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This is a fragment of a Japanese sword that dates back to about the 18th to 19th century CE. The piece consists of the tang (handle) of the blade, known as the nakago in Japanese, as well as a portion of the blade itself. The size of this fragment suggests that it comes from a katana, and about half the blade is still present.
Swordmaking has been an important part of Japan's military tradition for over 3,000 years, with the sword filling both a practical and spiritual role in bushido, a samurai's moral code. As defenders of the ruling class, samurai held a similar role to knights in the Western world. They were an essential part of defending against foreign invaders and were also used in wars between different feudal lords within Japan itself. Swords were central to this, and the samurai would traditionally carry two at a time: the katana, a longsword, and the wakizashi, a shortsword.
Although most samurai no longer served a military purpose after the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan in 1603, bladed weapons still had a place in this relatively peaceful era. Its uses ranged from spiritual and symbolic roles to nefarious ones—contrary to popular belief, not all samurai were the noble characters depicted in modern media. Overall though, by the 18th and 19th centuries swords were viewed less as practical tools and more as symbols of authority and gentry.
A daisho (pair) of a 18th-19th century katana (below) and wakizashi (above). The blade itself has been removed from its mountings and the bare tang is visible. Image credit: LACMA
These three types of Japanese swords are perhaps the most recognizable outside of Japan. The katana is a longsword first developed in the 14th century, with most examples having a 25 to 30 inch blade. They were typically carried as a matched set with their shorter counterpart, the wakizashi. These shorter sidearms usually had blades around 12 to 14 inches long. The dagger-like tantō was an even smaller sidearm with a 6 to 12 inch blade, making them well suited for close up combat.
These swords were most likely destroyed after Japan passed strict weapon laws in the 1950's. Under the new law, all mass produced swords were banned and traditionally crafted swords became highly regulated. People who owned antique swords were required to obtain a permit in order to keep them, a costly and time consuming process. Unfortunately this drove many people to cut their swords' blades down to less than 15 centimeters long, which made them legal to own without a permit.
There are many details found on antique Japanese swords that are lacking in modern reproductions. Real handmade swords have a grain visible on the steel and a temper line called a hamon along the cutting edge of the blade. The dark rust on the tang helps to date the blade as well, as it can only be acquired with age.
The source is always an important consideration when authenticating any historical items too. We worked with an antique sword dealer in Japan to import these directly to the United States. Many of these pieces may have once been family heirlooms or were recovered after being put away in storage for decades, often hidden away in more rural areas which helped them avoid the bombings and Allied sword confiscations of World War II. Due to the sheer amount of swords produced by Japan over the last few centuries, many lower grade examples are surprisingly affordable.
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