Guide to Buying a Real Katana
Tips to help you buy a real Japanese sword
For a long time, traditional Japanese weapons were exclusively beloved by those who delved into the world of Japanese culture and history. Today, with anime and martial arts making their way into the mainstream media, many more people are exposed to the wonder and power of one of the most important swords to a Japanese warrior — the katana. If you’ve fallen in love with traditional samurai weapons and you’re looking to make a serious purchase, explore this guide to help you buy an authentic katana.
What Is a Katana?
A katana is one of several swords used by the warrior class in feudal Japan. The samurai trained their entire lives to master the katana, wakizashi, and tanto blades in order to serve and protect their high ranking lords and ladies. A katana traditionally comprises a thin curved blade with a long handle that’s designed for a two-handed grip. Most katanas are only sharpened on one side.
History of Japanese Swords
Japan has a very unique history that has evolved and transformed into today’s culture which reveres honorable behavior, strict work ethic, politeness, and a touch of creativity. The forging of Japanese swords was an essential part of the feudal culture that dictated the behavior and actions of everyone from the lowliest servant to the emperor.
The first mention of Japanese swords was found in reference to the Kofun Period (300 to 538 AD), but the traditional curved katana with which everyone is familiar isn’t referenced until early in the Heian Period (794 to 1185). Over the centuries, it’s clear that Japanese mastersmiths have carefully curated the art of swordmaking to meet the needs of the samurai class and the Japanese people. There are several different types of commonly used swords including the katana, wakizashi, nodachi, tanto, and more. Like all Japanese tools, their swords also have different purposes.
What to Look for in an Authentic Katana
Not only do you want to buy a real katana, but you also want it to be fully functional and high quality. Whether you plan on displaying it on your mantle or using it in the dojo, a piece that isn’t made from the right materials or isn’t the correct dimensions just won’t cut it (pun intended).
The type of steel used for a katana is critical to its performance and authenticity. If you see any sellers advertising stainless steel, run away! You should be looking at 1060 type steels, 1095 type steels, and even spring steel. Some other terms that speak to the techniques and quality of the forging include:
- High Carbon: Has high carbon content that results in a harder edge
- Folded: Steel that has been folded to purify the metal and produce thousands of layers
- Clay Tempered: Clay that insulates the blade’s spine, increasing flexibility & hardness
- Tamahagane: Special steel made of iron sand that is folded to remove impurities
The metal used for an authentic katana blade can have a 1060 or 1095 metal base that has some combination of the elements or techniques above applied to it.
After the steel type, the next most important thing about a real sword is the tang. The tang is the metal part of the blade that is inserted into the handle. Unless the metal runs the full length of the handle, it is not an authentic blade. To strike with the force similar to some of the coolest sword battles in history, a blade needs the balance and support of a full tang to withstand the blows. There are many types of full tangs including hidden, skeleton, push, and rat-tail, but they all run through the center of the handle.
In a katana, the tang is secured to the handle with mekugi. These are bamboo pegs that pierce both sides of the handle as well as the blade to ensure that all the parts are held securely and won’t fall apart at the first strike.
Blade length is an incredibly important part of authenticity. If you find a blade that measures 90cm or more, it’s not a katana, it’s a Nodachi. Buying a weapon with a blade that measures between 30cm and 60cm? You’re looking at a wakizashi. A katana must measure over 60cm to be called authentic.
At first glance the length of a blade doesn’t seem that important, but if you consider the mechanics of fighting, you’ll realize that length is crucial. Not only does it affect the weight and balance of a sword, but it also changes your reach as a fighter and affects your fighting style.
When shopping for an authentic katana, you want it to look the part too. What makes a katana complete is the accessories. From the handle wrap (ito) and sheath cord (sageo) to the scabbard (saya) and handle ornaments (menuki), each one of these is a small detail that makes up the whole of a traditional Japanese katana. Don’t settle for any seller that skips out on providing these accessories for your sword.
Some other accessories to ensure come with your blade include:
- Tsuba Fuchi (Guard)
- Kashira Habaki / Seppa (Fittings)
- Same'gawa (Rayskin Wrap)
Expected Price Range
There is a lot of variation among the prices of katanas. Some of this can be attributed to the type of metal or whether the blade was hand-forged by a smith or stamped by a machine. You can find authentic, handmade katanas for under $200, but you can also end up paying up to $1,000 for a premium handcrafted sword.
Start Your Journey
From Suicide Squad to the hundreds of animes out on Netflix, katanas are everywhere. If you’re interested in training like a samurai, paying homage to your favorite warriors, or emulating Japanese heroes, finding an authentic katana is key. Look out for the details listed in this guide to ensure you’re getting the real thing!