Article originally published in:
Military Heritage magazine, February 2002
Militaria: Japanese Swords After the Samurai
By Peter Suciu
Often misunderstood today, the sword continued to play a crucial role in Japanese military society during the Second World War
The prevalent image of the Japanese NCO or officer in the Second World War is that of him rushing the allied lines with his “samurai” sword drawn and being swung in the air. This is owed more to Hollywood imagination and contemporary military propaganda than fact but it is hard to think of the World War II Japanese army officer without the much recognized sword – and has become an image that is associated as much with the Pacific theater as the Japanese “Rising Sun” flag, perhaps even more.
Ironically most details of Japanese military swords of the era have been greatly misunderstood. The most common mistake is that the Japanese armed forces even carried and used a weapon referred to as the “samurai sword.” While the Regulation 1934 (& 1938) pattern army blades were designed to reflect the traditionalist and nationalistic ideology of Japanese culture of the early 1930s, these swords were not produced to in the same manner or even to the same degree of standards of blades fashioned during the Shogun era.
These are however the most familiar variety of Japanese military swords and are today referred to by the name shin-guntô (meaning new military sword), while the proper designation is “Type 94 (1934) pattern Army Officers sword.” This new model was believed to have been authorized in February of 1934 and was based on the traditional slung sword from the Kamakura period (1185-1332). And while the master sword makers that crafted the blades of the earlier eras did not play as great a role in the sword’s production, many of the WW II era swords are of the highest quality – especially those manufactured before the beginning of the war.
Additionally, among the Japanese infantry equipment of the period the soldier’s sword was one of the few items of especially high quality, in many ways calling up that image of the Japanese soldier as a samurai warrior. While their rifles, machine guns and other small arms were generally regarded to be vastly inferior to those of their American and European counterparts the Japanese sword was a highly respected weapon – even one that was particularly feared by those who worried that they might be on the receiving end.
The European and American influence
Japan’s status as the land of shogun and samurai lasted for many centuries and hence this is part of the reason for the erroneous beliefs that the bladed weapons used during the modern era were in fact those of the classical warriors.
Until the arrival of Admiral Perry and the U.S. fleet into Tokyo Bay in 1853 Japan had essentially been an isolationist society, which had been ruled by feuding clans of samurai warriors. In a few short years the country underwent a vast societal change that led to the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor to the throne in 1868 and the modernization of the Japanese nation. The ruling Tokugawa-clan shoguns were overthrown by and centuries-old feudal customs were abolished. Soon foreign military and industrial advisors arrived to help Japan take a place in the modern world.
This led to the downfall of the once noble and powerful samurai class – first in 1871 when the wearing of swords was made optional for samurai and then more drastically in 1876 which further abolished the wearing of swords completely. The era of the samurai came to a complete end after the failed rebellion by a former samurai, General Saigô Takamori, in 1877.
Even prior to this final sunset for the samurai, the Japanese were beginning to use equipment including swords that was of a Western influence. Beginning in 1867 French instructors were imported to aid in the creation of the modern Japanese army, and the influence was retained for decades in the appearance of the French-styled full-dress uniforms. After the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1872), German instructors were brought in until they were in turn, recalled in 1894. Additionally the British navy had an influence on the Japanese naval designs – both of their ships and uniforms. The results of the European advisors were fully demonstrated on the world stage during the Russo-Japanese war.
The standard officer and NCO swords of this period were therefore virtually indistinguishable from their European counterparts, and were mostly French or American inspired. The first apparent downside to these blades, many of which were mass-produced, was that they were overly flexible and weak. Therefore they were not up to the rigors of the time-honored kendô training by officers. Thus around 1900 the swords underwent a major revision and traditional manufacturing methods were reintroduced.
As a result many of the Japanese military swords of the late 1800s and early 1900s are a mix of mass-produced and traditional manufactured blades with even some ancestral blades being adopted for the newer styled swords. The most common type of army swords from the 1800s are of the 1871, 1873 and 1877 pattern varieties. Of these the 1877 pattern sword has the most utilitarian, non-Japanese appearance and was among the most mass-produced. Numerous variations of these swords appeared for cavalry troopers, and these also included mass-produced blades and Western-style assembly with D-grips.
A further variation known as the kyu-guntô, or proto-military sword, first appeared in 1874 – though probably came into more common use towards the end of the 19th century – and is noted for its more curved blade and double handed hilts. Surviving examples of these swords mostly date to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Officer swords featured gilt-finished brass hilts while non-commissioned officers carried a similar sword with plain brass mounts.
Additionally until 1872 there were no regulation naval swords and officers usually carried a traditional katana – the large sword that is also usually referred to as a “samurai” sword – tucked into their leather service belt. The first true Imperial Japanese Naval sword was a copy of the British naval saber of 1846. Swords were introduced for officers and NCOs of marines and gunners; with officers and flag officers having more elaborate versions including gilded brass mounts. A 1914 naval kyu-guntô was introduced with black leather, lacquered black samç or brown shagreen, and was reportedly carried as a matter of preference by senior officers during the Second World War.
The Shin-Guntô and the return of traditional Japanese swords
While the Japanese were particularly influenced by the military institutions of Europe and distilled much of the best of both the samurai and the European fighting traditions, they were able to develop a fighting force that could even compete successfully with those Great Powers. Once the island nation emerged from its international isolation Japan even began to imitate Europe’s imperialism as well as its militarism. Japan successfully defeated China and Russia in the first Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War and began its bid for a colonial empire on the Asian mainland in Korea followed by an invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
The strong nationalist feelings were reflected in introduction of a new sword in 1934 to replace the kyu-guntô with a more traditional and truly Japanese style of sword. “While European style swords dominated prior to WWII the adoption of shin-guntô style swords during WWII was due both to Japanese nationalism and to elevate the Japanese soldier to ‘Samurai’ stature within the culture,” explains Robert Grasso, owner of Kyoto Antiques. “In fact, many old family blades, some several centuries old, were remounted for use during the war.”
Based on the slung sword, this Type 94 pattern was the most common of all Japanese military swords carried through World War II with captured items erroneously being called “samurai swords” by the GI’s and others who brought them back home as war trophies. The hilt usually consists of a brownish wrap – but sometimes this tape wrap is green, blue or black – that is bound over white samç (rayskin) on a wooden base. Fittings consist of brass pommel and collars decorated with cherry blossom designs. The hilt can be dismantled and removed from the blade by taking out a bamboo peg that passes through the tang. The hand guard is cast brass in an aoi shape and decorated with four-raised sakura on each side. The guard may be solid or pierced – possibly depending on rank which is further determined by the tassel coloring. This tassel is tied around a brass or cooper loop fixed to the end of the hilt.
These sword’s scabbards are typically steel or an alloy and have wood liners. They are almost always painted green, brown or khaki while some have appeared in black, which was probably only used from 1943 onwards. There are examples of brown leather covers that have been stitched over wooden liners and have been termed “field scabbards.”
The blades of these Type 94 swords are a mix of machine-made, those of the modern hand-forged variety and even a fair amount of ancestral swords that have been “militarized” with the proper fittings. As a result there are numerous variations including those that are a mix of part-military/part-civilian swords, and even those that are a mix of navy and army parts.
A late war officers’ pattern shin-guntô was introduced towards the end of 1944 to conserve brass – an essential war material – and the hilt and scabbard mounts are made of blackened iron. Furthermore civilian wakizashi and katanas dating from earlier than the Meiji period were adapted for military use, especially towards the end of the Second World War.
Other late war or “emergency” swords are often found with hilts and scabbards entirely covered, and in some cases constructed from leather. Other swords were even made in occupied territories when regular supplies from the home islands ceased to continue. These swords are generally of poor quality and often were constructed from scrap steel and had little combat effectiveness. Off-duty soldiers or non-Japanese conscripts from Manchuria, Korea or Formosa may have made and carried them – as well as those who desired to own a sword but were forbidden to wear one by rank.
A totally mass-produced variation of the officers’ shin-guntô, possibly manufactured before the war in Germany or England, was issued to NCOs as a regulation requirement. These were first introduced in 1934 and feature a cast brass or aluminum hilt that is a copy of the officers’ pattern. The hilt is highly detailed and is painted to represent the color of the binding. The mass-produced blade is fullered on both sides and should feature a stamped Arabic assembly number that would correspond to the stamped number on the throat of the steel scabbard. This scabbard would usually be painted green or khaki.
A new naval sword was also introduced in the 1930s to conform with the new sword of the army, and this was based on the traditional tachi (slung sword). As with the shin-guntô, the naval kai-guntô consisted of a mix of mass-produced, hand forged or ancestral blades. The similarly produced scabbard was usually blue-black or plain black lacquer and no rank distinction is noted – even with the tassel, which was always plain brown.
The majority of Japanese military swords were brought back to the United States by occupying troops after the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945. Officers and NCOs carried more than a million swords during the war and it was not uncommon for an officer to own two or more swords. After the war Lord Mountatten, commander of the British forces, demanded that all Japanese surrendering officers hand over their swords at properly constituted ceremonies. It was necessary for senior officers to present their swords to the British or commonwealth officer presiding, while junior officers and NCOs laid theirs on the ground. American forces under General MacArthur implemented similar procedures, and it was forbidden for the Japanese to possess military or even old civilian swords – most of which were confiscated for distribution or destruction.
Collecting Japanese military swords
Following the end of the war Japanese military swords, again often referred to as “samurai swords,” became an area of interest for collectors. As a result of the sheer number of swords that were destroyed the collector’s market has seen prices that at times almost outweighs the demand. But because of the high cost and even more limited ability to find ancestral swords, collectors are turning to those produced during the modern era leading up to World War II.
“The market presently, as well as for the past two years, has been very lively,” explains Grasso. “In fact, the WWII Japanese sword market continues to climb and shows no signs of abating. The surge in WWII vintage sword sales is fueled by the high prices being realized for antique swords. Many collectors, both novice and advanced, do not have the high four to five figure cash outlay typically required to acquire quality antique swords. Thus, the WWII era swords offer a viable collector alternative where significant appreciation can also be realized.”
Because of the vast number of variations that turned up during the war it has also made it quite possible for quick-buck artists to sell reproductions as original items. Of note are highly detailed NCO and even a few officer swords that have appeared in recent years and are believed to have originated in India or Pakistan. These items are usually correct in nearly every detail but often have unsharpened or filed blades. Otherwise the creators have gone to great lengths to simulate wear and tear.
In addition the recent influx of “samurai” swords (along with other historical recreations) from Spain have flooded the market and made it hard for the novice to find authentic merchandize. While these swords would probably fool no one, and often appear in military surplus catalogs, more and more supposedly “vintage” swords are also beginning to turn up. “Typically the best advice is to become well educated in the area in which you wish to collect,” adds Grasso. “Many excellent references are available that deal with both antique and WWII era swords. The work by Fuller and Gregory on Japanese Swords of WWII is excellent. Also, local and national sword clubs offer sound advice to both novice and experts alike. Finally, most dealers are more than willing to share their knowledge with collectors both from the sales perspective and also to pontificate about their prowess with respect to Japanese swords.”
Almost ironic is that the fact that the first “fakes” where actually produced during the war by enterprising Australian troops who made high-priced “samurai swords” for souvenir-hungry American GIs. These, along with many of the modern reproductions, feature spurious tang signatures and pattern fittings that never existed. These are often misrepresented as the low quality “emergency” or home-made swords, so buyers should be especially cautious when coming across them for sale.
Before purchasing any high-priced military collectable the best advice is to do some research and conduct the transaction with a reputable dealer. And should you already be fortunate to have in your collection or to further obtain a sword the best advice is to consult a reputable dealer before cleaning or attempting to disassemble it. Blades should never be greased, touched by a hand or cleaned with abrasive materials. Rust on the tang (under the hilt) is actually meant to be there and can help determine a blade’s age.
The Japanese military swords represent an era of great triumphs and horrors for those from both sides of the Second World War. As with the true swords of the samurai warriors, these well-crafted blades (even those that were mass-produced) invoked feelings of honor and near invincibility to their owners and brought back the old spirit of the honorable and mighty warriors who carried them into battle.
Resources for collectors:
Robert and June Grasso
PO Box 528
Revere, MA 02151
4957 Lakemont Blvd. Southeast,
Suite C4 #328
Bellevue, WA 98006
Sources and further reading:
Military Swords of Japan 1868-1945
Richard Fuller, Ron Gregory
Paperback - 127 Pages Reprint Edition (1997)
Arms and Armour press; IBSN: 1854091832
Japanese Military and Civil Swords and Dirks
Richard Fuller, Ron Gregory
Hardcover - 288 Pages (1996)
Howell Press; IBSN: 1574270621
The Japanese Sword
Kanzan Satô (Translated by Joe Earle)
Hardcover – 210 Pages (1983)
Kodansha America; ISBN: 0870115626
Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Uniforms and Equipment
Tadao Nakata, Thomas B. Nelson
Hardcover revised edition (June 1989)
Ironside Intl Pub; ISBN: 0935554041
Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army
Meirion Harries, Susie Harries
Paperback - 604 pages Reprint edition (July 1994)
Random House; ISBN: 0679753036
Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military
Robert B. Edgerton
Hardcover - 384 pages 1 Ed edition (July 1997)
W.W. Norton & Company; ISBN: 0393040852