The Japanese culture is heavily imbued with the sword. In fact, one of the three objects of posession required to be Emperor is a sword. This Imperial Regalia has been handed down, generation after generation, to the ruler of Japan; the Jewel, the Mirror, and the Sword. The Imperial Regalia is held in the Shinto shrine at Ise, near the traditional home of the Imperial family Nara. The ancient legend of the Shinto that tells of the origin of the islands themselves refers to a bladed weapon which was dipped into the sea and the drops of water off of the tip became the islands of Japan. One cynic characterized the history of Japan as too many people fighting over too little land. The sword and its use was shaped by the history of the land and its people.
Japanese legend says that the gifted sword maker Amakuni was the one to develop the classically styled Japanese sword. Long, single edged and curved with a two handed grip. Amakuni is thought to have lived in about 720 AD. Prior to this time, the swords were developed from copies of Chinese and Korean designs. Straight, single or double edged, and usually two handed grips. Two things happened with the advent of the Japanese style. First, the blade became a very effective cutting weapon, even against armor. And two, its deployment changed which allowed the rise of a distinct style of Japanese Swordsmanship. About this time, the Imperial family moved the center of government from Nara to Kyoto, where it would remain for nearly a thousand years.
In order to cultivate and improve the sword, as a weapon and as an art form, two conditions were required. First, there had to be sufficient stability that swordsmiths could practice their trade with little disruption. Second, there must have existed sufficient unrest that development was required. For the first 500 years of the Japanese sword, both of these conditions existed. Most of the legendary battles of Japanese folklore occured in this time period.
At first, the battles were fought between the race we call the Japanese now, and the indigenous peoples, called the Ainu or Emishi. A hardy race related to the Lapps and the Eskimos, they were loathe to release their traditional lands to the newcomers. The battles were furious, and the leader of the Emperor's army was called the Taishogun, later shortened to Shogun, the ultimate military ruler of Japan. By the late 800s, they had been pushed back from the three large arable plains which constitute the bulk of Japanese food production and wealth.
Later, the Gempei War between the Taira and the Miyamoto clans, typified the wars between clans struggling for supremacy. The Miyamoto eventually won, laying claim to the title Shogun on their leader; after which the Emperor declared that only Miyamoto decendants could lay claim to the title. The zenith of the Japanese sword is usually considered to be the early 1300s; smiths such as Muramasa and Masamune being names commonly heard. Many consider Masamune's work to have been unsurpassed at any time, before or since.
After that time, civil unrest outstripped the ability of smiths to supply the demand. Quality dropped as more utilitarian quantities of blades were required. The years from the middle 1300s to 1600 were a very dark time for Japan. These were the years where the Imperial Court was divided into two, the Ashikaga Shogunate ran the country into disarray, and the "Hundred Years War." The Ashikaga also moved the center of the military government from its traditional place in Kyoto to their home in Kamakura.
At the end of the 16th century, three great generals arose, each in succession, and all unified the country under one leadership; Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and Ieyesu Tokugawa. When Tokugawa overthrew his last upstart rival in the battle of Sekigahara in September 1600, he unified the country under a government for the first time in 800 years. Because Ieyesu could claim Miyamoto blood, he also claimed the title of Shogun for himself and his heirs. His home was near Kamakura, and so he moved the center of government to Edo, today called Tokyo.
For the next 268 years, the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled the land in peace. And with peace came the decline in the practice of the sword. however, small groups of traditionalists refused to give up the old ways. The writings of these reclusive kenshi are still quoted today as examples of great swordsmen. Miyamoto Musashi, Tsunemoto Yamamoto, and zzz are still regarded as kensai (sword saints) in Japanese folklore. With the great peace, came the unemployed warrior or ronin (literally "wave man"). The Tokugawa tried to convert warriors into bureaucrats, to run the government. The Tokugawa may have ruled in peace, but they held an iron fist to do so. Part of their way to control the flow of Japanese society was to establish a caste system. There were four classes of people in descending order, samurai (royalty), farmers, artisans, and merchants. Those who traditionally were farmer warriors could no longer posess swords, only the samurai could wear the official badge of office, the sword. The Tokugawa also closed the shores of Japan to the outside world, executing all trespassers and only allowing a single small island near Kagoshima in the south to be visited once a year by Portugese traders.
This helped and hurt the sword, as the Japanese had been introduced to matchlocks by the Portugese in 1543. But with the closed borders, small enclaves still held the sword as the weapon of choice for duty, honor and Emperor; along side the bow and arrow. The saying, "kyu ba no michi" is usually translated as "the way of the warrior", but is literally "the way of the bow and the horse." In general, the sword and its practice continued to decline during this time in a gradual manner.
In 1854, American ships entered Tokyo Bay and demanded that Japan open trading with the west. the technology that the west had compared to the Japanese was quite considerable. Had America forced the issue, it would have easily destroyed Japan. Instead, Japan turned itself inside out culturally and technologically. The Tokugawa were terrified of the technological prowess the Americans displayed. Fortunately, the Americans had troubles at home and soon forgot the Japanese.
But the Tokugawa were being pressured by internal forces to overturn their rule. The only way the Tokugawa could see to preserve any measure of limited control was to return power to the Emperor. And so in 1868, the Tokugawa stepped down, returning power to the Emperor Meiji, beginning the Meiji Reformation. Japan had entered the industrial revolution.
The samurai were officially disbanded by the Emperor Meiji. Later, they were stripped of the official badge of office, the wearing of the two swords in 1877. This gave rise to the last great battle of the swaor, the Satsuma Rebellion in December 1877 through January 1878. The Satsuma refused to obey and fought the conscript government army (with modern weapons) at Kagoshima in the south. The samurai were killed to a man, and their martyrdom has become a poignant symbol of the swordsman.
The modern period of the sword has been charaterized by even greater decline. Samurai were forced to give exhibitions in order to try to earn money. more and more of them left the art behind, to learn new trades and skills with which they could live. Smiths began to fashion scissors and other metal implements. the old ways were fading away into history very fast, except amongst a small dedicated following...