“Like humble servants, they live on the margins of the social doing most of the work but never allowed to be represented as such.” – Latour, B. – Reassembling the Social 

The above statement by Latour captures the essence with which objects fade in and out of public consciousness, only to become present in momentarily interactions as the object emerges from glass display cabinets and shelving units which renders them invisible. Few things have been able to the capture the imagination and have such cross-cultural appeal as the Japanese Samurai warrior. Perhaps this is partially a result of what Edward Said describes in his use of the term Orientalism and this fascination of the Orient. On a similar point, one can argue that perhaps there has simply been an utter fascination with the mystique of the Samurai, which has manifested in our obsession over the objects that represent the warrior. A large part of our fascination is undoubtedly due to the way in which the Samurai warrior has been presented. In asking what defines the Samurai warrior, I have come to realize that the sword, being the humble servant that it is, plays key role in how we conceptualize the Samurai warrior. Therefore, this paper will attempt to shine light on the sword and the way in which it has shaped the Japanese cultural identity. To a large extent, this paper will function as an object biography as it “examines an artefact’s life history to ‘address the way social interactions involving people and objects create meaning’ and to understand how these meanings ‘change and are renegotiated through the life of an object’.”[1] In doing so, the paper strives to answer the following; how has the Japanese sword helped to construct a Japanese cultural identity, as it has itself been constructed and reconstructed over time and space?

The Japanese culture has long been steeped in traditions that reflect the spiritual nature of the society. Therefore, it is important to explore these connections, as they play a significant role in the way in which the swords were initially conceptualized. This paper will focus on three distinct periods which had a profound affect in shaping the development of the sword, both inside of Japans borders and outside of its cultural context. The first section will focus on the swords initial period of development in relation to the historical and political contexts of the time. This section will explore how the quintessential Japanese sword was constructed, and the role spirituality had in its development. The following section will explore the modern war era, with the end of the Second World War marking significant changes in use of the sword. This section will touch on issues of cultural identity, and the symbolism behind sword with respect to the soldier who was caring it. Lastly, the final section will look at the post-war period and discuss issues pertaining to its reconstruction as an ‘art-piece’, and how it has evolved as a commodity. Also, this section intends to explore the issues behind authenticity and the role of spirituality as it became commoditized. 

Origins of the Japanese Sword

            As a brief aside, it is important to recognize that the production of Japanese swords has largely been tied in relation to Japanese imperial dynasties, and the extent to which they were open to Chinese and Korean trade and commerce. As the predominant weapon of choice for centuries, the sword has been in existence throughout Japan from as early as the Kofun period which lasted from a period of 300-600 CE.[2] This was a period in time which saw a heavy influence of Chinese and Korean culture and sword making within Japan, hence the style of swords throughout this period very much reflected this influence. In fact, it is believed that the swords produced throughout this time were either imported from China or

The ken is a straight, double-edged sword of ancient Chinese design

produced by Chinese sword smiths because there is “little evidence that a fully established sword-producing culture was yet functioning in Japan itself”.[3] The swords – which are generally distinguished by the steel portion of a sword; not including the fittings and components that go along with them – produced during this time and on throughout the Nara period (AD 646-794) were called Ken/Tsūrūgi, meaning they were straight, double-edged in the ancient Chinese design.[4] The other sword and blade type produced during this time, in addition to the Ken was known as Chokutō.  In fact, it was not until part way through the Nara period (AD 646-794) that we begin to see Japanese sword smiths starting to make minor changes to the Chinese design; changes that would eventually come to characterize what we have come to understand as the quintessential “Japanese” sword. The Chokutō blade was designed with the intention of strengthening the physical structure of the swords, making them more reliable in battle. It is characterised as straight and single-edged, which distinguished it from the Ken sword. In addition to this, it had been characterized by a “longitudinal ridge (shinogi) on one side of the blade near the cutting edge, the other side of the blade remaining flat…The point of the blade (kissaki) was small and in the for the sword was most probably wielded in combat with a thrusting technique, rather than used for slashing”.[5] These initial periods in sword production were crucial in the way the sword had evolved from this point. Going back to the way in which objects become visible and take on a level of agency through our momentary interactions as described in Latour’s action network theory; the production and innovations that emerged throughout this period, spoke to the way in which swords became visible agents in the development of war strategies. Not only were they visible, but their agency was clearly defined, as the sword smiths actions became a direct reflection of the swords materiality, shape, and composition.

              The Heian period (794-1185 AD) was a significant time with respect to the development of the Japanese cultural identity and the samurai sword. Gregory Irvine notes that “with the transfer of the Japanese imperial court from Nara to Heiankyo (modern day Kyoto) in 794 by the Emperor Kammu, there was a slacking of ties with China, as Japan consolidated those political and religious philosophies it had earlier so readily adopted”.[6] This point is significant because it is throughout this period that we start to see Japanese artistry and craftsmanship coming through. In fact some have argued that “samurai swordmaking reached its zenith during the latter half of this period”.[7] The need for better swords came about as a result of the changes that were occurring in warfare. It was understood that “power was obtained only by means of warfare. Since wars for power were numerous, the samurai adopted the sword for combat”.[8] Scholars make the point that cavalries “were now the predominant fighting unit and the older straight chokutō were particularly unsuitable for fighting from horseback”.[9] Therefore, by approximately 900 AD Japanese sword smiths produced a sword called Tachi; the first functional sword that was truly of Japanese design. It was specifically designed “for use in slashing rather than thrusting, it incorporated a curved

A painting depicting a mounted samurai fully armed for battle – illustration in Gregory Irvine’s The Japanese Sword pp. 31

blade and a temperline, highlighting its differentially hardened steel. Worn edge-down and tied to the outside of armor, it was designed to be drawn and used with one hand”.[10] It has also been described as “sharp and resilient yet durable and not brittle, the tachi marks the beginning of the ‘Japanese sword’ ”.[11]  After the introduction of the tachi, only minor changes came about in the design of Japanese swords, changes that would reflect the nature of war during that time. For instance, warfare during the Muromachi period (1337-1573) changed from “battles involving cavalry and individual combat to those involving infantry with the use of regiments of foot soldiers brought about the further development and increasing use of a different form of long sword, which had previously only been utilized by the lower ranks of soldier”.[12] As a result, the katana became the weapon of choice for the samurai class who began to carry them as a supplement to the tachi.[13] The katana would essentially grow to become the symbolic representation of the samurai warrior. It is characterized by its “relatively shallow curve and was worn edge up, tucked into the belts of the warrior”.[14]Going back to the notion of object agency, it is evident from this description that the katana exerted some agency over the warrior which directed the way in which it was carried.  In fact, the process involved in producing these swords was very much about the interaction between man, spirituality, and the object.

            In order to fully comprehend the symbolic nature of the sword in relation to sword smith, it is first important to understand the role of spirituality in the production process. Shinto, the native religion of the Japanese people plays a significant role in the swords process of production. Shinto is described as a “brand of animism, a spiritual belief that within all things resides a conscious spirit…Shinto worship centers on self-purification, ancestral worship, nature-worship, and imperial divinity. Its observances are often simple and understated, venerating ordinary objects and particularly beautiful aspects of nature”.[15] The last bit of the statement is particularly interesting because it places objects at the center of spiritual devotion, which completely contradicts the perception that objects tend to fade into the background only to be forgotten in between momentary interactions. This is particularly significant given the fact that self-purification becomes the initial step in the sword smiths process of production. After the sword smith performs an act of purification by pouring cold water on to his body, he would only then begin the process of forging the two different pieces of steel together in order to create the sword. The process in itself begins when “several pieces of iron are heated, stretched, and folded lengthwise. This heating and folding lengthwise is repeated many times. When the metal is malleable, it is pounded and beat upon until it is sufficiently tempered. The pieces of metal are gradually fashioned into a blade, but not until the entire process has been repeated from six to fifteen time. The smith quite often will put the steel through this cycle as many as thirty times”.[16] Once this is completed, the smith would then give it a final shaping using files and low-grit stone, before sending it to an expert polisher for the final touches.[17] As mentioned, the sword is then handed to an expert polisher who meticulously adds the final details, and ensures that the sword is as beautiful as it is functional. It is at the end of this long process that the sword is finally signed by the smith.  The latter half of this period was significant to the development of the ‘Japanese sword’ as it was highlighted by the craftsmanship and artistry of the Japanese sword smith, who was able to incorporate distinct cultural features into the sword production and outcome.

Modern Japanese Sword

            The modern period, which is generally described in reference to the Meiji period (1868-1912), served as a point of transition as Emperor Meiji looked to adopted more “modern” values. As a result, in 1871 the samurai were “officially relinquished of their class status”, and by 1876 “the decree of Haitōrei outlawed the wearing of swords in public”.[18] A move towards a more Western militaristic philosophy was starting to emerge; hence, the tools of war had to change in order to be adapted to the new strategies. This would essentially amount to an attack on the samurai class, as well as the sword. It was not as though guns had suddenly flooded the shores of Japan during this time and made swords completely irrelevant, in fact, muskets had been in existence throughout Japan since the 16th century.[19] However, by the 20th century, the swords place in military combat had been diminished as a result of the adoption of new military strategies that would eventually prove to be formidable, as Japan would successfully defeat China and Russian in separate wars by 1905. These particular victories would confirm to the emperor that the new strategies were adopted had in fact been the right steps to make. It was so successful that scholars have regarded the Meiji restoration as being “the final moments of the samurai culture and the beginning of a new modern age”.[20] This would also mean the demise of the sword in its traditional application. At this point in time, swords were mainly being mass produced in factories for the purposes of being an “outward display of rank for imperial officers”.[21]

             One can argue that the swords use in this manner helped to reposition it in such a way as to make it more visible, and in doing so this allowed for it to have a greater level of agency. For the most part the soldiers rank, and service branch were distinguished by the style and color of the swords tassels. Therefore, the sword was used as an indicator of military hierarchy having grown to become more than just a weapon in combat. In fact, the actual blades produced at this time were considered to be of low quality, but the sword was still able to speak volumes of the officer or soldier who carried it. As a result of the futility of the sword against the gun, it came to be regarded as more symbolic than anything. Aside from the small minority of producers who continued to create swords in their traditional form for either “state occasions and for consecration at Shintō shrines”[22], producers would also export decorated swords to foreign consumers; most notably to the United States and France. What is particularly interesting to note here is that the production, and in turn the consumption of Japanese swords had lasted until the Second World War, whereby the “post-war occupying forces ordered the destruction of the sword as a weapon of war and as a potent symbol which epitomized Japan’s militaristic recent past”.[23] An order was sent which required that “all swords, including privately owned swords, shall be treated as symbols of militarism and destroyed”.[24] However, the argument can be

A depiction of the famous night attack of the forty-seven rōnin on the house of Moronao – illustration in Gregory Irvine’s The Japanese Sword pp. 92

 made that this stipulation was not enforced due to a perceived threat of retaliation, but was done as an affront to the spirit and pride of the Japanese people. This is a point that is reiterated by authors like Gurian who point to the fact that “in adversity it is understood, by antagonists and protagonists alike, that the evidence of history has something central to do with the spirit, will, pride, identity, and civility of people, and that destroying such material may lead to forgetting, broken spirits, and docility”.[25] By striking at Japan’s foremost symbol of strength and will, it was believed that this would create conditions of docility. This is not a particularly new tactic in the history of military occupations, but it shows how significant the sword was to the Japanese cultural identity. The ban on sword making significantly damaged this craft and nearly caused it to disappear as a result of the post-war legislation. Remarkably, the craft was able to live on, and be carried forward in a new frame of reference.   

Post-War period

            The post-war period brought about a new wave of interest for Japanese artistry and craftsmanship. By 1946, the designation of ‘art sword’ had been used to distinguish between swords used in combat, or those that were primarily used on display for museums, shrines temples, and on personal display. This was particularly interesting because the positioning of swords as ‘art pieces’ had been a relatively new phenomenon that was an indirect result of the introduction of modern weaponry. Nevertheless, the post-war period was still defined in regards to the decline of the Japanese sword which culminated in the outright ban on swords. However, the lifting of the ban on swords by the American occupying forces allowed for the sword to be repositioned back into a framework of national symbolism. One of the major changes that have occurred in the post-war era of the sword has been the market that was formed around the sword as an ‘art piece’. By 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 sword smiths “practice their craft both as a business and as a matter of cultural preservation”.[26] The question then becomes; what brought about the sudden fascination with Japanese swords?

            For one, the samurai warrior has become a global pop cultural icon, due in large part to our fascination with the Japanese sword, and the relation between object and man. This in turn has created a market for the consumption of Japanese swords, which has been rooted in and driven by the West’s construction of the Orient, depicting a land of exotic people and objects. This is the type of rhetoric that has been highlighted by authors like Edward W. Said who suggests that “the construction of identity involves the construction of opposites and ‘other’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from ‘us’”.[27] In this particular case the construction of the “other” has been exoticized and commodified in relation to the objects that represent Japanese cultural identity. This is not to say that the Japanese people have lost all control on the production and distribution of their own cultural products, allowing outside sources to exploit a market that has been created around objects from the Orient. In fact, as mentioned above, the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords ensured that the production of Japanese swords would continue under the premise of ‘cultural preservation’. One of their main tasks has been to judge the quality and authenticity of the swords, as well as issuing licenses to sword smiths.[28] This essentially has put them in a position of authority, allowing them to define which objects are regarded as authentically Japanese swords, thus making them the mediators through which ‘authentic’ Japanese swords can be exchanged. It is important here to recognize that the market for Japanese sword and products in general has not been singularly made up of foreign consumers, but a market has come to include Japanese citizens themselves. Goldstein-Gidoni refers to a growth in the consumption of ‘traditional’ Japanese products, where “Japanese society has been massively involved in re-producing Japanese genuine tradition”.[29] Tradition and authenticity start to take on greater meaning in this regard, because of the importance placed on the ability of objects to accurately reflect ones cultural identity. Also, a perception that swords produced by machine or essentially outside of traditional means were of less quality has existed, to suggest that ones experience with an authentic Japanese sword is like no other. In his forward, Nicklaus Suino expressed that “of course you can purchase a piece of metal shaped like a sword for a few dollars. But holding in your hand a true Japanese katana, in which the steel from a specific source has been painstakingly extracted, blended, forged, shaped and polished by craftspeople whose heritage is forged just as intensely as the steel of the blade itself, lies in a completely different realm of experience”.[30] What makes this statement profound is how Suino begins to construct a narrative that draws on particular aspects of this objects existence to denote its experiential value, in order to contrast the difference between a traditionally made sword and a kitsch replica. However, what occurs as a result of the high prices associated with authentic swords is that in most cases the only forum through which people can interact with ‘authentic’ objects is in a museum.

Japanese katana on display

            Latour makes the point that “when objects have receded into the background for good, it is always possible – but more difficult – to bring them back to light by using archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections, etc., to artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born”.[31] This is certainly true in the case of the Japanese sword after the period of modernization, because in May of 1947 the Japanese National Museum put on an exhibit entitled ‘An Exhibit of the Art of the Sword’ for this very purpose. However, it would be would be misleading to fully contend that Japanese swords displayed in Western museums have become a true reflection of inclusivity, without acknowledging the various dynamics associated with such displays. Specifically what I am referring to here is the power relations that have been constructed as a result of the outcomes of war. Experts estimate that between 172,000 to 3,000,000 swords from private individuals were surrendered to allied forces after the Second World War.[32] Of this, it is nearly impossible to determine the amount of swords from this exploited circumstance have in fact been held on display in private collections or in exhibitions around the world. The appropriation of swords, some of which could have been family heirlooms is then justified as ‘spoils of war’, but one needs to then question or be critical of the narratives constructed by museum curators who themselves are presenting one perspective in the complex history of an object. In this discussion we also have to acknowledge the role with which globalization has had in producing and maintaining this particular form of cultural consumption. By cultural consumption, I borrow from Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni’s reference to the practice of “selectively borrowing, or even shopping for cultural content; cross-cultural consumption and cultural globalization”.[33] Therefore, the argument can be made that “what is put on exhibit as ‘Japanese culture’ is mostly an officially endorsed ‘traditional’ culture (Guichard-Anguis, 2001). It is a culture purposively constructed to be displayed as exhibit, which in fact has little to do with contemporary Japanese urban society (Iwabuchi, 1999: 178–9)”.[34] In the case of Japanese swords, it is clear that there has been a concerted effort to promote ‘traditional’ forms of craftsmanship under the premise of ‘authenticity’ in order to associate this practice with a nationalistic identity. Going back to the quote at the beginning of this paper, the sword as an object truly takes on the role of a servant as it becomes a mediator between Japanese society and the rest of the world.

            In conclusion, the construction of the Japanese sword is almost as complex as the narratives that have been used to construct a unified Japanese cultural identity. This paper has highlighted ways in which the sword has been constructed and reconstructed in history, and within the spaces it has occupied. Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni makes the point that “global cosmopolitans in contact with Japan willingly take part in consuming and then re-producing at home this same product known both in Japan and globally as ‘the Japanese culture’ ”.[35] This point becomes evident when you start to notice replicas of Japanese swords displayed as ‘art-pieces’ in people’s homes (which was the inspiration behind this topic). The product has become Japanese culture and as consumers we have had the ability of reproducing and reconstructing an image of Japan in reference to the objects that have come to define Japan. The sword is but one object that has been successfully used to construct a Japanese ideal. Out duty as cultural consumers is therefore to understand the conditions with which the objects we consume exist out of.    


[1] Schamberger, K. et al. (2008) Living in a Material World: Object Biography and Transnational Lives, In D. Deacon, P. Russell and A. Woollacott (eds) Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World. Melbourne: ANU E-Press

[2] Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword : The soul of the samurai. London: V&A pp. 12

[3] Ibid. pp. 12

[4] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

[5] Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword : The soul of the samurai. London: V&A pp. 13

[6] Ibid. pp. 20

[7] Yumoto, J. M. (1958). The samurai sword : A handbook. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle.

[8] Ibid. pp. 28

[9] Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword : The soul of the samurai. London: V&A pp. 20

[10] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword: The soul of the samurai. London: V&A pp. 48

[13] Ibid.

[14] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Yumoto, J. M. (1958). The samurai sword : A handbook. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle.

[17] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

pp. 38

[18] Ibid. pp. 137

[19] Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword : The soul of the samurai. London: V&A pp. 57

[20] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

 pp. 138

[21] Ibid. pp. 145

[22] Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword : The soul of the samurai. London: V&A pp. 115

[23] Ibid. pp. 120

[24] Ibid. pp. 120

[25] Heumann Gurian, E. (1999) What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums. Daedalus 18(3), 163-183

[26] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

[27] Said, E. W. (1994). Orientalism (Vintage Books ed. ed.). New York: Vintage Books pp.332

[28] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

[29] Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (2001). The making and marking of the ‘Japanese’ and the ‘Western’ in Japanese contemporary material culture. Journal of Material Culture, 6(1), 67-90

[30] Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords : cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

[31] Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[32] Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword : The soul of the samurai. London: V&A pp. 118

[33] Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (2005). The production and consumption of ‘Japanese culture’ in the global cultural market. Journal of Consumer Culture, 5(2), 155-179.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

References 

Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (2001). The making and marking of the ‘Japanese’ and the ‘Western’ in Japanese contemporary material culture. Journal of Material Culture, 6(1), 67-90.

Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (2005). The production and consumption of ‘Japanese culture’ in the global cultural market. Journal of Consumer Culture, 5(2), 155-179.

Heumann Gurian, E. (1999) What is the Object of this Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums. Daedalus 18(3), 163-183.

Irvine, G. (2000). The Japanese sword: The soul of the samurai. London: V&A.

Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Said, E. W. (1994). Orientalism (Vintage Books ed. ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

Schamberger, K. et al. (2008) Living in a Material World: Object Biography and Transnational Lives, In D. Deacon, P. Russell and A. Woollacott (eds) Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World. Melbourne: ANU E-Press (http://epress.anu.edu.au/transnational_citation.html)

Roach, C. M. (2010) Japanese swords: cultural icons of a nation – the history, metallurgy and iconography of the samurai sword. Tokyo; Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub.

Yumoto, J. M. (1958). The samurai sword: A handbook. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle.