Japanese Swords: Cutting Edge

Swords have a central role in Japanese tradition and are widely admired for their elegance, beauty, technical excellence and spiritual qualities. Steel swords were first brought to Japan from China and Korea between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. They were copied by Japanese swordsmiths and their curved, single-edged design was perfected during the Heian period (AD 794-1185). They were used as weapons by the samurai (warrior class) until the end of the nineteenth century.

Appreciation of the blade's beauty is an important aspect of Japanese aesthetics. Its unique textures are created by a complex manufacturing and polishing process. The sword is one of the three holy objects of the ancient imperial regalia, along with the jewel and the mirror. Swords are even honoured as the resident deity of some Shintō shrines. They can be dated according to changes in shape and length over time and swordsmiths signed their work, so it has been possible to make a chronology.

This tour looks at Japanese swords, their accessories, and depictions of their use from different periods. It was written to accompany the exhibition Cutting Edge: Japanese Swords, at the British Museum from 30 September 2004 to 8 May 2005.

Specially commissioned sword photography by Kishida Katsunori.