The katana is one of the world’s most beautiful swords. Steeped in legend, these bladed weapons scream of valor, discipline, loyalty, and divinity. And that’s why an authentic katana commands a hefty price, with some costing as much as $400,000.
Unfortunately, katana’s price and popularity also spawn replicas and counterfeits. While replicas aren’t “bad,” fake ones are very troubling. Counterfeit or fake katana passes off as a real sword, including its price. Sadly, first-time katana buyers cannot distinguish real vs fake katana swords.
So, how can you spot an authentic Japanese sword from a counterfeit blade? This article enlightens you on the issue and answers a few other riddles. Please read on.
Characteristics of a Real Katana
Differentiating between a real katana and a counterfeit sword is easy if you know the qualities and unique attributes of a genuine katana.
Forged and Crafted by a Duly-trained and Certified Japanese Katana-kaji
Japanese swordsmiths are more than blade-workers. They are artisans who dedicate their lives to learning the different processes and techniques of turning a big chunk of raw metal into one of the world’s finest swords.
Although swordmaking involves smelting, hammering, forging, and shaping, Japanese swordsmiths (katana-kaji) observe centuries-old techniques and old-school traditions to preserve the katana’s artistic value.
Hence, katana-kaji undergo a rigorous five- to seven-year apprenticeship. Only then can the katana-kaji start forging Japanese swords (i.e., katana, wakizashi, and tanto).
Any Japanese sword crafted or forged by an unlicensed swordsmith is either a replica or a fake katana.
Tamahagane Steel Blade
Legend says if a katana doesn’t have tamahagane, it isn’t a genuine katana.
For centuries, Japanese katana-kanji only relied on the painstaking labor of ironsand (satetsu) harvesters. They process satetsu in large, single-use clay furnaces called tatara. Over three days, smelters continuously add raw satetsu into the lava-like mixture, allowing the metals to harden.
Although some modern swordsmiths no longer use tatara, satetsu and tamahagane remain fundamental to making a katana.
Historical and Artistic Value
Often, a real katana has one of two things in the tang (nakago) – the swordsmith’s name (or signature) or the blade’s origin, including school or region and date of creation. These attributes define the katana’s historical value. The older the blade is and the more famous the swordsmith, the greater the katana’s value.
There are some authentic katana made in Japan without any signature on the Nakago, we can identify them doing the Kantei which is studying the sword. Thanks to the sugata (sword shape), hamon, size and other details, it is possible to decide on sword period and school. Sometime, even a smith.
Likewise, genuine katana have distinct design elements no replica or counterfeit swords can recreate or match.
For instance, the unique temperline pattern (hamon) can only come from meticulous clay tempering. The blade’s unique forging pattern (jihada) is also discernible. Counterfeits can recreate other design elements, but the hamon and jihada are nearly impossible.
Certificate of Authenticity
The Japanese love their katana and other Japanese swords, like the tachi, tanto, and wakizashi. Hence, they’ll do everything to have their creations evaluated, classified, and certified by Japan’s Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai.
Established in 1948, the NBTHK evaluates and appraises all Japanese-made swords and classifies them according to four levels of artistic and cultural significance.
The highest level of artistic value receives the Tokubetsu Juyo Token classification and certification, while the second-best sword has a Juyo Token certificate. It’s worth noting that, of Japan’s 10,000 Juyo Token swords, only about 700 are Tokubetsu Juyo Token.
Hozon and Tokubetsu Hozon swords form the two lowest ranks in NBTHK’s blade artistic value hierarchy. But it doesn’t mean these katanas are fake or replica. They still receive the NBTHK’s certificate of authenticity.
NBTHK certificates. Clockwise from top left: Tokubetsu Juyo Token, Juyo Token, Tokubetsu Hozon, and Hozon. Image by Unique Japan.
Differentiating Real vs. Fake Katana Sword
Appreciating an authentic katana’s unique attributes help potential buyers from avoiding fake katana. Unfortunately, some replica and counterfeit sword producers are growing more sophisticated. It makes sword differentiation challenging, especially for novice sword enthusiasts. So, where does the variation lie?
Authentic katana are handcrafted works of art. The Japanese government limits a katana-kaji’s sword production to only two long blades (i.e., tachi or katana) or three short swords (i.e., wakizashi or tanto) per month. Hence, you can expect a maximum of 24 katana yearly.
The Japanese want to produce a sword worthy of the blade’s legend and artistic history. Limiting the swordmaking production allows katana-kaji to focus on a single blade at a time, minimizing, if not eliminating, imperfections.
It’s a different story with fake katana or even replicas. These swords come from establishments with machines to boost their production output. Some might employ teams of unlicensed swordmaking apprentices, who might be unversed about the intricate katana-forging process.
In a nutshell, counterfeit and replica katana are mass-produced. Real katana are an artisan’s precious creation in limited numbers.
Nakago inscriptions are never easy to replicate, while the hamon and jihada are next to impossible. The last two design elements are the products of a unique forging technique that can only happen with the expert hands of a licensed katana-kaji.
However, some counterfeits and replicas have hamon acid-etched into the blade. This element might pass as genuine to novice sword enthusiasts. Hence, katana collectors recommend consulting an expert to distinguish authentic clay tempering-related hamon from an acid-etched version.
Real katana sells for at least $3,000, especially for blades made by less popular but duly-licensed katana kaji. Antique pieces of museum-quality can fetch up to $700,000. These swords are often the creation of highly-acclaimed swordsmiths, like Masamune, Muramasa, Nagasone Kotetsu, Akitsugu Amata, and more.
Some fake katana might have an identical price to make potential buyers think the item is authentic. Unfortunately, these sellers cannot show documentary evidence of the sword’s history and artistic value.
On the other hand, replica katanas are inexpensive. One can buy a sword for a few hundred dollars, with some cheap knock-offs selling for less than a hundred.
Where to Buy
The best place to buy real katana is in Japan, preferably in regions or provinces with a rich swordmaking history and culture. Japanese swordmaking originate from one of five schools or traditions (Gokaden).
- Bizen (present-day Okayama Prefecture) – Ten of the 12 greatest Kamakura Period swordsmiths came from Bizen. The tradition consists of the Osafune, Fukuoka-ichimonji, Hatakeda, and Ko-bizen schools.
- Mino (present-day Gifu Prefecture) – Established in the mid-Kamakura Period.
- Soshu (present-day Kanagawa Prefecture) – A mixture of Bizen and Yamashiro swordsmiths.
- Yamashiro (present-day Kyoto Prefecture) – Founded by Sanjo Munechika in the 10th century and included Rai, Ayanokoji, Sanjo, and Awataguchi schools
- Yamato (present-day Nara Prefecture) – Founded by Yukinobu during the Heian period, making it Japan’s oldest swordmaking tradition
Tokyo also houses many shops selling authentic katana. They have licenses and adhere to strict rules. These stores provide the necessary documentation certifying the katana is not a weapon but an “art object.”
Legitimate stores give buyers a Firearms and Swords Registration Certificate with each purchase. Otherwise, you cannot bring the katana home.
Unfortunately, some shops operate under the radar. They sell counterfeit swords, passing as authentic. One must be wary of these retailers and buy katana only from reputable businesses.
As for sellers outside Japan, there’s a good chance the katana is fake or replica unless they can present documentary evidence or willing to have the sword evaluated and appraised by an expert.
How to Know Your Katana is Real and Not Fake?
The real vs fake katana sword debate spawns another concern. How can you be sure your katana is authentic, not counterfeit or replica?
Check the certificate
Some authentic katana have an NBTHK certificate describing its artistic value and quality craftsmanship. It also strengthens the sword’s authenticity. Unfortunately, forgers can replicate these documents. Hence, you can check the NBTHK’s guidelines.
Inspect the nakago and nagasa
Although some replicas can have a swordsmith’s signature on the tang (nakago) and blade (nagasa), many are Chinese characters. Some might have custom elements depending on the buyer. You can still compare an original signature with a fake one, it is usually pretty easy to spot a fake mei.
It’s worth noting that popular Japanese swordsmiths won’t put their names on the blade and tang if they believe the sword is substandard. You might have an “unsigned” katana, and it’s still authentic.
Ideally, you will want to consider this parameter with other katana attributes to determine its authenticity.
Assess the sori
Many curved blades exist worldwide, but the katana’s sori is one-of-a-kind. Although the katana’s classic curve can vary across swordsmiths, it should not deviate too much from the 1.5-centimeter standard.
Evaluate other design elements
The katana’s jihada (grain pattern) and hamon (temperline pattern) are unique design elements. An authentic sword has uniform wood grain or straight grain jihada patterns and tiny specks on the hamon. Counterfeits and replicas have uneven jihada and unnecessarily smooth hamon due to acid-etching.
Consult a Japanese sword expert
Discerning a fake from an authentic sword is challenging, even for sword collectors. You can always consult a katana expert, preferably a museum, to authenticate and appraise your sword.
The Bottom Line
Spotting a real vs fake katana sword is never easy because unscrupulous elements are also evolving. They know how to forge documents and katana signatures. However, some katana attributes are challenging to replicate (i.e., hamon and jihada).
Only a reputable, duly-licensed seller of authentic Japanese swords can provide you with a real katana. It also has all documents to prove blade authenticity and let you bring the sword home without running into a legal brickwall.