Tag Archives: weapon primer: 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