Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Traditional Japanese Swords

(I will be putting up the remaining posts throughout the spring, for my own enjoyment, before I go back to blogging myself. This post is by Alice. Thank you Alice!)

Manipulation of traditional Japanese swords requires strict etiquette. Until today, every handler is required to apply these customs since the traditional Japanese sword represents a religious and social symbol worthy of respect and careful handling.

Several of these customs include:

• Never take the sword out of its sheath (saya) to present it: originally, this custom served to guaranty the security of people surrounding the sword-handler. However, this custom is still performed today for the same reasons. In general, one must always ask for the sword owner’s permission to unsheathe the blade and especially stand in good distance from him.

• The sword’s blade must never be pointed to the ground since, in case of a fall, its point could risk damage. Further, in the course of the handler’s movements, the blade must never be held horizontally; it is to be kept in a vertical position with the blade towards the top.

• Never touch the blade with the fingers. The traditional Japanese sword is very fragile and must be handled with care. Indeed, the blade is very sensitive to the sweat’s acidity and will find itself damaged.

• The handler should always discretely salute the blade when he removes it from its sheath. According to the Japanese religion, an artistic object deserves to be recognized for its meaning and value. In fact, according to the Samurai the famous Katana was considered the source of the warrior spirit. In a gesture of reverence, the Samurai often had their name engraved in their sword’s blade. This act can be understood as a way to attribute personal value to the object, which is a common theme in Japanese religion.

According to the Kojiki, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is said to have given her grandson Ninigi No-Mikoto a sword as he was given the duty to reign down on earth. Many stories can be told about the mystical power of traditional Japanese swords. One of them involves two swordsmiths, Muramasa and Masume. Both decided to do a contest to see which made a better sword. To test the sword, Muramasa held his sword upright, which cut every leaf in the blade’s path in two. However, when Masume performed the same action, the leaves avoided his blade, passing on either side of the sword. Masume’s blade was therefore declared superior to its rival as it was proved to possess mystical and spiritual powers.

The Samurai and Katana

The Samurai are considered the most honourable warriors of ancient Japan. The Samurai’s principal weapon is a two to four feet long sabre called the Katana. Usually employed for outdoors combat, the Katana are characterized by their curved blade and high manoeuvrability. According to the Samurai history, the Samurai were the only individuals granted with the right to handle a Katana sword. If an individual belonging to the farmer or lower soldier class was suspected of owning such a weapon, he would be outright killed.

Hara-kiri (“Cutting the Belly”) is an act of suicide carried out by the Samurai in order to avoid falling into the enemy’s hands. Indeed, the Samurai preferred to take their own lives instead of succumbing to the enemy and suffer shame. A Samurai performing hara-kiri generally uses the smallest traditional Japanese sword called wakizashi. However, hara-kiri could also be used as a capital punishment for the Samurai in case he committed unprovoked murder, robbery, corruption or treason.

The Making of Katana
While the Katana’s handling was restricted to a selected group of individuals, its making also was. Ancient Japan swordmakers were an honoured class; the forging of the blade, notably, was perceived as a highly sacred activity: it was widely believed that only individuals with the purest hearts and highest moral standards could master the art. Rites of purification were (and are still) performed before engaging in the act of forging.

-video showing the making of a katana sword:

~guest blogger, Alice Giraud