5 Key Aspects of Japanese Samurai Swords

26 September 2023

Japanese samurai swords, known as "katana" or “nihonto”, are renowned for their craftsmanship, sharpness, and historical significance. An authentic katana possesses distinctive features that have remained consistent throughout Japan's rich history. Here are five essential elements of Japanese samurai swords that enthusiasts and collectors should know:

1. The Blade

The heart and soul of a Japanese samurai sword is its blade. Katana blades are celebrated for their extraordinary sharpness, resilience, and iconic curved shape. Traditional forging techniques create a blade with a distinct features, like kitae (the steel’s skin) and hamon (the temper-line) that showcases the swordsmith's expertise. The katana's blade is both a work of art and a symbol of the samurai's prowess. In terms of value, it is the quality of the blade that determine its price.

2. The Swordsmith's Signature

Authentic Japanese katana blades typically bear the signature, known as "mei," of the swordsmith who forged them. These mei, found on the tang of the blade (nakago), provide valuable historical information about the sword's school, maker, and sometimes its creation date. However, older sword have been typically shortened to be carried by the samurai of the Edo Period and most of them have lost their signature. In this case the blade is defined as “o-suraige” and “mumei”. On katana and tachi from the 13th-15th centuries, this is completely acceptable and do not lower their value.

3. The mounts (koshirae)

The handle, or "tsuka," of a katana is meticulously crafted to offer a comfortable and secure grip. Typically made from wood, it is wrapped with "tsuka-ito", which can range from silk to leather. Two small ornaments called "menuki" not only enhance the sword's aesthetics but also aid in maintaining a proper grip during combat. On top of that, the "tsuba" is the handguard that separates the blade from the handle. It serves both functional and decorative purposes. Tsuba designs vary widely, showcasing intricate patterns and motifs that reflect the swordsmith's artistry and the owner's preferences. Beyond aesthetics, the tsuba plays a vital role in protecting the hand from inadvertently sliding onto the sharp blade. Finally, the saya is a wooden scabbard that ensures both the blade's protection and the wielder's safety. Saya can range from simple to ornate, often adorned with lacquer finishes and decorative elements. From a collector’s point of view, we can look at the koshirae as a “frame for the painting”: it is certainly a good addition but not the main part to look at.

4. Certification

Japanese sword certifications play a pivotal role in distinguishing the authenticity and rank of these esteemed blades. The process involves a rigorous examination called "shinsha," where experts evaluate the sword's attributes and issue the revered "origami" papers. These certifications hold varying degrees of prestige, significantly influencing a sword's value and reputation. The National Sword Preservation Society, or Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (NBTHK), stands as the foremost authority in issuing these certifications. Established in 1948 to preserve Japanese "art swords," the NBTHK has been instrumental in distinguishing these masterpieces from functional counterparts. Over the years, they have issued several types of papers, each with its significance and influence. Their origami papers are highly regarded and can elevate a sword's status from midrange to premium. Understanding the nuances of these certifications is essential for collectors and enthusiasts, ensuring the preservation and recognition of the legacy of Japanese sword craftsmanship. More information on certifications can be found at this link.
A different kind of certification is the ink inscription on the shirasaya (“white scabbard”) of the blade. This is usual written by a scholar or a private expert and can sometime be extremely reliable.

5. Preservation

The condition of a Japanese sword is crucial, impacting its aesthetic , functionality and value. Flaws (kizu) in a blade can mar its beauty and render it non-functional, diminishing its worth. Some flaws are reparable, while others are fatal, making the sword virtually worthless. One common fatal flaw is a broken kissaki, especially if it extends past the boshi. Chips in the edge or kissaki can be fatal if they reach the hamon. Fukure, caused by poor welding during forging, are typically fatal. Cracks in the hamon (hagire) are hard to spot but are also considered fatal. Other significant flaws include ji-are (irregular raised areas), karasuguchi (cracks in the boshi), shinae (rippling due to straightening), and umegane (filling to cover air or carbon pockets). Mizukage indicates retempering, often seen as a flaw. Shintetsu shows core steel due to over-polishing, and ware (horizontal splits) and nioi gire (interrupted hamon) are common issues to be mindful of when assessing a sword's condition. Careful evaluation is essential, as even flawed blades can be valuable for study purposes.


5 Tips for Buying Your First Japanese Samurai Sword

Are you considering buying your first Japanese samurai sword? Purchasing a katana requires careful consideration and knowledge. Here are five essential tips to guide your purchase:

  1. Focus on the Blade (Katana). The katana's blade is the heart of the sword and should be your primary focus. It's the part that defines the sword's quality and performance. Pay attention to factors like the blade's steel, curvature, kitae and hamon (temper line). A well-crafted katana blade is a testament to the swordsmith's skill.
  2. Prefer a certified blade. Sending a blade back to Japan for certification can be quite tricky. If possible, get a Japanese sword that has already been examined. But attention! Avoid those with “green papers” as it is likely they did not pass the shinsa recently. Your papers should be yellow, if not Juyo Token.
  3. Follow your taste. The Japanese sword has been produced for centuries. Tachi, wakizashi and katana can be of different styles. Would you like a massive nihonto or do you prefer an elegant one? Do you need it to be rich and flamboyant or subtle? Shall it be 13th century or you would prefer a 17th century blade? All these elements can help you determine what to buy for your collection.
  4. Know the value for the money. A long sword (katana) normally costs twice as much as a short one (wakizashi), given the same quality, signature and state of preservation. If your budget is limited but you prefer a high-quality item, consider the option of buying a wakizashi instead of a katana. In addition, the mount (koshirae) has its own value. For the same budget, a katana preserved in shirasaya will surely be able to offer you a higher quality than one that, for the same price, includes a koshirae.
  5. Buy some books. Understanding a Japanese sword is not super simple. If you acquire an authentic and valuable katana, you will want to learn to understand where that value comes from. To do this you need to study the characteristics of nihonto and learn where to look and what to look for with your eyes when valuing a blade. There are a number of manuals on the market, and there are also numerous websites that provide the information, both basic and advanced, that will help you further your study of Japanese swords.


Collecting Japanese Samurai Swords: 3 Key Steps

Collecting Japanese samurai swords is a fascinating journey into the world of martial arts, history, and craftsmanship. Here are three essential steps to guide your journey into the captivating realm of katana collecting:

Step 1: Defining Your Budget

Like any collector's pursuit, it is essential to establish a budget for your katana collection. Your budget will dictate the types and quality of swords you can acquire. Decide whether you'd prefer to invest in a smaller number of high-quality katana swords or a larger collection with various typologies. Quality always comes at a higher cost!

Step 2: Seek Expert Guidance

Collecting katana swords can be a complex endeavour, and it is easy to make costly mistakes without expert guidance. Here's how to navigate the challenges:

Consult Experts: Seek advice from reputable dealers, fellow collectors, or museum curators. Their insights can help you make informed decisions and avoid common pitfalls, such as buying imitation swords or falling for counterfeit signatures (gimei).

Auction Caution: If participating in auctions, be cautious and verify the details listed in catalogs. Auctions can be competitive, and it is essential to stay within your budget and exercise due diligence before bidding, as auction houses will NOT be responsible almost of any mistake published in the catalog and lots are sold “as is”.

Learn Continuously: As your collection grows, continue to educate yourself about katana swords, their history, and the work of famous swordsmiths. This knowledge will enhance your appreciation and discernment.

Step 3: Follow your taste

After you have been presented with several purchase options, try to follow your personal taste. Do not ask questions like "which one is better?" because the answer will always be subjective. You will happen to feel some sort of unexplained attraction to one blade. Follow your instincts and you will always be satisfied with your purchases.


In Conclusion:

Acquiring your first Japanese samurai sword is an exciting endeavour that should be approached with knowledge and care. By focusing on these key aspects of the katana, you can make an informed purchase and begin your journey into the world of Japanese sword collecting and appreciation. Japanese samurai swords, with their rich history and intricate craftsmanship, are not mere weapons but revered as works of art. Collectors and enthusiasts should consider the fundamental elements when evaluating the authenticity and quality of a katana. Whether you're a martial artist, collector, or enthusiast, a well-chosen katana is a symbol of the samurai spirit and Japanese culture.


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