More Than a Sword for Samurai: The World of Katana and Nihonto Explained by Swordsmith “Hirata Tantojo”

Associated with the Japanese samurai, “katana” are renowned across the globe and established in the collective imagination thanks to their presence in hit Japanese movies and anime. But how much do you truly know about them? For this edition of our “Culture of Japan” series, we visited Hirata Tantojo, a swordsmith in Ome City, Tokyo that employs traditional forging methods to make some of the most refined swords out there. While we were there, master swordsmith Sukehira Hirata and professional “murage” iron maker Nodoka Hirata taught us all about Japanese swords, including how they are made!

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What Exactly Is a Katana? Dive Into the Complex World of Japanese Swords With Hirata Tantojo

It was an early morning at Shinjuku Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest transportation hubs, and while a massive crowd of office workers were busy commuting to the central office areas of Japan’s capital city, we boarded an almost-empty car of the Chuo Line train in the opposite direction: the borders of Tokyo, towards the wild and fascinating Okutama area. Our destination? A visit to Hirata Tantojo and a dive into the mysterious world of Japanese swords.

We only had a general image of Japan’s famed swords, the same probably portrayed and seen many times in movies and TV shows. As the train ran deep into Tokyo’s countryside, the scenery outside changing to fields and mountains, our curiosity grew in anticipation of unveiling some of the secrets behind this traditional and widely respected craft!

One hour later, we got off at the tiny Futamatao Station and, after a brief walk down a side road, surrounded by nothing but wooded mountains and the roaring voice of the nearby Tama River, we were welcomed into the traditional space of Hirata Tantojo by Sukehira and Nodoka who were waiting for us.

As they moved around the workshop, preparing with great care everything necessary to show us what goes behind the creation of exceptional Japanese swords, we took the opportunity to briefly ask about their feelings on the craft. An instant smile sparked on their faces, showing us a first glimpse of the couple’s love for their job and they said: “Nihonto are truly extraordinary! They have this inexplicable aura of sophistication.” 

It's Not Actually “Katana” But “Nihonto"

In Japanese, “nihonto” (日本刀) is the actual term used to describe all Japanese swords. It literally means “Japanese sword” and was adopted in the Edo period (1603 - 1868) to distinguish Japan-forged swords from foreign swords.

Although widely used overseas to describe all types of Japanese swords, the word “katana” (刀) in Japan actually refers to a specific type of Japanese sword, the “uchigatana” (打刀) which has a blade of about 60 cm or more. It is the longer of the two blades typically wielded by samurai in movies and TV shows.

Nihonto are made with fire and water, elements used in Japanese purification ceremonies. ”They are dedicated to shrines as sacred objects,” explained Sukehira. Even one of Japan’s "Three Sacred Treasures” is a sword, the Kusanagi no Tsurugi, which according to legend was a gift from the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Evocative and beautiful, the average nihonto are between 30 cm and 90 cm long and are double-edged, curved blades. Although the term might bring to mind the image of a sword, it is actually also used for other types of Japanese blades such as “naginata,” Japanese halberds suitable for cleaving and slashing and largely used by women, or “yari,” Japanese spears ideal for attacking the enemy by thrusting forward. 

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The History of Nihonto - How a Sword Became One of the Symbols of Japan

How the Edo Period Shaped the History of the Japanese Sword

Although there are several archeological findings across Japan suggesting that the first bronze swords and the technology to process iron were introduced in Japan from China during the Yayoi period (10th - 3rd centuries BC), Japanese sword making is thought to have begun in the late Kofun Period, around the 6th century. 

However, “as not many documents detailing how nihonto were made before the Edo period are left, present-day Japanese sword making mainly has roots from techniques developed by Edo-period craftsmen,” we discovered while talking with Sukehira and Nodoka. 

During the Edo period, the sizes and types of nihonto that could be carried around and used were strictly regulated by the shogunate as they came to symbolize the status of the owner. Farmers and merchants, for example, could only wear wakizashi for self-defense when traveling, while children and women were only allowed to carry a “tanto,” the Japanese short sword or dagger, for protection.  

Another one of the bigger differences was in the base iron. Before the Edo period, each region produced its own iron from local iron sand, so the color of the swords varied greatly from region to region. However, as the country settled down and unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, a certain amount of homogeneous iron became available throughout the country, and the differences became less pronounced. In addition, with the national isolation of Japan, the distribution of imported iron from China was cut off, forcing sword makers to switch to domestically produced iron.

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The Slow Decline of the Traditional Japanese Sword

In the Meiji period (1868-1902,) the Sword Abolishment Edict was enacted and many swordsmiths turned to producing “uchihamono” kitchen knives utilizing the sword-making techniques they had cultivated up to that time. Once used to pursue sharpness and sturdiness in Japanese swords, these techniques became the base for the production of Japan’s high-quality kitchen knives that are prized all over the world today. 

Hirata Tantojo also produces its own knives this way - by applying exactly the same process no matter if they’re forging a nihonto or knife, they can ensure that every customer gets a unique piece of art that truly showcases the charms of traditional Japanese swords.

Nihonto in the Modern Age

“Today, the number of professional nihonto makers has drastically decreased, with only around 30 of us practicing the art as our main profession. The modern way of life shrunk the need for nihonto, which used to be everyday items, a gift for celebratory occasions, or a way to wish a safe journey to the afterlife for a deceased,” replied Sukehira when we inquired about the current status of sword making in Japan. 

In the modern age, nihonto often find use as decorations, but they still have some practical use in martial arts. For example, kendo and iaido swordsmen might use “shinai” bamboo swords and “bokken” wooden swords to practice, but they use “iaito” metal swords with no cutting edge during iaido performances. “Tameshigiri,” the Japanese art of target test cutting, utilizes honed swords. 

Nihonto are now an integral part of modern Japanese pop culture too, and are seen in many popular anime such as Demon Slayer, which even showcased traditional sword making culture in the latest “Swordsmith Village Arc” where one of the characters, a swordsmith, wore a Hyottoko mask (the same pictured above). The mask portrays “the face we make when working near the scorching hot forge,” Sukehira said while laughing and mimicking the very same expression. 

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How Are Nihonto Made? Glimpse Into Traditional Japanese Sword Making at Hirata Tantojo

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Making the Tamahagane Iron

Nodoka stared into the flames as if she knew all the secrets of the burning furnace. “I don’t do it by the book and I can’t see what’s happening inside the furnace, so I have to trust my instincts.” Great knowledge must be acquired to tame that fire and master the starting point of Japan's unique sword-making method: “tatara seitetsu” iron making. Tatara seitetsu requires iron sand to be processed in a furnace called “tatara” using charcoal as fuel and at lower temperatures compared to modern blast furnaces. The result is an incredibly pure iron called “tamahagane.”

Nowadays, there are almost no swordsmiths left in Japan who process their own iron.  Preserving the traditional ways as much as possible, Hirata Tantojo is one of the very few workshops still forging nihonto the old way, including iron making. Nodoka, one of Japan’s last professional murage, and the only woman among them, is in charge of Hirata Tantojo’s tatara seitetsu. 

She starts with sorting the iron sand with a magnet. ”It’s important to select the right amount of sand so that I’m able to actually remove the impurities.” As minor as it might seem, this is an important task that might affect the final quality of the tamahagane iron.

Then she proceeds with preparing the bottom of the tatara furnace with clay. It is then left to dry for at least one week as humidity interferes with the iron-making process. Simultaneously, charcoal cutting is performed. The tatara furnace uses a considerable amount of charcoal, so they cut between 60 to 70 kg each time. 

After the tatara furnace is preheated, Nodoka starts adding the iron sand into it. The timing can only be determined by carefully monitoring the furnace. Alternating charcoal and iron sand approximately every five minutes and then removing the impurities through the tatara’s tuyere, she continues these steps for around eight to nine hours. At the end, the tatara furnace is dismantled and the tamahagane iron removed. 

Approximately eight to eleven kilograms of tamahagane iron can be obtained from one tatara iron-making session using around 30 kg of iron sand. One kilogram of tamahagane is roughly equivalent to one “santoku” kitchen knife. 

Turning the Iron Into Steel

When the tamahagane iron is ready, Sukehira starts the forge. A powerful dance of flames slowly fills the room of Hirata Tantojo with crackling fragments of fire and ash. The block of iron goes in and the charcoal explodes in a hypnotizing outburst of heat and light. It’s mesmerizing how rough lumps of incandescent metal can become refined objects like swords when shaped by the right hands. 

Generally, swordsmiths separate the tamahagane iron according to its carbon content through a process called “mizuheshi,” which consists of beating and rolling the iron out and then placing it in water to cool it rapidly. During this process, hard steel with a high carbon content breaks off cleanly, while soft steel with a low carbon content doesn’t break. The hard steel is used to make “kawagane” (the surface of the blade), while the soft steel is used to make “shingane” (the core of the blade). 

After the mizuheshi is completed, they proceed to the “kowari” process, where they select and hammer the best tamahagane iron to break it into pieces. Both the mizuheshi and kowari steps have the purpose of making the iron more resistant and removing further impurities. 

However, as Hiarata Tantojo’s iron that is produced in-house is already so tenacious and high-quality, Sukehira is able to skip these steps and directly place the finished iron on top of a lever bar called “tekobo” to start the orikaeshi tanren forging process. 

During the “wakashi” boiling process, the tamahagane iron is further pounded to remove impurities, heated, and hardened. To ensure efficient wakashi, prevent the piles of steel from collapsing or burning, and to improve heat transfer, they are covered with straw and mud. Bellows are also used to blow air into the forge and adjust the intensity and temperature of the fire. 

Each time the tekobo disappeares into the forge, a waterfall of sparks emerges. A skilled swordsmith can interpret these signs, as well as the sound and color of the fire, to determine the state of the wakashi process. 

Although at Hirata Tantojo they don't perform "karizuke" or “karitanren” as their iron is already resistant enough, at this point some swordsmiths might proceed with these steps to check the state of the wakashi and hammer the iron repeatedly with a mallet to see if it has been thoroughly boiled. If the wakashi is insufficient, the steel may crumble, but if the steel doesn’t fall apart, it means it’s ready for the “hon wakashi” or the main boiling step. During this step, old straw is removed and new straw is sprinkled on top, then the wakashi is repeated so that the refining process can be fully carried out.

Shaping the Steel Into a Japanese Nihonto Sword

With the orikaeshi tanren or folding forging, the steel is stretched by beating it, bending it in half, and beating it again. After the process is completed, the swordsmith can gradually stretch the steel into the shape of a sword. The tip of the sword is cut off at an angle, the “kissaki” point is hammered out, and the “shinog” cross sectioni is also created.  

When the block of steel gets close to the shape of a sword, “yakiire” or quenching is also performed. During the quenching process, the sword is heated and then quickly cooled in water. This process produces the curvature and “hamon” temper patterns that are typical of Japanese swords.

Before quenching, the sword is coated with "yakibatsuchi," a mixture of clay, charcoal, and whetstone powder. The side of the blade where only a thin layer of yakibatsuchi is applied cools more rapidly compared to the side where a thicker layer is applied, causing the sword to curve and the hamon to form on the side that cools rapidly.

Adding the Finishing Touches

Final touches include the blade polishing, finalizing the grip portion of the katana, and engraving the sword inscriptions. The name of the swordsmith is usually engraved on the front side of the sword while the date of making is engraved on the back of the sword.

Why Are Japanese Swords Considered Some of the Best in the World? Explore the Beauty and Uniqueness of Nihonto with Hirata Tantojo

The beauty of Japanese swords can be appreciated in many different ways, starting with the shape of the blade. The kissaki, “sori” curvature, and shinogi reflect the mastery of the swordsmith as well as the needs of each historical period.

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The Hamon Temper Patterns

Even the blade’s apparently spotless surface, shining like a mirror when observed from afar, discloses a myriad of unexpected details when looked up close. 

One aspect of each nihonto that makes them unique is the hamon, which is something only found in traditional Japanese swords. They can be created along the edge of the blade by applying clay as well as changing the temperature and timing of the quenching process. Hamon can be either “suguha” straight or “midareba” wavy, and can come out as “nie” coarse-grained or “nioi” fine-grained.


Blades Designed to Protect

But it’s not only their appearance that differentiate them from the rest! 

“Not many are aware of this, but nihonto’s uniqueness also lies in the fact that they are not mere weapons. They are designed first and foremost to protect and can even be used as actual shields. They were born from the will to respect life!” revealed Sukehira. “They do not have the best shape to attack. A straight weapon would allow you to reach the enemy faster.” 

Deadly and Pure

Japanese swords are quicker and sturdier compared to Western swords which are designed for striking and thrusting. According to a theory, it was the curved blade that made it so that samurai could easily draw the sword with one hand even when riding. It also increased the cutting power without having to apply too much force or make the blade too heavy. The way they create the shinogi, which is also unique to Japanese swords, makes the swords more durable.

Their extreme sharpness and rust-resistant properties are also due to the purity of the tamahagane iron. With Japan’s distinctive “tatara” iron making process, murage can work the iron sand at lower temperatures, preventing sulfur and phosphorus from dissolving in it and resulting in steel with few impurities. Quenching is also fundamental to increase the elasticity and sharpness of the blade, making it more tenacious and less prone to bending.


In general, compared to Western forging or casting, each step of Japan’s unique sword making process evolved to create blades as tough, light, and pure as possible. 

Can You Buy a Japanese Sword? Tips For Beginners Wanting to Enjoy Nihonto By Professional Swordsmiths

To avoid fakes, it’s important to buy your Japanese sword from a trusted shop or maker.  “Some buy nihonto only based on the brand name, but it’s best to find the type of sword that suits you the best.” Hirata Tantojo suggests visiting different museums, seeing many swords, and paying attention to details such as the shape and grain of the blade and the temper patterns to understand what you might like, as well as research into the style of the swordsmith before proceeding with your purchase. 

As for the price, when inquired, we were told that it “ranges between 50,000 yen and 1 billion yen, depending on the type of sword and if it was owned by a famous samurai.” 

Before buying one, however, you might also want to note that regulations surrounding swords in Japan are extremely strict. To legally possess a sword in Japan, the owner must register it and obtain the “Firearms and Swords Registration Certificate.” The change of owner must also be notified by submitting a “Notification of Change of Owner of Firearms and Swords.” 

Swords considered legal can be owned and displayed and are either certified as “Important Cultural Properties” or registered as works of art by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. They can only be carried or transported for justifiable reasons by the law and, even in that case, they must be accompanied by the registration certificate. Possession of a sword without a certificate, as well as carrying or transporting a sword without the registration certificate, is punishable by imprisonment or a heavy fine. 

When exporting a Japanese sword, it is also advised to prepare the proper documentation and permission. This might include the “Firearms and Swords Registration Certificate” and proof that the exported items do not fall under the category of National Treasures, Important Cultural Properties, or Certified Important Art Objects. This is issued by the Agency for Cultural Affairs and is called an "Export Appraisal Certificate for Antiques." Each country also has its own regulations regarding the possession and import of swords, so don’t forget to check them as well.

If you are planning to buy a Japanese sword or knife, consider ordering a hand-made piece from Hirata Tantojo. They do order-made nihonto and hocho that you can purchase even if you’re overseas! Hirata Tantojo will take care of the registration certificate and provide it at the time of shipping. To further ensure that there are no issues, they also suggested for international customers to contact their customs office in advance so that the entire shipping and inspection process goes as smoothly as it possibly can.

Places Where You Can Enjoy Nihonto in Japan

If you are looking to enjoy Japanese swords during your trip to Japan, you can opt for visiting one of the many museums dedicated to Japanese swords.

The Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo displays nihonto as works of art, including those awarded special status for their important cultural value and other samurai artifacts. The museum also has a collection of historical documents about Japanese swords and swordmaking. 

Located in Osafune, a town in Okayama Prefecture famous for producing nihonto, the Bizen Osafune Sword Museum (Japanese only) features a variety of Japanese swords and an adjacent workshop where visitors can witness sword making. 

You can also visit other areas of Japan famous for sword production such as Seki in Gifu Prefecture, which is known as the “City of Blades” where bladesmiths have been making swords, knives, and cutlery for 800 years and still boasts a large number of blacksmitheries. 

If hands-on experiences are more your thing, Hirata Tantojo organizes free tours in Japanese allowing visitors to experience the creation of nihonto firsthand. Forging tours are available upon reservation only, while dates for the tatara iron making tours are announced every month on Hirata Tantojo’s Instagram account. Sukehira and Nodoka are happy to welcome international visitors and communicate through translation apps and simple English, as their love for Japanese swords knows no boundaries and they wish for more people to come in touch with the magnificent world of Japanese sword making. 

Workshops are also available for a fee, and during them, you can learn about Japanese culture and craftsmanship through a tatara experience, which is something rarely found at other forges, or the production of a nihonto, a Japanese kitchen knife, or a knife assisted by Hirata Tantojo’s artisans! 

*Please note that tours might be suspended during summer for safety reasons to prevent heat stroke.

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Immerse Yourself in the World of Nihonto - Japan’s Revered Samurai Swords

Known across the globe as the weapon wielded by Japanese samurai, nihonto are more than just simple swords! Learn about the history and complex production process at Hirata Tantojo, where master swordsmith Sukehira Hirata and professional murage Nodoka Hirata will be waiting for you with their incredible knowledge and passion for the job to introduce you to the wonders of traditional Japanese sword making! 

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Kanto Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Stefania Sabia
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