Ancient Japanese swords were straight and two-edged. During the 9th century, the “modern” style of sword, which has a single-edged curved blade, was developed. From this time on, sword making flourished in south-west Japan.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, widespread civil war created a great demand for swords. The samurai warrior caste arose during this period. The samurai carried a pair of swords, one long and one short, called a “daisho”. Merchants and others could carry a single sword but wearing the daisho was an exclusive privilege of the samurai.
The Emperor Go-Tuba, who reigned from 1183 to 1198, was a connoisseur of swords. He encouraged swordsmiths to develop their art and his reign was a peak in the history of the Japanese sword.
Between 1250 and 1350, swords were made by three swordsmiths, Goro Masahune, Toshiro Yoshimitsu and Go Yoshihiro, who are regarded as the greatest of Japanese sword makers.
In Medieval times, swords were tested by highly respected, expert testers. These tests were carried on on condemned criminals or corpses. Some twenty tests were prescribed ranging from severing a hand to cutting through the hips. An expert tester with a first class blade could cut through three bodies at one stroke.
From the middle of the 18th century, the art of sword making declined until early in the 19th century when Kawabe Suishinshi Masahide launched a revival which aimed to return to the 14th century model.
From 1876 until 1926, the wearing of swords was banned in Japan. From the early 1930s, rising nationalism led to the production of many swords. Almost every Japanese soldier during the Second World War carried a sword. Most of these were machine made of no artistic or aesthetic value.
After the War, swordmaking was banned and all swords were to be handed in. Many run-of-the-mill swords were destroyed but thousands of historical swords were saved. From the mid-1950s, swordmaking on a limited scale was permitted and many fine swords are now being made.