[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.
Tuesday, 28 July 2009
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: