Katana. To Hi or not to Hi

Discussion in 'Weapons' started by Paddleincircles, Apr 27, 2016.

  1. Paddleincircles

    Paddleincircles Valued Member

    I suppose this is aimed at Iai practitioners, but happy to hear opinions from those with knowledge of the Katana with regards to production and history too....

    I am looking to purchase my first Shinken sometime in the next 12 months or so (I use an iaito just now for iai).

    Some of the little things I've come across in my reading etc and needed a decision made on them are as follows.

    1. The placement of the mekugi. I have found that most forges seem to put them the opposite side of the tsuka from the hand. I believe that they were originally supposed to be under the palms to aid grip though I may be wrong?
    With this in mind I think I may ask for them to be placed under the palms rather than opposite them (is this gyaku mekugi?). Does anybody have any thoughts or information on this they would share with me?

    2. Spring steel seems on the face of it to be a good choice of steel because of its inherent strength, and ability to perhaps shrug off the ineptitude of the beginner during tameshigiri. Though during a chat with a forge via email, it seems that the creation of a natural hamon via clay quenching (apologies if that terminology isn't correct) doesn't happen, and so acid etching is done which I do not want. Again any input gratefully recieved!!

    3. Lastly though I am being offered differing advice/opinions on the including of Hi to the blade during production. My Sensei believes it is a very useful tool with regards to Iai. However with this being a Shinken I will not use it as such for a long time.
    The forge I spoke to said that it is purely a matter of personal choice.
    I think that I prefer the look of a blade with a Hi, but I have never even held (let alone used) one without.
    I would just like to hear people's thoughts on the matter, and whether or not it has been a decision anybody else has ever had to put thought into?

    Thanks for any response!!!
  2. Heraclius

    Heraclius BASILEVS Supporter

    I'll chuck in my 2 cents. Can't say anything about the mekugi off the top of my head, as my sword has a katate maki wrap:

    2. My understanding is that the springiness of swords is caused by tempering, which is a method of heat treatment to create a blade which has a hard edge without being too brittle. A hamon is made by yaki-ire, which is a completely different process to give the sword the same properties. I assume that tempering a sword with a hamon would destroy the hamon and yaki-ire-ing (?) a spring tempered sword would remove the springiness. Of course I could stand to be corrected by someone with more knowledge on the subject. At any rate, I don't like artificial hamon, so if I was set on spring steel I would probably just go without.

    3. There are stories saying that you can tell whether your sword is aligned by the whistling sound made by the bo-hi. There are also stories of old Japanese swordsmen who didn't like bo-hi because they believed the whistling would give them away if they tried a sneak attack. The main reason why any sword has such a feature is to reduce weight. How heavy you want your sword is really down to preference, although do take on board what your sensei says, especially if you're a beginner. And bear in mind that a shinken is a lot heavier than an iaito anyway, all else being equal. My own shinken is a long (2 shaku 7 sun, or 32 inches) shinogi-zukuri with no bo-hi, and it is heavy. It took me months to adapt to the weight - and that was from having used a similarly long unokobi-zukuri shinken (like this)
    Now personally I think that heavy blades suit Japanese swords, but it is certainly a handful.

    The other thing to say is that there is a perception that bo-hi somewhat reduce the strength of the sword. But, even if this is the case, I doubt you'll be doing anything with it that would make this a consideration.
  3. matveimediaarts

    matveimediaarts Underappreciated genius

    WRT weight as mentioned above^^

    The shinken blades I've used are not significantly heavier than my iaito. The biggest difference I've noticed is that shinken tend to have larger tsubas.

    Your sensei probably knows better about what you need for your level than I do, so it's probably better to ask him.

    What is the "hi" you speak of? I've never seen this on a sword diagram. The "ha" is the sharp edge of the blade.

    Anyhoo, hope you find the blade you seek! :) Try some cutting before you decide to keep it, though. :hat:
  4. Paddleincircles

    Paddleincircles Valued Member

  5. pgsmith

    pgsmith Valued dismemberer

    Answers from my own experiences and research ...

    Regarding mekugi ... they were originally ornaments on the pins holding the handle on back before the elaborate wrappings were developed. They are still sometimes used that way on tanto that do not use the wrap method. Some schools advocate installing them reversed so they fit as palm swells, but the vast majority do not. I have used swords in both configurations, and can say that it made zero difference to me personally.

    Regarding reasons for bo hi ... they were traditionally installed in a sword for any of a number of reasons. A smith could remove a welding flaw with bo hi. They are a good way to adjust the balance of the blade without changing the geometry. They are a good way to drop the weight without overly compromising the integrity of the blade. Installing hi will shift the weight of the blade back toward the tsuka, making it a faster blade. The stories of old Japanese swordsmen who didn't like bo-hi because they believed the whistling would give them away if they tried a sneak attack are bogus, and proliferated by people that don't practice sword. The whistle (tachi kaze) occurs just before your sword reaches its maximum speed. This is also the instant just before the sword makes contact with the target, and the target will have no opportunity to make any sort of movement in that brief fraction of a second.

    Regarding the weight and integrity of a blade with bo hi ... a sharp steel sword is not necessarily heavier than an iaito, although they certainly can be. My regular practice sword that I use daily is a shinken made in Cambodia (Citadel swords) and is both lighter and less tip heavy than my iaito (Swordstore). That being said, it depends upon what you are planning to do with the sword. If you are going to be using it for kata, then I would recommend having bo hi, as this will help you avoid repetitive stress injuries. If you are going to be using your shinken primarily for tameshigiri, then I recommend getting one without bo hi for two reasons ... first is that the lack of bo hi will move the weight more toward the tip, making it easier to properly use the weight of the sword to perform the cut. This is something that most beginners struggle with. Second is that a sword without bo hi is stronger, and so more forgiving of a bad cut. Too much muscle combined with poor hasuji (proper alignment of the cut and the sword blade) will result in a bent sword much easier when there are bo hi.

    Regarding spring steel ... That is a misnomer and a bit confusing. Just about any high carbon steel can be made into spring steel. It actually refers to the micro-crystalline structure of the steel attained through hardening. Bainite is a springy structure that is tough and holds its shape. To make a sword blade into bainite, it has to be through hardened to a Rockwell hardness rating in the mid to upper fifties. This makes the steel resilient and springy so it doesn't hold a bend. The traditional Japanese sword is coated in clay before quenching in order to achieve what is termed "differential hardening". The clay coating allows the sword edge to harden very hard (Rockwell hardness in mid sixties), while the spine of the sword stays soft to absorb shock (upper forties). The harder you make the steel, the more brittle it becomes, so it requires the soft back to prevent it from cracking. This means that the hard edge can get very sharp, and hold that edge. It also means that the soft spine allows it to bend and take a set on a bad cut. This difference in the hardness of the steel is what is brought out by the polish and forms the hamon. A through hardened sword will not have a hamon because the steel is all the same hardness. My dojo cutter that I let students borrow is a through tempered sword. It cuts well and doesn't bend, but it requires more maintenance because it needs to be sharpened regularly.

    There you go, probably more than you wanted.
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2016
  6. Paddleincircles

    Paddleincircles Valued Member

    A great post! Thankyou for that it will definitely feature in my decision when the time comes.
    Out of interest can you recommend any good books on the subject? I have a few but I'm always interested to read something new.
  7. Count Duckula

    Count Duckula Valued Member

    I cannot help you with the mekugi question. With the steel however, I can.

    Spring steel is a very general term which doesn't mean anything. Or rather, it can mean anything the smith wants it to mean. You'll have to ask the specific designation such as L6, C60 or C75, etc. There are many different options and while they are different, heat treatment (hardening and tempering) are vastly more important.

    Bo hi vs no bo hi is basically a matter of weight. It decreases the weight while not removing too much strength or rigidity, which is good for iai. But if you're going to use it for tameshigiri, the weight might be a good thing to have.

    What sword to buy is a difficult question, and depends on what you want to use it for, and what your budget is. If you have a sword commissioned, be sure to get references on a place like swordforum to see if the smith knows what he is doing, and not just selling sizzle. I could easily make something that looks like a sword, but that wouldn't necessarily make it a sword, especially not for hitting stuff with it. Als be sure to check if the smith can work to the dimensions you want to have.

    As I said, do some research before trusting a smith. Howard Clark is a professional sword smith and a good friend of mine. I have one of his swords on its way to another professional for mounting. I would definitely recommend him for a sword that combines art and quality. By the time they are finished they can be quite pricey though, so maybe not something for your first tameshigiri experience.
  8. pgsmith

    pgsmith Valued dismemberer

    Books I liked regarding Japanese swords ...

    The Japanese Sword by Kanzan Sato
    The Art of the Japanese Sword by Yoshindo Yoshihara and Leon Kapp
    I also liked the Craft of the Japanese Sword by Yoshindo Yoshihara, but there's a bit of overlap between the two books.

    That's cool! I have one of Howard's blades in 1086 that is in need of polishing and mounting myself. Out of curiosity, who do you have doing the work?
  9. Paddleincircles

    Paddleincircles Valued Member

    Thankyou Count Duckula, that's some great information!

    Pgsmith, thanks for the book recommendations, I'll take a look at them. Need a couple of books for the flight to Australia I have coming up soon....
  10. Paddleincircles

    Paddleincircles Valued Member

    Just had a look at Howard's website. They look like lovely blades!

    It's a pity I don't live in the states. I had an email conversation with Walter Sorrels about the possibility of commissioning a daisho. Sadly he is unable to commit to this as he has a backlog of orders.
    I asked him about his experience of shipping blades to the uk. He said that he has had a mixed bag of luck because of the customs this end damaging blades, and sometimes keeping hold of them for extended periods before sending them back to the U.S.

    I think that rules out any purchase from America sadly.

    I had looked RGW katana (U.K site but using a dedicated forge in China which actually forges the blades). I hadn't as yet found anybody in the U.K that produces high ish quality swords so I'm a little stuck!

    Still. Plenty of time to do my homework!!!
  11. Count Duckula

    Count Duckula Valued Member

    Chris Osborne in the US. He has done quite a few of Howard's swords.
  12. jameswhelan

    jameswhelan Valued Member

    Mekugi are the bamboo rivets.
    The ergonomic talismans are called menuki.
  13. pgsmith

    pgsmith Valued dismemberer

    Ha! You are absolutely correct. I knew what he was talking about and didn't stop to think about it, I just perpetuated the error. Talk about not thinking before writing! :)
  14. Paddleincircles

    Paddleincircles Valued Member

    Ah yes! Apologies that was just a moment of not thinking! :bang:

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