Analysis / Katanas Are Just Better

What makes the katana special?

A traditionally made Japanese sword (the katana is a Japanese sword, but not Every Japanese Sword Is a Katana) is defined by three things: being made of folded tamahagane steel smelted from iron-rich sand; being of laminated construction, of which the basic version is a hard outer "jacket" wrapped around a tough inner core; and being differentially hardened by applying clay to the back of the blade before heating and quenching, so that the more rapidly-cooled edge becomes harder than the rest of the sword and develops a cloud-like pattern called the hamon. Differential hardening is also what gives the blade its curvature; unlike a curved sword made from a homogeneous piece of steel, which is forged in a curved shape before heat treatment, the Japanese sword is forged almost straight and actually bends itself into a curved shape when it's quenched because the edge and the body cool at different rates. Contrary to popular belief, tamahagane is not a particularly high-quality steel; in fact the folding process is necessary to remove impurities and reduce the carbon content to the right level, and while the traditional process does this quite effectively, it is obsolete and inefficient compared to post-blast furnace metallurgy which produces better steel in greater volumes and with more consistency. Folded tamahagane is still used in sword making not because it's somehow "superior" to modern steel, but rather because it's valued as a historical tradition, and because it gives the sword the prized aesthetic effect of a grained surface pattern. In contrast, lamination and differential hardening do still have a functional purpose: they allow the sword to have a very hard edgenote  which retains its sharpness longer than a softer edge would, while the tougher and more pliable body of the sword helps it to absorb stress without breaking. A "through-hardened" blade made from one homogeneous piece of steel cannot be made quite as hard-edged and will tend to dull more easilynote , but has the advantage of durability. The hard yet brittle edge of a katana is more likely to chip if struck against something too hard and unyielding, such as the edge of another sword, which is why many parrying techniques in kenjutsu use the sides and back of the blade instead of the edge. Meanwhile, the blade consisting of a hard edge mated to a softer spine is more likely to take a permanent bend or twist if exposed to lateral force, taking a set from the kind of bending that a through-hardened blade would be expected to spring back from. Such a deformity can interfere with technique and cutting performance until corrected, which would have been difficult in the heat of battle in the days when they were used as weapons. On the other hand, this same softness makes a bend easy to correct with the right method, whereas if a through-hardened blade is bent far enough for it to take a set, it will be harder to straighten out again than that of a katana. This is just one example of how the katana is not categorically superior to other swords, and whether or not it will serve you better than a different type of sword depends entirely on the context in which you're going to use it.

Origins of the Myth

Why do a lot of people seem to think the Japanese sword is superior? For the Japanese it's understandible that they'd want to brag about their swords being the best, but much more remarkable is the fact that people from all over the world seem to buy it. There are many possible explanations for this state of affairs, and the following are just a few suggestions.

One reason is Older Is Better: the notion that the craftsmen of olden times had secret knowledge that has been lost to modern craftsmen. Since Japan has a relatively continuous tradition of swordsmithing which goes back to the middle ages and lives on today, it can be said that they still make swords very similar to the old ones. Japan's status as an island nation and the "closed country" policy of the Edo period also means that their tradition is less "diluted" by influence from their neighbors, thus encouraging gradual evolution rather than disruptive revolution in the making of swords and preserving its distinct national character. The various governments of Japan since feudal times have also helped to foster the craft of sword making and preserve its history, culminating in post-war Japan's laws regulating the manufacture, import, and export of swords while protecting the best antique swords as national treasures and important cultural properties. Japan has sometimes had periods of war and disruption which interrupted or destroyed certain sword traditions, such as the abolition of the samurai class under the Meiji Restoration putting most of the old-fashioned swordsmiths out of work, leading to their replacement by manufacturers who could produce enough swords to equip a modern military. Still, their sword culture is more completely preserved than other Asian cultures that went through more prolonged cultural and technological upheaval, and is in a totally different league from Western Europe's Medieval and Renaissance traditions, which had to be resurrected after completely dying out. Although the first revivals of old European weapon-making and martial arts began in the 19th century, it was not until the rise of the internet around the turn of the millennium accompanied by the publication of more translations of primary sources that European sword arts really began to take off.

Compared to Japan's traditional culture, which places more emphasis on tradition and basing present practices on the knowledge of one's ancestors, Western Europe has long been focused on the idea of progress and each generation being better than the last. The writers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment created the idea of the primitive and superstitious Middle Ages because they thought they were so much better in comparison, and while they idolized the greatness of classical Greece and Rome, they nevertheless felt like they could build upon and surpass the achievements of the ancients. Despite the fact that there were always proponents of the Good Old Ways who resisted newfangled sword designs and fencing styles, each time they were ultimately drowned out by the embracers of change and improvement. While many swords associated with saints, nobles, and the like were preserved in churches or princely collections, they were not considered as templates for future generations of swordsmiths, and tended to be valued more for their history than their intrinsic qualities. Contrast this with Japan, in which Kotō (古刀, "old swords") from around 9001596 were considered the best, while the succeeding Shintō (新刀, "new swords") made from 15961780 were considered to be not up to that standard. Meanwhile, the teaching of medieval styles of fencing died out as the weapons they were based on went out of fashion, and many of the fencing manuals preserving these teachings sat forgotten in obscure libraries until the revival of HEMA in the late 20th century. This general unfamiliarity with the old tools allowed later writers to conjure up the pervasive myth of medieval swords as being dull, twenty-pound bars of iron that prevented any kind of sophisticated technique, an extreme contrast with how Europeans would soon percieve the swords of Asia.

The first visit to Japan by the Portuguese in 1543 began the Occidental World's relations with Japan. From the beginning, European visitors were impressed with the cutting ability of the Japanese sword, and brought back some hair-raising tales of beheadings, encounters with fierce pirates, and the like. Naturally, some fine swords entered European collections as diplomatic gifts. The isolationist policies of the Edo period limited the amount of direct contact beteen Japanese and Europeans, but by the mid-19th century Japan was forced to sign treaties that opened her up to the West again. This is when Europeans started forming many of the opinions about Japanese swords that the have today.

The European sword industry was nothing to sneeze at, mind you, and was especially distinguished by its access to good steel and ability to turn out large numbers of blades that were of at least decent quality. As early as the 16th century, Indian weapon makers were importing blades from manufacturing centers like Solingen, Germany so they could hilt them in the native fashion. The best Indian bladesmiths could make blades that were a match for anything in the world, and none of them were in danger of losing their jobs, but it was the "budget" market that got displaced by the European imports; for the same price as a crappy Indian blade, you could get a munitions quality blade from Europe that was a bit nicer and much more reliable. By the 19th century, especially after the adoption of the Bessemer process, Europe was awash in high quality, affordable steel. The downside to all this innovation was that the sword makers in the meantime had lost some of the traditional wisdom going back to the middle ages, and in some cases ended up having to reinvent the wheel.

For example, scabbards made entirely out of steel had become common because of the need to mass-produce them, and also to make them durable since they would be taken on campaign by conscripts who didn't know the finer points of sword care and were likely to treat their swords and scabbards roughly. A wooden core was an additional expense, so they were often left out. Unfortunately, it turns out that wood is very good for preserving a sword's sharpness, while being kept in metal alone makes them dull really fast even if they've just been sharpened. British soldiers on colonial assignment were often frustrated that their swords would already have become dull within a couple weeks after sharpening, while their Indian and Japanese counterparts always seemed sharp and ready. At the time, the British were just as impressed with the Indian Talwar as they were with the katana, but for some reason that fact seems to have been forgotten by pop culture. European armies were also affected from time to time by a bad batch or some experimental new pattern that turned out to be a failure. Blades that weren't thick enough or that were tempered to be too flexible could fail to thrust through an opponent's greatcoat. There must have been quite a bit of envy, and a sense that the Indians and the Japanese knew something they didn't.

There may have also just been something deeply romantic about feudal Japan that orientalist Westerners admired. They were in the throes of industrialisation, and society was changing so fast that it seemed scary and alienating. Therefore, when Europeans finally got a good look inside Japan it looked to them like a land in Medieval Stasis where they saw their own past reflected as if through a skewed mirror. The people lived under a social order that resembled the structure of European feudalism, with lords living in castles and peasants working the land; the culture supported all kinds of traditional arts and crafts permeated with spirituality and appreciation for beauty; and there were samurai warriors who seemed to practice a code of conduct like that of medieval knights, whose Martyrdom Culture and embrace of Honor Before Reason appealed to the romantic side of Romanticism Versus Enlightenment; and of course, the government had established the closest possible thing to Fantasy Gun Control by disarming the population, while enforcing Heroes Prefer Swords by making the daisho the samurai badge of office. Despite the similarities with European history, everything there was so thrillingly foreign, oriental, and exotic, and there was enough Values Dissonance between the two cultures to generate a lot of interesting drama. This combination of the familiar and unfamiliar contributed to the great fad of Japonisme, the fetishization of all things Japanese. Of course, no sooner had the West gained unfettered access to Japan than the highly conservative social order was already in danger of collapsing from both internal and external pressures, to be replaced in the nationalist and modernizing Meiji Restoration. The samurai were a dying breed, and occidental observers sighed at their passing in much the same way that they lamented the passing of the Noble Savage who once roamed The Wild West. The romanticized spirit of the samurai which the katana is said to embody is undoubtedly part of the reason it appeals to Westerners so much.

The folding of the steel billet and the construction of the sword through lamination is always a major source of mystique for the Japanese sword. People tend to assume that the more handcrafting goes into something, the better the result will be. In many cases, such as the hand adjustments to make a hilt and scabbard fit a blade, this really does make a big difference. However, the invention of better smelting and steel-making technologies has reduced the amount of work that a swordsmith has to do in order to prepare the blank, and the raw material is often of better quality. We should consider, here, that what is most beautiful and what is functionally superior are not always the same thing. Many of the traditional processes are indispensible for creating the aesthetic qualities for which the katana is most loved, and fake effects such as a wire-brushed hamon are always easy to see through. It takes a certain amount of work to make something functional, but an amount of work far above and beyond that is needed to give it that kind of beauty and character.

For some strange reason, people seem more willing to believe exaggerated stories of the katana than sword myths from Western cultures. While chivalric romances often feature heroes cutting their plate armored opponents from the crown of the helmet down to the saddle, nobody would mistake this as thing that actually happened. In contrast, stories about Japanese soldiers cutting off machine gun barrels during World War II circulate the internet as urban legends.

Pros and cons of the katana

In contrast to the tachi, whose shape and method of wear indicate it was more designed for use on horseback and in armor, the katana was more of an infantry sword and suited to civilian clothing as well as fighting in armor. It is certainly well-suited for the quick-draw and attack that are required in self-defense situations, codified in the practice of iaido: in the first place it is worn edge-up, thrust through the sash, so that one can quickly grasp the scabbard with the left hand, and immediately draw and cut with the right. The long hilt is wrapped in rayskin and silk cord for a good grip, and has only a relatively smallnote  disc-shaped guard (tsuba) without any knuckle bow or bars to hinder one from quickly grasping it. The blade is relatively short, making it easier to get it out of the scabbard, not to mention easier to use indoors or in a tight press of battle. A brass fitting called the habaki, wrapped around the base of the blade right where it meets the tsuba, fits snugly inside the mouth of the scabbard when the sword is sheathed and is essentially the only thing that would keep the sword inside if you turned it upside down: as soon as you free the habaki by flicking up on the guard with your left thumb, or even just by squeezing the mouth of the scabbard, the rest of the blade slides right out with no resistance. That quick draw and ease of wearing it comes at a price, however. Compared to European swords with a cross guard, side rings, or basket hilt, the simple circular tsuba offers less hand protection. Also, while having a relatively short blade for a two-handed sword makes it handier in close quarters, an opponent with a longer weapon can give one a hard time if he has enough room to take full advantage of his weapon's reach. Generally in order to fare well against weapons of reach, one would require a larger nodachi or field sword that had been designed as a primary weapon rather than a sidearm.

It is also true that the katana is well-designed for cutting. According to Matt Easton, the curved shape of the katana and the stiffness of the blade make it relatively forgiving of a beginning cutter's technique, whereas it actually takes a lot of skill to cut cleanly through a tatami mat using, for instance, a sharply tapered Western longsword, since you need to have perfect edge alignment and hit using the center of percussion. Other cutting basics are similar for both: As Keith Larman explains here, cutting well requires that one both use a proper slicing motion and maintain a straight path throughout the cut, as introducing rolling or twisting motion at any point during the cut will create drag and put more stress on the edge. Because of the katana's unique construction, however, edge durability is a particular concern. An acute edge of the type found on a hira zukuri style blade—one whose cross-section is a simple wedge shape with flat sides—can be made very sharp and is effective at slicing through soft targets such as human flesh and thick layers of cloth. However, most katana from the age of the samurai were shinogi zukuri, with a shinogi or beveled ridge running down the length of the flat on each side, and many had a generous amount of niku or "meat" to them, meaning that the surface between the shinogi and the edge bulged out somewhat instead of forming a flat plane. While the edge of this kind of blade would be less acute and therefore not quite as razor-sharp, there was more material to support it in case of an off-angle cut or impact against something hard, like armor or another blade. A blade with a lot of niku will also produce less drag than a flat-sided blade when cutting through thicker and heavier targets, since it has a way of separating the material as it passes through while minimizing the amount of surface area in direct contact with the material. One might say that blades had to be somewhat overbuilt back in the day, since the quality of the steel and of the heat treatment was often unreliable. An acute-edged hira zukuri katana might have been in danger of snapping back then, but with modern production methods it matters a lot less.

In any case, one should not get the impression that the katana's impressive cutting performance is unequaled, since many swords designed for cutting such as European knightly swords, Middle Eastern sabers, and Chinese dao can achieve similar results in cutting tests. The fact that these blades are very diverse in shape and construction indicates that when it comes to designing a sword for performance, "there's more than one way to skin a cat". Also, in terms of stunts such as cutting thin sheets of metal or slicing bullets in half, closer inspection will often reveal it to be a Deceptively Simple Demonstration that any kind of well-made sword could do in the right hands and under the right conditions. It goes without saying that a katana cannot slice the barrel off of a machine gun or slice another sword blade cleanly in half, since sharpness is simply beside the point in that situation and no sword would be able to do it. While there are some exceptions, a good rule of the thumb is that if another sword can do it, the katana can probably do it, and if another sword can't, then the katana probably can't.

One simple reason that katanas might not be "better" in a modern situation is their price. As already mentioned, making a katana in the traditional way is extremely labor-intensive. This is why, according to Sword Buyers Guide, the starting price for a newly made katana from a licensed Japanese swordsmith is about 4,000 USD, with the average being closer to 7,000 USD; the best can cost up to 30,000 USD, and you can almost never order them online; you have to go to Japan and prove yourself worthy of owning the sword! High-quality Chinese-made katana are in the $1,000-2,000 range. You do not want to buy a folded katana for less than this, because the steel quality or forge welds are more likely to be defective, which would make it worse than a cheaper one made from mono steel. A good, functional Chinese-made katana with a through-hardened mono steel blade can be bought for $300 or less. The main sacrifice comes in fit and finish, especially regarding the tsuka (hilt) and fittings. And by Japanese law, a sword isn't a nihonto unless it is made from tatara steel using the traditional methods, so your $300 Chinese sword technically isn't a "real" katana despite what the marketing may tell you.

The performance differences between through-hardened and differentially hardened katana blades made in a similar shape are relatively minor: one thing that may be seen as a benefit is that a differentially hardened katana feels more "harminically dead" compared to a through-hardened one, meaning that the vibrations from hitting somewhere other than the blade's center of percussion are less pronounced, making it more forgiving of the user's technique. It can also have a slightly harder edge than a through-hardened katana. That doesn't mean that the maximum sharpness will be increased; if they're both freshly sharpened, then you won't get any measurable difference when cutting tatami mats. However, it does mean that the edge can remain that sharp for longer compared to a through-hardened blade throughout a day of cutting or after a long period of storage. As for durability, a through-hardened katana can spring back from abuse, whereas one should be wary of destructive testing on a traditionally made katana, lest it take a set or a twist that would be difficult to straighten out.
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