The Japanese sword of ancient days (the tsurugi) was a straight, double-edged, heavy weapon some three feet long, intended to be brandished with both hands. That of mediæval and modern times (the katana) is lighter, shorter, has but a single edge, and is slightly curved towards the point. There is also the wakizashi, or dirk of about nine and a half inches, with which harakiri was committed. The four most famous Japanese sword-smiths are Munechika (10th century), Masamune and Yoshimitsu (latter part of the 13th century), and Muramasa (latter part of the 14th century). But Muramasa's blades had the reputation of being unlucky. Towards the close of the fifteenth century arose schools of artists in metal, who made it their business to adorn the hilt, the guard, the sheath, and other appurtenances in a manner which is still the delight of collectors. But to the Japanese connoisseur the great treasure is always the blade itself, which has been called "the living soul of the Samurai."
Japanese swords excel even the vaunted products of Damascus and Toledo. To cut through a pile of copper coins without nicking the blade is, or was, a common feat. History, tradition, and romance alike re-echo with the exploits of this wonderful weapon. The magic sword, and the sword handed down as an heirloom, figure as plentifully in the pages of Japanese novel-writers as magic rings and strawberry-marks used once upon a time to do in the West. The custom which obtained among the Samurai of wearing two swords, is believed to date from the beginning of the fourteenth century. It was abolished by an edict issued on the 28th March, 1876, and taking effect from the 1st January, 1877. The edict was obeyed by this strangely docile people without a blow being struck, and the curio-shops displayed heaps of swords which, a few months before, the owners would less willingly have parted with than with life itself. Shortly afterwards a second edict appeared, rescinding the first and leaving any one at liberty to wear what swords he pleased. But as the privilege of a class distinction was thus obliterated, none cared to take advantage of the permission, and the two-sworded Japanese gentleman is now extinct.
Excellent specimens of swords and scabbards may be seen at Tōkyō in the Yūshū-kwan, or Museum of Arms, situated in the ground of the Shōkonsha temple.
Japanese swords are made of soft, elastic, magnetic iron combined with hard steel. "The tempering of the edge," says Rein, "is carefully done in the charcoal furnace, the softer backs and the sides being surrounded up to a certain point with fire-clay, so that only the edge remains outside. The cooling takes place in cold water. It is in this way that the steeled edge may be distinguished clearly from the back, by its colour and lustre. The backs of knives, axes, and other weapons are united to the steel edge either by welding on one side, or by fitting the edge into a fluted groove of the back blade, and welding on both sides."
The most extraordinary circumstance connected with swords in this country is that ladders are made of them set edge up, which men climb, with the idea originally of propitiating the gods and gaining merit, though now the ordeal would seem to have sunk to the level of a mere acrobatic performance. On the occasion when the present writer witnessed one of these performances in the grounds of the temple of Asakusa at Tōkyō, he inspected the swords, could not detect any trace of deception, and is therefore unable to offer an explanation of the fact that several persons walked up this dreadful ladder barefoot without any untoward consequences.
Books recommended - . Rein Industries of Japan, p. 430. Brinkley Japan and China, Vol. II, p. 136et seq., also Vol. VII for the sword furniture.- McClatchie The Sword of Japan, in Vol. II. of the "Asiatic Transactions".- B. S. Lyman Japanese Swords, in the "Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia" for 1892, and papers by E. Gilbertson in the "Transactions of the Japan Society". For prehistoric swords, Gowland Dolmens and Burial Mounds in Japan, published by the Society of Antiquaries (London); for the sword walking, Lowell Occult Japan.