Compared to the swords of other countries, Japanese katanas have a slim and elegant appearance, which gives them an image of lightness and weightlessness. We see brilliant katana wielding in period wars, but how heavy is a real Japanese katana? Katanas are quite heavy because they are weapons from a time before the advent of light metals. Let's take a closer look at the weight of Japanese katanas and the differences in the way they feel when held in the hand.
How much does a katana weigh?
During the Edo period, warriors carried two Japanese swords at their waist, one Uchinata and the other Wakizashi. At that time, there were no means of transportation, and it was normal to walk several dozen kilometers.
So, what load did they really carry? We will explain it to you based on the weight of a Japanese sword.
The average weight is about 3.2lbs
The Japanese katana, a long thin blade, is made by repeatedly bending and forging a very pure metal called tamahagane.
The original material is high quality iron sand, which is then melted down in the traditional Japanese tatara method to produce tamahagane, the core material of the Japanese sword. The smith strikes the steel repeatedly to stretch it, then laminates it to create a denser sword.
The inside of a Japanese sword is therefore not a solid object, but is made of many thin layers of steel, and despite its thin appearance, the sword is very heavy.
To carry a Japanese sword, a number of parts are needed, including the scabbard and the hilt (tsuka: the handle of a Japanese sword) in addition to the sword itself (toshin: the drawn blade). The average weight of a sword with only the hilt and the tsuba attached to the blade was about 3.2lbs, with the heaviest swords weighing about 5lbs. Considering that they moved on foot, it would have taken considerable strength to carry a Japanese sword around the waist on a daily basis.
Changes in time and weight of Japanese swords
The koto (ancient sword) is a Japanese sword made during a period of about 700 years, from the middle of the Heian period after 901 to 1595, just before the Edo period (1603-1868). The forging method used for koto is different from that used for shin-to (new swords), but the details of the technique are not known.
From the middle of the Heian period to the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when the ancient katana was mainly used in horseback fighting, it had to be practical and easy to handle when wearing armor. To be able to cut and break through highly defensive armor, Japanese katanas had to be strong, but at the same time heavy and practical enough to be handled easily.
A typical ancient sword measures about 2 shaku 3 sun (about 27.5") and weighs between 5.1 oz and. 8.7 oz However, during the Nanbokucho period (1644-1644), Japanese long swords became popular and many "otachi" (big swords) with a blade longer than 3 shaku (about 35.4") were made, and the weight of these swords increased. For example, the "Taro-Tachi" (sword with handle) in the collection of Atsuta Shrine in Aichi Prefecture is over 7 shaku 3 sun (87") long and weighs 9lbs.
Since the end of the Muromachi period (1333-1573), the length of ancient katanas has gradually decreased as the traditional long, deeply curved and graceful style has been replaced by a more practical style.
In addition, many Japanese katanas were consumed by war. Therefore, it is believed that only about 30-40% of existing katanas are ancient.
Weight of new katanas
Shintō refers to Japanese swords made between the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama period and the mid-Edo period in 1763 (Horeki 13). When fighting ceased in the Edo period, the Japanese katana changed from a weapon to a symbolic object representing samurai status.
Until then, the Japanese katana was a necessity for protection and could be owned by anyone regardless of status, but due to the sword hunting ordinance, only samurai were allowed to own a katana. During the Edo period (1603-1867), katana smiths began to congregate in large cities such as Edo and Osaka because of the stable supply of high quality materials.
Many of the katanas that survive today are new katanas made during these periods, with an average weight of about 2lbs. In the Edo period, the length of a Japanese sword (josun: the length of a sword a samurai could carry) was fixed by the shogunate, even for those who had a sword belt, and was limited to 2 shaku 3 sun 5 min (about 28").
In addition, Japanese katanas were rarely used in real battles, so the demand for katanas of good appearance and elegant workmanship increased. The importance of the Japanese katana changed from a weapon used in battle to a symbol of authority and a work of art, and the importance of the katana changed from a consumer item to an heirloom item. For this reason, many Japanese katanas from the Shintō period remain in good condition.
The katanas of the Shintō period, made when there were no major battles, were heavier than the katanas of the suekōtō period, the Warring States period. It was also said that the new katanas had lost some of the flexibility of the old ones and were more prone to breakage because of the uniform carbon content throughout the blade, due to the nationwide distribution of homogeneous domestic iron. The general opinion was that the need to compensate for strength was also a factor in why the new katanas weighed more than the shorter, easier-to-handle katanas of the Late Antique Warring States period.
Weight of Japanese katanas after Shinto
As the demand for new Japanese katanas decreased and blacksmiths in various regions declined, a movement to return to the old katanas developed, with master blacksmith "Suishinshi Masahide" advocating a "sword restoration theory".
This movement led to the emergence of shinsatoh, which produced powerful and dynamic Japanese swords in the style of Soshu-den and Bizen-den.
During the upheavals of the late Edo period, "kinouto", long and heavy swords with little deformability, became popular, and thin and short swords also appeared, which were easy to handle and could be used with Western-style clothing. As a result, Japanese katanas were made in a wide range of weights, from 8.7oz to 3lbs.
Japanese katanas made after the abolition of the sword law were called modern katanas (gendaito), and many were used in wars against other countries.
Do Japanese katanas differ in terms of actual weight and felt weight when held?
The weight felt differs according to the position of the center of gravity of the katana
Even Japanese katanas of the same weight can feel lighter or heavier when you hold several katanas in your hands. The following is an explanation of the felt weight due to the differences in the construction of Japanese swords.
The felt weight differs depending on the position of the center of gravity.
Depending on whether the center of gravity of the katana is located closer to the hilt or the spearhead/kisaki, a Japanese katana of the same weight may feel heavier or lighter. The Japanese katana is long and thin, and the length of the hilt varies depending on the brand of katana, so balance is determined by the position of the hilt.
However, there is a limit to how much balance you can give the katana just by the way you grip it. So just as the load you feel is different depending on where you hold a long stick, the position of the center of gravity of the katana itself has an effect on the weight you feel.
The center of gravity of each katana varies depending on its construction. So when selecting a katana to use in combat, we had to confirm not only simple measurements, but also the feel of actually holding and using the katana. The weight of the katana was an important criterion in selecting a katana that would be used in everyday life.
The weight one feels differs according to the length of the katana.
It is not only the position of the center of gravity that determines the perceived weight. The weight you feel also depends on the length of the katana. If you compare two Japanese katanas of almost the same weight but different lengths, the longer katana will feel heavier than the shorter one.
If the balance between length and weight does not suit you, the katana will feel heavier and more difficult to handle than it really is. The tsuba is also an important accessory for adjusting the center of gravity and length of the katana. Depending on where the tsuba is placed on the shaft, the center of gravity and the length of the handle will change.
It is said that even a Japanese katana of the same weight will feel completely different in use if the length of the sword is slightly different. The ease of handling a Japanese sword can be altered by the slightest difference in the shape of the sword.
The "Center of gravity of the hand" to reduce the perceived weight of the katana
The "hand center of gravity" means that the center of gravity is literally closer to the hilt. A Japanese katana whose center of gravity is at the hilt feels lighter than a katana whose center of gravity is in the spearhead (kirigaki), which gives you more freedom and makes it easier to handle. Also, when you swing the katana from side to side, the center of gravity of the hand allows you to move the katana as you wish.
Although it is possible to adjust the center of gravity somewhat with the tsuba, the center of gravity of a Japanese katana is roughly determined by the chain of the katana. The center of gravity of a koshibari sword, which is often found on Japanese swords from the late Heian to early Kamakura period, is naturally located closer to the hand because the center of the koshibari is closer to the hand.
At the time koshi-wari katana were made, most battles were fought on horseback. Even though bows and arrows were the main weapons of war at that time, when a Japanese katana was drawn on horseback, it was wielded with one hand. The Japanese katana with a curved edge near the hand was easier to draw from horseback, but the Japanese katana with a center of gravity near the hand was more useful at the time because it seemed lighter than its actual weight and could be handled more freely. In modern iaido, where the emphasis is on speed, it is said that the katana is more balanced if its center of gravity is located near the hand.
On the other hand, the center of gravity of the hand has a disadvantage. The Japanese katana is a powerful weapon not only because of its sharpness, but also because of its weight and balance. In addition, with the center of gravity close to the hand, the slightest blur of the blade is easily transmitted to the line of the blade, resulting in a misalignment of the striking position. While being light and easy to handle is usually an advantage, this is not always the case when swinging the katana.
The "center of gravity of the tip", which seems heavy and difficult to handle.
"Sagashin" means that the center of gravity of the sword is located closer to the spearhead/kirisaki (the tip of the blade), as opposed to the center of gravity of the sword itself. When you hold a katana with a sagashi center of gravity, you will easily get the impression that the katana is heavier than it actually is. The two most common types of Sagashira katanas are Sagatari, in which the center of the bow is near the spearhead/kirisaki, and Muhariri, in which there is almost no bow at all.
From the Muromachi period to the Sengoku period, as the scale of battles increased, there was a shift from horseback warfare to foot warfare (kachi). Especially during the Sengoku period, not only warriors but also farmers participated in battles as foot soldiers. The Japanese katana, with its curved edge near the tip of the spear, had the advantage of cutting the enemy more sharply, which made it easier to inflict damage on the enemy.
The center of gravity of the tip also places a greater load on the person wielding the katana, but it is also easier to transfer the weight to the person being cut. Therefore, even those who were not skilled in martial arts, such as infantrymen, could inflict a fatal blow with the weight of a Japanese sword, and this is why the katana with a point center of gravity was widely used. It can be said that a Japanese katana with a pointed center of gravity was more likely to deliver a heavy blow to a target than a Japanese sword with a center of gravity in hand.
Weight of Japanese katanas adapted to modern practical use
In the modern era, iaido and other forms of iaido are places where the Japanese katana can be actually used. The Japanese katana required for modern practice must be easy to use in real handling situations such as iaido and cutting trials, and a sense of unity between the user and the Japanese katana is important. In addition to being able to be handled quickly and freely, the katana must also be strong enough to cut an object, as in cutting trials, and have an appropriate weight.
The overall balance of the Japanese katana is important to its handling. For example, if the center of gravity of the point gains too much and the katana seems heavier than its actual weight (making it difficult to handle) it is necessary to modify the shape of the handle or tsuba. There is no such thing as a Japanese katana that is easy to handle for everyone, and it often depends on one's sensitivity.