The Evolution of the Samurai Sword

Miyamoto Musashi fighting with 2 bokkens (wooden swords).

He is the greatest swordsman in Japanese history. At the age of thirteen, he had his first sword bout and before reaching his thirtieth birthday, he had duels with over 60 samurai swordsmen. It was said that Miyamoto Musashi never lost in any of his duels.

His favorite weapons were the long sword (o-dachi), the short sword (ko-dachi), the wooden swords (bokken) and when his weapons were no longer available, the fence post. But what would this famous swordsman be without his equally famous samurai sword? To more than anyone else, Miyamoto Musashi owed his great fame to a man named Amakuni, Japan’s first swordsmith. In 710 A.D. (Nara Period), Amakuni forged the first samurai sword in the ancient province of Yamato, in Southern Japan. Basically a copy of earlier Chinese swords, it was called the “chokuto”.

Generally straight and primarily designed for stabbing, the chokuto swords later became the standard weapon of the Shogun’s army.

Shogun’s official swordsmith

Being the Shogun’s official swordsmith, it was also the duty of Amakuni (and his son Amakura) to acknowledge the return of the Shogun and his army after every battle. A pat of commendation from the Shogun was always awaited by the old man as a sign of appreciation for his efforts and hard work. One day however, the Shogun returned home without giving Amakuni any sign of recognition. Amakuni was puzzled but later on noticed that half of the returning soldiers were carrying broken swords.

Determined to make things right, Amakuni and Amakura went about gathering remnants of the swords and examined them. It appeared that the chief reasons for the breakage were that the swords had been improperly forged and had struck hard objects like heavy armor and other swords. Feeling humiliated, Amakuni isolated himself inside his forge and prayed to the Shinto gods for guidance.

After 7 days of prayer and meditation, Amakuni emerged from isolation and said to himself “If they are going to use our swords for such slashing, I shall make one that will not break”. With the help of his son Amakura, the old man scoured the mountains of Yamato for the best iron core they could obtain and later refined it into steel. Working without rest, the pair quickly proceeded with their impossible task and after 31 days, they were able to develop a “new” kind of sword. It was a shiny and sturdy single-edged sword and it had a little “curvature”; the original samurai swords (chokutos) were straight and double-edged. Despite the sword’s sturdy appearance, it was met with skepticism by other Japanese swordsmiths. Some of them even thought that old man had lost his mind.

  The “new” swords

 Soon, a war erupted and the Shogun’s army quickly armed themselves with the new swords. Amakuni and Amakura proceeded with their usual vigil in front of their

swordshop as they patiently waited for the return of the Shogun’s army. After a few days had passed, the Shogun returned home and this time around, Amakuni was commended for a job well done. The Shogun’s soldiers were not only victorious but every one of their swords was kept intact.

The transition from the double-edged straight sword to a single-edged curved samurai sword was a long and tedious one. 200 years later, in 900 A.D. (Heian Period), another swordsmith by the name of Yasutsuna improved on Amakuni’s process.Yasutsuna developed a method called “multiple-folded construction and temper”. This method produced a razor-sharp sword that retained enough “flexibility”- this made the sword “unbreakable” even in rough use. It was however during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) that the production of the samurai sword reached its peak. Famous swordsmiths like Yoshimitsu Toshiro, Goru Masasume and Go Yoshihiro were able to produce the best samurai swords that included the one used by Miyamoto Musashi.

Today, the samurai sword is the probably the sturdiest among all the combat swords produced in history. Because of its many successes in the battlefield, its basic design and mode of construction remains unchanged after more than 700 years.

 MusahiNotes: Two of the world’s biggest battleships were named Yamato and Musashi (World War II). Yamato was the sword producing province of ancient Japan while Miyamoto Musashi was Japan’s greatest samurai. He was also the author of the bestseller, The Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho). Today, many businessmen find the concepts discussed by Miyamoto Musashi in the book (more than 500 years ago) still relevant in their field of work.

One of the biggest Karate-do organizations in the Philippines, the Association for the Advancement of Karate-do (AAK) was originally named Kuroi Samurai Dojo (Black Warrior) in1964. Like Miyamoto Musashi, AAK founder and 8th Dan Karate-do Master Manuel Veguillas felt like a “black warrior” or a “ronin”(a masterless samurai) when his teacher, Master Takayuki Mikami left for Japan in 1964.