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Guntō (軍刀, military sword) is the name used to describe Japanese swords produced for use by the Japanese army and navy after the end of the samurai era in 1868. In the following era (Meiji Period 1868-1912) samurai armour, weapons and ideals were gradually replaced with western influenced uniforms, weapons and tactics. Japan developed a conscription military in 1872 and the samurai lost the status they held for hundreds of years as the protectors of Japan. Mass-produced guntō swords became standard equipment in the new military, taking the place of the swords worn by the samurai class during the feudal era.
During the Meiji Period, the samurai class was gradually disbanded, the Haitōrei Edict in 1876 forbid the carrying of swords in public except for certain individuals such as former samurai lords (daimyo), the military and police. Skilled swordsmiths had trouble making a living during this period as Japan modernized its military and many swordsmiths started making other items such as cutlery. Military action by Japan in China and Russia during the meiji period helped revive the manufacture of swords and in the Showa Period (1926-1989) before and during World War II swords were once again produced on a large scale.
During the pre World War II military buildup and throughout the war, all Japanese officers were required to wear a sword. Traditionally made swords were produced during this period but in order to supply such large amounts of swords blacksmiths with little or no knowledge of traditional Japanese sword manufacture were recruited, in addition supplies of the type of Japanese steel (tamahagane) used for sword making was limited so several other types of steel was substituted. Shortcuts in forging were also taken such as the use of power hammers and tempering the blade in oil rather than hand forging and water tempering, this created swords without the usual characteristics associated with true Japanese swords. The non traditionally made swords from this period are called "Showato" and in 1937 the Japanese government started requiring the use of special stamps on the tang (nakago) to distinguish these swords from traditionally made swords. During this wartime period antique swords from older time periods were remounted for use in military mounts. Presently in Japan Showato are not considered to be true Japanese swords and they can be confiscated; outside of Japan they are collected as historical artifacts.
The first standard sword of the Japanese military was known as the kyū guntō (旧軍刀, old military sword). Murata Tsuneyoshi (1838-1921), a Japanese general who previously made guns, started making what was probably the first mass-produced substitute for traditionally made samurai swords. These swords are referred to as "Murata-to" and they were used in both the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). The kyū guntō was used from 1875 until 1934, it closely resembled European and American swords of the time, with a wraparound hand guard (also known as a D-Guard) and chrome plated scabbard (saya), the steel scabbard is said to have been introduced around 1900.
The Shin guntō (新軍刀, new military sword) was a weapon and badge of rank used by the Imperial Japanese Army between the years of 1935 and 1945. During most of that period, the swords were manufactured at the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal. In response to rising nationalism within the armed forces, a new style of sword was designed for the Japanese military in 1934. The shin guntō was styled after a traditional slung tachi of the Kamakura period (1185-1332). Officers' ranks were symbolized by coloured tassles tied to a loop at the end of the hilt. The corresponding colors were brown/red & gold General; brown & red field officer; brown & blue company or warrant officer; brown sergeant, sergeant major or corporal. The blades found in shin guntō ranged from modern machine made blades through contemporary traditionally manufactured blade to ancestral blades dating back hundreds of years.
The "Type 94" shin guntō (九四式軍刀 kyūyon-shiki guntō ) officers sword replaced the western style kyu gunto in 1934. It had a traditionally constructed hilt (tsuka) with ray skin (same) wrapped with traditional silk wrapping (ito). A cherry blossom (a symbol of the Imperial Japanese Army) theme was incorporated into the guard (tsuba), pommels (fuchi and kashira) and ornaments (menuki).
The scabbard (saya) for the Type 94 was made of metal with a wood lining to protect the blade. It was often painted brown and was suspended from two brass mounts, one of which was removable and only used when in full dress uniform. The fittings on the scabbard were also decorated with cherry blossom designs.
The "Type 95" shin guntō (九五式軍刀 kyūgō-shiki guntō ) released in 1935 was designed for use by non-commissioned officers (NCOs). It was designed to resemble an officer's Shin Guntō but be cheaper to mass produce. All NCO swords had machine made blades with deep fullers (bo hi) and a serial number stamped on the blade in arabic numerals. Initially the hilts (tsuka) were cast out of metal (either copper or aluminum) and painted to resemble the traditionally produced items on the officer's swords. They had brass guards similar to the officer's shin guntō.
By 1945 a simplified NCO sword was being produced. It had a simple wooden hilt with cross hatched grooves for grip. The scabbards were made from wood instead of metal and the guard and other fittings were made from iron instead of brass.
The change to the "Type 98" shin guntō (九八式軍刀 kyūhachi-shiki guntō ) occurred in 1938 and was essentially a simplification of the "Type 94". There were only minor differences between early "Type 98" swords and the "Type 94" swords that preceded them. Most notably the second (removable) hanging point was deleted from the scabbard.
Many changes occurred to the "Type 98" between 1938 and the end of the war in 1945. Late in the war Japan's supply of metal was drying up and shin guntō were produced with painted wooden scabbards, and with cheaper or no brass ornamentation. Some of the final swords produced in the last year of the war utilized cheap copper or blackened iron fittings.
Type 95 Non Commissioned Officers katana, with a cast metal painted hilt designed to look like a traditionally wrapped tsuka.