In its early inception the Japanese sword was used a weapon, primarily for military purposes. Therefore, it was owned by military men, who understood and respected the principles of riehõ which determined “how the sword was carried at one’s side and extended to stipulate exactly what direction the edge of the blade would face in any given situation…was particularly important in the context of battle, because one’s honor, and that of the family name was at stake” (Roach, 2010). The legendary samurai warriors were usually the owners of traditional Japanese swords, because the customs associated with the swords could only be learnt through extensive training and spiritual meditation which was taught for military purposes. However, in the late 1800’s as a result of the erosion of the samurai class, the sword became seen as an art piece (Roach, 2010).
The Japanese sword emerged as a commodity of exchange in the 1860’s when “the first Japanese swords were traded, primarily to Europeans” (Roach, 2010). Families migrating to the United States also brought along their swords, which held both cultural and spiritual significance. The post WWII period saw a large number of swords being lost or displaced overseas, many of which were family heirlooms. The Japanese sword has transitioned from being a symbol of military strength, to symbolizing social status, and is now viewed as an art piece to foreigners, and as a symbol of cultural identity to the Japanese people. In the 1950’s the Japanese government in collaboration with The Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords set out to preserve the dying art of sword making by regulating the manufacturing of the swords. Today Japanese swordsmiths “practice their craft both as a business and as a matter of cultural preservation” (Roach, 2010). The Japanese sword has essentially lost its place as an effective military weapon, and is now relegated to the household shelves for viewing pleasure, instead of the waistbands of military personnel. ‘Authentic’ Japanese swords can be purchased anywhere from $8000-$700,000 for museum pieces (Roach, 2010).
Sources (still in progress):
Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese Sword: The soul of the samurai. London: V&A.
Roach, Colin M. (2010). Japanese Swords: Cultural Icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. North Clarendon, Vt.: Tuttle.
Yumoto, J. M. (1958). The Samurai Sword: A Handbook. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle.