Martial Arts and the Tools of War

Martial Arts and the Tools of War

Endo Naotsugu, pictured here, approached Oda Nobunaga in 1570 in friendly guise by presenting him the severed head of a fallen foe. When his deceitful intentions to kill Nobunaga were revealed, he threw the head at his enemy and engaged in the battle that cost him his life. Note the mis-matched pair of swords- a wakizashi and the longer tachi. The tachi, unlike the katana, is worn with the cutting edge down. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

When people think of the martial arts as practiced by the samurai they think of training that takes place within the strict confines of the traditional dojo. They might imagine master and student together studying the arts of the sword, drilling with so much discipline it almost looks choreographed. While this isn’t wrong, it describes something besides what warfare in medieval and early modern Japan looked like. The scene described above is more akin to Edo period Japan- a time of peace when the martial arts and the way of the samurai were institutionalized as art forms. This is the result of efforts made by the Tokugawa to preserve and cherish Japanese and especially samurai tradition. In the periods leading up the 1615, warfare was brutal and hellish. It involved the clashing of major armies that represented different Daimyo, each fighting for control of Japan. Although the sword gained popularity amongst warriors as time progressed, skills that were truly prized were horseback archery and naginata fighting. These skills were among the most practical in warfare fought during the Sengoku period. Higher ranking samurai mastered the art of battle on horseback while the common foot soldier fought often fought with extended weapons like the naginata. The evolution of martial arts in samurai culture was very much paralleled with the evolution of Japan’s political atmosphere. (Deal, 149-152)

The Duel

A mounted samurai archer, fully clad for war. (Miller)

There is a legend of a duel between two respected warriors, using archery on horseback. Minamoto no Mitsuru and Taira no Yoshifumi represented two sides to an iconic Japanese clan feud. They were both learned in the ways of the warrior, but came to resent each other. Rumors reached the warriors of the insults that either had said of eachother. They eventually agreed to settle the disputes by combat on an agreed upon date in a neutral field. (Sato, 19-20) Like two elementary students in the schoolyard after the last bell had rung, the warriors met with armies of hundreds on open grounds during the early hours of that specified day. Their weapons of choice- the horse and the bow. The battle commenced with the volleying of arrows from the ranks of one army into the opposing army. However the battle ended with a gentleman’s dual between the two noblemen as they rode out from behind the vanguard, arrows drawn and fixed upon their enemy. Each time they shot, they nearly missed, nicking plates of armor and scabbards of swords. Eventually each warrior admitted to the skill of their opponent and agreed out of respect that the feud mattered not, and the two armies marched away from the battlefield. (Turnbull, 64)


Bugei Juhappan

With the end of the warring states period, martial arts beset a new staging ground from the battlefield to the dojo. The Tokugawa Shogunate outlined 18 martial arts (bugei juhappan) whose mastery was necessary for members of the samurai class. (Deal, 149)

“The sword is the Soul of the Samurai”

-Tokugawa Ieyasu, (Irvine, 8)

The most iconized weapon of the samurai is undoubtedly the sword or more correctly, the katana. With a complexed technique of forging from the highest quality of steels, the katana and its variants are famed as the most advanced and lethal swords in history. During warfare, swords were usually only worn as last ditch efforts for defence, second to the naginata or the bow.  However during the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu characterized the sword as, “the soul of the samurai.” (Deal, 157) It was during this time of piece that the sword’s tradition in the samurai was institutionalized as one of the central themes in samurai culture.

Samurai in close quarters combat rely on the sword to deal with their foes. Note this time that the swords worn in this painting are matching sets. The longer sword is now worn with the cutting edge upwards, indicating it is a katana. The pairing of katana and wakizashi with matching mounts is known as a daisho and is customary of samurai. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

Forging a Masterpiece

The Japanese sword is forged in a long process that utilizes some of the finest known steel- tamahagone. This steel is smelted from iron ore containing coastal sand found near what is known today as Hiroshima and Okayama. The steel is smelted using charcoal in a specialized furnace called the tatara. The raw steel yeilded by the tatara is separated according to carbon content which contributes to the hardness of the steel. The sword itself is made from the combination of two different steels. It has a hard steel outer shell, hadagane, and a soft steel inner core, shingane, giving the sword’s edge its infamous cutting capabilities without compromising its strength and flexibility. (Irvine, 14-15)

A swordsmith carefully heats the steal before molding it into the rough shape of his blade. (Irvine, The Japanese Sword)

The hadagane is selected from high-carbon steel. It is forged into a small block, allowed to cool, and then broken to check for impurities. It is then rewelded, folded, and hammered many many times. This layers the steel, giving it a signature garin pattern known as jihada as well as distributing the carbon contents through the entire blade, optimizing strength. The shingane is selected from low carbon steel and folded less times than the hadagane. The shingane is then placed inside the hadagane which at this point has been folded and hammered into a u-shape allowing the shingane to inhabit the core of the blade. The composite bar is then hammered into the rough shape of the sword. (Irvine, 15)


A katana blade forged in the mid 17th century. Note the brilliant hamon that lines the cutting edge. (Irvine, The Japanese Sword)

The sword is then covered in clay with a lighter coating along the cutting edge and a thicker coating near the back. This is the most crucial stage of the process, if done even slightly incorrectly, the sword could break. The sword is heated once more in the dark so the smith can gauge the exact temperature of the blade by looking at its color in the furnace. It is said that the color of the blade should be the color of the moon in February or August. Once it is heated to the right temperature, the blade is removed from the furnace and plunged into a bath of water, instantly cooling the blade. This is called quenching the blade. The result of this is the sword’s iconic curved shape as the metal contracts in cooling. The application of clay allows the blade to cool more quickly along the edge, giving the edge a harder steel with which to cut. This also leaves the blade with a distinctive pattern along the cutting edge known as the hamon. This is often signature of the smith. The sword is then scrutinized. If the sword fails to meet the smith’s standards, it can be reheated and the process started all over again. Once accepted, the sword is sent to a polishing specialist. (Irvine, 15-17)

Wood block print of a master sword polisher. (Irvine, The Japanese Sword)

Polishing a sword is an art form of its own and can be the sole occupation of many master polishers. The process cleans the blade and reveals the ultimate beauty of the steels grain and hamon patterns. A wide range of specific wet stones allows the polisher to sharpen the blade to a razor sharp edge. Once completed, the blade is fitted with a handle, sometimes a hilt, and scabbard. It is then consecrated in a Shinto shrine before being presented to its owner. (Irvine, 17-18)


Emporer Go Toba participates in the forging of a blade. (Irvine, The Japanese Sword)

Earlier examples of swords come from the Kofun period of Japan that predates the shogunate as a ruling class. These swords are known kanto tachi. They followed Chinese styles in that they are straight, flat, and single edged. (Irvine, 12) However, the Kamakura period becomes known as the Golden age of the Japanese sword. During this period, Emporer Go-toba was able to patronize the smithing of swords while in exile. Swordsmiths advanced the technique of forging the tachi (like a katana but longer and worn with cutting edge down) in the city of Kamakura. This is when the blades started to develope their iconic curveture. (Irvine, 32-34)

As Japan’s history developed from the Kamakura, tactics in battle evolved with the growth of armies. Where Daimyo once fought wars with a smaller number of soldiers to settle land and governmental disputes, they started to amass larger armies to fight off invading mongols as well as fight for control during the Sengoku period. Battle tactics shifted during this time to optimize use of the foot soldier- ashigaru– and the sword took back seat to the naginata. (Irvine, 36) In 1543, Portuguese traaders introduced the arquebus- an early form of the gun- to the local Daimyo of Tanegashima when they shipwrecked on this island. The daimyo bought two after a demonstration of their power and commanded his swordsmiths to copy the new weapon’s technology.  Japan’s culture of war was revolutionized. The arquebus took the stage front and center during Oda Nobunaga’s campaign’s to bring Japan back into a unified state. Again, the sword was displaced from the vanguard of the samurai’s arsenal. (Irvine, Encounters, 324-325)

The introduction of the Arquebus revolutionized Japanese war history. (Irvine, The Impact of European War Technology)
Wood block print of kenjutsu practice during the late Edo period. (Irvine, The Japanese Sword)

“The way of letters and of arms, of archery and of 

horsemanship must be cultivated with all the heart and mind.

In times of order we cannot forget disorder; how then

can we relax our military training?

The sword is the soul of the warrior. If any forget

or lose it he will not be excused.” (Plate 38) (Irvine, 71)




It was not until the Edo period when the Tokugawa Shogunate governed a Japanese nation that no longer needed to be in constant preparation for war that the sword was again recognized as a central part of the Samurai’s identity. In 1615, Ieyasu established Buke Sho-Hatto, ‘Laws of the Military Houses,’ as an extension of already existing samurai class codes in which the samurai’s study of both the military arts and civil learning was required. (Irvine, 70-71) Samurai were the only ones allowed to carry a weapon. The custom was to carry the katana- 60 centimeters- and the wakizachi– about 30 centimeters- in a pair known as daisho meaning, “big-little”. The pair is worn at the left hip with the cutting edges facing upwards. (Irvine, 48) These are iconic customs and swords that developed in the late Azuchi-Momoyama Period. Smiths from this period and continuing through to the end of the Edo period appreciated the craftsmanship of the swords coming from the Kamakura Period. Swords from this era are known as shinto “new swords,” and those who smith them emulate the swords the long lost techniques of sword smithing from the Kamakura Period. (Irvine, 61-63) Today, Modern swords are known as shin-shinto “new- new swords” and they seek to achieve the same level of mastery as that of their great ancestors.


Religion and the Samurai

Suggested Readings

Deal, William E. Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan. New York: Facts On File, 2006. Print.

Irvine, Greg. “The Impact of European War Technology.” In Encounters: The Meeting

Irvine, Gregory. The Japanese Sword: The Soul of the Samurai. Trumbell, CT: Weatherhill, 2000. Print.

Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1995.

Turnbull, Stephen R., ed. The Samurai Tradition. Vol. 1. Tokyo: Edition Synapse, 2000. Print.