I’ve been studying martial arts for over three decades (32 years this month, actually) and I’ve trained in a number of different disciplines during that time. Although it’s normally ideal to stick to one style so that you can master it (or at least attempt to), it gets a bit difficult NOT to dip your toes in the proverbial martial arts pool, from time to time.
Training in the Way of the Empty Hand is usually the best option as it means that you’re never disarmed. But I would be lying if I said that the prospect of training with a weapon hasn’t appealed to me, from time to time. With that in mind, I began studying Kendo and Iaido. I studied for a number of years, although I didn’t stick to it long enough to reach a mastery. But I have enough skill with a blade to make it a useful implement of self-defence if necessary.
Samurai swords are iconic and have come to be recognized in and out of the martial arts world. An extremely fluid weapon, the samurai sword was normally a symbol of military nobility in feudal Japan, and was considered to be the soul of a samurai. The wearing two swords was outlawed by the Japanese government during the Meiji Restoration (I’ll let you Google that) but they continued to be used by police and military personnel.
So, what’s known about these famous swords? Well, samurai swords are unlike any other swords in the world, with their unique curvature and single-edged blade. They’ve been forged since as far back as the 10th century, and there are legends of the first actual katana being forged by a wordsmith named Amakuni Yasutsuna as far back as 700AD.
Samurai swords, or katanas as I will refer to them from here on in, are characterized by a long, curved, single-edged blade that is at least twenty-four inches in length and a grip that is long enough for both hands to hold. When samurais wore the two swords, the katana was the longer of the two, with the shorter sword being between twelve to twenty-four inches in length and called a wakizashi.
Because the wakizashi was shorter and had a grip that would only accommodate a single hand, it was generally used for closer combat as opposed to the katana, which was better suited for full combat (once they worked their way through the plethora of weapons they carried BESIDES swords).
Last but not least is the tanto. This is a short, dagger-style sword that usually measures six to twelve inches in length. Although intended more as a stabbing weapon for close combat, the edge could also be used for slashing. Over time, it became more ornate and acted as a ceremonial dagger, but a martial art called tantojutsu.
The creation of a katana is an entirely unique process. Unlike most swords that are forged by pouring molten steel into a mold, then tempered, katanas are created by forging and combining multiple layers of different types of steel. The layers are folded, over and over again and the curvature happens over a long process of curing and tempering.
The forging process creates a curved blade that combines softer and harder metals. Hard and soft… Sound familiar? (☯) The curve and flexibility of the blade makes the katana incredibly fluid and durable. Then the blade is sent to be polished, which can take weeks, in order to get that mirrored look.
Katanas are fascinating weapons, and would often be customized with images, lacquered scabbards and even family crests and symbols on the guard and grip. And as Ryan Reynolds said in X-men Origins: Wolverine, “I love this weapon more than any other thing in the whole wide world […]. You whip out a couple of swords at your ex-girlfriend’s wedding, they will never, ever forget it.”
At the end of the day, learning to defend oneself with your bare hands should be your primary goal. After all, you’re more likely to find yourself WITHOUT a weapon than carrying one. But should you find yourself with a weapon, it’s also nice to be able to use it properly.