3 | Joko-to(上古刀)

Jomon (縄文) period     9000 B.C.

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 earthenwares.  We found a stone sword made during this time.  They are one piece stone swords, about 27 to 31 inches (70 to 80cm) long, not the Neolithic type scrapers.  They were made for the ceremonial purpose2a Timeline diagram

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

Around 300B.C. Yayoi culture replaced Jomon culture.  Yayoi characteristics show on their earthen wares.  They are rounder, smoother, simpler design, and the techniques were greatly improved.  They were named Yayoi culture because of the location they were found was Yayoi-cho (name of the place) area near Tokyo University.  They found bronze items such as a bronze sword (銅剣), bronze pike(銅矛), bronze mirror(銅鏡), bronze musical instrument(銅鐸).  Those were imported from China and Korea but Japanese started to make their own later part of Yayoi period.  Iron wares were seldom excavated but they have the evidence of the existence of Iron wares.

3b time line with circle


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 a 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 are still debating where Yamataikoku was located.

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

At the end of the Yayoi period, there were many small countries called Go-zoku (豪族).  Around 400 A.D. most powerful Go-zoku united the country and called it Yamato-chotei (大和朝廷).   This is the imperial court, the 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, Ougonzuka kofun (黄金塚古墳) in Osaka, we found swords.  Its hilt was made in Japan and blade was made in Chine.  On the surface of the hilt, they depicted the design of a house.  Also, we found many items like armor, mirror, iron tools, jewelry inside of the Kofun.  Outside of Kofun, they placed Haniwa (clay figurine).  Those Haniwa are smiling people, animals, houses, and soldiers wearing swords.  Also, they placed 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) in 5 to 6th century.

3c time line with circle


Asuka (飛鳥) period         593 —710

At the end of Yamato period, after a long power struggle, Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子) became a regent in 593 (beginning of 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 Horyuji temple(法隆寺) in Nara.  His face had been on 10,000 yen bill for a long time.  During Asuka time, we see Kanto Tachi (環頭太刀).  The shape of the hilt is 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 were written.  The number indicates a number of years a particular emperor was enthroned.  Those were all straight shape swords

3d time line with circle

Nara (奈良) period        710 —794

In 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 Shoumu 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 Japanese vegetable, its stem grows circle at the top.  They were called Warabite- Tachi because the hilt shows warabi shape.

3e time line with circle

2 | Time line


Let’s look at the diagram below. It may be easier to understand what I am describing by referring with this diagram.2a-timeline-diagram1.jpg

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

Tachi(太刀),  Katana(刀),  Wakizashi(脇差), Tanto(短刀).

Swords made before Muromachi period (before 1392) are called Tachi (f太刀).   Swords made after the Muromachi (室町) are called Katana (刀) and wakizashi (脇差).  Tanto is a short dagger.  Tanto were made through out the time.  Difference between Tachi and Katana is how they were worn.  Tachi was suspended from the waste 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, 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.

2b Tachi & Katana difference

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

Ko-to is the swords made from Heian period(794-1192) to the beginning of Keicho Era(1596-1615).  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 Maiji revolution(明治1868) until now.


1 | Preface

The Japanese sword was basically designed as a weapon, but Japanese sword smiths 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 technique 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 swordsmiths 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.

Because the subject matter covers many centuries, I will concentrate on “Koto” (古刀) that is from Heian period (平安時代  794 – 1133) 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 others.**

*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.