The Katana was developed in the early 15th century, when the feudal
era was brought to it's climax in what historians call "The Age of
States at War." This era began when the Feudal lords of ancient Japan
began fighting amongst one another for control of the land. This time
in japanese history ended with the Meiji restoration, when Japan was
restored to a unified country and swords were outlawed.
The katana was the samurai's most important sword. It is widely agreed that the Katana, or Dai-to is the single most perfect sword ever developed. It's power and finesse made it a nearly indefeatable weapon. Made with a curved ken
(blade) set into a long tsuka (hilt) it is the sword we most identify
with feudal japan today. The steel of the blade would be forged by master craftsmen, heated and folded over 200 times. Although the Katana was very powerful, it was also much lighter than European swords and could be handled with confidence and grace.
Most Katana are about 42" long from tip to pommel (the end of the hilt)
and the blade is usually 26" to 28" long. This means that the tsuka itself
can be up to 14" long, much shorter than the grips of it's predecessors,
the No-Dachi and the Tachi.
The katana would be carried in a saya (scabbard> and tucked into the samurai's
belt. Originally, they would carry the sword with the blade turned down.
This was a more comfortable way for the armored samurai to carry his
very long sword. The bulk of the samurai armor made it difficult to
draw the sword from any other place on his body. When unarmored, samurai
would carry their sword with the blade facing up. This made it possible
to draw the sword and strike in one quick motion, usually beheading
the opponent. In order to draw the sword, the samurai would turn the saya downward ninety degrees and pull it out of his belt just a bit with his left hand, then gripping the tsuka with his right hand he would slide it out while sliding the saya back to it's original position.
The appropriate way to hold the katana is still taught today by many
schools of martial arts. First, the samurai would grab the tsuka with his right hand directly below the tsuba, or cut guard,
which would keep his hand from slipping onto the blade. Next, he would
place the pommel, the very bottom of the tsuka, into the palm of his
left hand. The left hand would then be wrapped around and turned vertical
so that the sword's pommel would be halfway into his closed hand. This
left a gap of anywhere from 6" to 8" between the warrior's hands which
allowed for superior flexibility. Because of the space between the fighter's
hands, the sword's master could easily cut horizontall, vertically
Also taught even in today's martial arts schools are the various kamae,
or stances, which the samurai would take while training at his dojo.
Here, wooden swords called bokuto or bokken were used so
the students would not give one another lethal injuries. Later, the
flexible bamboo shinai were developed, which would allow
students to strike one another without cauing injury.
The katana had great importance outside of combat as well. Throughout the Era of States at War, the Samurai would never be without it. It was a symbol of his status as a warrior, his obedience of the code of bushido and his undying loyalty to his master. It was considered a great honour to receive such a sword from one's master or even one's ally.