What makes a Japanese katana real?

I’m so glad I get to write this article. Japanese swords are probably my most favorite swords in the whole world. I’m also a huge sucker for Japanese culture. Anyways…. What makes a Japanese katana real? Well, there are some things we need to come to terms with in order to understand the work of art that is the Japanese sword of the Samurai.

First of all, there are 3 terms that we need to learn right off. These terms are Iaito, Shinken, and Nihonto. We will throw one more in there for good measure. Garbage. That’s right. There are some katana sets that you can buy from thrift stores, online stores, pawn shops, and many other places that cost around the $60 mark. These are not even worth the time it takes to go into the store to see them. They are made out of stainless steel, plastic fittings, shoestring Ito, and are just blah! I’m sure you may have come across something like these in your searches for swords. Just don’t buy them. I’m not trying to be a sword snob, but I am trying to save you hard earned money. Do yourself a favor and buy something that is at least acceptable.

kaze cheness shinken

So I gave you some terms. Iaito, Shinken, and Nihonto. I will define these terms for you below.

  • Iaito – a mock sword used for practicing Japanese sword arts
  • Shinken – a ‘live’ steel blade that can be used for cutting (literally meaning ‘real sword’)
  • Nihonto – literally a Japanese sword (traditional Japanese sword made in Japan by a master smith – the real deal)

Alright. So you know your basic terms now on the 3 types of Japanese swords. Japanese swords go more in depth than most western swords. For this matter, you can end up paying a great deal of money for a Japanese sword, especially a Nihonto.

So which is a real Japanese sword?

If you are wanting a real Japanese sword, you are going to look for a Nihonto. A Nihonto is made in Japan by a master swordsmith. You will also spend the amount of a nice car on a Nihonto. It is not uncommon for a Nihonto to cost from $15,000 to in excess of $30,000+.

Keep in mind that you can get a Shinken not made in Japan for a fraction of the price of a Nihonto. That is something for budget buyers to think about. You can still get a quality Shinken for a great price and get awesome cutting ability. Some forges that make really good Shinken are listed below. I personally recommend Cheness. They make nice Shinken, hand forged and they are really nice for under $500.

  • Cheness Swords
  • CAS Hanwei
  • Jidai
  • Bugei
  • Eiji Forge
  • Musashi Swords
  • Masahiro

That is a quick list of Shinken forges that are worth mentioning. Again, Cheness makes amazing Shinken and I highly suggest you check them out. Check out the ‘Kaze’ Shinken from Cheness. The ‘Kaze’ features a real hamon and is differentially hardened, which is important in creating a traditional Shinken.

Back to the topic, a Shinken is as close as you are going to get to a real Japanese sword for a reasonable price. But it still isn’t a ‘real’ Japanese sword. You must understand this when talking about authentic Japanese swords. Nihonto is real and authentic. Shinken is functional. A Shinken is still very much a real sword though. They are built with use in mind, and thus is worthy of being called a Shinken (live steel).

What is this Tamahagane stuff?

Tamahagane Chunk

Chunk of Tamahagane

Without going into to much detail in this article, I will give a very brief explanation of what tamahagane is. Tamahagane is what traditional Japanese swordsmiths use to create authentic Japanese katana. Tamahagane is very expensive and hard to make. Swordsmiths in the old days would be just about the only ones to use tamahagane. They would use it to make katana and some tools. Tamahagane would only be made a couple times a year up to 4 times a year. It took a long time to make and is extracted from iron sands in certain parts of Japan. That is my brief explanation of Tamahagane. If you would like to learn more about this stuff, check out the All about Tamahagane article. In short, authentic and traditional Japanese swords are made from tamahagane and are differentially hardened.

Real Japanese sword fittings?

It should be obvious by now that an all metal sword is a necessity for it to be considered real. The same goes for Japanese swords. There are many parts to a Japanese katana. I’m not going to list them all here because it would be a whole other article within an article. If you are interested in learning the names and functions of Japanese katana fittings and parts, consult The anatomy of a Japanese Sword article. You will learn everything you need to know about the anatomy and fittings of Japanese katana there.

In conclusion…

I cannot stress enough that authentic and traditional Japanese swords are hard to come by and are most certainly not mass produced by any of the mass production blade forges. A true authentic Japanese sword can only be produced by a master swordsmith with methods and techniques passed down from the times. Japanese swordsmithing is an art and the swordsmiths themselves breathe life into the sword. Sometimes, only 1 or 2 swords per year can be produced by Japanese master swordsmiths. Do not think you are getting an authentic, real, and traditional Japanese katana if you buy from a production line. You will still get a quality Shinken if you buy from the right production forges though. But a Shinken and a Nihonto just don’t compare. Here is a video of Japanese master swordsmiths from Jidai creating a real Japanese sword.

As you can see from the video, the amount of time and effort that goes into these swords is insane. If you want to get your Japanese sword collection started off on the right foot, Check out Cheness, Hanwei, Musashi, and even Masahiro. Bugei is another great start for quality Shinkens. If you are wanting to get into the game for under $300, go with the previous 4 forges mentioned.

You can find Cheness, CAS Hanwei, and Musashi all at the links below.

I hope this explained what constitutes a real Japanese sword as well as a functional Japanese sword. If you think I left things out that should be included in this introduction to Japanese swords, please let me know! Japanese swords are deeper than European swords. That is true because of the nature of the Japanese sword. I look forward to going further in depth with the Japanese sword in other articles.