Ah, the katana, the Japanese sword. Has there ever been a more elegant and perfect
weapon in the history of humankind? Granted, we here at Empire Dojo are a bit biased,
but any way you slice it, you’ve got to admit they’re pretty darn cool.
History of the Japanese Sword
To understand why we’re geeking out, it’s important to know that the reverence for this
weapon actually goes back a long way in the culture and history of Japan, well over a
thousand years! Traditionally wielded by the samurai, the katana became popular
during the feudal period due to its effectiveness in close-quarters combat. The relatively
lightweight and curved design meant they were quick to draw, while a razor-sharp
single-edged blade made them capable of slashing through objects (and enemies) with
a single blow.
Over time, swords also became a status symbol associated with the nobility and warrior
classes. Forged by master craftsmen, they were both revered as the ultimate weapon
and prized as family treasures. Even as the use of katana gradually declined throughout
the Edo period with the advancement of firearms, admiration for Japanese swords
remained, not only because of their exquisite design but also because of what they
stood for. Efforts were made to preserve the secrets of katana sword smithing and
swordsmanship so that a powerful cultural legacy would continue to live on.
Why Train in the Sword?
That brings us to the role of the Japanese sword in present day! While its use in warfare
may have become obsolete, many martial artists still find great reward and joy in
training with the sword in modern times. Whether you want to learn sword as a
competition sport or just for fun, the benefits are many:
Physical. The ease with which a master swordsman gracefully floats through his
movements belies a strength needed to wield the weapon. It might not look like it, but
training with the sword can be quite the workout! Looking to achieve those coveted
toned forearms? Many sword techniques require you to move your whole body, but the
muscles in your hands, wrist, and arms are especially targeted.
Mental. There’s something to be said about holding a shinken (which literally means
“real sword” in Japanese, as opposed to an unsharpened or wooden sword) in your
hands. Mastering control of the weapon can also translate to control over other
important aspects of your life, helping develop greater emotional stability, confidence,
and ways to manage negative feelings. Sword training as self-care, it’s a thing!
Social. When you train in the Japanese sword arts, you’re doing more than just learning
a new weapon; you’re joining a community of like-minded people who also share the
same drive and passion. Your teachers and fellow students will be an unlimited source
of help, knowledge, and inspiration, and that’s a rare kind of camaraderie you won’t find
Types of Japanese Sword
At this point, we’ve established the sword as traditionally a samurai warrior’s weapon,
but warriors also adapt—both in their methods and their tools. Most people are familiar
with the katana, but did you know there are many more types of Japanese swords, each
with their own unique design and features? Here are some popular ones to get you
Katana. With its single-edged blade and long hilt (called a tsuka) made for gripping with
both hands, the katana is instantly recognizable for its long and gently curved shape.
Wakizashi. Historical movies or video games featuring samurai often depict the
warriors carrying two swords in their sash belt or obi. Chances are, one of them is a
wakizashi, a shorter version of the katana used for backup or fighting in tight spaces.
Nodachi/Odachi. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the bigger swords, and
the nodachi (field sword) and odachi (great sword) were some of the largest. Almost as
tall as a person, they were used effectively in open battlefields to strike down enemies
on horseback. To wield or even to draw these blades would require a great deal of
training and muscle power.
Tachi. The tachi is commonly referred to as the predecessor of the katana, and no
wonder. They’re very similar, except the tachi is longer and more curved. Their
extended reach made it easier for mounted warriors to charge foot soldiers.
Tanto. A traditional Japanese dagger, the tanto might not technically qualify as a sword
but it is often categorized as one because, much like a wakizashi, it is a samurai’s
secondary weapon and worn at all times. Historically, it has become one of the most
culturally significant and highly regarded samurai blades.
Carrying On the Tradition
Today, swords are no longer used for warfare, but in Japan and all around the world,
their legacy has persisted. The katana has become a cultural icon, still regarded as the
everlasting embodiment of a samurai warrior. And while the samurai themselves may
have ended with the feudal era towards the end of the 19th century, schools like ours
that teach the art of the Japanese sword seek to honor their tradition by keeping alive
the code of Bushido, the warrior way.
More than just about survival and fighting skills, Japanese swordsmanship is a way of
life that highlights a balance between mind, body, and spirit. Our classes in kenjutsu
(sword combat techniques), iaijutsu (the art of sword quick-draw techniques), and
bikenjutsu (“secret sword” techniques) are taught very much the way they have been for
centuries, incorporating the skills that the ancient warriors lived by. Armed with your
new knowledge of the Japanese sword, now you too can help carry on the proud