Tag Archives: katana

Out of curiosity, where do you get your information regarding katana? Speaking as someone who practices Iaido, I’ve yet to see any practitioner use a katana with a lacquered wooden handle. I also don’t really see the “stylistic weaknesses” you refer to in our higher ranked members that would leave their guard open or cause them to be slow. Maybe you’re familiar with a different style or different kind of teaching than I am though.

This may sound like a cheesy blow off, but, honestly? From lots of different sources. Back when I was still in school I had to keep track of my citations. Now that I’ve graduated, I’ll admit, I’ve gotten a bit lax in that department.

The stuff on the cultural importance of the blade is verified from a couple different anthropology texts. Any entry level text on Shinto should talk about that, and most entry level texts on Japanese politics should at least discuss the basics. The implications tend to be a bit harder to extract.

The material the sword is made from comes from a lot of sources. I mentioned that in an earlier post, but the takeaway is, the difficulty Japan had with mineral resources is very well documented. It was instrumental to their behavior during WWII, so, if you’re wanting to check my work, ironically, that’s a good place to start. I mentioned Chalmers Johnson’s early East Asian studies, but I don’t know how much of that’s readily accessible (what I read of his early work was while I was still in college). Anything he’s written after about 1990 is very much American Foreign Policy, it’s interesting, but not what you’re looking for.

My discussion on the blade’s stylistic weaknesses is comparative observation of weapons technology. Make no mistake, I am making an argument here, this isn’t something I found someone else saying.

As I mentioned, the folding technology was something that existed in Europe as early as 800 BC, it was abandoned as European technology advanced. I skimmed over it when I was putting together the European swords set, simply because it’s a weird footnote that complicates the historical narrative. From a history standpoint, it’s an important advancement, but from a writing standpoint, it’s probably not.

I know I spot checked my recollection with a websearch, but I’ve come across information on Celtic longswords in multiple places for years. If it isn’t accurate, it’s a fiction that’s been gleefully accepted by academia.

Similarly, I ran a quick search to verify my recollections on the Katana’s structural weakness, but I’ve seen this in a lot of sources over the years.

When I’m talking about the stylistic weaknesses; well, this is what you’re not going to like. I’m doing comparative analysis. As you’re well aware, Iaido is a very insular form; that is to say, your opponent will be wielding either a katana or a stand in for one. (As far as I know) you won’t be practicing Iaido against someone armed with sais or nunchaku. It’s just not part of the form. To say nothing of going toe to toe with someone in steel plate armed with a bastard sword.

On top of that Iaido isn’t really a killing form; it’s an attempt to revive Iaijutsu in the modern era.

But, when people are writing characters using a katana, they’re usually going to set them in contexts outside of the strict historical setting. With that in mind, I’m looking at the way the Katana is used in Kendo, and comparing it to German school fencing.

There’s an obvious retort; like Iaido, Kendo is a modern reconstruction of a dead form, so it’s possible the Samurai used a radically different form in combat, but that’s somewhat unlikely. Because of the expense in producing the blades (historically), and their (relative) fragility, the weapon has some serious limits.

As with Iaido and Kendo, German School Fencing is something of a reconstruction. It draws from historical training manuals that have survived. So, again, there’s a risk that the information we’re working on is wildly inaccurate. For one thing, modern German School Fencing is far less afraid of blade on blade contact, than historical combatants would have been willing to risk.

Also, I should point out something, in case I wasn’t clear; when I’m saying the Katana is relatively slow, I mean in comparison to a European longsword. Because of the nature of military conflict in Europe, the weapons that evolved are particularly vicious, in contrast, Japan had a very static and isolated culture, which actually reversed weapon innovations in favor of the status quo. Off hand, and since Michi asked me about it earlier today, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel talks a lot about this in the context of Japan’s abandoning guns in the fifteenth century, because it disrupted their cultural structure. It’s also a good starting text when talking about what drives military development.

I am sorry, I can’t draw from a single source and say, “yeah, I got it all from here.” By training, I’m an analyst. I pull from a lot of different sources and put it together, all I can do is invite you to follow me, and poke around all over the place for the pieces.

-Starke

othersidhe said: weren’t they mostly used for suicide?

This is one of those great historical ironies. No, they actually weren’t. Much like the Gladiators of Rome, whose matches in the arena rarely ended with death, Samurai didn’t actually commit suicide as regularly as it’s commonly believed they did. There are many different warrior codes in many different cultures across the world, the Code of Chivalry for example also includes a passage on suicide for failure. But the knights weren’t committing suicide left and right for failing, that would be a waste of resources and manpower. The samurai weren’t either.

Here’s why: the period of time when the samurai existed in Japan, there existed a caste system that broke people down into different classes. Peasants were peasants, merchants were merchants, and samurai were samurai. A samurai, for the most part, could only come from the samurai class. Japan has never had an extremely large population, especially not when compared to other countries in the region. China can kill for failure (if they were dumb enough to, they’re not), Japan can’t. They didn’t have the manpower, the options, or the replacement candidates for a samurai to kill himself every time he failed his liege lord. There was a little bit of flexibility, but not much. This is what happened to the Spartans, Spartans were supposed to die in battle and they did. Eventually, the Spartans ran out of Spartans because they were all dying. If samurai were really killing themselves with any regular frequency, Japan would have run out of samurai very quickly. Plus, if this were also true and everyone was behaving the way they were supposed to there would have been no ronin.

The concepts of suicide and the Bushido code we have today come out of the period shortly before WWII, when Japan was reinventing itself. They looked back to the past, to “when they were great” and repeated the same mistake that every culture does when they look back on who they think they are with rose tinted glasses. They readopted the Bushido code, but much more rigidly. The No Failure State was a response to that. The mass suicides that happened during WWII were unique to WWII. However, the concept of No Failure still exists today in Japanese politics.

So, while the wakizashi was used for suicide, that wasn’t it’s primary purpose. It can’t have been. Japan didn’t have enough iron to really waste on two swords that a single samurai wasn’t really doing anything with.

The Gladiator problem is this: it’s inverted. Thumbs up you can kill him, thumbs down, you didn’t perform well enough for him to die. Hollywood screwed it up for dramatic reasons.

-Michi

Super interesting post on the katana, I loved it! Would you know if there is a more durable weapon I could use to replace the katana if I was writing a Japanese fighter?

Writing from the road.

There’s actually no reason for a Japanese warrior to carry a katana unless he is supposed to be a member of the Samurai class. Female members of the Samurai class did not carry a katana at all, though they did have weapons training and carried a wakizashi.

Not all Japanese warriors were samurai and so not all of them carried katanas, there are quite a few martial styles devoted to subverting and stamping the samurai (or wandering ronin bandits) into the ground. Not all Japanese martial forms were meant for the Samurai. Karate, for example, isn’t part of the distinctive sets of martial arts that come down out of the Samurai training set. (Judo and Jiujutsu do, that’s why some of the more traditional training dojos teach their students to fight with a bokken, the wooden training version of the katana. It’s arguably more deadly).

If it’s a modern katana then the cryo forging, high quality steel, and a carbon fiber weave in the sword make for a much tougher weapon. If you’re looking historically and want to forgo swords entirely the tonfa, the sai (the Japanese variety of sword breaker), the kama, the nunchaku, and the staff are all more durable and will screw up a katana wielders day. Those weapons were all originally farming implements and they were the weapons of the peasant class (the weapons peasants weren’t supposed to own). And yes, even weapons made of lacquered wood will be incredibly hard on the katana. Plus, like the European varieties of sword breaker, the sai was designed to break the katana in two. It’s very good for that. You can dual wield all of the above except the staff, they’re short enough for it to work and are designed to be capable of melee combat against an armed opponent.

If you really want to go with a sword, then the wakizashi isn’t a bad option. It’s a good weapon and short enough that the folding technique actually doesn’t hurt it’s durability. You can also wield it indoors. It’s a weird choice for a Japanese warrior, but that doesn’t mean they were never used and that doesn’t mean they’re not a better weapon. It’s a decent short sword/long knife.

-Michi (Drive! Drive like the wind!)

Weapon Primer: The Katana

First off, the katana is a terrible weapon. Traditionally forged ones are worse, to the point of not really even being functional in combat. Modern replicas are just awkward.

And, I realize, this runs counter to almost everything you’ve ever heard or read about the katana. Here’s why: the katana isn’t a combat weapon, it is one of the three holy symbols of Shinto. This is where people who aren’t familiar with Shinto can get into a lot of trouble. The attributes ascribed to the katana are talking about the mystical ideal of a perfect blade, not the sword itself.

When you hear about how a master forged katana can cut a silk ribbon in the air, or a leaf on the wind, this is about the mystical katana. It’s what the katana represents culturally. It’s valid, and something to keep in mind, but it isn’t objective reality.

The physical weapon was a very fragile piece of substandard steel. For the Japanese, it was the best they could do, with the mineral resources they had. But it was designed to be as efficient with metal as possible, at the expense of a durable blade.

The primary forging technique behind the katana was a cold steel folding technique, where the iron is beaten into a thin sheet, folded over, and beaten back out again. The process is repeated around ten times to create the steel billet for the blade.

As with the katana itself, the forging technique gets venerated as part of what makes the katana “special.”  This glazes over the part where it isn’t an advanced forging technique. It popped up in Northern Europe and persisted into the 1200s. It is a good way to strengthen poor quality iron into cold steel, but it the only notable part about the Japanese technique was the number of folds employed.

In combat the katana kinda sucks. There really isn’t any way around it. Even a modern katana is still a substandard, single bladed longsword. The lack of a second edge prevents reverse strikes. The grip is frequently made out of slick, lacquered wood; exactly the kind of thing a character wants to be trying to keep a grip on in prolonged combat; or silk wrappings, which can, and do, slip during prolonged use. Nearly all combat techniques with a katana focus on a single strike kill, which fails to take into account the nature of actual combat, and even dueling.

One of the major problems with the katana is that because the finishing moves with the blade are supposed to be the same as the opening ones, they leave the swordsman open and vulnerable after each strike. This means that the swordsman needs more time to recover to his starting position, time real combat won’t allow for.

Because of the folding structure, a katana can’t parry or block incoming strikes; the blade will chip apart and need to be completely reforged. There’s no true crossguard. The metal sheet that some Katanas possess is a byproduct of the forging technique, and not really a functional guard.

Modern Katanas get around some of this; modern blades can be forged from high quality steel that historical Japanese swordsmiths didn’t have access to. Modern tempering techniques involve using liquid nitrogen to produce some staggeringly hard metal. Even the folding technique has reverted to lower fold counts, resulting in blades that are more durable, and in some cases, can be repaired. All of this makes for a sword that’s, at least metallurgically, more sound.

It doesn’t address the design flaws, the single edge, the slick grip, or the flaws in the traditional techniques, but, none of this really matters to you.

Here’s the thing, you’re not going into combat with one of these things. Your character is. The katana they’re carrying probably isn’t the real sword; it’s the mythical one. Even before you started reading this article, you already knew if your character was going to fight with one or not.

The use of the katana to prove your character is a badass, or peerless warrior is a bit cliché. But, like the katana itself, the weapon is more of a flash card, informing the reader of exactly who and what your character is and what they’re probably there to do. If you want to play with that, get into the grit of how the real weapons splinter apart in battle, or how the character believes they’re something unrealistic; then you’re starting to break out of the cliché.

What I can say is; be aware that the katana exists as two completely separate swords, the physical weapon, and the metaphysical one. And, be aware that the other exists.

-Starke

I’m the fighting supernatural anon. Thank you so much for your help! The creatures my character fights are mostly humanoid/human shape (but there’s a reason why she’s the one to fight them). They’re still faster and stronger, but I’m thinking of creatures she could overcome with some strategy. The fighting is not the focus, but I want it to be plausible. So, which skills should she develop, including for defense? Which fighting styles are more fit to those needs? Thank you very much again :)

The short version is; there isn’t one. As far as I know, there isn’t even anything vaguely relevant. Forms like Judo focus on dealing with opponents that are stronger than you, but there are practical limits, and a human being can only take or deal so much punishment.

This is a big part of why there are no hand to hand styles for dealing with bears, or wolves, or lions, or any other apex predator. (No, wrestling alligators doesn’t count.) Putting yourself that close to an animal like that will end badly. In the real world, we’ve dealt with that by using ranged weapons, and polearms; which is why I suggested those earlier. They allow you to kill a creature without getting close enough for it to disembowel you.

If she’s using hand to hand when dealing with other humans, and only using the blade on monsters, I’d suggest aikido, it has a strong focus on non-injury, and while it’s not terribly practical, it might philosophically fit, transitioning into junkyard aikido or jujitsu if she’s willing to harm people who get in her way.

Now, I keep pushing the whole “don’t go into hand to hand” thing, and here’s why: It depowers your monsters. If they’re supposed to be foot soldiers of a greater evil that anyone can deal with, and your character is just one of many people fighting them off, then it’s really fine. And, I’d offer the same advice as above, junkyard aikido or jujitsu.

But, if they’re a scourge upon the world, and no one else can oppose them, having your character take them out unarmed is going to risk doing seriously unfortunate things to your audience’s suspension of disbelief (unless there’s some really good justifications in why everyone can’t deal with them).

I’d recommend looking at The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski. Though, I’d be slightly more cautious about suggesting any of the adaptations of his work. But, Sapkowski does almost exactly what you’re describing, and has some excellent justifications.

For use of the Katana, I’d recommend Kirasawa’s Yojimbo (though there isn’t much sword combat). Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol I might be worth looking at, if you want the more mythical version of the blade. (Though, as with all of Tarantino’s work, you’ll need to bring a strong stomach.) Michi’s recommending Rurouni Kenshin. She’s also recommending you look into the underlying cultural history of the katana, that’s The Book of Five Rings, and spending some time looking at Bushido. There’s a lot of cultural context with the katana, so if you’re setting your story in an amalgam of historical Japan, or even just using a Katana, it’s probably worth doing some further research.

-Starke

If you’re insistent on working with the katana, then The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi (circa 1645), it’s a philosophical text on the kenjutsu arts and conflict. I’d also recommend looking into Iaijutsu: the art of drawing and sheathing the blade (Iaido in a modern context), Kenjutsu (Kendo), and Battojutsu as a study of sword combat in Japan. Do yourself a favor and pick one.

She can pretty much learn the sword or the hands, but she’s only got time for one unless she’s been practicing continually and doing nothing else like in a good old fashioned apprenticeship like in Medieval Europe with pages.

If she’s been training to fight monsters specifically, I’d look into a variety of other supplemental weaponry. If you’re going Japanese, stay with Japanese weapons as supplements. The naginata or some variant of glaive would be her pole arm, they might also train her on the bow, and practice with a wide variety of other useful skills like poison brewing and trap-making, spike traps, pit traps, etc.  All the useful extras any good hunter needs to give them an edge. I don’t know if the Japanese ever did actually attach a kunai to the end of a rope and used it as a whip like the Chinese did with the Shaolin rope dart, but you know it’s not a bad idea.

Just try to stay within the Japanese frame and you should be fine, it’s a bad idea to play mix and match with martial styles unless you’re really willing to do the leg work (all the leg work) to understand all the themes they bring into play in your story.

(Edit: an investment of time, if you haven’t already done so, into some of the Anime and Manga that deal with Japan’s mythology and monsters might also be worth it. Digging into the monster ideas used in Claymore and Inuyasha might be helpful.)

-Michi

For the use of a katana, another good movie might be Ame Agaru (After the Rain, in English). Its fight scenes are considered to be incredibly well choreographed.
Anonymous