The history of Japan's samurai warriors has captivated people around the world for decades, and in particular, the legendary swords they wielded continue to be featured in books, films and television programs. Renowned for their effectiveness and awe-inspiring craftsmanship, people continue to forge and purchase new samurai swords today; however, only the rare, authentic blades that were made centuries ago are considered to be priceless, national treasures.
The samurai were a class of Japanese soldiers who dedicated their lives to a code of honour called bushido, or "the way of the warrior," which involved a lifetime of martial arts training and strict discipline. The samurai rose to prominence in feudal Japan during the 12th century, by backing and then even usurping the political influence of noble clans with their military might. The samurai dominated Japan politically until the mid-19th century.
The Kamakura Period
The history of samurai swords is often divided into several time periods, spanning the pre-17th century era known as the Koto to the modern age, which is referred to as Shinsaku. The first half of samurai sword-making's golden age, however, is called the Kamakura, which took place from 1192 to 1336. While many of the blades dating back to this era are considered to be of particular high quality and are extremely rare, the most prized swords come from Masamune Okazaki, the most famous swordsmith in Japanese history. Masamune is credited with creating and perfecting a technique called nie, which embedded martensitic crystals into the sword's temper line.
The Muromachi Period
The other half of Japan's samurai sword golden age is called the Muromachi period, which lasted from 1337 to 1573. The era's most highly regarded swordsmith, and only second to Masamune in Japanese history, was Sengo Muramasa. The swordsmith's blades are renowned for possessing nearly identical looking sides and are a fixture in many Japanese legends and historical accounts.
Swords that were created by either Masamune or Muramasa are so rare and so valuable that they are considered priceless. In fact, a particular Masamune blade was declared a Japanese national treasure in 1939, and another from the swordsmith was given to U.S. president Harry Truman after the conclusion of World War II. The sword remains on display at the Truman Presidential Library. In 1992, a rare sword from the Kamakura period was auctioned in New York City for more than £260,000.