Peter Morwood
The Katana myth again…

The Japanese sword is a good weapon. What it’s not is some weird combination of Excalibur and lightsabre.

The European longsword is a good weapon. What it’s not is some weird combination of iron club and barbell.

It would be easy to adopt the approach displayed by some, er, uncritically enthusiastic katana-fans, which is to hit capslock, shout, swear and diss every other sword and the people who used them. Like so:

Here’s the thing fuckwads. Katanas were used by MASTERS OF BATTLE called SAMURAI who knew precisely WHERE to hit, WHEN to hit, HOW MUCH FORCE THEY’D NEED, ETC. Samurai (at least when they started out, they got pretty corrupted and sloppy toward the end) were ONE WITH THEIR BLADE. The katana was known as the Samurai’s soul.

The FUCKING LONGSWORD on the other hand, was handed out to basically any fucking FARM BOY who happened to enlist/get recruited into the fucking army. That’s the equivalent of YOU picking up a fucking SWORD and getting thrown into battle. So yeah, they’re going to fucking need to be durable because no idiot who picks up a sword is going to know where to swing it so it doesn’t shatter into a million pieces. Oh and by the way, a long sword is also nearly 3 times the weight of a katana (ITS A FUCKING HACKING WEAPON), so it wouldn’t be nearly as precise or fast as a katana. And after about 10 swings, your arms will be fucking DEAD TIRED. Do you understand how much a fucking sword weighs? ITS A GIANT FUCKING CHUNK OF METAL. ITS NOT A FUCKING STICK YOU PLAY GAMES WITH…

And so on…

This reads like someone in frantic denial about something they don’t like because it may well be true and that spoils their worldview. They’re not alone, apparently. It also reads like someone who has probably never touched a real sword of either kind, or read anything about them other than on-line misinformation and hype.

Read the raving again, but add a bit of common sense. If a weapon is so heavy that swinging it ten times leaves your arms dead tired, what the hell use is it?

Farm boys weren’t given longswords, longbows or anything else required long training. They were given pikes, or bills, or some other polearm not too far removed from the farm tools they were accustomed to using, and a short, no-real-skill-required chopping sword called a falchion as backup. Again, not too different to the tools they used every day. And then like any soldier, before “getting thrown into battle” they’d be drilled in how to use them. That’s always assuming the baron didn’t leave his farm labourers labouring on the farm where they would do some good and go to war with the properly trained men-at-arms who made up his retinue.

Steel will shatter, if it’s tempered to be hard, inflexible and brittle. Drop a modern Solingen straight-razor on a tiled floor and if you’re unlucky, you’d think it had been made of glass. Bits everywhere. Swords were not tempered that way. No smith would let one out of his forge.

And yes, I do understand how much a sword weighs, and three to four feet long is not what I call “giant”.

The longsword was not “three times heavier” any more than the katana was a featherweight. Sometimes one would be a bit heavier than the other, but if they were about the same length, they were about the same weight. Any extra ounces added by the longsword’s more elaborate guard and pommel would be balanced by the single-edged katana’s thicker blade. They weren’t blunt, either. Ewart Oakshott (who handled and collected real swords and wrote real books about them) mentions a sword of about 1125 AD in the Wallace Collection, London, whose edges “are as sharp as a well-honed carving knife.” If you think that’s blunt, go into your kitchen, hone your own carving knife and run it hard across the palm of your hand. I’d recommend dialling 911 or 999 first; you might have trouble doing so afterwards…

Top-line katanas and top-line European longswords were superb things, art objects as much as weapons, but average katanas weren’t so impressive and were actually made of poorer steel than the equivalent average longsword. Japan is not a mineral-rich country (they’ve fought wars over it) and all the folding and hammering katana-fans make such a big deal about was because Japanese swordsmiths had to improve their shoddy basic material by beating the impurities out of it without beating all of them out, since those “impurities” include the percentage of carbon that makes iron into steel. This was done for all swords, but it’s obvious that weapons for the average retainer grunt wouldn’t get anything like the level of attention given to those made for a great daimyo.

Also the aforesaid retainer grunt, usually armed with a yari (straight-bladed spear), was no more a “master of battle” than the average European feudal grunt armed with a bill or pike. Learning how to handle a sword properly took time and money; low-level grunts didn’t have much of either. “Samurai” means “servant”, and for every elegant, calligraphy-writing, flower-arranging, combat-skill-honing nobleman, there were a couple of hundred not-much-more-than-peasants standing guard in the rain.

What katanas get is an unbelievable level of hype in Western media, as related in this thoughtful essay by the late Hank Reinhardt.  Working out the whens, whys and wherefores of that is another essay in itself. The sort of stuff restricted to legendary Western swords like Excalibur, Balmung and Durendal are accepted as something any katana can do with ease. Cutting a machine-gun barrel in half? Katana. (There’s supposedly “real film” of this, but like the Loch Ness Monster it’s always been seen by someone else. If it exists at all, it’s most likely WW2 propaganda with a fake gun.) Cutting stone without damage? Katana. Cutting through armour without blunting? Katana.

Bullshit accepted without criticism and defended with shrill obscenity? Katana…

What all this has done is make the katana a bit of a joke (except to the people with the itchy capslock fingers) which is a shame. It’s a good sword. Sometimes it’s a great sword. But it’s not and never has been a magic sword.

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    Hear hear. Owning relatively authentic (if modern) versions of both long swords and katana, I can say, they pretty well...
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