Welcome to part two of our series: Samurai Facts vs. Samurai Myths and Legends. To help us separate fact from fiction, we asked Samurai Swordsmanship authors Masayuki Shimabukuro and Carl E. Long to answer the most common questions we receive about Samurai history and Japanese swords.
Samurai Myth No.1: The best swords are now made in China.
Samurai Fact: Not true. Many functional blades are made in China, the United States and other countries. Each sword is manufactured to fulfill a specific need, and some people desire a less expensive blade than is currently available from Japanese manufacturers. The most expensive and prized blades are still made in Japan.
Samurai Myth No.2: Test-cutting harms a sword’s blade.
Samurai Fact: Tameshigiri was the practice of testing a sword’s cutting ability. A proficient swordsman was called on to test the blade and give it his recommendation. Suemonogiri was the testing of the swordsman’s technique and was often performed by swordsmen of all ranks.
All cutting harms a blade in some way, either by dulling it or subjecting it to rusting or bending. Unfortunately, some test targets have the potential to do more harm than others. Hard targets can chip a blade, while soft targets can bend and/or corrode a blade. The greatest threat to any sword is the cutting ability of the user.
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Samurai Myth No.3: A bokken can defeat a sharpened steel sword in combat.
Samurai Fact: A bokken wielded by a more experienced swordsman might defeat another less skilled or less lucky swordsman who’s using a shinken. Miyamoto Musashi defeated many swordsmen using only a bokken, but it was Musashi who defeated them, not his bokken.
Samurai Myth No.4: A samurai would sometimes use two swords simultaneously in battle.
Samurai Fact: Several Japanese sword arts teach two-sword techniques.
Samurai Myth No.5: Japanese swords were always carried in a waistband with the edge facing up.
Samurai Fact: Incorrect. The tachi was worn edge-downward from a harness while wearing armor.
Samurai Myth No.6: The giant swords often seen in Asian museums, some of which weigh more than 10 pounds, were actually used in battle.
Samurai Fact: True. Some of these nodachi were employed against men on horseback during cavalry charges. Some were also made as ceremonial swords.
Samurai Myth No.7: You can find valuable Japanese swords at gun shows and garage sales.
Samurai Fact: It’s possible to find such “undiscovered treasures,” but they’re becoming more and more rare. Most of the valuable swords have been acquired by avid collectors during the past 40 years.
Samurai Myth No.8: Fingerprints will ruin a sword.
Samurai Fact: If fingerprints aren’t removed, the rust that forms will pit even the best of blades.
Samurai Myth No.9: Slicing through paper, which is often done to test the sharpness of a pocketknife, will dull the edge of a sword.
Samurai Fact: Cutting paper will dull any blade, including a pocketknife. In fact, cutting any material has the potential to dull a blade. Every blade is affected differently by cutting paper, and some dull more easily than others.
Samurai Myth No.10: Shaving off arm hair is a good test of the sharpness of a blade.
Samurai Fact: It’s also a good way to lose a massive amount of blood. There are better ways to test the edge. Touching a sharp blade to any part of a living thing isn’t recommended.