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Why Japanese Swords are Different

Este es un trabajo que hice para la U, comparando la katana con la espada medieval. Happy reading!

Why Japanese Swords are Different

Have you ever wondered why Japanese swords have a distinctive curved shape that differentiates them from other types of swords? Are they different from European swords in other aspects? Well, the Japanese longsword differs in shape, use and manufacture from its European counterpart as a result of the particular history and traditions of its country of origin. Wikipedia provides useful information on both the European and Japanese swords that can help to explain the reasons behind these dissimilarities.

Usually, when we think of a sword, the image of a weapon with a straight, double-edged blade and a cross-like hilt comes to mind—this is the typical shape of a European longsword. Swords of this type feature cruciform hilts with a pommel, a cross-guard and a grip of around 15 cm. Their blade is often over 89 cm long, straight, double-edged and relatively thin, with strength provided by careful blade geometry. Later versions of the sword had slightly longer blades, thicker in cross-section, less wide, and considerably more pointed—changes widely attributed to the appearance of plate armor, which greatly reduced the cutting ability of the sword to break through. Longswords were then adapted to pierce plate armor, with a more acute point and a more rigid blade. On the other hand, Japanese people would picture a different image, that of a katana—a curved, single-edged sword. Japanese swords consist of a hilt, a handguard piece with intricate artistic designs, a blade averaging 70 cm in length, and the saya or scabbard, which is considered an important part of the sword. Katana were also adorned in their blade, often with dedications and engravings called horimono, depicting gods, dragons and other beings. Later Japanese swords had thicker backs and bigger points to cut through leather armor.

In Europe, the longsword was used during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, reaching its highest popularity during the 14th century, but remaining in common use until 1550 A.D. The first early variants of the longsword were simply longer versions of the one-handed sword, and over time they developed into greatswords—heavy swords with very long blades. In the early 15th century, the longsword’s evolution finally reached the “bastard sword”, which was neither one-handed nor to-handed and had a relatively small blade length in relation to hilt length, this gave the sword a very precise and reactive ability that served well for cutting and thrusting. Its Japanese equivalent, the katana, was developed sometime around the middle of the Heian period (8th to 11th centuries), based on a sword-making technique brought over from China during the Tang Dinasty. Katana were mostly used during the 15th-17th century by samurai—the noble caste of Japan. Old swords, or kotou, are katana forged between 987 and 1597, and are considered the pinnacle of Japanese swordcraft, while shintou (lit. “new swords”) are swords forged in times of peace during the Momoyama period, and are often considered inferior to kotou.

The manufacture process of longswords in medieval Europe was relatively quick, and it involved heating pieces of iron and pummeling them with a hammer. Techniques such as fullers and hollow-ground blades were often used to lighten the weapon and improve sharpness. Fullers consisted in grooves or channels removed from the blade, usually running along the center of it, and hollow-ground blades are concave portions of steel removed from the sides of the blade, thinning the edge geometry and keeping a thickened area in the center of the blade. In contrast, the forging of katana was a very complex process, even considered a sacred art, and typically taking several days and requiring many smiths. The first smith forged the rough shape, a second smith folded the metal, a specialist polished the blade, and several artisans decorated different parts of the sword. The Japanese sword blade is two-layered, it is composed of soft steel in the core which is resilient and good for absorbing shocks, and a harder outer jacket steel that required thousands of folds and provided rigidity and sharpness to the sword. The katana was then hammered to give it shape, covered with clay and plunged into a tank of water to cool down.

In spite of being powerful and versatile, the longsword was not considered the only required weapon for learning the arts of war in ancient Europe. Sigmund Ringeck, an influential combat manual author, wrote that young knights should learn to “wrestle well, (and) skillfully wield spear, sword, and dagger in a manly way.” Thus, it is evident that even to a master swordsman, other weapons and techniques were essential for battle. Longswords were generally used two-handed, however, in some circumstances the weapon was used with only one hand, leaving the other hand open to manipulate a large dueling shield. A third variation of its use is called “half-swording”, and it consists in wielding the sword with both hands, one on the hilt and the other on the blade, to better control the thrusts and jabs. On the other hand, the katana was a pretty independent weapon; and although it was typically paired with the wakizashi—a short sword—, it served more as a symbol or a tool than as a weapon, since it was used for rituals and to decapitate bodies. One of the reasons why Japanese sword blades are curved is that this particular shape adds considerably to the downward force of a cutting action when wielded on horseback. Furthermore, the moderate curve of the sword allows for effective thrusting, in addition to slicing, the primary use of the katana.

In conclusion, the different historical needs and techniques for swords, as well as the dissimilar conceptions of the sword and its manufacturing process in Europe and Japan, explain the differences in use and shape of the same weapon: the longsword, in two different regions and at similar periods of time.
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