The Evolution of the Samurai Sword

Miyamoto Musashi fighting with 2 bokkens (wooden swords)
Miyamoto Musashi fighting with 2 bokkens (wooden swords)
Miyamoto Musashi fighting with 2 bokkens (wooden swords)

He was 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. Musashi’s favorite weapons were the long sword (o-dachi), the short sword (ko-dachi), the wooden sword (bokken) and when weapons were no longer available, the broken fence post. But what would this swordsman be without his samurai sword? Would he still be famous? Perhaps, to more than anyone else, Musashi owed his great fame to a man named Amakuni, Japan’s first swordsmith. In the year 710 A.D. (Nara Period), Amakuni forged the very first samurai sword in the ancient province of Yamato, Japan. It was called the “Chokuto” and was basically a copy of earlier Chinese swords. Generally straight and primarily designed for stabbing, Chokuto swords became the standard weapon of the Shogun’s army.

Shogun’s official swordsmith

Amakuni was also the Shogun’s official swordsmith and being such, it was also his duty to acknowledge the return of the Shogun and his army after every battle. A pat on the shoulders was always given by the Shogun to Amakuni as a sign of recognition for his hard work. One day however, the Shogun returned home without giving Amakuni any sign of recognition. He was very puzzled. Later on, Amakuni noticed that half of the returning soldiers were carrying broken swords (Chokuto). Amakuni ordered his son Amakura to gather and examine the remnants of the swords. It appeared that the chief reason for the breakage was that the swords had been improperly forged causing them to break when they hit hard objects like heavy armor and other swords. Feeling humiliated, Amakuni soon isolated himself inside his sword shop and prayed hard to the Shinto gods for guidance. After 7 days of prayer and meditation, Amakuni emerged from isolation and said to his son Amakura “If they are going to use our swords for such slashing, we will make one that will not break”. Amakuni, with the help of Amakura, soon scoured the mountains of Yamato for the best iron core they could obtain. Later on, they refined it into steel. Working without rest, the pair quickly proceeded with their 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 Amakuni 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 sword shop. They patiently waited for the return of the Shogun’s army. After a few days, the Shogun and his army returned home. This time around, Amakuni was quickly greeted by the Shogun. The Shogun and his army went home victorious and, all their swords were kept intact; not even one was broken

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 was more flexible. This process made the Samurai sword more sturdy and “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 and, this included the one used by Miyamoto Musashi.

Today, the Samurai sword is considered one of the best combat swords produced in history (if not, the best). Because of its many successes in the battlefield, its basic design and mode of construction remains unchanged even after more than 700 years.

Trivia: Two of the world’s biggest battleships during World War II were named Yamato and Musashi-Yamato being the sword-producing province of ancient Japan and Musashi, after Japan’s greatest Samurai.

About George M. Hizon

George M. Hizon was the former Karate-do head instructor of Claret School. This was during his college years at the De La Salle University from 1980-81. He would later become the head instructor of the University of the Philippines from mid 1983 to 1984.