true challenges with sword making, and their have been various solutions.

I think katanas are superb for the context they were made for. I am convinced that Japanese swordsmiths would have developed flexible swords if combat requirements had called for it. My theory is that it was the absence of shields in sword-fighting that is the reason, plus, because raw material was extremely limited, the sword remained an elite weapon, not available to most – unlike in post-1300 Europe.”

In terms of metallurgy, European blades were just as sophisticated, as this post on the Dimicator Facebook page reveals.

It’s looking like we may need to rethink our idea of the katana as the ultimate sword. The narrative that European blades were inferior to Japanese ones is slowly being rewritten.

Any sword is a series of compromises, and ultimately just a tool. Every tool has a purpose. Perhaps the real answer is that it’s not the sword that matters – it’s the person wielding it, and whether or not they have the skill to do so.

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6 thoughts on “King of swords – was the katana the ultimate weapon?

  1. Iaido is only one aspect of sword work, as is Kendo. They’re both about swinging a sword around but each focuses on different aspects of using the sword so comparing them is a little unfair. They look to perfect their small area of sword work. Kenjutsu is a more rounded and practical art on the use of the sword but it’s worth noting that sword work was only one of many arts studied by Samurai (and ninja) that all linked and reinforced each other. The movement of sword cutting is the same as that for throwing weapons, hand chops and punches with regard to body movement; so saying that any form of sword work is not valuable Is akin to saying any form of art is a waste of time as they’re all teaching the same thing; how to move the body with the greatest power and efficiency. You’re right that you can’t understand combat until you’ve been in it but equally you can have perfect body movement without ever being in combat. Whether you would survive in a fight is a different matter. From my teachings I understand that traditionally students trained with swords first and then without, from there any weapon could be placed in their hand and used with equal effectiveness. In addition to learning attacking and defending techniques, sword work was also traditionally used for training the psychology of the artist so the reaches of the training went far beyond waving a sword around. How to draw and cut is just a small part of what the arts are really about (or should be) so yes, I agree with your final comment that a view of the artist is more valuable than of the tool they used to carry out their skill. My question is whether there is a real ‘better’ or ‘worse’ weapon, or is it just down to weaknesses in the artist that wields it. I’d welcome a comparison of Samurai to European infantry

  2. Hi Batamax, My source for the sections you object to is Michael Wert, “the Military Mirror of Kai”: Swordsmanship and a Medieval Text in Early Modern Japan.

  3. Brian – you can hit the pads for years, but if you don’t spar a resisting opponent then you don’t know how to box. That’s what I meant.

  4. Love the article. Great points but one thing made me wonder.
    “doing the cuts in that video requires a lot of skill, but personally I’d rather be learning practical skills like how to really fight with a sword, not cut up tatami omote.”
    In what way is “actual sword fighting” more practical than very cool and impressive cutting skills?
    Unless we have differing definitions of practical(a possibility to be sure) I struggle to see the superiority of actual sword fighting.

  5. Nice article. That said I do have a few corrections t make.

    “The katana, in contrast, was introduced at a time of relative peace, and was used mainly for ritualised duelling. It was criticised for being ineffective on the battlefield, and the two person sequences were referred to as “flower swordsmanship”.”

    The katana was introduced in the era of civil wars (Sengoku Jidai) and if you count the tachi before that as more or less a katana, then way before. The idea that after the civil war Japan became a land of peace where only highly ritualized duels took place is also flawed. Japan was still ruled by a caste of warriors that had their own peculiar ways of dealing with each other. While full out war was mostly a thing of the past, blood feuds, attacks and gang wars were still happening on a regular basis without much control. If a family member was killed, you could ask the officials for a killing permit, basically to go and hunt down the culprit yourself, who would probably defend himself. So swordsmanship was not just and flowery exercise.

    “My theory is that it was the absence of shields in sword-fighting that is the reason, plus, because raw material was extremely limited, the sword remained an elite weapon, not available to most – unlike in post-1300 Europe.”

    A couple more issues here. First shields were used in Japan before the introduction of two handed swords and more complex armors (known as “armors not requiring shields) and had to face them in Korea as well. Also the reason why long swords were an elite weapon, because anyone could own a short sword, is because of the laws enacted by Hideyoshi and Tokugawa. Before them long swords were owned by all levels of society. This was not an issue of raw materials. While Japan at the time did not posses extensive iron mines, they would import it from the continent. They even snubbed English steel when it was brought to the country. The English merchants complained that their business venture of selling steel on the island had to close down because the Japanese saw English steel as being of too low quality for their needs. Japan was also one of the biggest arms merchant in Asia. In 1483 alone it exported 67 000 blades to China, and for a long time it kept supplying guns to the continent.

    It is important to set the record straight about European swords and appreciate them for the excellent weapons they were, but in doing so it is important not to create myths about the Japanese swords either.

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