Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Katana Schmatana

Regular readers will know I'm not much of one for fetishisation of Japan. (See posts here and here.) So I was entertained to read this on tvtropes.org earlier today:

[T]he myth of the katana being a better weapon than equivalent European swords (namely the medieval longsword) is debatable.

Japanese swords use vastly inferior iron for katanas compared to that available for medieval European swords, necessitating costly and time-consuming efforts by Japanese master swordsmiths to remove impurities from the iron, such as the famous "folding of the blade". Folding iron is a common forging technique not unique to Japan, but Japanese blades were folded many more times than European ones to compensate for the inherent lack of quality in material. This created multiple layers in the blade that retain the edge even after multiple uses, hence the reputation for sharpness. Combined with the slight curved shape, this makes the weapon very effective for cutting, while allowing it to be used for thrusting purposes.

On the other hand however, European swords are just as good, if not better than the katana. Besides aforementioned better material quality, the longsword was double edged with a point, which was far more difficult to forge than a single edged weapon. The longsword is a much more versatile weapon, able to cut and thrust, and the cruciform hilt construction is a lot better for parrying off blows than the katana. Contrary to popular belief, many longswords of equivalent size were just about the same weight.

Cutting motions were of relatively limited use against armor. Sword designs begin to heavily diverge here, as Europeans wore increasingly fuller and heavier armor while the warmer climes and limited mineral resources of Japan remained wearing comparatively less armor. Consequently, European weapons began to focus more on stabbing to overcome more vulnerable sections while Japanese weapons remained the same.


  1. Interesting post. Practically everything you read assumes that the Katana is a superior weapon to anything else out there.

  2. Excellent comments.

    I guess it all comes down to what you want your campaign's realism level to sit at. I mean, if your game is at a Kill Bill level of realism, then a masterfully-crafted katana can literally cut an inferior sword to pieces with little to no effort.

  3. I laughed out loud the first time I read that on tvtropes.org. I could almost hear the collective whimper of fan boys and Japanophiles.

    The Highlander movies and certain anime have grossly inflated the abilities of the katana.

  4. That is why R&R uses pretty much the same damage rules as a longsword in S&W - I never subscribed to that myth either.

  5. Uh oh... do you realize what you're getting into with this post? I fully expect someone to come along with the urban legend of katanas slicing through gun barrels like warm butter.

  6. Re: cutting through gun barrels. Mythbusters tried this several ways, including using a super-heated (thus softer) gun barrel and a super-powered robotic arm to swing the sword. Busted!

  7. I don't remember who or where it was said, but I once heard the katana called a "bastard sword with a good PR campaign"

    In quasi-defense of the trope, tho, I think originally the superlative feats to which the katana was credited were more about how good the swordsman was than the sword itself. Hell, Miyamoto Musashi once cut a man in half with a boat oar, just for snorin' too loud...

  8. Underminer: It's the "inscrutable and mysterious Orient" mentality.

    Badelaire: The fetishisation of the sword in that film was fucking weird, I have to say. I've watched a lot of Japanese samurai dramas and yakuza films, and none of them are even half as bad as Kill Bill. Tarantino really has a hard on for katanas.

    Anonymous: Highlander! I'd forgotten about the katana in that.

    Mike D.: Good on you. Check out this article too.

    Brian Murphy: Well, seems like I've avoided that one so far, but early days!

    Scott Bay: Although according to the tvtropes entry, the Mythbusters did find that a katana could deflect a number of bullets.

    BigFella: Those boat oars eh? I heard that a well sharpened Japanese boat oar can cut through solid steel and deflect tank shells. Those Japanese boat oar carpenters have forgotten more about making oars than we Europeans ever knew.

  9. @noisms
    Why do you think row (to use an oar) and row (a fight) are spelled the same? All because of the Japanese!

  10. Next you'll be telling us that Chuck Norris is not actually capable of beating up ninjas.

  11. Chuck Norris once ate a whole cake before his friends could tell him there was a stripper in it.

  12. Well, didn't he make out quite well in Olympic Judo? He might be able to take down a ninja or twelve.

  13. Wrong. Ninjas would win. Chuck Norris votes Republican, meaning he is also a coward.

  14. In an average living room there are 1,242 objects Chuck Norris could use to kill you, including the room itself.

  15. 1,243 if you include this blog post.

  16. Just ran across the blog. Interesting stuff. I was going to send an email to comment on this and a couple other of your Japan-related posts at once, but I don't see any email address, so all the thoughts will go here.

    I, too, am a foreign gamer living in Japan, and like you, I just roll my eyes at the "kewl culture" raves and the "anime" obsession and the "katanas are awesome!" nonsense and the wild exoticism out there. I'm very happy living in japan, but "Japanophilia" is lost on me.

    Where gaming is concerned, I share your interest in the possibilities of gaming in settings that don't happen to be trendy. (Some related thoughts at http://www.gamesdiner.com/2009/08/gurps-banestorm-idea-enclaves )

    Looking at your post on gaming in Japan, it's interesting that we have some background in common. I also came to Japan "cold" (actually before there was any "manga craze" etc. (And on the topic of comics, I share your appreciation for – yes, I'll say it – early Garfield. I thought that was my secret shame alone!)

    I have nothing *against* games set in Japan or characters with katana or a well-made cartoon from Japan, of course. It's just that I look at any of those based on its own merits, not based on "ooh, Japan!"

    Anyway, regarding sharp things: I mostly play and write about GURPS, a game that had its own experience with katana exoticism. Although GURPS is well-known for its focus on realism, especially where tech and real-world settings are concerned, for years and years it awarded katanas, and the Katana skill, unexplained bonuses over inferior "Western" equivalents because – well, just because. They're just more awesome, right?

    But there were always objectors. The GURPS hardcore fan / online forum crowd is really smart on things historical and all things martial arts-related, and they kept calling foul. (For my part, I have home-made rules for deriving weapons' game stats from inputs like mass and length; my system explicitly warns users that physics alone, not an exotic name, determines final stats. http://www.gamesdiner.com/glaive3e )

    In the end, gamers appear to have been heard; GURPS 4e toned down the unexplained bonuses a lot. (And to be fair to GURPS, I've always felt its Martial Arts books did a fine job of recognizing non-Asian fighting techniques as martial arts, and detailing nifty examples like Renaissance-era rapier and cloak fighting. It's great stuff overall, with just the occasional lapse into exoticism.)

    I think that covers my thoughts. There's probably a lot more on katanas and "exotic" cultures and what not scattered around my site; off the top of my head, you might take an interest in a review of GURPS' fantasy background that I like a lot, except for – you guessed it – its cheesy "oh-so-exotic-Japan" land. http://www.gamesdiner.com/banestorm

    Anyway, please keep up the good writing!

  17. T Bone: Sorry it took me a while to get to this comment. I've been extremely busy lately and just put the email notification to one side and forgot about it.

    Anyway, it's good to know I'm not the only one. I'll be looking around your site with interest, although I have to admit apart from a 50p version of GURPS 3e I bought in a sale, I have no experience of it whatsoever!

    Cyberpunk 2020 I thought did an okayish job with non-Asian martial arts too. Boxing, for example, was on an equal footing with karate, kung fu etc.

  18. I think Space Opera might bear some blame for Katana fetishism in RPGs - Katana was a separate skill from Sword (?!) and the basis for Light Sword (lightsaber), which was the best and therefore standard sidearm. This before ninja-fever really took hold in the 80s.

    Even if you toted a blaster and aimed never to get into hth fighting, every Space Opera character would carry a light sword because it was so damn useful: it would cut through anytging in the gameworld, given time. For me, at least, that was my first intimation that a Katana might be regarded the same way by fans.