Japan is known for its high quality products. Yes, their cameras, cars, electronic products, etc., etc. However, when it comes to guns or weapons we are stumped. Anybody who has read a James Bond novel or seen a Dirty Harry film knows Beretta, Smith & Wesson, Colt, Glock*, Sig Saur, etc. These are all gun and weapon manufacturers. Beretta is Italian, Smith & Wesson and Colt are American while Glock is Austrian and Sig Saur is German, Swiss as well as American. None are Japanese.
Do the names of Munechika, Masamune, Muramasa and Yoshimitsu ring a bell? No? Well, that is understandable. They are sword smiths or families of sword smiths that started making swords from the mid-Heian period (about 900 AD) or later, some of whom are still continuing the art of making swords the traditional way. For example, the Masamune Sword and Blade Workshop in Kamakura is today run by Mr. Tsunahira Yamamuro (the 24th generation of the Masamune family), who is continuing a 700-year family tradition that started in the late Kamakura period (1185 – 1333).
Swords were used by the bushi, the warrior class of Japan that emerged at the beginning of the 14th century. By the beginning of the Edo period sword usage by the bushi had been standardized to the use of two swords, a shorter sword called wakizashi (脇差) and a long sword (大刀) (taitou). These two swords were the distinguishing marks of the bushi class as only they were allowed to carry them. This set them apart from all other social classes as the ruling class of feudal Japanese society. It is therefore no wonder that they were highly prized possessions that their owners would less willingly part with than with life itself.
The advanced technical skill and dedication that went into their making are extraordinary. The swords they created and still create are unrivalled as weapons of classical warfare and works of art.
Basil Hall Chamberlain relates in Japanese Things (published in 1904) that using a Japanese sword to cut through piles of copper coins without nicking the blade was a common feat.
In the course of writing this article, I came across an interesting discovery on the Internet. In 2005, Christie’s, the British auction house sold a Hizen sword signed Kawachi no Kami Masahiro dated 1685 for US$ 36,000. The inscription on the sword says “試し割り断鉄甲” meaning that the sword had been tested by cutting through an iron helmet. If you look closely at the blade in the photo you can see that the test did not have any ill effect on the blade.