The Katana Sword was invented around the 11th century and was central to a Samurai’s kit. It was the symbol of an entire way of life that sadly now no longer exists. However, weapon enthusiasts, collectors and those with an interest in this ancient Japanese culture remain fascinated with this cultural symbol and smiths exist all over the world. Many are sold in the modern day for thousands of American Dollars though much cheaper replicas are available. They were especially popularised by the Quentin Tarantino film ‘Kill Bill’ and many people now own them as home decorations.
Masamune is considered not just one of the greatest sword makers but also one of history’s greatest metallurgists. The exact details of his life are unknown, but he is believed to have lived between the late 13th and early 14th centuries. His work is known for its superior craftsmanship and high aesthetics. However, the lack of signature means that it is sometimes difficult to identify his pieces. His most famous work is known as ‘Honjo Masamune’.
2. Fujiwara Kanenaga
Though he forged high quality swords in the 17th century, his weapons were so cherished by Samurai that the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita held one at his side throughout the war. After his trial for war crimes, it was taken from him and is now held in the West Point Military Museum. Kanenaga was a highly prolific forger who is said to have developed a type of stainless steel though whether he created a form that we today would understand is a matter of debate.
3. Gassan Tadatoshi
He is considered to be one of the top sword smiths currently alive. Born in 1946, in 1995 he became a master craftsman. He swords are coveted all over the world are sell for thousands of US dollars per piece. His style seems to be simple yet elegant and very high quality; his workshop is based in Nara. He doesn’t just smith katanas though; he runs a school in the proper instruction and use of the sword and proudly comes from a long line of master smiths.
4. Yoshindo Yoshihara
Another smith that can trace the craft back through his family, Yoshindo Yoshihara claims to be the tenth generation of his family to craft the katana and he is currently training his son to follow in his footsteps. He and his brother are ‘Mukansa’ which means their work is beyond judgement. He also considers himself to be a researcher of katana history, claiming to have reinvented or brought back many ancient techniques to the craft. The style is recognisable because of the highly selective steel and manufacturing method claimed to be 1500 years old.
5. Kiyochika Kanehama
Based in Okinawa (just like the fictional Hattori Hanzo from Kill Bill), he is the only sword smith from the city. Because of this, he has marketed his pieces by using special techniques, symbols and materials available from the region of his birth. He shot to fame in popular imagination with the release of the film though he was already revered as a sword smith before then. He rarely sells his swords locally due to the peaceful nature of Okinawa with most of his work being sold abroad.
6. HikoshirÃ… Sadamune
Another smith of the 13th-14th centuries, he is considered to have produced some of the finest blades ever created. He became a student of Masamune (see above) and though not considered one of the Great Jutetsu, his work is considered to be just as good as theirs. Sadamune would eventually become master to four known students. Only one signed copy of his work is in existence, but it is a tanto blade and not a katana.
One of the earliest on the list, around AD700 he is believed to have created the first katana sword to have its now famous curvature. Though no examples exist, it is also said that he forged them to be double edged too. Head of a group of smiths charged with creative swords and other blades for the Emperor after seeing a group of Samurai return from battle all with broken swords. His work succeeded and the following battle, none of the blades were broken.
A smith so famous that a clan and a tradition were named after him, he operated in the 17th century manufacturing in a style known as ‘The Mino School’. It was a family tradition that has lasted 500 years. Little is known about him but enough is known from his legacy ‘ the type of weapons produced, the style and where the tradition is based ‘ get a clear idea of his importance in Minos province.
9. Nagasone Kotetsu
Another 16th-17th century smith for the early Edo period, he was the son of an armourer who had to flee to Echizen province. He started out as an armourer but soon switched to manufacturing swords. His weapons were known for their brute strength and were said to be able to cut through armour, especially helmets. Records suggest that he only made thirty-one and that many replicas of his work were prevalent. He is known to have commended some good examples though.
10. Okubo Kazuhira
Another modern smith, he was born in 1943 to a family with no sword making history but he became fascinated with the craft while still in school when he read an article about a surviving smith. He tracked the smith down after walking along a river for days. The smith became impressed with his dedication and decided to take him on as an apprentice. He gained his license to smith in the late 1960s and despite suffering an injury, went on to claim two prizes in sword making in the 1990s.
The above list is a sample of some of the most celebrated katana smiths from history and the modern age. The katana remains a popular symbol of a bygone age that has passed into popular culture through media and a growing fascination with Japanese culture. If you choose to purchase one, ensure that you research adhere to your national laws in relation to owning deadly weapons, and keep it stored safely and securely.