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Restoring a World War II Katana

A customer who came by to collect his knives told me about a World War Two Katana he inherited from his grandfather. I love stories about blades, especially old ones, and although not thoroughly ancient like some samurai swords, a WWII blade is still antique. He told me his grandfather took the sword in battle and for a long time it hung in the mess hall getting abused by the soldiers. You know the stupid things guys get up to? Well throw a sword into that mix and you can only imagine the antics. As a result of those shenanigans and years of neglect it was now in a rather poor state and he asked if I could have a look at it and see if i could repair some of the damage. I eagerly agreed, having never done any restoration work in my life I was of course an expert in this field.

He dropped the sword off the following week. His major concern was that the tang had rusted and the pin (known as the Mekugi) which holds the handle in place was missing. The blade had some corrosion marks and scratches and looked a little worse for wear. (in hindsight I should have taken before pics, but alas I did not)

Shin guntō restoration
The handle after the restoration

After doing a bit of googling and reading on wikipedia I discovered that the sword was a Gunto which 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. The migration from hand making blades, to that of machined-assisted creations was steadily increasing. Early in the production of guntō swords craftsmanship and artistic additions continued, but fell in heavy decline following Japan-wide increases in mass production. And thus guntō swords became the standard in the new military, transitioning the swords worn by the samurai class to an advancing battlefield.

Shin Guntō Officers Sword
An example of a Shin Guntō in good condition

More specifically this sword is a Shin guntō (新軍刀, new military sword) which was a weapon and symbol 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 tassels tied to a loop at the end of the hilt. The corresponding colors were brown-red and gold for generals; brown and red for field officers; brown and blue for company or warrant officers; brown for sergeants, sergeant majors or corporals. 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 sword I had received seemed to be the Type 94 shin guntō (九四式軍刀 kyūyon-shiki guntō) officers' sword which 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 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.

"Shin-gunto, army officers swords, are the most common style of sword mountings from the World War II era. There is an enormous difference in quality of both blades and mounts of this period. Many, perhaps most, of the blades found in shin-gunto mounts are NOT traditionally made swords. Many are machine made and therefore are of interest only as military relics, not as art swords. Some blades made during the war period were handmade but not by traditional methods. These are classified as either Showato, Muratato, Mantetsuto, Hantanzo or Yotetsuto depending on method of production.

There were swords made during this period that were made using traditional methods; these are termed Gendaito or Kindaito. Some of the smiths making traditional swords during the war era are the Yasukuni Shrine smiths, those of the Gassan School, Chounsai Emura and Ichihara Nagamitsu among many others. Swords with stamps on their nakago (tangs) were made using non-traditional methods or materials, possible exceptions being some gendaito which bear star (Jumei Tosho) stamps, although this too is debated. (Check the list of Gendai swordsmiths for some of the major smiths making swords by traditional methods during the WW II period.) Some WW II era sword companies used specific logo on the scabbards and/or koshirae which they made or sold. These sword company logos do not necessarily indicate that the company made the sword. Some of these logo are simply of shops that sold swords during the war. The scabbards (saya) of shin-gunto swords are usually brown painted metal, although it is not uncommon to find tan, navy blue or black saya. Many will have leather field covers as well. Antique blades are occasionally encountered in shin-gunto mounts."

The leather on the scabbard of this sword was damaged beyond repair - well, beyond the scope of my skills and resources anyway. There were also signs of wear and use on the handle that could also not be repaired, and rather than replace the worn silk wrap and perishing ray skin it was decided to leave as is to show the history of the blade. Old things were used, and they should show signs of that used, its part of the charm of an antique.

First I removed the handle which simply slid off because the pin was missing, then I set about to remove the rust of the tang. Many coatings of acid and rust remover later we got back down to bare metal. There was no signature on the tang that I could see. Then came the task of refurbishing the blade. Some of the corrosion pit marks were too deep to remove but I began hand sanding at 220 grit to remove the larger scratches and marks, then went onto 400 grit, and left it at a satin 400 grit finish. I’m not a fan of hand sanding, its not fun by any stretch of the imagination, and hand sanding a Katana that still has an edge is scary to say the least. I had to be aware of every stroke because one slip could slice off a finger - and it came close once or twice. The reason I stopped at 400 was because I wanted to etch the blade to bring out the hamon. From photos its hard to tell if the original blades were etched or just left polished, but I figured the etch would give the blade more interest.

Next challenge was the Mekugi. Traditionally it is made from a specific bamboo that is both strong and flexible. Using wood is strongly discouraged because it can break and there is only the one pin holding the handle in place. I have no access to that specific type of bamboo so some other material would have to suffice. After much deliberation I opted to make the Mekugi from some custom dark green G10. The pattern on the end resembled that of the bamboo, and it would be much stronger than wood which for me was more important than looks, but once inserted you can barely see it anyway, and it doesn't look like a synthetic pin.

The Tsuba or guard had tarnish on it - as did the other brass or gilded fittings. I gave them a light buffing to bring out the highlights without ruining the aged look. I had to make a leather spacer to keep everything tight - the original spacers had perished and rotted away and without them the guard was loose and rattled about. After fitting the handle the sword feels like it has some life back in it. Its definitely not a 100% historically accurate refurbishment - but then I’m not a historian. I did not have to do much in the way of sharpening. A couple of passes on a 400 grit belt and then some stropping on a wheel and the blade slices cleanly through paper.

Shin guntō restoration
I could not remove that copper Habiki so had to work around it.

Although I cursed a whole lot during the hand sanding process which took the better part of the day it was rewarding to see the final result. It was a great honour for me to be able to work on this piece, it’s not everyday you get to hold a sword that saw real battle, and it may not be an ancient Samurai sword, but it was special none the less.

Shin guntō restoration
The Tsuba - you can see the mekugi in the handle.

Shin guntō restoration
A light etch shows the hamon

Shin guntō restoration
Pommel detail

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