Many buy Katana swords to give them exceptional aesthetic pleasures as display pieces in the middle of a room. These legendary blades are historically and culturally significant.
Hence, it is unsurprising that authentic katana Samurai swords are some of the world’s most expensive. And where there is a high price for katanas, one can expect counterfeits lurking in the midst. So, how do you spot real vs fake katana swords? Read on.
An Authentic Katana
An authentic or real Katana has unique properties that fakes and replicas don’t have. The Japanese are familiar with these Katana characteristics, allowing them to buy only the real legendary Samurai sword instead of counterfeits. Knowledge of these attributes can also help you determine if the katana you see on online platforms is real or fake.
A Licensed Katana-kaji’s Creation
Any swordsmith can make dependable swords, even replicas and counterfeits. However, an authentic katana can only come from the expert hands of a master Japanese katana forger.
Unlike countries without strict regulations governing bladesmithing, Japan has a hawkish approach to keeping its venerated katana-making history and tradition. Hence, only licensed Japanese swordsmiths (Katana-kaji) can make the legendary Samurai sword.
Obtaining a Katana-kaji license isn’t easy either. Aspiring Katana-kaji must have at least five years of continuous swordsmithing training before qualifying for certification. All swords also require registration and ownership permit, and a Katana-kaji can only produce a maximum of three short-bladed weapons (i.e., Tanto and Wakizashi) or two long-bladed swords (i.e., Tachi and katana) per month.
Tamahagane Steel Only
Real katana swords only use Tamahagane steel, a product of sourcing precious iron sand (Satetsu) from select Japanese regions. Tamahagane steel forging also requires a traditional single-use-only Tatara furnace, further limiting the Katana-kaji’s ability to produce more katana swords.
Certificate of Authenticity
Only one Japanese governing body can evaluate a katana’s authenticity – the Nihon Bitsu Token Hozon Kyokai or the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords.
The NBTHK evaluates a katana’s historical and artistic value, giving the creator an official paperwork certifying the katana’s authenticity. Any sword deemed by the NBTHK as counterfeit or fails rigorous evaluation parameters could be confiscated and its creator or owner charged with illegal weapons possession.
Authentic katana swords receive one of three NBTHK certificates of authenticity. Hozon-certified katana swords are excellent for cultural preservation. Meanwhile, a Tokubetsu Hozon-certified sword means the katana has exceptional qualities. A Tokubetsu Juyo Token-classified katana is a culturally important sword.
Authentic vs. Replica vs. Fake Katana
If one disregards the three attributes of a real katana (Katana-kaji creation, Tamahagane steel-only construction, and NBTHK certification), differentiating it from a fake and replica can be challenging. After all, all three look identical.
It’s worth pointing out the difference between a fake and a replica. Although both are not authentic katana swords, one has a more sinister plot.
Because real katana is rare owing to strict production and certification regulations, it is a pricey sword. So, what’s the price of an authentic katana? An NBTHK-certified katana can fetch at least $10,000, although some can be as costly as $700,000 (especially museum-worthy katana swords forged by famous Katana-kaji like Yoshindo Yoshihara).
Sellers of counterfeit katana swords pass their products as “genuine,” duping individuals with little to zero knowledge about a true katana into parting with their hard-earned cash. Hence, a counterfeit katana will often be as pricey as the real thing.
Katana replica sellers don’t label their products as “genuine.” Moreover, these katana swords only cost a fraction of a real katana sword’s price. You can get an impressive katana for only $250 to display in the home.
These swords might be inexpensive, but they almost look like the real deal. The cost difference lies in the choice of sword materials and manufacturing processes. Moreover, it doesn’t have NBTHK’s regulatory certification that can jack the price up.
An authentic Muramasa katana, the “cursed sword,” on display. Photo by All About Japan.
Choosing a Katana Replica
Real katana swords are beyond the financial capacity of ordinary folks. Nobody would be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars only to bring home a decorative piece. Authentic and counterfeit katana swords are expensive, leaving katana replicas the only option for aspiring sword collectors.
Unfortunately, how to choose a katana replica can also be unforgiving. Although cheap, you’ll still want the katana to look and feel like an authentic katana. So, what attributes should you consider?
Tamahagane steel is out of the question. It’s a rare raw material, and its forging process is tedious. Hence, you can opt for a katana featuring Damascus steel, spring steel, or other high-carbon steel materials. You might want to steer clear of stainless steel-forged katana swords unless you only want the katana as a decorative piece or cosplay.
The katana’s blade or Nagasa should be free of imperfections, even though it’s only a replica. You’ll want to inspect the Nagasa for holes, gaps, cracks, dents, and other defects undermining the katana’s elegance and natural charm. And if you intend to test the katana with the Tameshigiri technique, pick a blade with a full tang (Nakago).
Draw an imaginary line extending from the katana’s Kissaki (tip) to the Habaki’s (blade collar) section nearest the Tsuba (guard). Check the katana’s Bohi or spine and look for the point farthest from the imaginary line. Measure the distance between these points. An excellent katana replica should have a 1.5-centimer Sori (blade curvature).
Tamahagane steel has a dull, charcoal grayish-black color, making an authentic katana look darker than what Hollywood props people portray. A shiny, mirror-quality blade is another indication the katana you’re buying isn’t the real deal. Some replicas might have electroplated steel blades, but they don’t signify a katana’s authenticity.
Authentic katana swords have distinct grain patterns on the blade called Jihada. It can be straight or wood and always in a seemingly controlled manner. Uneven or random Jihada on the Nagasa is a clear sign of a fake katana. Hence, you want a katana replica with easily recognizable grain patterns.
No other sword has a katana’s legendary temper line (Hamon), dividing the sword’s length into two distinct sections – a razor-sharp edge and a sturdy backside or spine. Although katana replicas and counterfeits display beautiful Hamon patterns, these are often the products of acid-etching. The Hamon of a true katana can only come from clay tempering, leaving tiny specks on the pattern. No acid-etching, no matter how advanced, can replicate this unique Hamon signature.
Not all Katana-kaji inscribe identifying data on the katana’s hidden metal part – the Nakago or tang. The Tsuba (hilt) obscures this component. The only way you can see the swordsmith’s signature is to disassemble the katana (remove the Nagasa from its mount). The Nakago contains the Katana-kaji’s name and sword-manufacturing date. A katana replica might or might not have this inscription.
A good katana replica must approximate an authentic piece’s size, extending 23.62 to 31.6 inches or 60 to 80 centimeters from the Tsuba to the Kissaki. If the blade measures less than 23.62 inches or 60 centimeters, it’s a Wakizashi. Beyond the 31.6-inch or 80-centimeter limit, the sword becomes a Tachi. While the Samurai also used Tachi and Wakizashi, these swords are not the katana.
Differentiating a real vs fake katana (or even a replica) based on their mountings can be challenging because all three katana types look identical. The Saya (sheath) has a lacquered finish, a Tsuba (guard), and an ornately designed Tsuka (hilt).
Real vs. Fake Katana Swords in Real-world Applications
It’s worth mentioning that licensed Japanese swordsmiths can only produce a maximum of 24 katana swords annually to ensure the highest possible quality of these revered swords. It also explains why an authentic katana fetches a handsome price.
On the other hand, fake katana swords are mass-produced, mainly in China. Manufacturers use various metal alloys, allowing them to lower the price without detracting from the authentic Samurai sword’s appearance.
Authentic Japanese swords like the katana are objects of cultural, artistic, and historical appreciation. One cannot carry them in public unless with a government permit. Hence, genuine katana swords are works of art, deserving protection in humidity- and temperature-controlled display cases.
On the other hand, katana replicas make excellent tools for training (i.e., Iaido), test-cutting techniques (i.e., Tameshigiri), and as part of a costume for an act. Cosplayers, non-Japanese sword collectors, filmmakers, and other individuals requiring an “authentic-looking” katana can opt for replicas instead of authentic pieces.
The usage disparity between a real katana and a replica relates to their price difference. Nobody wants to use a $20,000 katana for practice or as props to eliminate the risk of damaging it. Meanwhile, breaking or chipping a $180 katana should be more forgivable.
The Bottom Line
Differentiating a real vs fake katana requires appreciating the former’s cultural and historical significance to the Japanese people. These swords aren’t easy to make, requiring years of experience and government certification to produce only two dozen katana swords yearly.
Unsurprisingly, the katana’s protected heritage drives its cost. And while counterfeit katana swords might cost similarly, they are illegal. Your best bet to owning an authentic-looking katana is to shop for a replica that closely resembles the original.