Japanese swordsmiths are a cut above the rest. These craftspeople don’t rely on modern machinery to create stunning (and deadly) bladed weapons. Instead, they reflect on old traditions handed down across generations of expert swordsmiths. Unsurprisingly, Japanese swords are some of the best worldwide.
Until the Second World War
Although a WW2 Japanese sword can hold its own against pre-Meiji Period blades, the demand for it among the Japanese military brass somehow undermined swordsmiths’ dedication to high-quality swords. It was nearly impossible to keep up. Many were machine-made, while a few were handmade but not the traditional way.
Still, these swords are worth learning because they paint Japan’s fascination with traditions. Join us in discovering WW2 Japanese swords.
WW2 Japanese Swords: Reviving Old Traditions
The Land of the Rising Sun is a nation rich in traditions many Westerners might find obsolete and irrelevant. From rituals to sword-making, the Japanese have a way of doing things gracefully and peacefully, unlike the hurried pace of other civilizations.
That way of life changed in the mid-19th century as Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world. The Meiji government sought to reform the land and escape its feudal past. It led to the dissolution of the Samurai class, banning the wearing of Japanese swords in public.
As Japan sent representatives overseas, the government recognized the potential of conquering other lands. They saw expansionism as a tool for fueling industrial growth and feeding the people. More importantly, the early 20th-century ideal is to put Japan on the world stage, preferably on equal footing with the globe’s other superpowers.
But they couldn’t be like other countries. Instead, Japan sought to differentiate itself by reviving old traditions rooted in unwavering nationalism. Although Japan was looking forward, it was also reflecting on its past. And there’s no better way to bridge this gap than by producing the quintessential Japanese sword.
Pre-World War II Swords: The Kyu Gunto
Kyu gunto swords by MADFINGERGames on Twitter.
Japan’s first foray into international conflict was against China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895.
The Japanese general, swordsman, samurai, marksman, firearms inventor, and gunsmith Murata Tsuneyoshi was the first to mass produce Murata-to or Kyu gunto swords.
Army, Cavalry, and Navy officers wore these swords. These bladed weapons had striking similarities to American and European swords but with Russian-inspired mounts.
Kyu Gunto swords varied in features and quality. Although some were handmade, most were mass-produced to keep up with the increased demand. Some scabbards had chrome components, while others featured brass fittings and lacquered wood. The handguard resembled a saber with its characteristic D-guard.
Unsurprisingly, these Japanese swords were also used in the Russo-Japanese War between 1904 and 1905.
Word War II Swords: The Shin Gunto
A Shin gunto sword by Collectors Weekly.
By 1935, the Imperial Japanese Army demanded a new sword for commissioned officers and the top brass. The military commissioned the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal to produce World War II Japanese swords known as Shin gunto.
Their objective? Return the Japanese sword design to its traditional roots, preferably the Tachi of the Kamakura Period. The reasoning was to further fuel the rising sense of nationalism within the Imperial military.
These Japanese swords have distinct features to classify military ranks. For example, generals and admirals carried Shin gunto swords with gold and brown-red tassels. Field officer swords (colonels and majors) had red and brown tassels, warrant or company officers (captains and lieutenants) had blue and brown tassels, and sergeants or corporals had brown tasseled swords.
As mentioned, WW2 Japanese sword production varied. Although most were mass-produced at the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal, some blades were handmade. However, handcrafted World War II Japanese swords did not follow traditional forging and bladesmithing methods.
Instead, the military opted for newer sword crafting techniques by hand. These swords are the Showato, Yotetsuto, Muratato, Hantanzo, and Mantetsuto. Swordsmiths of the Yasukuni Shrine, Ichihara Nagamitsu, Gassan School, and Chounsai Emura handcrafted some WW2-era swords.
We must point out that some high-ranking Japanese military officers carried ancestral swords. These swords are highly valued for their exceptional craftsmanship forged by some of the land’s greatest swordsmiths. Unfortunately, such Japanese swords are rare.
4 WW2 Japanese Swords You Should Know
Shin gunto swords entered the scene in 1935 and persisted until Japan’s defeat by the Allies in mid-1945. Several Japanese sword types existed throughout this period, and you would want to know the more popular ones.
Type 94: Kyuyon-shiki gunto
A Type 94 Japanese sword on the Australian War Memorial.
Type 94 replaced the pre-WW2 Japanese sword, the Kyu gunto. It ditched Western elements for more traditional features, such as a ray skin-covered tsuka or hilt with silk wrapping. The tsuba, kashira, fuchi, and menuki featured the Imperial Japanese Army’s cherry blossom symbol.
The scabbard or saya also had several features reminiscent of Kamakura Period Tachis. For example, swordmakers inserted a wooden lining into the metal scabbard to protect the Type 94’s nagasa. They also painted the saya brown and added two brass mounts for suspending the sword as part of a full-dress military uniform.
Type 95: Kyuko-shiki gunto
A Type 95 Japanese sword by killorbekilled55 on Reddit.
Type 94 WW2 Japanese swords are for commissioned officers, while Type 95 variants are for noncommissioned officers or NCOs. These swords are nearly identical to the Type 94, except they were mass-produced. The bo-hi or fullers are deep, while the nagasa features an Arabic numeral serial number stamped onto the surface.
Between 1935 and 1944, Type 95 swords had metal saya with wooden linings. Towards the war's end, the scabbard was mostly wood because of scarce resources. The hilt was also made of wood. Gone is the ray skin wrapping. Instead, the wooden hilt features cross-hatched grooves. Sword fittings became cheaper, too. Manufacturers fitted the Type 95 with iron, not brass.
Type 98: Kyuhachi-shiki gunto
A Type 98 Japanese sword on Reddit.
IJA officers required a simpler Type 94 version. Hence, swordsmiths produced the Type 98 in 1938. It was nearly identical to the 1935 version except for a single scabbard mount.
Unfortunately, later Type 98 versions were of poor quality. That’s unsurprising because the war depleted Japan’s supply of raw materials. Hence, the Type 98 no longer featured the Type 94’s metal saya and intricate details. Instead, this Japanese sword had a wooden scabbard, cheap metal ornaments, and blackened iron or copper fittings.
Naval Sword: Kai gunto
A naval officer’s kai gunto on the Australian War Memorial.
Officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy required a different sword because of the corrosive nature of marine environments. Many of these WW2 Japanese swords featured stainless steel blades with dark blue or black lacquered scabbards covered with a luxurious ray skin.
Most of the high-quality Kai gunto came from the TenshozanTanrenjo production facility in the Kanagawa Prefecture. Others were from the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal.
Are WW2 Japanese Swords Valuable?
WW2 Japanese swords vary in quality. Hence, their value also varies depending on several factors. Let’s examine these parameters.
Pre-Meiji Era Japanese swords have better craftsmanship than Kyu gunto and Shin gunto swords. Only the land’s foremost bladesmiths can produce exceptionally sharp, robust, and functional swords the traditional way.
Older swords feature tamahagane steel, giving the blades exceptional sharpness and strength. The temperline (hamon) is also distinct and natural, produced by the natural processes of folding and hammering lava-hot metal into a sword blade.
Unfortunately, few heirloom swords survived the Haitorei Edict of 1876, when the Meiji government prohibited its people from carrying swords in public.
Most WW2 Japanese swords are mass-produced to supply a growing Imperial Military organization. The focus is on quantity, not sword quality.
However, some high-ranking military officers prefer having their swords crafted the traditional way. Some of the recognizable swordsmiths of the Second World War include Yasunori, Yasuoki, Yasutoku, and other smiths whose name start with “Yasu.” Interestingly, these swordsmiths all come from the Yasukuni Shrine.
The most striking attribute of Yasukuni swordsmiths is their Bizen swordmaking heritage. One can expect these swords to have consistent patterns and an easily discernible hamon, style, and shape.
As mentioned, traditional swordsmiths use tamahagane to produce the finest swords of the land. Unfortunately, forging tamahagane is a lengthy process. The Imperial Japanese military doesn’t have time.
Pre-WW2 Kyu Gunto swords featured puddled steel. With raw materials getting scarcer with the war’s progress, swordsmiths and sword mass production facilities had to make do with cheaper materials.
The WW2 Japanese sword’s condition can also influence its value. Battle damage, improper storage, and age can create blade imperfections. These can lower the sword’s appraisal value.
What Happened to Japanese Swords after WW2?
Japan’s defeat in the Second World War spelled the doom of its rich swordmaking heritage. The Allies confiscated and destroyed many Japanese swords. Some were brought to the United States and Allied countries as trophies or museum pieces. Some swords were rescued and are now protected under the Japanese government’s historical and cultural agency.
A Japanese officer surrendering his sword to an Allied officer by Japan Forward.
A WW2 Japanese sword might not have the same appeal and value as a classic sword of feudal Japan. However, these blades remain rich in culture and history. They remind us of a country’s sense of nationalism and pride in its traditions. These swords might no longer be useful in combat. They remain objects of admiration and inspiration.