History of the Samurai Sword

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The samurai sword, also known as the katana, is a Japanese sword that typically has a curved single-edge blade longer than 23 inches and a long grip.  The samurai sword has a rich history dating back from ancient Japan; it gained its popularity among waring clans in 12th century Japan and has traditionally been associated with an elite group of Japanese swordsman.

Origin of the term Samurai

The word samurai comes from the Japanese word 'saburau,' which means 'to serve.' The term originated as early as A.D. 702 and described highly-trained imperial guards who were loyal to the emperor.

History of the Samurai People

The samurai quickly rose to the status of elite swordsman and as early as the 12th century had established themselves as the knights of Japan.  Between the 12th century and the 16th century, the samurai were active in a number of armed clashes, insurrections and battles over control of Japan.  

The samurai were treated with great reverence and through the 17th century could legally kill any common person who did not show them sufficient respect.  They lived by their own moral code, called Bushido, which deemed a death by enemy to be dishonorable; for this reason, the Samurai would often commit suicide if death on the battlefield appeared unavoidable.

Influence of Samurai on World War II

The era of the samurai people faded during the 19th century due to Western influences and the increased popularity of guns as a battlefield weapon. By World War II, modern militarism had swept through Japan and the iconic Samurai, with his trademark ponytail and sword, ceased to exist.

However, the tenets of the samurai people lived on into the modern era.  Japanese forces during WW II were infamous for their intense loyalty, which led to them to engage in kamikaze missions and other acts of self-sacrifice to protect the Japanese state.

Construction of the Samurai Sword

One of the distinctions of the samurai sword was its effectiveness as a weapon for both slashing and piercing in the battlefield.  This versatility was due to its construction, which involved two different kinds of steel.

The construction of a samurai sword takes place over approximately 6 months.  The process begins with iron-bearing sand and charcoal being heated to temperatures of up 2,500 Fahrenheit in order to form a high-quality steel called 'tamahagane.'

From there, the sword is sent to a swordsmith who continues to forge the blade by heating, cooling and hammering it into the classic samurai shape. This is an intensive process and up to a third of swords will be damaged before they are finished.

After the swordsmith successfully forms the sword, it is passed on to a sword polisher, who will spend weeks honing the sword's edge by rubbing it with a number of grinding stones.  These stones can be worth up to $1,000 and have often been passed down from prior generations.

Lastly, the sword's handle will be adorned with leather, gold, stones or other decor, before it is returned to the swordsmith for one last viewing in order to be deemed worthy for a samurai warrior.  In general, over 15 different men will be involved in the creation of one samurai sword.

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