Tag Archives: japan

Hi! This is the first time ever I’m sending an ask but I found your blog today and it was amazing. I started to read everything you have about katanas because one of my characters is a katana fighter and aikidoka in a dystopian future (I’m quite sure he won’t be able to come far with that so he’ll have a gun as well). I chose him to fight like that because he’s very deep into stories and thinking about honor much. Now I read katanas aren’t that effective. Can I make his one, like, modern/better?

Sort of, but not really. There’s basically two problems with the katana. The metallurgy and the design. You can’t really fix either one without making it no longer a katana.

The design issue is just that the grip and use of the blade is awkward in comparison to most swords. (Not just European ones.) Now, Kendo is (and other Japanese forms are) built around minimizing the design’s weaknesses, but there’s only so much it can do.

You could theoretically fix the design in any number of ways, but in the process it would stop being a katana, and become another variant of the sword.

The same thing applies to the metallurgy. The folding technique was required to deal with the pig iron that Japan had access to. For their resources, and the technology they had, it was the best way they could make a functional weapon. But it doesn’t actually improve the weapon in any way when you’re dealing with modern, high quality steel.

Something I hadn’t learned until recently is, there’s actually some criticism of the WWII era Imperial swords, claiming that, because they were made from other forms of steel, and because they were (in some cases) machined, they’re not true katanas. They fit the design, but, again, some people contend they’re no longer really katanas, just swords designed to look like them.

You can mill a high quality steel blade with carbon nano tube reinforcements, and tempered in liquid nitrogen, but it’s no longer a katana.

The most important thing to understand about the katana is, it’s not just a sword. It’s a very important icon to the Japanese. It’s a part of their cultural identity. So there’s an identity attributed to them that goes way beyond the physical weapon. Much like a bald eagle is incredibly evocative to Americans.

As a weapon, the sword itself is just another (now fairly outdated) chunk of steel. The implication of what it means is where you get the myth of The Katana. The singular perfect sword that all other katanas are pale reflections of.


Japan actually was not one of the first to develop firearms nor did they ban the use of them. The Japanese were introduced to proper firearms in the 16th century through Nanban trade with the Portuguese through the island of Tanegashima. Through this they gained the ability to create simple matchlock arquebuses, a technology that had existed throughout Europe for a while at that point. They would be used commonly up until Sakoku and firearms were brought back during the Meiji Restoration.


Whoops. That’s my bad.


Partial credit. The Japanese did originally get introduced to guns in the mid 16th century by Portuguese traders. Initially they loved them, and put a great deal of effort into refining the technology. By the beginning of the 17th century they had more firearms than any other nation and, some of most advanced designs of the time. (Arguably the most advanced firearms.)

There was also serious social opposition coming from the Samurai. The gun represented a direct threat to their place in the social structure, it disrupted their concepts of warfare and combat. And because they were the core of the government, they were in a position to dispose of that threat. Which, they did. It was never a formal ban, per say, but production was initially limited to government contracts only, and then the government stopped ordering guns.

A number of European governments had attempted bans, but always found themselves at a severe disadvantage when facing forces armed with guns in warfare, while in Japan, there wasn’t a similar external threat.

The result was that Japan effectively banned guns, in all but name.

There’s a very abbreviated version of this story in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, but honestly, that’s a fantastic resource to work through before you start world building in general, so, go ahead and read it if you haven’t. Also, his book Collapse might be useful for those of you planning a dystopic setting.


My character is someone who is skilled in the German School of Fencing aka German Longsword and she is in environment where most of the people she would fight wield katanas. Besides the general differences in structure and construction of the longsword and the katana, what should I take into account when I write fight scenes where her opponent is wielding a katana? Would the curved, single-edged blade of the katana be a disadvantage against the longsword?

Assuming the setting is historical Japan, a European longsword will shred katanas in combat.

I know I’m going to irk the Kendo practitioners with this, but when you compare Kendo and German School Fencing, Kendo is a much slower form.

(And, before someone chews me out for this, I’ll say again, what I said six months ago, “a katana isn’t slow for a katana, it’s slow for a sword.”)

The katana needs to be wielded with finesse to protect the blade. In theory this is true of a European sword, but non-Japanese blades are (generally) a lot more durable. European fencing will call for you to do things with the blade that a katana just can’t survive.

The reason for this is usually simple metallurgy. Historically Japan, never had access to large supplies of high quality iron, the iron they forged the katana from would have been discarded as scrap in most of the world after the eleventh century. The blade was folded to bring the carbon content down into a manageable range, but the result was (in comparison to sword technology elsewhere) fragile.

If your setting is fantasy, then they might have access to the same metallurgical resources as your fencer, meaning they could produce weapons that would not shatter in combat. But, if that’s the case, the katana design isn’t likely to emerge.

It’s possible the original katanas were copies of the Chinese zhanmadao. Both date to the 12th century, and share an obvious visual similarity. The difference was the zhanmadao was intended as an anti-cavalry sword, and was roughly twice the size. If you want to run with that, then you’d be looking at a setting where katanas were wielded against mounted combatants.

The other possibility is, if your fantasy Japan doesn’t suffer from the metallurgical problems the real one did, that their martial style would change drastically.

I’ve seen non-Japanese alloy katanas used in an approximation of saber and cutlass styles. It isn’t ideal, but it does make the katana into a much more effective weapon, when dealing with a German School combatant. Depending on your setting, you might want to push that approach over traditional Kendo.

The other major option is jumping straight over to Chinese weapons like the Jian and Dao. Youtube has some fantastic Dao forms from modern Wushu. This can help keep the intended exotic tone of the setting, without devolving into orientalism. (And as always, take a look at Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, for a long list of things you probably want to avoid.)


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.