The Japanese sword known as the katana is a symbol of a time, a people and of beautiful yet deadly efficiency. Let’s rip open what makes the katana such a remarkable weapon, explore the essence and myth that surrounds it and slice a path to inspire more depth from this weapon in your own role-playing campaign.
The katana was the traditional sword of the samurai. It developed from the tachi sword, which is similar but worn with the cutting edge down, while the katana was worn with the cutting edge up, and could be kept tucked in the sash (obi) around a samurai’s waist. The katana could be quickly drawn and a deadly cut made in a single, fluid motion. In fact, forms of martial arts, iaido and iaijitsu, were developed around this principle.
The katana was traditionally worn with a wakizashi, which was a shorter sword used for enclosed spaces or as an off-hand weapon. While a samurai might put aside his katana, for instance when inside a residence, he would always keep his wakizashi. The katana and wakizashi together were called daisho, and were the samurai’s badge of rank.
The strength of the katana comes from the duel forging technique used to make the blade. On the outside of the blade you have a harder metal, which can better hold a sharp edge, while on the inside you have a springy metal that makes the whole blade less brittle. Parries and blocks were performed with the side or back of the blade to keep the cutting edge sharp. I won’t go into the whole process forging process here, but Wikipedia has a great page on Japanese swordsmithing that will give you plenty of information.
Basically tamahagane, the raw iron ore, is heated to about 1300 °C and then hammered and folded into shape. Once the blade has been shaped it is quenched (yaki-ire) using clay, charcoal and powdered whetstone as a mask over the cutting edge as it is dipped in water. It is this process that gives the blade its beautiful wave like pattern and different tempering. The blade is then sharpened and signed.
The katana was made with one purpose in mind: killing. However, as time passed, and the samurai spent less time on the battle field and more time in court, the swords became more ornate, a status symbol rather than a practical weapon.
Every aspect of the sword had some etiquette. Preserving the carbon rich blade from rust and the safe handling and use of the blade were all important. There was a culture to the sword that I think is hard for us to understand in our “want it now” culture. Your sword was with you always, it was kept clean, respected and known intimately. It was your life, your death, your rank, your mark of society and affected how people perceived you and the manners they showed you.
It’s not surprising then that the katana was seen by the samurai to have its own spirit. For a samurai, his katana was both an important piece of equipment and a symbol of his own life. At his waist an ever present reminder that death could come quickly and brutally.
The Katana in Your Campaign
If your character weilds a katana, take a moment to think about what the sword means to your character. Is it something to depend on when enemies close in? Is it a thing of beauty? Do those who see such a weapon being worn immediately form an opinion of the wearer? What is the history of the weapon and is there any culture surrounding it?
If you’re a GM you can ask many of the same questions. Stat’s wise a katana might not be that much more powerful than any other sword, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as awesome as it should be. Build a history and culture around it in your campaign world and see where it gets you. As an idea to start you off here are six random sword histories and six random cultural ideas for the katana.
Katana Histories – Random Table (D6)
- The Bear Claw: this sword’s scabbard (saya) is covered in bear fur, and was the possession of an unknown samurai who opposed the lord of a neighbouring kingdom. It is said he approached the lord while the lord was travelling though a mountain pass and addressed himself as Father Bear, “ready to serve justice with his shining bear claw.”
- Dragons Tear: this silver and gold blade was discovered lying on the palace floor besides the head of Fin Fiyang, an ancient gold dragon. To this day no one knows who his murderer was or to whom the sword belonged.
- Arrow Biter: this plain katana was used by a warrior who fell defending his lord from arrows of the enemy. When he fell he was surrounded by dozens of halved arrows he had slashed in his desperate defence .
- The Emperors Sorrow: this blade is covered in an ancient inscription, foretelling the death of the king. It is not known if the king has any knowledge of the blade or what he would do if he found out about it.
- The Rolling Thunder: something in the construction of this blade has resulted in a loud rumbling sound every time the weapon is drawn.
- The Dragonfly: this katana has a brown saya with fittings representing dragonflies. Rumour has it that it belonged to a lord who requested it’s construction to appease a water-fey who lived within his lands.
Katana Cultural Ideas – Random Table (D6)
- It is considered impolite to comment on someone’s katana, so much so that polite phrases such as “may I relieve you of your burden” have taken on new meaning.
- If a katana is broken then ancient law states that the sword must be recast into a single iron bowl and the owner of the sword should only ever eat from that bowl for the rest of his life.
- The katana is such a venerated weapon that it is unlawful for any peasant to even touch such a weapon.
- City law has it that weapons must be put aside when entering a tavern. However, a loop hole exists for the katatana, due to a passed mayor of the city wishing to impress a visiting samurai lord. Unfortunately, as legend tells, he fell foul of his own law and was assassinated by one of the samurai’s retainers.
- Newly forged katana blades are kept in a local temple for a year for purposes of purification.
- Silvered katana blades are prohibited in the area, a recent law. Meanwhile, there are growing suspicions that members of the court are involved in some type of night sport involving hunting game, and sometimes the waifs of the city.
Some L33T Facts
Just because I generally find it funny when I see anyone trying to handle a katana, here are some quick expert facts as a bonus:
- If it’s at your side or in a belt, the blade should be held up.
- You’d never touch the cutting edge, that’s moronic.
- You keep your thumb on the tsuba (hand guard), to keep the blade in the saya (scabbard).
- A katana can split a bullet, but not a tank.
I’m indebted to all those who have taken the time to teach me about Japanese swords and their related martial arts, both in dojo’s around South Africa and in Japan. Much of the limited research done was from Wikipedia or “Introduction to Japanese Swords through Pictures” by the All Japan Swordsmith Association, with additional research done at the Tokyo National Museum. Their collection of nihonto has been the best collection I have ever seen. If you enjoyed this article and would like to hear more about other Japanese weapons, or even European or African weapons, please let me know by leaving a comment below.