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5 Myths about Samurai and Japanese Swords


1. Folded steel gives the blade greater strength


Folding the steel is not a magical process that is needed to make the best blade in the world. The need for steel to be hammered down and folded several times comes directly from the fact that the blade material you’re working with is impure. Pure, homogenized, high quality steel does not need to be folded, and can in fact be weakened from the very act when not done properly. Folding is a process to remove impurities, and to homogenize the steel. In feudal Japan, swordsmiths used a material called tamahagane which consisted of iron sands and charcoal smelted in a clay tatara furnace. This blade material was very impure, with gaps in the steel, less desirable elements, and an uneven distribution of carbon throughout. You want the strength in a sword to be uniform through the whole blade rather than have one or several areas with concentrated levels of carbon, creating brittle weak points in the blade that could lead to the wielder’s demise if their sword is broken, and this is why traditionally made Japanese swords are folded, to even out the carbon content and create a blade free of impurities. Nowadays, modern steel is pure and folding is only done for tradition's sake and for the aesthetic of the fine grain pattern it creates on the blade





2. Samurai swords are razor sharp


If your katana cuts through paper like butter, and can split a silk scarf dropped on the cutting edge, you’ll likely be disappointed when you try to cut something harder like thick bamboo. You might cut through these targets with ease at first, but when inspecting the blade afterwards you’ll notice several chips and rolls along the cutting edge. Japanese swords were not made so they could cut through printer paper. A samurai depended on his sword with his life and needed his blade to retain it’s cutting edge even after cutting through his enemy’s bones and bashing against their iron armor. Traditionally, Japanese swords are made with a convex edge, called Niku, similar to how an axe is made. This way, the edge could still be sharp but also have great durability. Additionally, it could be resharpened many times, which is very important considering traditional Japanese swords take months on end to craft. Either way, most of a sword’s power is in the wielder’s precision and strength. In the right hands, even blunt blades can cut through tatami mats





3. Samurai were ruthless, savage warriors


While some samurai are known to have committed seemingly ruthless acts such as murdering their own kin, and testing their swords on prisoners, they had a serious sense of honor which they upheld to the very end; and they took this moral code further than any other warrior in history. Even before a duel to the death, they would bow before their opponent and fight with no hatred in their heart. They respected every object, their fellow samurai, and even their enemy. When one samurai had the edge and the other was defeated, the defeated samurai would take their sword and cut themselves across the stomach to preserve their honor. Once they had shown they were in agony, the victor would quickly behead them to end their pain. Not only that, but they would even take care that no passer-by’s would be offended by witnessing the rolling head on the ground





4. Japanese swords were folded thousands of times


You might have heard someone say that samurai swords were folded thousands of times. And if it’s on the internet it’s true right? Actually, this is a huge misconception. Traditionally, Japanese swords had thousands of layers but were only folded several times to create this effect. When you fold steel once, it creates 2 layers, on the next fold 4, and the next 8. With 10 folds, the steel will have around 1,024 layers. Most swords were only folded around 12-15 times, creating an average of around 20,000 layers. Very rarely up to 20 times, creating 1,000,000 layers. Once you get to this point though, the layers will start to break up and you are back to almost uniform steel. Again, Japanese swords were only folded to remove impurities from a less-than-perfect material. Once this is achieved, there is no point to continue the process with more unnecessary folds





5. Japanese swords can cut through other swords and gun barrels


Japanese swords can be very strong and still highly durable when well-made, but can they really cut through other swords and gun barrels? Not likely. Pre-modern guns were made of softer materials like iron alloys and brass, so that might have been possible at the time, but definitely not the quality of guns made today. Though there is nothing special about a Japanese sword that would give it an edge over a European broadsword for example. When two swords are put against eachother with a similar hardness, the thinner sword will likely break or bend first. Japanese swords were designed to be precision killers, not to clash full force against other blades. Samurai duels were not long, drawn-out affairs with blades meeting on each swing. It’s likely each samurai took only one or two strikes until the fight was over. A skilled samurai could spot the weak-point in an enemy’s armor and with one precise cut a main artery would be severed and his opponent would quickly bleed out