For much of Japan’s history, the country was a bloody battlefield wracked by the wars of clans competing for military and economic power. The greatest tools at the disposal of a daimyo (noble lord and clan chieftain) were his samurai: knights of old Japan who were feared and respected in equal measure. But what tools did these warriors themselves have at their disposal to carry out the will of their masters, and to keep their own heads while doing so?
The answer is: a hell of a lot! The warfare which characterized medieval Japan from the Heian period (794–1185) up until the Edo period (1600 – 1868) gave rise to a wide array of gear used to kill, maim, or otherwise inconvenience the foot soldiers and samurai of enemy clans.
Below is an overview of the key components with which these deadly medieval warriors outfitted themselves on both the battlefields and city streets of historic Japan.
Daishō: the signature pair of swords
These iconic swords need no introduction for fans of the samurai films of Kurosawa, or any number of other pop culture pieces in which they feature. The katana style of blade was developed in the late 12th century — a descendant of an earlier sword known as a tachi which was used by the very first samurai.
Woodblock print of a katana battle by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1867)
The katana is a type of longsword, wielded with two hands. Although these are the most iconic weapon of the samurai, they weren’t always the go-to choice. In fact, in open warfare, spears and bows were often much more effective. There are two main reasons we associate the katana with these warriors so closely. The first is because they were the weapon of choice for the Edo period 1-on-1 honor duels between samurai which look so damn good on film. The second is that these swords held a special place as symbols of status and wealth.
To prevent rebellions towards the end of the 16th century Oda Nobunaga, the first and most ruthless unifier of Japan, ordered that only samurai were permitted to carry bladed weapons. If a commoner were found with one, they would have it promptly confiscated (along with their hand or head). Due to this important social role of the katana, the swords were made as decorative as they were deadly.
The main component parts of a katana (19th century).
The main parts of a katana are the 60-80cm blade, the oval hand-guard, the handle with a cord wrap around it, and the scabbard with a cloth cord tied around for hanging on the waist. The blade is slightly curved — a remnant from the days when swords were mostly used from horseback.
The smiths themselves were just as skilled — perhaps even more so — than the fighters they made weapons for. Japanese steel was actually surprisingly brittle due to excessive levels of carbon in the metal. This led to the development of an artisan smithing culture, with a high level of expertise needed to fortify the metal and make it battle-ready.
Blades were forged with strict temperature control, hammered flat, then folded — thousands of times. This gave the now-layered steel a beautiful wavy pattern while making it strong and flexible. Ironically, the comparative poorness of Japanese steel led to better quality blades than made in Europe.
A blade with a horimono of a god, and sanskrit characters (1838).
The top blacksmiths in Japan became as legendary as the best of the samurai themselves. They would usually mark the blade with their signature, as well as adding ornate etchings of things such as flowers and dragons, known as horimono. For the most important customers, a blend of metals was used to ensure the flexibility and durability of the sword. This decreased the brittleness of the blade with a softer core, while the harder exterior metal made for an incredibly sharp and durable edge.
In keeping with the animism of Shinto, it was even believed that the swords of samurai had spirits of their own which needed to be appeased with victory (much like the egos of their owners). Shinto purification rituals prepared the enrobed smith for his task, as he was essentially acting as a priest to summon this spirit into the blade.
The second blade which completes the daishō pair is the wakizashi: a 12 inch dagger used as a backup weapon, and for ritual suicide if a samurai were to disgrace themselves through defeat or surrender. This ritual suicide was known as seppuku, and it was an astonishingly common practice among the samurai class.