What is a Samurai Sword?

Mary McMahon

A samurai sword is a sword of the type commonly carried by samurai, Japanese warriors who thrived through the 1800s, when Japan was opened to trade with the West and the Japanese system of government radically changed, rendering the samurai tradition obsolete. The sword which is classically associated with samurai is a katana, a curved long-sword which was included in the war gear of most samurai. Possession of a katana was so critical that many samurai regarded their swords as extensions of their souls, and it is not surprising that the katana is viewed as the quintessential samurai sword.

A small dagger known as a tanto was carried by many samurai.
A small dagger known as a tanto was carried by many samurai.

The katana is so famous that some people use the term generically to refer to all Japanese swords. In fact, a Japanese sword should more properly be known as a nihonto, as there are a range of styles and classes of sword produced in Japan. Traditional swordsmithing is still very much alive in Japan, for people who are interested in seeing and studying the techniques used to produce swords in the samurai era.

In addition to the katana, which evolved from several older weapons, most samurai also carried a wakizashi, a short sword. This sidearm was also known as the “honor blade,” and samurai rarely surrendered their honor blades. Even in private homes where the wear of weapons was not permitted, a samurai could carry his wakizashi. The combination of katana and wakizashi was known as the daisho, a word meaning “large and small.”

A small dagger known as a tanto was also carried by many samurai, in addition to a double-edged longsword, the tsurugi. Most samurai also carried other arms, and were proficient at using a wide range of weapons.

The katana has become a potent symbol of the samurai tradition and lifestyle, and it is the sword most commonly referenced when people discuss a “samurai sword.” Many museums dedicated to Japanese history and the history of weapons keep a katana on hand as an example of classic swordsmithing and a type of samurai sword, and some private collectors also keep these blades out of personal or historical interest.

People who are interested in purchasing a samurai sword should be aware that a traditional katana can be extremely expensive, and special export permits may be required to take one from Japan, especially if it is an antique. These swords also require regular routine maintenance, as do all weapons, and some swordsmiths believe that the katana must be custom made for the owner, and they may refuse to sell swords to people if they think that buyer and sword are a bad match.

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Discussion Comments


A samurai sword is indeed an honor blade and has made its mark in popular culture. For fans of the TV show, “The Walking Dead,” the character Michonne often uses her killer katana to lop the heads off pursuing zombies. For Star Wars fans, the similarities are also seen with the Jedi’s lightsaber. Either way, it’s a much different style of blade than a pirate’s cutlass.

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