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.

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The 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.  This is one-piece, approximately 27 to 31 inches (70 to 80 cm) long.  This is not a Neolithic type scraper.  This stone sword was made for ceremonial purposes.

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

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Around 300 B.C., the Yayoi culture replaced the Jomon culture.  Yayoi culture characteristics show on their earthenwares.  They were a rounder, smoother, simpler design, and the techniques were much improved since the Jomon time.  They were named Yayoi culture because the objects of this time were unearthed in the Yayoi-cho area (name of the place) near Tokyo University in Tokyo.  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 make their bronze items in the late Yayoi period.  Although iron artifacts were hardly discovered, it is said that we have evidence that the iron objects also already existed then.


It is said that 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), a shamanism maiden.  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 longsword (5 feet long).  Today, we still don’t know exactly loction of the  Yamataikoku.  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 the precise location of Yamataikoku.

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

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At the end of the Yayoi period, Japan was divided into 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 be able to build the enormous tombs called Kofun (古墳) 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 from the Kofun were objects like armors, mirrors,  iron tools, and jewelry.                                                                                                Outside of the kofun, it was a common practice to place Haniwa (clay figurine).   Those Haniwa were smiling people, animals, houses, soldiers wearing swords, and sometimes simple tubes shaped Haniwa (埴輪).  We think they placed Haniwa as a retaining wall purpose or a dividing line for the sacred area.  Judging from the writings on the back of mirrors and swords, people used Kanji (Japanese characters) around the 5 to 6th century.

Asuka (飛鳥) period         593 —710

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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.  The face of Shotoku Taishi 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 Emperor’s name, location, and numbers.  The number indicates the number of years the particular emperor was enthroned.  Those were all straight shape swords.

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Hilts 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.

Nara (奈良) period        710 —794

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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 hilt’s shape resembles warabi, whose stem curls up at the top.

warabite tachi

                        The photo is from Creative common from word online pictures


Preface and Biography



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 used 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 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 each period’s history then talk about the swordsmiths’ schools that 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 that affected the swords’ shape and style.

Since the subject matter covers many centuries, I will concentrate more on “Ko-to” (古 刀), which appeared from the Heian period (平安時代 794 – 1185) until the end of the Sengoku period (戦国時代 16th cent).  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, “Nihon-to 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. Yuichi 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 detailed information on those Referenced books is in the bibliography.


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 have 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, like Juyo Bunkazai (Important Cultural Properties), Juyo-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 were 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 pages of many chapters in this book. 

*My father took the photos of his swords; those were his swords when the photos were taken.  

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