3 | 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.  This is considered as the archaeological field.

Jomon (縄文) period     9000 B.C.

3a time line with circle #2Jomon 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 earthenwares.  We found a stone sword made during this time.  They are one-piece stone swords, 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)3b time line with circle #2Around 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 from this time were found in the Yayoi-Cho area (name of the place) near Tokyo University.  They found bronze items 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 make their own items later part of the Yayoi period.  Iron wares were seldom excavated but we have the evidence that the iron wares existed then.


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 countries in Japan.  The head of the country was a female called Himiko (卑弥呼) who served God (shamanism).  She sent a messenger to China at 239 A.D. and received a 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 to 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 was located.


Yamato (大和) period        300 A.D. — 593 A.D3c time line with circle #2

At the end of the Yayoi period, there were many small countries called Go-Zoku (豪族).  Around 400 A.D., the most powerful Go-Zoku united the country and called it  Yamato-Chotei (大和朝廷).   This is the imperial court, the present Emperor’s ancestor.  They had the power to build an enormous size tomb, called Kofun (古墳).  Inside of the one of the famous kofun, Ogonzuka kofun (黄金塚古墳) in Osaka, we found swords among other things.  Its hilt was made in Japan and the blade part was made in China.  On the surface of the hilt, they depicted the design of a house.  Also, we found many items like armor, mirror, iron tools, jewelries inside the Kofun.  Outside of Kofun, they placed Haniwa (clay figurine).  Those Haniwa are smiling people, animals, houses, and soldiers wearing swords.  Also, they placed a tube shape haniwa (埴輪) outside of Kofun as a retaining wall.   Judging from the writings on the back of mirrors and swords, they 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 —7103d time line with circle #2At 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).  Shotoku Taishi 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 a number of years a particular emperor was enthroned.  Those were all straight shape swords.


Nara (奈良) period        710 —7943e time line with circle #2In 710, The capital city was moved to Nara, called Heijokyo (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 place where articles of Shomu Emperor (聖武天皇)were placed.  Among other items, 55 swords were found from there.  Those swords were called Warabite Tachi.  Warabi is a name of a vegetable that grows in Japan, its stem curls up at the top.  They were called Warabite- Tachi because the hilt shows the warabi shape.



2 | Timeline

Let’s look at the diagram below.  At the beginning of each chapter, you will see the timeline as you see below.   It may be easier to understand which area I am describing by referring to this diagram.

Original Timeline 0This is the timeline divided according to the historical period.  The top short line is the time of the Joko-To period (上古刀).  When we mention Japanese swords, we indicate swords made after the Heian Period (平安 794-1185).  Swords made before the Heian period are called Joko-To(上古刀).  Usually, Joko-To is in the category of the archaeological study.  In the next chapter, Joko-To that is the pre-Heian period sword will be described.  The bottom timeline is the way we see in school history textbooks and other general history books.  The middle timeline and the bottom line are almost the same, but the middle timeline is more useful for the sword study.  My blog will follow the middle line.  You will see this timeline diagram at the beginning of each chapter.  Please keep checking back and forth with this diagram.  We group together swords by its shapes, styles, and trends of the time.

The difference between Tachi (太刀),  Katana (刀),  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).  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.  Swords maker’s name was inscribed facing outside on its hilt when it was worn.   Katana and Wakizashi (called Daisho 大小 means large and small) were thrust between the belt and body both together, the blade side up.  Swords maker’s name was inscribed facing outside on its handle when it was worn.  When you face the maker’s inscription, if the blade comes on the right, that is Tachi.  When you face the maker’s inscription, if the blade comes on left, that is Katana and Wakizashi.

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 from the Heian period(794-1192) to the beginning of the Keicho Era(1597-1615).  Shin-To is the swords made from around Keicho Era (1596-1615) to Tenmei Era(1781- 1789).  Shinshin-To is the swords made during Bakumatu time (幕末期 1789-1868).  Gendai-To is the sword made after the Meiji Restoration (明治1868) until now.  Keep in mind, even though the political history changed its name of the time by a particular emperor or Shogun became the top power in a precise day and year, sword style changed very gradually

*Strictly speaking, Bakumatsu time is from 1853 to 1869.  But for sword classification, Bakumatsu time starts from Tenmei (天明1781 ) Era.



1 | Preface


This is the series of entry-level lectures of the Japanese sword and its history for those who are interested in studying Japanese 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 swords as a spiritual symbol of temples, shrines, and samurai.  Nowadays, the Japanese regard the sword as a cultural art object made of steel.

Varieties of the appearance of swords are closely related to historical events.  Texture, 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 swordsmith school (den 伝) that were active in a particular province at the time.  Because of that, each section starts with the history of that time.   It is necessary to discuss the history to show the flow of the events that affect the shape and style of the swords.

Since the subject matter covers many centuries, I will concentrate more on “Koto” (古刀) that is from Heian period (平安時代  794 – 1185) until the end of Sengoku period (戦国時代 16th century).  These lectures will be discussed with my illustrations and photos of my father’s sword* and Sano Museum Catalogue.**  Also, I referenced the several books like, “Nihonto no Okite to Tokucho 日本刀の掟と特徴 (The rules and characteristics of Japanese Sword)” by Mr. Honami Koson, because my sword teacher Mori Sensei used the book as a textbook in his class.  Several other 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 sword museum.  Others are “Nihonto Taikan 日本刀大鑑”, “Nihonto Koza 日本刀講座” and several others.  The detailed information on these referenced books will be on the reference page.

*My father took the photos of his swords and they were his swords at the time the photos were taken.  But after his death, they are no longer owned by my family.

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