Japan has a long, rich history of swordsmithing dating back many centuries. If it weren't for the region's invention of differential heat treatment and use of high-carbon steel (tamahagane steel), perhaps we wouldn't have superior swords like the katana and wakizashi. However, Japan's art of swordsmithing has changed over the years, with some periods playing an essential role.
The Golden Era of Swordsmithing
Most historians agree that Japan's Kamakura period (1185 to 1333) was the region's golden era of swordsmithing. Throughout this period, Japanese swordsmiths crafted some of the world's highest quality swords. And even today, these swords are regarded as being the best in history.
So, what made the Kamakura period Japan's golden era of swordsmithing? Well, Japan needed new weapons during this period to defend against the invading Mongols. Mongolian warriors often wore hard-boiled leather armor, which Japanese samurai warriors found difficult to penetrate using traditional swords and bladed weapons. This promoted swordsmiths to pioneer new techniques and develop new materials to improve the strength, quality and versatility of their swords.
Following the Kamakura Period
After the Kamakura period, Japan's art of swordsmithing began to decline. It didn't disappear necessarily. Rather, it shifted to a mass-production model that emphasized quantity over quality. Japan took advantage of this model by exporting swords to China and other surrounding territories, using this as a source of revenue. Unfortunately, though, this meant that swords produced after the Kamakura period lacked the quality and attention to detail of their predecessors.
Enter the Momoyama Period
But Japanese swordsmithing experienced a revival of sorts during the Momoyama period (1573 to 1615). Swordsmiths began transitioning back to the old techniques developed during the Kamakura period.
Swords produced during Japan's Momoyama period were even given a new name: shinto. The term "shinto" literally translates into "new sword." Although they were technically new, however, these swords shared many of the same features and characteristics found in Kamakura period swords.
The Kamakura period remains the golden era of Japanese swordsmithing. However, the Moyomama period brought back many of the same techniques used during this time, including differential heat treatment and the use of high-carbon steel. Even today, many Japanese swordsmiths continue to use these techniques, connecting martial arts practitioners and collectors alike with some of the world's finest swords. Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of Japan's Momoyama period and how it influenced the region's art of swordsmithing.