7| Kamakura period history(1192 – 1334)

Kamakura period was the golden age of the sword making. Many valuable swords now exist were made during Kamakura period.  The war between Genii family and Hei-shi family at the late Heian period demanded more swords and more sword smiths.

After the Gen-pei(源平) war, the results of many precious live experiences led to improving in sword making techniques.  Also, the emperor Gotoba encouraged sword making and treated sword smiths very highly.  As a result, they created large numbers of the valuable swords during Kamakura period.

The style of the swords during this period varies considerably, we usually divide into three stages; early Kamakura period, middle Kamakura period, late Kamakura period.

The Kamakura period was called Kamakura period because the center of the political power which is Kamakura Bakufu(鎌倉幕府) was established at Kamakura area by Minamoto-no-Yoritomo(源頼朝).  He was a head of the Genji.

At the end of the Heian period, Genji(源氏) attacked Hei-shi(平氏) but failed.  As a result, a direct line of Genji, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo(源頼朝) was sent to Izu(considered far away then).  There, he met Hojo Masako(北条政子) who was a daughter of a small local official, Hojo family.  Eventually, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo overthrew Hei-shi family with the help of his wife Masako and her father, Hojo Tokimasa.

At the end of the Heian period, Hei-shi family was the top of the society.  It was said, “if you are not a part of Hei-shi family, you are not a human being”. A society like that created too many enemies.  Yoritomo raised an army, attacked Hei-shi family, and won the war, that end Heian period.  The power of the Kamakura government(鎌倉幕府) spread all over Japan.

Yet the imperial court and aristocrats still existed in Kyoto.  Kamakura Bakufu had military, police and political power.  The imperial court was the department of public administration.  Thus those two big rivals controlled the country in the different field and kept the balance between them.




6 |Heian Period Swords

This is the time, the shape of the swords changed to curved shape.  Until this time, swords were straight.

The study of swords is the swords made from Heian period on.  Elegant and graceful taste of Fujiwara culture reflects on the swords made during the Heian period.  Their preference of their life style appeared vividly on the swords.  A group of the sword smiths in Kyoto area was called Yamashiro school.  Their style of the swords had a graceful shape.  During the Heian period, Yamashiro school represents the Heian period sword style.

6aHeian period sword style

General Heian period sword style

  • Shape———-Lengths of the swords are approximately 30 inches ± a couple of inches.  Elegant and graceful shape.  The width of the blade is narrow.  Small Kissaki(小切先), Kyo-zori(京反り)and deep curvature.  Kyo-zori means the highest curvature comes around the halfway of the blade.  A line shape that is called——funbari,踏ん張り style.  Deep curvature.

6 A line bottom

  • Hamon(刃文)———-Hamon means tempered line.  The Heian period tempered area is narrow,  and usually, suguha (直刃), means straight hamon.  Nie (沸)base.  Nie is a tiny granule like a particle on the border of the tempered line.  Sand like particles is not so visible. 6 Straigh tempered line(Suguha)
  • Jitetu (地鉄) ———- fine wood grained tone.
  • Nakago (中心)———- Nakago is a hilt area.  Sword makers inscribe their names here.  The shape of the nakago during the Heian period is often Kijimomo shape(雉腿), that means pheasant thigh shape.6 Kijimomo-nakago
  • Hi and engrave ———- Hi (樋) means an engraved straight line.  Hi and engraved design is rare in Heian period.  It became more common later time.
  • Kissaki (切先)———– Ko-kissaki (small kissaki). Boshi (Hamon around kissaki) is usually with komaru (小丸) means small round with a little return.6c Boshi Hamon

Names of the Heian period sword smiths

  • Yamashiro school——–  Sanjo Munechika(三条宗近) Sanjo Yoshiie(三条吉家)    Gojo Kanenaga(五条兼長) Gojo Kuninaga (五条国永)
  • Yamato school ——–Senju-in (千手院)
  • Bizen school ———– Bizen Tomonari(備前友成) Bizen Masatsune(備前正恒) Bizen Kanehira (備前包平)
  • Hoki (伯耆) ———–Yasutsuna (安綱) Sanemori (真守)
  • Buzen (豊前) ——— Cho-en (長円) Sinsoku (神息)
  • Satsuma (薩摩) ——-Naminohira (波平)

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 earthenware.  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 at, Yayoi-cho 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 evidence of usage 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(5feet 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 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 a design of a house.  Also, we found items like armor, mirror, iron tools, jewelry. Those are called Haniwa (埴輪).  Outside of Kofun, they placed Haniwa.   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 (characters) by 5, 6th century.

3c time line with circle


Asuka (飛鳥) period         593 —710

After a long power struggle, Shotoku Taishi(聖徳太子) became a regent in 593.  He established the political system and set up the first Japanese constitution(憲法17条).  Shoutoku Taishi protected and encouraged Buddhism and built Horyuji temple(法隆寺).  He had been on 10,000 yen bill for a long time.  During Asuka time, we see Kantou Tachi (環頭太刀).  The shape of the hilt had a ring shape.  Kan(環) means ring and tou(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 Nara period.  Shoso-in is a storage place where articles of Shoumu Emperor were placed.  Among other items, 55 swords were found from here. 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 of the hilt shows warabi shape.

3e time line with circle

1 | Preface

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 of swordsmiths.  This is a series of lectures that discuss the history of each period then talk about the swordsmith school that was 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 the 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.

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