This blog post origionally appeared on my blog at www.risingphoenixgames.com/blog/. You can go there to read more on this topic.
The Japanese sword known as the katana is a symbol of a time, a people and of beautiful yet deadly efficiency. Let’s rip open what makes the katana such a remarkable weapon, explore the essence and myth that surrounds it and slice a path to inspire more depth from this weapon in your own role-playing campaign.
The katana was the traditional sword of the samurai. It developed from the tachi sword, which is similar but worn with the cutting edge down, while the katana was worn with the cutting edge up, and could be kept tucked in the sash (obi) around a samurai’s waist. The katana could be quickly drawn and a deadly cut made in a single, fluid motion. In fact, forms of martial arts, iaido and iaijitsu, were developed around this principle.
The katana was traditionally worn with a wakizashi, which was a shorter sword used for enclosed spaces or as an off-hand weapon. While a samurai might put aside his katana, for instance when inside a residence, he would always keep his wakizashi. The katana and wakizashi together were called daisho, and were the samurai’s badge of rank.
The strength of the katana comes from the duel forging technique used to make the blade. On the outside of the blade you have a harder metal, which can better hold a sharp edge, while on the inside you have a springy metal that makes the whole blade less brittle. Parries and blocks were performed with the side or back of the blade to keep the cutting edge sharp. I won’t go into the whole process forging process here, but Wikipedia has a great page on Japanese swordsmithing that will give you plenty of information.
Basically tamahagane, the raw iron ore, is heated to about 1300 °C and then hammered and folded into shape. Once the blade has been shaped it is quenched (yaki-ire) using clay, charcoal and powdered whetstone as a mask over the cutting edge as it is dipped in water. It is this process that gives the blade its beautiful wave like pattern and different tempering. The blade is then sharpened and signed.
The katana was made with one purpose in mind: killing. However, as time passed, and the samurai spent less time on the battle field and more time in court, the swords became more ornate, a status symbol rather than a practical weapon.
Every aspect of the sword had some etiquette. Preserving the carbon rich blade from rust and the safe handling and use of the blade were all important. There was a culture to the sword that I think is hard for us to understand in our “want it now” culture. Your sword was with you always, it was kept clean, respected and known intimately. It was your life, your death, your rank, your mark of society and affected how people perceived you and the manners they showed you.
It’s not surprising then that the katana was seen by the samurai to have its own spirit. For a samurai, his katana was both an important piece of equipment and a symbol of his own life. At his waist an ever present reminder that death could come quickly and brutally.
Want to know how you can make more of this awesome weapon in your own campaign? Head on over to www.risingphoenixgames.com/blog/ and you'll get random tables to help you create histories and culture around these mystical weapons.