I carefully feel its razor-sharp blade and morbidly speculate about how many people have died from a blow. I look at the writing on the tang and wonder if it is a 14th century work of a great Japanese sword master— or simply a 20th century manufactured blade. I have done a great deal of reading on samurai swords and am fascinated with the long history of sword veneration in Japan.
I fantasize about finding a famous centuries- old sword, one made by the 14th century master sword maker Masamune. Swords produced by Masamune were reportedly the strongest and sharpest ever made, even compared with those made by old masters in Europe. One 19th century French treatise on Japanese art described these Koto-era Japanese swords as the most beautiful the world has ever produced; it further noted that swords made in Damascus, Syria and Toledo, Spain the efforts of children compared to Japanese swords.
The era of Japanese sword masters peaked in the 14th century. By the 17th century, the secrets of the old masters were lost, and no one had been able to recreate the quality of the old Koto swords. A skilled Koto sword master took months to make a single blade.
A sword started out its life as a long piece of unattractive steel. It was heated then hammered and folded scores of times. Layer upon layer of steel was pounded and forged by the master into unparalleled strength and sharpness. Old famous swords had mystical qualities about them— similar in western culture to King Arthur’s Excalibur.
Romance aside, the blades were foremost killing machines with a dark history. Reportedly, some notable historic blades had a number etched on the tang signifying the number of men the sword could hack through with one forceful stroke. The bodies of dead, and sometimes live, prisoners or criminals, were lined up like cord wood for the test.
While the 14th century samurai sword was, in its time, a high-tech battlefield weapon, the samurai sword in the hand of the 20th century Japanese soldier was less glorious. For the Japanese foot soldier in World War II, the sword was a symbol for leading suicidal banzai charges and a means of brutal execution of prisoners of war, both civilian and military.
During World War II, Japanese imperial army officers and senior NCOs were issued mass-produced inferior swords, which most carried into combat; however, some soldiers chose to carry personal or family blades. Imperial army regulations forbade the use of family blades, but officials looked the other way if they had military issue scabbards and handles.
The only way to tell if a sword is truly old and valuable is to remove the handle and see the tang beneath it. Removing the handle is a complicated process— but necessary to determine the sword’s origin. Etched on the tang would be the family name and, more importantly, the name of the master who produced it.
I’ve never had the tang of my sword analyzed to see if it is by a famous master. I guess deep down, I’ve never really wanted to know.