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November 2007

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  • Japanese Swords: For Illustrators


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  • Japanese Swords: For Illustrators
    by Pierre Carles

    Why a feature on Japanese swords?

    Fantasy illustrators are often faced with the technical challenge of representing weapons and armor of various sorts. The most widespread tradition on which fantasy illustration relies is certainly that of European Middle-Age, in resonance with the cultural origin of most of today's classical fantasy themes and stories (most of them based on Nordic or Anglo-Saxon legends). Classical fantasy illustrations often have odd-looking anachronistic weaponry elements (like King Arthur, of early Middle-Ages legend, clad in 17th Century full plate armor). As historically irrelevant as they may seem to the expert, such images are familiar to the modern fantasy-lover, and in a way, feel "right."

    However, the spectrum of what can be defined as "classical" fantasy themes has changed much from what it was in the "golden age" of the 70s. One key element in this broadening of perspective is certainly the diffusion in the West of manga and anime (and Japanese Pop culture along with it). With it, a whole new visual and cultural vocabulary has been added to fantasy, leading to many cross-genre mixtures where classical western fantasy stories meet traditional Japanese settings or vice-versa (something often seen in recent RPGs, CCGs and video games). With that evolution, visual elements once seen as "exotic" from a western perspective (kimonos or katanas, for instance) are now part of common popular culture, something that the average fantasy lover may be attracted to or at least have a vague idea of. For the western fantasy illustrator, the job has become even harder than with King Arthur: most of us miss the relevant cultural references to make such illustrations believable (let alone realistic), and far too often, the resulting pictures, however visually pleasing, bear the mark of fatal cultural mistakes. To the average western client, these mistakes will be undetectable (and therefore not a real problem). Still, any illustrator is a perfectionist, and finding such a mistake in a long-published illustration can be somewhat embarrassing.

    This multi-part feature will concentrate on a key element in this new Asian visual "vocabulary": Japanese swords. This feature's aim is not to provide an in-depth knowledge of Japanese sword-making (a much longer endeavor and certainly off-topic here), but rather to offer a first general approach of the subject, to underline its key visual elements. Since this is such a fascinating topic, the next parts of this feature will indulge in a bit of technicality and history, too. One can only draw correctly what one knows well.

    This first part describes the various types of traditional Japanese swords, and their constitutive elements. I'll touch upon a few items dealing with technical reasons behind this or that part of the sword, but will leave technicality for the next article. Hopefully these technical elements will be no less interesting than the visual ones.

    We'll begin with a little vocabulary.

    Types and elements of Japanese swords

    A book on traditional Japanese swords will almost inevitably open with a diagram of a Japanese sword, with an incredible amount of labels naming each feature of interest. Every single part of the sword, every detail in the metalwork, seems to have a name of its own, based on a vocabulary even richer and more colorful than that used in wine-tasting (which should say a lot to the reader familiar with wine). To a certain extent, the excessive formality in the descriptive vocabulary soon loses the casual reader in its complex terminology. This article will concentrate only on the key elements, the ones that describe important visual or constitutive features of the sword (or at least, those of direct interest to the illustrator).

    The first thing to consider is the name of the sword itself. The word katana is now known by almost every genre-lover, but there is of course more to Japanese swords than just katanas. To make things simple, there are basically four types of traditional Japanese swords:

    • Tachi
      In medieval Japan, the word tachi referred to any kind of blade. The word katana (see below) came into use only starting from the Muromashi Period (late 14th Century). Any sword forged before that time should be called tachi and not katana. As one may expect from this little explanation, the word tachi is highly unspecific. Both medieval daggers and long swords were named tachis. Some were straight, some curved, some were meant to be used two-handed or single-handed, and some were purely honorific with no practical martial purpose (like 5-foot long ceremonial swords). Several elements make them distinct from the later katanas: long tachis are generally longer than later swords; long, curved tachis are one-edged swords, but unlike katanas, they were always worn at the belt with the edge facing down. The acts of drawing a long tachi and striking were two separate gestures (like with European swords). Typical late tachis are longer than 70 cm (27-28"), so most of the antique blades named tachi are long swords.
    • Katana
      Starting from the Muromachi period, a new style of curved swords came to be used: the uchigatana. The key feature of this style was that the edge of the sword was facing up when the sword was sheathed and worn at the belt. This enabled warriors to develop martial techniques where drawing the sword and striking with it was done in a single continuous gesture (an obvious advantage in close combat). Katanas are the long two-handed one-edged swords made in that uchigatana style. Katana is now also a generic word for swords in modern Japanese, the way tachi used to be. Katanas are frequently around 70 cm - long (27").
    • Wakizashi
      Along with katanas, shorter one-edged swords were built in the uchigatana style. Those were called wakizashis (literally "companion-swords"). Wakizashis were often worn alongside katanas, hence their name. Such a pair of swords was named daisho (literally "big-little"), and it became the traditional way for samurais to wear swords. In a daisho mounting, the wakizashi is usually about two-thirds the length of the katana (placing typical wakizashis in the 45 cm (18") range).
    • Tanto
      A tanto is a short, dagger-like sword, usually shorter than a wakizashi, sometimes straight, sometimes curved (unlike wakizashis, which are always curved). Tantos were used as companion swords with tachis and katanas alike, but became much less often used when the daisho style became widespread. Traditionally, a blade is named tanto when it is shorter than 30.5 cm (12").

    It is important to note that the terms in the above list would more accurately refer to "blades" rather than "swords". Indeed, blade and mounting are very separate things in Japanese sword traditions. It was very common to remount a blade, when the older mounting was worn out or damaged. Whatever the quality and artistic value of the mounting, the blade was the most precious element of the sword, usually inherited by descendants as a family treasure or offered as gifts to vassals by higher nobility. Hence, one will often see old blades mounted in anachronistic scabbards, without it being a problem at all. Orthodox collectors put their interest in the blade alone, and often have their swords mounted on a special bland wooden scabbard, so that no outside element disturbs the visual appreciation of the blade.

    Now for some illustrations. First, a typical Japanese blade, in the following photograph of a 12th-Century tachi (1):

    The first thing to notice is the curve of the blade. Imparting a regular curve on a forged blade is an extremely difficult task, but it has an obvious advantage: the blade can be drawn in a single continuous and natural gesture. Idealistically, the perfect curve for this would be a circle whose center would be the right shoulder of the warrior (when drawing the sword from the left-hand side of the belt). The balance and elegance of the curve is certainly one of the most important elements in the appraisal of a Japanese sword. The sword must "flow" out of its scabbard in the most natural way, and follow its course in an elegant and deadly strike.

    The blade is uneven both in texture and color. The part nearest to the sharp edge is clearly whiter than the rest of the sword, and the separation between these two parts is a very distinct line with a complex and unique pattern. That zone is called hamon. The hamon is the result of the forging process, and comes from very practical and technical necessities, which will be described in the next part of this feature. The hamon is only the visible part of the extraordinary forging process, which is possibly the most amazing technical discovery of the whole Middle-Age, as far as material sciences are concerned (call this a teaser :) ). When representing a Japanese sword graphically, the hamon should always stand out, and most of all should have a somewhat random-looking (although well-balanced) pattern. Hamons are like the fingerprints of the sword-maker: no two are alike, and a perfectly regular hamon would be an obvious sign of an industrially-forged sword. Not what you would want your favorite samurai to carry along, would you?

    Note also the particular geometry of the point (kissaki), again, very specific to Japanese swords. This particular (and elegant) shape is also a key visual element in order to make the illustrated sword realistic.

    Finally, a look at the tang, which looks somewhat cruder compared to the rest of the blade. The tang, of course, will be hidden in the hilt, secured there by a peg going through one or several rivet holes. The tang's crudeness is deliberate: it bears the unpolished mark of the forger's work (along with his signature, most of the time), and is an essential element in identifying the origin of a sword. Even the rust that develops on it would never be cleaned or polished. The tang should always testify of the sword's history, written in rust and metal.

    Mountings of Japanese swords

    Now to look at the mounting. In the following picture, a daisho mounting is presented ("big-little"), followed by a close-up view of the hilts. As any daisho, this set consists of a katana and a wakizashi. Notice first how the mountings of the swords are built as a perfect pair: hilt, decoration of the scabbard, every element is similar (or complementary) for each piece, only at a different scale fitting the different sizes of the swords. As can be seen here, the wakizashi is indeed about 2/3rd the length of the katana. (2)

    A closer look at the hilt reveals its characteristic wrapping with a silk cord, which makes the grip comfortable and firm at the same time. This wrapping is another key visual element, setting Japanese swords apart from all other sword traditions. Small metallic objects have been embedded into the wrapping. These are menukis, small metallic pieces. Menukis are works of art on their own, like tiny sculptures often worked into the shape of animals. Although some representations may have a symbolic significance, the menukis are not mere charms. They fulfill an explicit technical role and help the hand keep a firm grip on the sword.

    Another important element in a Japanese sword fitting is the guard, or tsuba (pronounce "tsoo-ba"). Although its protective function between the hilt and blade is pretty obvious, tsubas are marvels of craft by themselves, and come in a wide variety of shapes (square, oval, round, flower-like, and so on). On the most precious mountings, the tsuba is carved, embossed or shaped with various symbolic representations, often mixing several types of metal. A richly decorated tsuba can be a treasure in itself, and many collectors acquire tsubas for their own sake. Such an example is shown in the next figure. Notice the central elongated hole (for the blade), and the lateral holes made in order to make the guard lighter. (3)

    A very interesting collection of tsubas can be seen here (note that many tsubas in these examples bear strong connection with family crests, thus becoming sometimes elements of heraldry).

    Finally, we examine a key piece, without which the mounting itself would be impossible. As previously stated, the same blade may have several different mounts over the years, mounts being usually shorter-lived than blades (and usually of a lesser value, however richly decorated). But how does one fit a given blade in a hilt and a tsuba, given that standardization is impossible with hand-made swords? The secret lies in a very small metallic piece called habaki, which serves as an adapter or interface between the blade, the hilt and the tsuba. It is a rectangular-shaped metallic piece, which looks like a wedge from the side. It is wrapped around the blade and pushed inside the tsuba and hilt, so as to fill the gap between the blade itself and the tsuba. A peg going through the hilt into the rivet hole of the tang secures the blade, that peg being held in position by the cord wrapped around the hilt.

    In the following picture, a tanto is displayed, with its habaki clearly visible at the point where the blade meets the hilt. (4)

    Drawing the habaki is another essential visual element when painting a Japanese sword, the kind of small detail that will help the illustrated weapon fit the expert's expectations. One could think that a mere metallic wedge would be a very minor piece in the construction of a sword. However, habakis, like tsubas and all other elements of Japanese swords, are made by highly specialized craftsmen, however simple they may seem at first glance.

    Back to illustrations

    Let's end part one of this feature with a little trip to Japan's Edo period, in 1803, when an anonymous illustrator is faced with our challenge: illustrating swords. The following two figures are reproduced from a woodblock-printed encyclopedia meant for the Japanese nobility or warrior class (bushi) of that era. This 400-page book compiled everything that an educated person should know, including traditional and religious tales, classical go openings, the names and genealogy of the leading nobility and warrior families, the way one uses an abacus, the most important locations in Edo, the way a kimono should be worn... and, of course, this illustrated encyclopedia includes a large chapter on weapons and armors.

    First, a diagram of a sword with captions for each element, as meant for Japanese readers of 200 years ago. In the next illustration, that same sword is drawn to kill. (5)

    The next part of this feature will examine how Japanese swords were (and are still) forged, and discover the amazing patterns present on the surface of Japanese blades, like landscapes and clouds painted with metal. We will see how Japanese sword-makers 500 years ago mysteriously solved the equation for forging blades which were resilient, supple and deadly sharp at the same time. And we will discover the secret behind the hamon, that beautiful wavy pattern running all the way along the blade. See you next month.

    Illustration Credits:

    (1) 19th Century tachi (blade photograph courtesy of John Berta, subject to copyright)

    (2) Daisho mounting (photograph courtesy of John Berta, subject to copyright)

    (3) Tsuba from the late Edo period (photograph courtesy of John Berta, subject to copyright)

    (4) 17th Century tanto (photograph courtesy of John Berta, subject to copyright)

    (5) Illustrations from a Japanese encyclopedia from 1803 (author's personal collection)


    The author feels extremely indebted to John Berta from Canada for authorizing the reproduction of the beautiful photographs of his personal collection of blades and mountings.


    Pierre Carles Pierre Carles is a freelance fantasy illustrator who occasionally works as a theoretical physicist in the University of Paris. A long-time lover of Asian culture, he has recently studied Japanese culture more in-depth, in most of its traditional aspects.

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