Hearts Of Steel
Copyright ©1996 Kendall Kelsoe
Earlier this evening I had the great honor and privilege to be involved in the viewing and handling of some truly excellent Japanese swords. It is rare to see such works of art so close up and well maintained. As I raised a katana (samurai sword) into a seigan no kamae (perfect eye posture) , I shivered as I beheld it's lethal beauty.
Swords have always held a deep fascination for me. When I was a young boy growing up in my hometown of Houston, Texas, my mom and dad took me to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In one of the vendor booths, my father bought me a tiny replica of a Japanese sword. It had brightly colored plastic fittings and a dull metal blade. Playing "Zorro" with my childhood friends, my sword became severely bent from all the banging I put it through battling my playmates in make believe wars.
I took it to my dad and he expertly straightened it out, returning my favorite toy to its former glory. "Real Japanese swords don't bend like this one, son." he reassured me.
My folks were big on movies. They would load my brothers and yours truly into a white station wagon with an inflatable mattress on the fold down seats and head for the Thunderbird drive in. Two films that really impressed me were "Red Sun" and "The Magnificent Seven". "Red Sun" featured the popular actors Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune. If you haven't seen this flick, basically it has Chuck as a gunfighter and Toshiro as the last of a long line of Samurai in 1860's America. This was the first movie I had ever seen that featured a Katana. The two handed handle made sense to me. The graceful curvature of the bright and glittering blade inspired both fear and awe. The skillful way Mifune-san wielded this elegant weapon inspired a desire to learn more about the Japanese culture that produced such a unique sword. When "The Magnificent Seven" was playing, my dad told me it was a remake of "some black and white Japanese Samurai movie." It took several years before I discovered Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai". I wept when I went to see it at the River Oaks Theater in Houston, Texas as part of a foreign film revival. This is a powerful story of six Ronin (masterless Samurai) and one impostor hired to protect a farming village during feudal age Japan. If you have not seen this powerful and compelling film, then you are in for a treat.
The sword represents a powerful connection to the past for me. No other weapon holds quite the fascination and admiration that cold steel does. The Nihonto (Japanese sword) occupies a special place in the history of man and the art of metallurgy. A sword is composed of all elements, earth, fire, wind, water, and the void. Steel is composed of both iron and carbon - earth elements. Steel is annealed by the elements of both fire and wind. Steel is tempered by being quenched in liquid - a water element. The sword is conceived and forged by humans...the void element.
To present a historical perspective for the Japanese creation and use of swords as a military weapon, one must first understand some of Japan's history. To sum it up using a time line, it looks like this. Gokaden (the five traditions) Yamashiro/Kyoto, Yamato/Nara, Bizen, Soshu/Kamakura and Mino. These represent five periods of swordmaking in Japan. Swords fall into classification by length of blade, measured in "Shaku" which equals 11.930542 inches. A Daito, ("long sword") is over two Shaku in length. A wakizashi ("companion sword") is between one and two Shaku in length. A Tanto (knife with a guard) is under one Shaku. I welcome any comments or information to make this more accurate. Please note that this is a small overview and not all of my sources agree on specific dates.