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Katana (刀:かたな, Katana?) is the word for "sword" in the Japanese language. It is also used specifically for a type of Japanese backsword or longsword (大刀:だいとう, daitō?) in use after the 1400s: a curved, single-edged sword traditionally used by the samurai. Pronounced [kah-tah-nah] in the kun'yomi (Japanese reading) of the kanji 刀, the word has been adopted as a loan word by the English language; as Japanese does not have separate plural and singular forms, both "katanas" and "katana" are considered acceptable plural forms in English.

The katana was typically paired with the wakizashi or shōtō, a similarly made but shorter sword, both worn by the members of the warrior class. It could also be worn with the tantō, an even smaller similarly shaped blade. The two weapons together were called the daishō, and represented the social power and personal honor of the samurai. The long blade was used for open combat, while the shorter blade was considered a side arm, more suited for stabbing, close quarters combat, and seppuku, a form of ritual suicide.

The katana was primarily used for cutting, and intended for use with a two-handed grip. While the practical arts for using the sword for its original purpose are now obsolete, kenjutsu and iaijutsu have become modern martial arts. The art of drawing the katana and attacking one's enemies is iaidō.

Authentic Japanese swords are fairly uncommon today, although genuine antiques and even modern forged swords can still be found and purchased. Modern nihontō are only made by the few licensed practitioners that still practice making these crafted weapons today.

One of the oldest known Japanese forms of sword dates from the Kofun era (3rd and 4th centuries). The style, called Kashima no tachi (鹿島の太刀, Kashima no tachi?), was created at the Kashima Shrine (in Ibaraki Prefecture). Before 987, examples of Japanese swords are straight chokutō or jōkotō and others with unusual shapes. In the Heian period (8th to 11th centuries) sword-making developed through techniques brought from Siberia and Hokkaidō, territory of the Ainu people. The Ainu used warabite-tō (蕨手刀, warabite-tō?) swords and these influenced the katana. According to legend, the Japanese sword was invented by a smith named Amakuni Yasutsuna (天國 安綱, c.700 AD), along with the folded steel process. In reality the folded steel process and single edge swords had been brought over from China and Korea through trade. Swords forged between 987 and 1597 are called kotō (lit., "old swords"); these are considered the pinnacle of Japanese swordcraft. Early models had uneven curves with the deepest part of the curve at the hilt. As eras changed the center of the curve tended to move up the blade.

By the twelfth century, civil war erupted, and the vast need for swords together with the ferocity of the fighting caused the highly artistic techniques of the Kamakura period (known as the "Golden Age of Swordmaking") to be abandoned in favor of more utilitarian and disposable weapons. The export of katana reached its height during Muromachi period, when at least 200,000 katana were shipped to the Ming dynasty in official trade in an attempt to soak up the production of Japanese weapons and make it harder for pirates in the area to arm.

The Mongol invasions of Japan in the thirteenth century spurred further evolution of the Japanese sword. Often forced to abandon traditional mounted archery for hand-to-hand combat, many samurai found that their swords were too delicate and prone to damage when used against the thick leather armor of the invaders. In response, Japanese swordsmiths started to adopt thinner and simpler temper lines. Certain Japanese swordsmiths of this period began to make blades with thicker backs and bigger points as a response to the Mongol threat.[1]

In the 15th and 16th centuries, samurai who increasingly found a need for a sword for use in closer quarters along with increasing use of foot-soldiers armed with spears lead to the creation of the uchigatana, in both one-handed and two-handed forms. As the Sengoku civil wars progressed, the uchigatana evolved into the modern katana, and replaced the tachi as the primary weapon of the samurai, especially when not wearing armor.

The craft decayed as time progressed and firearms were introduced as a decisive force on the battlefield. At the end of the Muromachi era, the Tokugawa shoguns issued regulations controlling who could own and carry swords, and effectively standardized the description of a katana.

In times of peace, swordsmiths returned to the making of refined and artistic blades, and the beginning of the Momoyama period saw the return of high quality creations. As the techniques of the ancient smiths had been lost during the previous period of war, these swords were called shintō (新刀, shintō?), literally "new swords." These are considered inferior to most kotō, and generally coincide with a degradation in manufacturing skills. As the Edo period progressed, blade quality declined, though ornamentation was refined. The addition of engravings known as horimono was originally for religious reasons, and these were simple and tasteful. In the more complex work found on many shintō, form no longer strictly followed function.

Under the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate, swordmaking declined along with the use of firearms.[2] The master swordsmith Koyama Munetsugu (c.1802�1872); published opinions that the arts and techniques of the shintō swords were inferior to the kotō blades, and that research should be made by all swordsmiths to rediscover the lost techniques. Munetsugu traveled the land teaching what he knew to all who would listen, and swordsmiths rallied to his cause and ushered in a second renaissance in Japanese sword smithing. With the discarding of the shintō style, and the re-introduction of old and rediscovered techniques, swords made in the kotō style between 1761 and 1876 are shinshintō (新新刀, shinshintō?), "new revival swords" or literally "new-new swords." These are considered superior to most shintō, but worse than true kotō.

The arrival of Matthew Perry in 1853 and the subsequent Convention of Kanagawa forcibly reintroduced Japan to the outside world; the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration soon followed. The Haitorei edict in 1876 all but banned carrying swords and guns on streets. Overnight, the market for swords died, many swordsmiths were left without a trade to pursue, and valuable skills were lost. Katana remained in use in some occupations such as the police force. At the same time, kendo was incorporated into police training so that police officers would have at the training necessary to properly use one.

In time, the need to arm soldiers with swords was perceived again and over the decades at the beginning of the 20th century swordsmiths again found work. These swords, derisively called guntō, were often oil tempered or simply stamped out of steel and given a serial number rather than a chiseled signature. These often look like Western cavalry sabers rather than katana, although most are just like katana, with many mass-produced and in general slightly shorter than blades of the shintō and shinshintō periods.

Military swords hand made in the traditional way are often termed as gendaitō. The craft of making swords was kept alive through the efforts of a few individuals, notably Gassan Sadakazu (月山 さだかず, 1836�1918) and Sadakatsu Gassan (月山 さだかつ Gassan Sadakatsu, 1869�1943) who were employed as Imperial artisans. These smiths produced fine works that stand with the best of the older blades for the Emperor and other high ranking officials. The students of Sadakatsu went on to be designated Intangible Cultural Assets, "Living National Treasures," as they embodied knowledge that was considered to be fundamentally important to the Japanese identity. In 1934 the Japanese government issued a military specification for the shin guntō (new army sword), the first version of which was the Type 94 Katana, and many machine- and handcrafted swords used in World War II conformed to this and later shin guntō specifications.

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