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Dan Kary





Joined: 12 Dec 2017

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PostPosted: Wed 13 Feb, 2019 12:25 pm    Post subject: Medieval Japan questions         Reply with quote

As I look at my bookshelf, I see a ton of books on medieval and ancient European warfare and weaponry. One thing that I've been interested in is comparisons of different cultures in this arena. I've always been pretty fascinated by clashes of cultures (even if we don't know much) such as the crusades (middle east and northern mostly), vikings in north America, Rome vs. various "barbarian" tribes, Greeks vs. Persians, the Ottoman invasions of Austria, etc.

Along those lines, I'm well aware that there is more to all this than just my narrow, Euro-centric, view. Lately, I've been finding myself wondering about Japan in this regard (medieval/ancient history) - I'll explain why shortly.

I don't know a damn thing, and I am well aware of that. So I'm here to ask some questions and see if I can get some answers or at least pointed in the right direction.

Wasn't Japan pretty isolated? If it is, this interests me a lot because I'm normally so interested in culture clashes (and how they dealt with one another, in terms adapting, stealing, etc. weapons, tactics, strategies and techniques). To find one that didn't have any/many would probably be pretty interesting to me.

It is my understanding that the medieval Japanese arms and armor was very eccentric (I don't know how to quantify this - I guess eccentric for me, but probably not for them) and specialized because it was more or less developed in an isolated tradition to be used against other opponents of the very same isolated tradition. In other words, my understanding is that they - compared to many other medieval societies - didn't have many clashes of cultures (maybe some with Korea, and Mongols/China?) and this explains, partly, why their arms and armor is the way it is?

How unique is their arms, armor, and fighting techniques? Surely there would have been similar advancements in their martial tradition to deal with universal problems. That being said, could German pick up a Katana, for example, and use it as a Kriegsmesser (and could a Japanese warrior pick up a Kriegsmesser and use it as a Katana) with some competence? Or is it just totally different?

I guess what I am asking for, in addition to these questions to be answered, is what resources are available to somebody who not only wants to learn the history but wants to do so from a comparative perspective (starting with a decent basis on the European side). Any help would be appreciated. This strikes me as pretty niche and I don't even know where to begin.
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Dan Howard




Location: Maitland, NSW, Australia
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PostPosted: Wed 13 Feb, 2019 1:40 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

The best book to start with is Arms and Armour of the Samurai by Bottomly and Hopson
https://www.amazon.com/Arms-Armour-Samurai-Ian-Bottomley/dp/086124415X

Author: Bronze Age Military Equipment, Pen and Sword Books
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Dan Kary





Joined: 12 Dec 2017

Posts: 73

PostPosted: Wed 13 Feb, 2019 2:05 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for the resource. Looks like I can get a decent used copy for a good price too!
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Craig Peters




PostPosted: Wed 13 Feb, 2019 6:45 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I can comment a bit about swords and martial arts traditions.

Yes, a Japanese soldier/samurai would have been able to use a kriegsmesser. While the shape of the weapon is obviously not identical to a katana or O-tachi (the larger version of a katana) the blade geometry is similar enough. There are really only so many ways you can make a sword that will function, and the combination of a spine plus a typically curved edge makes a kriegsmesser essentially the same as a Japanese sword.

Of course, when comparing weapons, it really depends what period you are looking at. I will compare the long sword and the katana, since I have better knowledge in this area. The two biggest differences in function of these two weapons are the absence of a second striking edge on the katana, and the absence of a substantial cross guard. These two differences in sword form account for many of the differences in fighting techniques. There's a number of actions one can make by attacking with the other edge that cannot effectively be done with a katana. Equally importantly, the guard of a long sword can be used as a way of keeping oneself covered once a bind has occurred while attacking the opponent. Obviously, this cannot be done with Japanese swords.

In terms of the martial art forms, the European sword fighting traditions are big on binding weapons, whether with a shield or buckler, with the sword itself, or with using one's body to bind the sword or the opponent's body. By contrast, there seems to be comparatively less emphasis upon binds in the Japanese tradition, and, compared with the European tradition, greater emphasis upon techniques that involve out-timing, out-reaching, and making sweeping displacements to deal with attacks. Keep in mind that I said "comparatively less"; these are generalizations, and need to be understood as such. Japanese manuals do tend to have greater emphasis upon one's mind and/or “spirit” when fighting, and how this can be used to one's advantage. The European manuals are very technical, and some can be decent at conveying strategy, but they cannot really compare in this regard.

For books on Japanese sword fighting, you'll of course want The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Keep in mind, though, that this text probably had very little influence on contemporary Japanese fighting. Nevertheless, it does give good insights into the Japanese approach, and of course, Musashi's approach. Another text is Yamamoto Kansuke's writings associated with his “School of Certain Victory” that is said to have influenced Musashi. One edition is Secrets of the Japanese Art of Warfare: from the School of Certain Victory translated by Thomas Cleary. I'll let other members make further recommendations about Japanese martial arts texts because these are the two I have.
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Dan Kary





Joined: 12 Dec 2017

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PostPosted: Thu 14 Feb, 2019 11:34 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks Craig, that's interesting. I wonder if a Japanese samurai would fare better with a Kreigsmesser than a medieval German solider with a Katana given what you've said about binding combined with a deficiency in the Katana when it comes to binding.

Good points about longswords and double edges, that's something I've thought too.

I've looked at German medieval manuals and I think you're spot on there too. What I didn't know was about the Japanese manuals. That's an interesting approach, I suppose. I'll certainly have to check out those books.
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Peter Lyon
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Location: New Zealand
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PostPosted: Fri 15 Feb, 2019 11:00 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Kary wrote:
Thanks Craig, that's interesting. I wonder if a Japanese samurai would fare better with a Kreigsmesser than a medieval German solider with a Katana given what you've said about binding combined with a deficiency in the Katana when it comes to binding.

Good points about longswords and double edges, that's something I've thought too.

I've looked at German medieval manuals and I think you're spot on there too. What I didn't know was about the Japanese manuals. That's an interesting approach, I suppose. I'll certainly have to check out those books.




It is not as simple as substituting one sword type for another, especially when discussing the katana and Japanese sword techniques, which were built around the strengths and weaknesses of the katana. Similarly, the different training of the European and Japanese warriors would mean they wouldn't be as comfortable using the other's weapons, so it is again not a simple substitution exercise. Flame wars have happened over debates about this.

The katana has an extremely hard edge honed for draw cuts in particular and a softer back to the blade. This makes it a superb slicing and cutting weapon, but it won't take abuse the way European swords could with their soft-to-springy-overall heat treatment. Strike with a katana edge misaligned to the direction of the cut and the blade can take a bend and crack the edge; European swords would ideally bend and bounce back. European swords might chip, gouge or roll the edge against hard targets, but that is often easy to deal with by removing the weak spot with a file to round-out the gouge; with Japanese swords, especially those profiled for slicing more than hard cutting/chopping, a chipped edge would be dealt with by cutting back the whole edge of the sword and resharpening it - this is why katana that have been heavily used and resharpened can become "tired" as the best materials are removed and the core exposed. There are whole books about the katana that go into more depth on this, the important thing is not buy into the mythology around the swords, they weren't magical.

Still hammering away
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Dan Kary





Joined: 12 Dec 2017

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PostPosted: Fri 15 Feb, 2019 12:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Let me first say it is absolutely not my intention to start any kind of flame war. I'm not trying to do anything except learn something - acknowledging that I know very little and that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing (when attempting to draw a conclusion).

I found your response illuminating, Peter. I think that if we look at what Craig said about the martial tradition, combined with what you've said about materials there are some interesting comparative points that I'd like to throw out there. It seems that each kind of sword (let's stick with Kriegsmessers and Katanas) although having a similar profile might not be quite so interchangeable considering the materials. In the European style, it seems that abuse to the sword was expected because of the martial tradition (for example, lots of binding) but less so with the Katana which is in the martial tradition that, as Craig put it, have "greater emphasis upon techniques that involve out-timing, out-reaching, and making sweeping displacements to deal with attacks". So it might be that mechanically they might be similar but they woudn't really stand up the the same abuse or have the same effect as they would should they be wielded within their indigenous martial tradition.

I kind of find this interesting because I currently hold the belief that weapons evolved in a process similar to natural selection; if it works, then it sticks around and eventually becomes better suited to its environment (medieval Germany, Japan, etc.). If it doesn't then it is abandoned. What you have, eventually, is highly adaptive weaponry within their respective martial tradition. Further, weapons, armor, etc. of all sorts affect one another in a complex overall martial tradition. If that's the case, my whole line of questioning might be silly in the same way that the following question might be: would a jaguar and leopard be able to thrive in eachother's environments? Yes, they both are jungle cats, but there are a lot of factors that account for real differences between them (for example how they hunt, avoid danger, etc).
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J. Nicolaysen




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PostPosted: Sun 17 Feb, 2019 6:42 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Japan was somewhat isolated during the Edo period under the repressive Tokugawa shogunate, but just before this, an influx of western weapons technology and materials really changed the shape, construction and durability of the armor that the samurai used. And for a long, long time before the Sengoku Jidai, Japan was heavily influenced by China through Korea, which is why the general shape of the Japanese single-edged curved sword (Tachi/uchigatana/katana/wakizashi) really resembles certain Chinese (and Korean) swords which I have forgotten the name of. Now Japan undeniably took all that swordmaking to perhaps the highest possible level that their iron resources and appreciation of various activities in the steel could enable. But I don't believe you can see Japan as developing these things only internally.

However, once down that road into the Edo period I do think given the conservatism, the decadence and the insularity of the time, the actual techniques of sword-making and -using, perhaps developed in isolation more as you see it. So many sword making schools and sword-using schools have a lot of diversity from each other, just as the various language dialects within Japan. But they all have a strong commonality with each other compared to outside the country that is "limited" for lack of a better word by the specific characteristics of a single-edged curved blade.

I'll check out my library and try to recommend some books.
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Andrew Gill





Joined: 19 Feb 2015

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PostPosted: Fri 22 Feb, 2019 12:09 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Pardon me coming to this discussion a little late.

I think one needs to distinguish between being able to use a weapon effectively in combat, and using it in such a way that the weapon is less likely to be harmed. I practised longsword for a few years (though I certainly claim no expertise), and I was fortunate to be able to occasionally compare notes with friends who practised kenjitsu. There were certainly some technical differences in techniques, doubtless quite important, but the governing principles were similar, as were many of the basic stances and techniques.

I suspect that a European knight would be inconvenienced by the lack of a crossguard and shortness of a katana, and perhaps a samurai would find the guard an impediment (though I am willing to be corrected on this) - in other words, there would definitely be disadvantages associated with using an unfamiliar weapon. But a competent martial artist would be able to use the weapon effectively to defend himself. Whether the sword used would have been damaged in the process is a secondary consideration, except in the extreme case of sudden and complete catastrophic failure of the weapon. The weapon is a tool, and can be repaired or replaced.

Consider the images from Paulus Hector Mair's 16th century fencing manual. If German fencers were able to use ungainly scythes and sickles effectively as weapons, following the same principles used for longsword, messer and staff, using a Katana would be trivial by comparison. And I have no reason to believe that competent Japanese martial artists would be any less capable of adaptation. Also note that traditional scythes apparently have quite fragile, thin edges, which are probably much more susceptible to damage than a katana blade.

Finally, while I cannot claim the expertise of Peter as a professional swordsmith, I would suggest the following caveat to his comments - these may be true in general, for a very specific time period, but even so, neither the swords of medieval or renaissance Japan or Europe were made with any consistency - they could not be, given the technology and metallurgy of the time. There are reliable accounts of Japanese swords cutting through large human bones and even cutting shallow grooves into helmets without damage, and conversely, there are also many accounts of European swords breaking in combat. And many the other way round as well, of course. The skill of the individual smith was probably more important than the nation of origin of the weapon in deciding its ability to survive abuse.



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Dan Kary





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PostPosted: Fri 22 Feb, 2019 9:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Good points to consider.

Here is another one that is coming up for me (though perhaps veering off topic): Japanese swords were laminated to get impurities out of inferior iron deposits, right? I seem to recall reading that early Germanic/Celtic swords used pattern welding for a similar reason.

Eventually, in Europe, it seems that European swords in the middle ages used much better steel and so you saw mono steel swords and you didn't really see pattern welding/lamination in those swords (I have a hard time imagining a landsknecht carrying around a pattern welded zweihänder!).

Was there a point where this happened in Japan? It sure seems to me that people even to this day like to have a Japanese sword that is laminated. Is this just stubborn adherence to tradition? What's going on here?
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Timo Nieminen




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PostPosted: Fri 22 Feb, 2019 7:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Dan Kary wrote:
Here is another one that is coming up for me (though perhaps veering off topic): Japanese swords were laminated to get impurities out of inferior iron deposits, right? I seem to recall reading that early Germanic/Celtic swords used pattern welding for a similar reason.


There are two very different things here:

1. Folded steel, where the steel is folded to get rid of impurities.

2. Laminated blades, where blades are made of different types of iron and/or steel welded together.

These serve different purposes. Folding steel (1 above) is to get rid of impurities and to produce a more homogeneous steel. First, if you use a bloomery furnace to produce the steel, the product is a spongy mass full of slag. The steel is folded repeatedly to get rid of the slag. This has nothing at all to do with inferior iron deposits, just the type of furnace used for steelmaking. Everybody who used bloomery furnaces folded their steel, whether in Japan, China, India, Africa, or Europe. It's a standard part of the getting a usable product from a bloomery.

Japanese iron deposits were high quality, but since they used a bloomery furnace (the Japanese version being the tatara), they folded their steel.

Second, you also fold steel to make it more homogeneous. Thus, even when the slag content was low, e.g., because the initial product was cast iron (usually still liquid) from a blast furnace, the process of converting this to steel didn't produce a homogeneous product, and the steel was folded. In this case, it isn't necessary to fold it as many times as bloomery steel. Low-slag steels like this that were folded include crucible steels like wootz and bulat/pulad, Chinese decarburised cast iron, and early European Industrial Revolution steels. Only with the development of Industrial Revolution "cast steel" (Huntsman's crucible steel and similar) did folding become unnecessary.

Laminated blades (2 above) have nothing to do with impurities. They can be made for purely decorative purposes, or to use more cheap iron and less expensive steel for a blade, but perhaps the most important reason was that it made heat treatment more reliable. Modern heat treatment uses known steels with known response to heat treatment. The blade is heated, quenched, and tempered. Often, traditional heat treatment didn't use a separate tempering step, with tempering as the result of an interrupted quench (slack quenching) tempering the blade through retained heat (auto-tempering). An all-steel sword can result in a brittle blade if the tempering is insufficient. Laminated construction lets you use an iron body which won't harden (and become brittle) with steel edges (which will harden). Lamination was a very widely used technique, with lamination techniques such as a welded steel edge on an iron body, a central steel plate with iron sides (Japanese sanmai, Chinese sanmei), and a steel skin over an iron body (Japanese kobuse) being used in Japan and Europe, and in many places in-between.

Japanese swords have a reputation for being very hard-edged with soft bodies, and European swords have a reputation for being all-steel and spring-tempered. Until the late Medieval period, there wasn't that much difference between them. For European swords, see Williams, Alan. Sword and the Crucible : A History of the Metallurgy of European Swords up to the 16th Century, BRILL, 2012. Lots of detail on lots of swords. Mono-steel construction only appears at the very end of the Medieval period (in the 15th century), and only becomes usual post-Medieval (and, until Industrial Revolution cast steel, these monosteel swords are made from folded steel). After the Industrial Revolution, then this hard-edged-and-laminated vs springy-monosteel stereotype becomes true. The other side of the equation is Japanese swords - there were many that were not so hard-edged, with hardnesses (and carbon contents, and lamination types) similar to steel-iron laminated European swords.

Dan Kary wrote:
Eventually, in Europe, it seems that European swords in the middle ages used much better steel and so you saw mono steel swords and you didn't really see pattern welding/lamination in those swords (I have a hard time imagining a landsknecht carrying around a pattern welded zweihänder!).


As noted above, the monosteel swords were still folded. From table 1 in Williams (pg 233), half of the 16th century swords he examined were of laminated construction (and the other half monosteel). Williams gives some details for a large Zweihänder (pg 236) - appears to be monosteel, and of relatively low hardness (325VPH = 33HRC). The hardest edges Williams reports are about 57HRC, with softer bodies/cores - these are differentially hardened with results similar to good quality hard-edged Japanese swords. The differential hardening was probably done by slack-quenching, rather than Japanese-style clay coating, but the end result is similar. One sword from the Mary Rose (Henry VIII's ship) has Japanese-style kobuse lamination, with edges of about 55HRC and a core of 28HRC - metallurgically, there is nothing notably different between it and a good katana.

"In addition to being efficient, all pole arms were quite nice to look at." - Cherney Berg, A hideous history of weapons, Collier 1963.
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Dan Kary





Joined: 12 Dec 2017

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PostPosted: Fri 22 Feb, 2019 10:02 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Wow, that is a really nice summary, Timo. Thanks!
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