Katana – Japanese Martial Arts Weapon
The Katana is a steel sword that was historically used by the Japanese samurai and is used today in traditional martial arts such as Kenjutsu, Iaido, Ninjutsu and Budo/Bujutsu. The blade of the katana is on average around 27 inches long with the handle usually around 11 to 12 inches long.
Katana are traditionally made by folding layers of steel in order to produce a blade that has a hard cutting edge while retaining a more flexible body to the rest of the blade. In recent times however due to modern steel making techniques, katana are often made from mono steel which are not folded but are tempered in order to achieve the hard cutting edge and flexible back/body of the blade.
Traditional Japanese blades including the Katana, Wakazashi, and Tanto (though there are other variations) are collectively known as Nihonto (Japanese blades). In martial arts, Nihonto are split into 2 categories, Shinken (live/sharp blades) and Iaito (blunt blades). Shinken are used to practise Tameshigiri which is the Japanese name for cutting techniques. Traditionally rolled tatami mats which have been pre-soaked in water and green bamboo are the preferred cutting targets. Iaito are used in the art of Iaido to practice quick draw techniques. Many of these techniques require handling of the blade so a blunt sword is a much safer way for beginners to learn without serious injury (though experienced students will eventually move on to use shinken).
Traditional hand forged Katana are very expensive. But nowadays, there are some excellent mono steel katana available at affordable prices generally called ‘practical’ katana. There are lots of imitation/decorative katana available around the world today and these are collectively known as ‘wall hangers’ basically because this is all they are fit for (hanging on the wall as decoration). NEVER use a wall hanger sword for martial arts practice as most are poorly made and are likely to come to bits whilst swinging or attempting to cut. Some wall hangers are sharp and to the untrained eye look like genuine katana though most of these are constructed from stainless steel and are very brittle and as such are likely to break if used to cut.
There are some excellent budget katana available today that both look great and are suitable for tameshigiri while still being relatively affordable. Notable producers of affordable Shinken include Hanwei, Cold Steel, Chennes and Ronin.
For other traditional Japanese martial arts weapons, please visit the main martial arts weapons section.
National Geographic Video on the Japanese Katana
Elements of a Katana (Japanese Names in Bold Text)
Image from Wikimedia Commons