2 | Joko-to (上古刀)

Joko-to means swords made before the Heian period.  Joko-to is not part of the sword study.  The sword study starts from the Heian Period.  Joko-to is in the category of the archaeological field.

Jomon (縄文) period     9000 B.C.

timeline Jomon

Jomon period goes back to 9000 B.C.  This is the time of Paleolithic and Neolithic times.  The characteristic of the time was the rope design (Jomon 縄文) on their earthen wares.  We found a stone sword made during this time.  They are one-piece approximately 27 to 31 inches (70 to 80 cm) long.  This is not a Neolithic type scraper.  They were made for ceremonial purposes.

Yayoi (弥生) period        300B.C —300A.D (approximately)

timeline Yayoi

Around 300 B.C. Yayoi culture replaced the Jomon culture.  Yayoi characteristics show on their earthenwares.  They are rounder, smoother, simpler design, and the techniques were greatly improved after Jomon time.  They were named Yayoi culture because the items of this time were found in the Yayoi-Cho area (name of the place) near Tokyo University.  They also discovered bronze artifacts such as a bronze sword (Doken 銅剣), bronze pike (Do-hoko 銅矛), bronze mirrors (Do-kyo 銅鏡), bronze musical instruments (Do-taku 銅鐸).  Those were imported from China and Korea but the Japanese started to making their own bronze items in the late Yayoi period.  Although iron artifacts were hardly discovered, we have the evidence that the iron objects also existed then.

Himiko(卑弥呼)

According to the Chinese history book, “Gishi Wajinden” (魏志倭人伝), around 300 A.D., there was a country called Yamataikoku (邪馬台国) that controlled about 30 small domains in Japan.  The head of the country was a female figure called Himiko (卑弥呼) who was a shamanism priestess.  She sent a messenger to the Chinese dynasty in 239 A.D. and she was given the title as the head of Japan (親魏倭王), a bronze mirror, and a long sword (5 feet long).  Today, we still don’t know exactly where Yamataikoku was located.  This Chinese history book “Gishi Wajinden” (魏志倭人伝) explains how to get Yamataikoku, but if we follow the book’s directions exactly, we end up in the middle of the ocean, south of Kyushu (九州).  We still have a big debate over where Yamataikoku really existed.

Yamato (大和) period        300 A.D. — 593 A.D

timeline Yamato

At the end of the Yayoi period, Japan was divided by small domains.  These domains were reigned by local clans called Go-zoku(豪族).  Around 400 A.D. most powerful Go-zoku united the country and named it Yamato-chotei (大和朝廷).  This is the first Japanese imperial court, the origin of the current Japanese Imperial family.  They were very powerful to have enormous tombs called Kofun  (古墳) built for themselves.  In one of the famous kofun, Ogonzuka kofun (黄金塚古墳) in Osaka, we found swords among other things.  The hilt of the sword was made in Japan while the blades were made in China.  On the surface of the hilt, they depicted the design of a house.  The other objects we found together are objects like armor, mirror, iron tools, and jewelry inside of the Kofun.  Outside of Kofun, it was a common practice to place Haniwa (clay figurine).   Those Haniwa are smiling people, animals, houses, and soldiers wearing swords and sometimes simple tubes shape Haniwa (埴輪).  We think they placed Haniwa as a retaining wall purpose.   Judging from the writings on the back of mirrors and swords, people were using Kanji (Japanese characters) around 5 to 6th century.

3 Japanese_straight_sword_KofunHilts of Japanese straight sword Kofun Period circa 600 AD.  From Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Asuka (飛鳥) period         593 —710

timeline Asuka

At the end of the Yamato period, after a long power struggle, Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子) became a regent in 593 (beginning of the Asuka period).  Shotoku Taishi established the political system and set up the first Japanese constitution (憲法17条).  He protected and encouraged Buddhism and built the Horyuji temple(法隆寺) in Nara.  His face had been on 10,000 yen bills for a long time.  During the Asuka time, we see Kanto Tachi (環頭太刀).  The shape of the hilt had a ring shape.   Kan (環) means ring and To (頭) means head. Also, on the ring shape hilt, we see some inscriptions, such as the name of the Emperor, location, and numbers.  The number indicates the number of years the particular emperor was enthroned.  Those were all straight shape swords.

Nara (奈良) period        710 —794

timeline Nara

In 710, The capital city was moved to Nara, called Heijo-kyo (平城京).  The shape of Joko-to was straight, usually 25 inches (60 –70 cm) long.  They were suspended from the waist belt.  Some swords came from China and others were made in Japan.  Many swords were found from Kofun and Shoso-In (正倉院) during the Nara period.  Shoso-In is a storage building where belongings of Shomu Emperor (聖武天皇) were stored.  Among those items, 55 swords were found there.  Those swords were called Warabite-Tachi. Warabi (Bracken) is the name of an edible wild plant that grows in Japan.  These swords were called Warabite-tachi because the shape of the hilt resembles warabi whose stem curls up at the top.

warabite tachi

*2 The photo is from Creative common from word online pictures

Reference (photo)                                                                                                               *1Hilts of Japanese straight sword, Kofun Period circa 600 AD.   From Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

1 | Timeline

Let’s look at the diagram below.  At the beginning of each chapter, the timeline like the one below will be shown.  It will be a good reference to see which time period is being discussed in the chapter.Original Timeline 0

The top short line, from the Jomon period to the Nara period, is the time we call the Joko-to period in terms of the history of Japanese swords.  The term, “Japanese sword” we use today refers to the swords made after the Heian period (平安 794-1185).  Usually, Joko-to is in the category of the archaeological study.  In the next chapter, we will discuss Joko-to.  The bottom timeline and short descriptions underneath are the timelines we see in the general history books in Japan.  The middle timeline is more specific for the sword study.  My discussion will follow the middle line.

As I mentioned earlier.  The timeline diagram will appear at the beginning of each chapter for an easy reference.  The swords I discuss on this website are grouped together based on the shape, style, and the trend of the time.

The difference between Tachi (太刀),  Katana (),  Wakizashi (脇差), Tanto (短刀)

Swords made before the Muromachi period (before 1392) are called Tachi (太刀).  Swords made after the Muromachi (室町) period are called Katana (刀) and Wakizashi (脇差).  Katana and Wakizashi were worn together. Tanto is a short dagger.  Tanto was made throughout time.  The difference between Tachi and Katana is how they were worn.  Tachi was suspended from one’s waist belt, the blade side facing down.  Katana and Wakizashi (called Daisho 大小 means large and small) were thrust between the belt and body two together, the blade side up.  Usually, Tachi is longer than Katana, wakizashi is shorter than Katana.  Tanto is the shortest. When you see the swordsmith’s inscribed name, if the blade comes on the right, that is Tachi.  When you see the swordsmith’s inscribed name, if the blade comes on left, that is Katana and Wakizashi.

Tachi   >  Katana  >  Wakizashi   >  Tanto

22 tachi & Katana

Ko-to (古刀)   Shin-to (新刀)   Shinshin-to (新々刀)   Gendai-to (現代刀)

Ko-to is the swords made between the Heian period (794-1192) and the beginning of the Keicho Era (1597-1615).  Shin-to is the swords made between around Keicho Era (1596-1615) and Tenmei Era (1781).  Shinshin-to is during Bakumatu time (幕末期 1789-1868).  Gendai-to is from the Meiji Restoration (明治1868) through today.  Keep in mind, even though the names of the eras or time changed overnight due to the political or dynastical changes through history, the changes in the sword style were always gradual.

In general history, the Bakumatsu time is the last part of the Edo period, however, for the sword classification, the Bakumatsu is from around the Tenmei era (天明 1781) through the beginning the Meiji, 1868.

0 | Preface and Biography

cropped-red-picture.jpg

This is a series of entry-level lectures of the Japanese sword and its history for those who are interested in studying Japanese art swords.

The Japanese sword was basically designed as a weapon, but Japanese swordsmiths imbued qualities of grace and beauty into the blades as well as functional superiority.  The intricate patterns of surface and texture formed by their highly developed forging and tempering techniques were done only in Japan.  In the past, the Japanese looked at the swords as a spiritual symbol of samurai, temples, and shrines.  Nowadays, the Japanese regard the swords as a cultural art object made of steel.

Varieties of the appearance of swords are closely related to historical events. Textures, contours, and tempering designs are characteristics of a particular school (Den 伝) of swordsmiths.  This is a series of lectures that discuss the history of each period then talk about the swordsmiths’ schools which were active in a particular province at the time. Because of that, each section starts with the history of the time.   It is necessary to discuss the history to see the flow of the events which affected the shape and style of the swords.

Since the subject matter covers many centuries, I will concentrate more on “ko-to” (古刀).  The swords made between the Heian period (平安時代 794 – 1185) to the end of the Sengoku period (戦国時代 16th cent.) is called Ko-to.  These lectures will be discussed with my illustrations and photos of swords from my father’s collection* and the Sano Museum Catalogue**.  Also, I referenced the book, “Nihonto no Okite to Tokucho (日本刀の掟と特徴: The Rules and Characteristics of Japanese Sword)” by Mr. Honami Koson.  This is the book my sword teacher, Mori Sensei, used as the textbook in his class.  Other referenced books are, “Token no Mikata (刀剣のみかた: The Way to Look at Swords)” by Mr. Koichi Hiroi whom I have known since my intern days in the Japanese Sword Museum, “Nihonto Taikan (日本刀大鑑)”, “Nihonto Koza (日本刀講座)”, and several more.  The Reference chapter show more information on referenced books.

Biography

I was born and raised in Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan then we moved to Kamakura in my late teens.  Currently, I live in Los Angeles.  I graduated from Meiji University and received a bachelor’s degree in literature and a curatorship license.  The required internship for the curator license was done at Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai (日本美術刀剣保存協会: The Japanese Sword Museum, often called NBTHK) in Tokyo.  Also, I graduated from the California State University of Northridge and received a bachelor’s degree in Economics.

My father owned a manufacturing company that dealt with metal.  As his hobby, he had collected Japanese swords and other types of Japanese art objects.  He was one of the administrators of Nihon Bijutu Token Hozon Kyokai.    He had been long deceased.

One of my father’s friends, Mori Sensei who was also the main administrator of the organization used to teach a Japanese sword study group in his house near my house.  I joined the study group.   Mori sensei’s class was a very rare and valuable kind because he was able to bring in top quality swords as study materials because of his position in the museum.  The kind of swords we studied with were top quality museum swords, the level like Jyuyo Bunkazai (important cultural Properties


), Jyuyo-Bijutsuhin (Important Art Object).  I don’t know how he managed to do it but he even brought one National Treasure sword.  Keep in mind things were a little different over 50 years ago.  Those are the kind of swords people could only see through the glass display cases.

Also, I studied the swords with my father since he kept many swords in our house.  Some photos of his swords are in the different pages on the website.  This is how I started to get into the Japanese sword study.

*My father took the photos of his swords; those were his swords at the time the photos were taken.  After his death, they were no longer our family’s possession.

**Some photos are from Sano Museum Catalogue.  The permission to use was granted by Sano Museum.