King of swords – was the katana the ultimate weapon?

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

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.