3

A Katana is a single bladed two handed curved sword originating from Japan. A Longsword or Bastard Sword is a double bladed two handed straight sword originating from various European countries.

Many of the static stances used for the two weapons appear similar at least on a superficial level. Can anyone here comment on the actual differences in learning Longsword from ancient manuals and the living styles still practiced in Japan such as Kendo or Tenshi Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu?

3

I won't pretend expertise, but I have some HEMA experience, admittedly in parallel to SCA fighting, which has some different techniques due to different rules. My Kenjutsu credentials are slightlier shabbier, in that I did my training in informal classes at work, admittedly from someone who had proper accreditation with the local schools. I actually found my prior experience was a bit of a hindrance because of the difference in styles. I'll provide my input, in advance of more experienced people offering help.

A lot of it comes down to the sword

Other than the length, being edged weapons, and generally being wielded with two hands, the swords have several differences.

  • The katana has a single edge while European longswords generally has two.
  • The katana is traditionally curved, and more tapering while longswords are straight and tend to be the same width for most of the blade.
  • The katana is sharp along the entire length while the longsword generally has a dull part at the bottom.
  • The katana has a more abbreviated hand-guard, an oval guard, compared to a European longsword which will range from a simple cross-guard (arming sword) to a more comprehensive basket hilt.
  • Katana generally do not have a pommel and have a longer hilt
  • A katana is a bit less tip-heavy.

The first two qualities of the katana basically come down to one major issue, that Japan did not have access to high-quality iron. As a result, they used a folding process to create the katana, which resulted in a better quality of steel compared to what they started with, but still relatively brittle. Thus, the blade was blunt on side, to reinforce it, and the blade was curved to distribute the blow over a longer amount of time.

You don't chop with a katana... for long

Because the katana is more fragile, you really don't so much swing it into your target like a bat so much as that you make contact, and then you move the sword to slice your target. It takes a lot of technique to do this properly, and at higher levels, especially against a stationary target, it does look like a chop because you're doing one fluid movement where the slicing is done in conjunction with the contact.

This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the armor situation. Again, there was a lack of good iron in Japan, which meant that armor moved towards a lamellar design of multiple laced scales, often of leather, rather than the broader plates of metal favored by European medieval warriors. Part of European swordwork involved heavier blows because it was the only way to damage someone through heavy plate, striking them hard enough to dent the plate or to cause internal trauma.

You have a flat side on the katana to brace with

Admittedly, this is also something done in European longsword when you have gauntlets and vambraces, but it is more common in Kenjutsu for some techniques to use a free hand or forearm to brace your blade or to move it in a situation where you've become into too close of quarters. It does also mean that you also have to consider which direction you're cutting with.

Katana do more deflection than they do direct opposition

Again, down to fragility and differences of weight, there is a stronger emphasis on deflection with the katana rather than blocking with the edge (an exception is made here, of course, where you can arrange to block an unarmed strike with your edge). With the longsword, I was taught to block with the edge because the cross-section of the sword was strongest in that direction. With the katana, I was told a direct block would significantly chip, and weaken, the blade.

As more aspects come to mind, I will add them.

7
  • That's an interesting correlation that I'd never heard of: the slicing action of the katana is directly related to the quality of the steel. I guess we could then surmise that the ultimate shape was also related to the need to slice rather than strike?
    – slugster
    Aug 17 at 2:40
  • 2
    Yes. The stabbing is a bit different as a result, too, requiring kind of a curving motion when going in. The whole "folded steel is superior" thing is, I think, a way that all of that effort was used to justify the process. It does produce a method that moves the carbon evenly throughout the blade, but it's a lot of effort for the result. I probably ought to add a caveat that there are a number of people who state that the curve being part of the slicing effectiveness is more legend, and it has to do with the quenching process. Like I said, I was an amateur at both styles. Aug 17 at 2:56
  • 1
    I'm seeing a lot of interest in ricasso work with longswords. (Apparently, use in armored context was limited, but don't quote me on that!) Ricasso allows grip with unarmored hand, and appears to have been mainly used for leverage against polearms, which makes obvious sense. I personally don't like gripping that blade in that context against another blade without steel gauntlets. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the bracing motion for katana similar to Chinese saber, applied such that the bracing arm or hand is not exposed? Very different from gripping the ricasso.
    – DukeZhou
    Aug 18 at 1:21
  • 1
    I don't like bracing the blade like a single-edged with a steel gauntlet much either, even if the gauntlet should protect the hand. I have a 4lb Chinese two handed longsword, and that is a broad bladed beast, insanely sturdy, with most of the weight in the blade. But the HEMA sparers I've handled, and the historical designs they're based on, are a bit lighter and have much narrower blades, such that I wouldn't be confident the stress pressing like that can put on it.
    – DukeZhou
    Aug 18 at 1:39
  • It might also be worth mentioning the different types of armor and the style of fighting. Longswords are much more stabbing and clubbing due to the metal armor knights wore. Japanese were more lamellar and scale/ring mails.
    – JohnP
    Sep 8 at 14:20
2

One key is the shape of the blades. A curved blade naturally slides more across a target, making it easier to slice. A straight sword doesn't stay in contact as long unless you draw it across the surface. Naturally, then, the cutting technique has to be quite different. Straight swords make thrusting easier, while curved swords make cutting easier. The katana is less curved than some other cutting swords, perhaps to give more balance between cutting and thrusting, but it's more for cutting. The European swords were generally more for thrusting.

The stances might look similar because weapons in general have similar ways of wielding. For example, standing with your weapon in front of you, pointed at your opponents eyes, makes sense for many weapons, because it a) puts something between you and your opponent, and b) makes it harder to judge the exact length when it's pointed right at their eyes. It works for staves as well as blades.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.