Katanas are sometimes shortened at the end of the blade (Nakagojiri) to make the overall length shorter. This is called “polishing”. Today, it may not be wise to shorten a katana, which is considered a work of art. However, katanas were originally practical weapons. It was therefore not abnormal for them to be shortened for various reasons, especially to facilitate their use by their owner. What were the contexts and reasons for the use of polishing at that time? We will also discuss the types of polished blades.
The two main reasons for polishing:
- Adapt to the size and length of the owner's arm
- Adapt to changes in fighting style
If properly cared for, katanas can be passed down for hundreds of years, even over 1,000 years. Of course, the owner changes as well. Since the katana is a utilitarian object, it is only natural that the length of the blade is adapted to the size and arm length of its owner.
In addition, long katanas (tachi) were used at a time when single combat on horseback was the norm. During the Nanbokucho period (1392-1644), it is said that large katanas with blades as long as 3 shaku (about 35') were in vogue. However, in the Warring States period, when foot battles became the norm, the katana (uchito), which could be quickly removed from its scabbard and wielded with agility, became more advantageous. The daitachi, which had lost its advantage, was shortened and reshaped into a relatively short daito.
The length of the blades was regulated during the Edo period.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), the length of katanas was strictly regulated according to the status of the owner. Until the reign of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the length of katanas for samurai and swordsmen was 2 shaku 3 sun (about 28') or less, and from the reign of the fourth shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna, the length of katanas was 2 shaku 2 sun 8 min (about 29) or less. For those who were not samurai but were allowed to wear the belt, such as samurai servants, the maximum length was 2 shaku 2 sun 3 min (about 27').
In accordance with this rule, a large number of katanas were made in the early Edo period, and at the same time, a large number of katanas were polished. During the upheaval of the late Edo period, the demand for shorter and more practical katanas increased. Indeed, the long katanas were not suitable for fighting in the city.
Although long katanas could be polished, once shortened, it was impossible to return them to their original length. It is said that the reason why there are so few large katanas in existence is because many of them have been shortened over time.
Types of blades with polishing technique
Katana blades can be divided into two main types: ubu-nakago, or unmodified blades, and polished blades. There are two types of ubu blades: the original blade as it was when the swordsman made the sword, and the machi-okuri blade, in which the upper part of the ha-machi and mune-machi is shaved to shorten the upper body (the part where the blade is located). In machi-okuri, the upper part of the blade is polished, but the blade is not cut, so it is a rough blade.
There are four types of polished blades:
- "mameage-stem", in which the blade is cut short but all or part of the inscription remains.
- "oomameage-stem", in which the inscription is so greatly shortened that none remains.
- "orikawari-stem", in which the inscription is folded to prevent it from becoming uninscribed after polishing.
- "gakumei-nakago", in which the inscription alone is cut and integrated into the blade after polishing.
In the case of large polished blades, the craftsman responsible for polishing the blade will apply a rasp and other finishing techniques, so the original characteristics of the blade will rarely be retained. The inscription left on a folded blade is folded backwards, so the inscription is reversed. The value of a katana with a shortened blade tends to be lower than that of a sword with a raw blade, but this does not necessarily mean that its value is lower, as the value of a katana is assessed according to various factors, such as age, transmission and the presence or absence of an orizumi (certificate of authenticity)
Famous Katanas that have used polishing
The katana Sukezane
The first famous katana that was polished is the Sukesane brand tachi katana, which is designated as a national treasure. Sukesane was a master craftsman of the Ichimonji school of Fukuoka, which was active in Bizen province (present-day Okayama Prefecture) in the mid-Kamakura period. Although this katana is polished, the inscription "Sukesane" remains on the butt of the blade.
It is a masterpiece that can be said to be representative of Sukesane's work, and was passed down to the Kishu Tokugawa family for a long time. This katana is so well made that it was called "Nikko Sukesane", the favorite sword of Tokugawa Ieyasu, which was passed on to the "Nikko Toshogu" in the city of Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. The Ichimonji school in Fukuoka excelled in making beautiful choji blade designs, and Sukesane expressed these characteristics well. This katana also has beautiful blade patterns.
After being designated as an important cultural property on April 30, 1935, this katana was then designated as a national treasure on March 31, 1953. It is currently owned by the Independent Administrative Institution, National Institutes of Cultural Heritage, and is kept at the Tokyo National Museum (Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo).
The Katana Wakizashi Asakura Yoshikage
The Wakizashi is a masterpiece said to have been made by a certain "Yoshikage" in the collection of the "Sword World Foundation". Although the identity of Yoshikage is unknown, it is believed that he was a swordsman belonging to the "Bizen Nagafune school" (a school of swordsmen that flourished in Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture), based on his style and the characteristics of the inscription engraved on the inverted chisel (inverted chisel: the inscription is engraved from right to left, opposite to the usual inscription).
The wakizashi comes from the province of Mutsu (present-day northeastern Tohoku), known for the warlord Date Masamune, during the Edo period. Although unmarked due to its large polished blade, the body is large and shows the typical strength of the Nanbokucho period with a large spearhead and kisaki (tip). The design of the blade is impressive with, with a shiny appearance and a mixture of small alternating patterns.