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A Japanese sword, or nihonto (??? or ?????, lit. Japanese sword?), is one of the traditional bladed weapons of Japan. These are categorised in several types according to size and method of manufacture. The most commonly known type is the katana, which, like the similarly formed tachi, is a single-edged and, usually, curved long sword which was traditionally used by samurai from the 1400s onwards; Wakizashi is the shorter sword; Tsurugi are double-edged long swords; Otachi or Nodachi are older but longer single-edged versions.
Although they are pole-mounted weapons, the Naginata and Yari are still considered part of the Nihonto family due to the methods by which they are forged.
Japanese swords are still commonly seen; antique and modernly-forged swords can easily be found and purchased. Modern, authentic nihonto are made by a few hundred swordsmiths. Many examples can be seen at contests hosted by the All-Japan Swordsmiths Association.
The word katana was used in ancient Japan and is still used today, whereas the word nihonto originated in China, in the poem ????(literally Song of the Japanese sword), the Song of Nihonto by the Song Dynasty poet Ouyang Xiu. The word nihonto became more common in Japan in the late Tokugawa shogunate. Due to importation of Western swords and culture, the word nihonto (literally “the sword of Japan”) was adopted as an act of nationalism.
Each blade has a unique profile, mostly dependent on the smith and the construction method. The most prominent is the middle ridge, or shinogi. In the earlier picture, the examples were flat to the shinogi, then tapering to the blade. However, swords could narrow down to the shinogi, then narrow further to the blade, or even expand outward towards the shinogi then shrink to the blade (producing a trapezoidal shape). A flat or narrowing shinogi is called shinogi-hikushi, whereas a fat blade is called a shinogi-takushi.
The shinogi can be placed near the back of the blade for a longer, sharper, more fragile tip or a more moderate shinogi near the center of the blade.
The sword also has an exact tip shape, which is considered an extremely important characteristic: the tip can be long (okissaki), medium (chukissaki), short (kokissaki), or even hooked backwards (ikuri-okissaki). In addition, whether the front edge of the tip is more curved (fukura-tsuku) or (relatively) straight (fukura-kareru) is also important.
The kissaki (point) is not a “chisel-like” point, nor is the Western knife interpretation of a “tanto point” found on true Japanese swords; a straight, linearly-sloped point has the advantage of being easy to grind, but it bears only a superficial similarity to traditional Japanese kissaki. Kissaki have a curved profile, and smooth three-dimensional curvature across their surface towards the edge – though they are bounded by a straight line called the yokote and have crisp definition at all their edges.
A hole is drilled into the tang (nakago), called a mekugi-ana. It is used to anchor the blade using a mekugi, a small bamboo pin that is inserted into another cavity in the tsuka and through the mekugi-ana, thus restricting the blade from slipping out. To remove the tsuka one removes the mekugi. The swordsmith’s signature (mei) is placed on the nakago.
In Japanese, the scabbard for a nihonto is referred to as a saya, and the handguard piece, often intricately designed as an individual work of art — especially in later years of the Edo period — was called the tsuba. Other aspects of the mountings (koshirae), such as the menuki (decorative grip swells), habaki (blade collar and scabbard wedge), fuchi and kashira (handle collar and cap), kozuka (small utility knife handle), kogai (decorative skewer-like implement), saya lacquer, and tsuka-ito (professional handle wrap, also named emaki), received similar levels of artistry.