At some point while working on In Honor’s Shadow I began TAKING notes in a 70 page spiral notebook. The first 15 pages are filled with notes about Japanese swords, their cultural significance, and my own ideas of how I wanted to have that reflected in my setting. There are details on everything from the etiquette involved with swords, to the process of their construction, to the societal rules that revolve around them.
Keep in mind that what follows applies to my setting only and should not be used as an example of Japanese culture. Much of what I present here is simply made up an intended to emphasize various details that come up with traditional Japanese weapons.
Who May Wear a Swords?
In general only samurai may legally own swords within the Empire as they are considered a mark of a samurai’s status. Other individuals may acquire of such weapons, however if discovered they will be promptly executed. Often anyone who knew of the transgression but failed to report it will be executed as well. Allowances are made for those who capture weapons on the battlefield as these can often be ransomed back to their family of origin.
Exceptions to this rule do exist, often as a matter of historical holdover or social convenience.
It isn’t unusual for a samurai to retire to a monastery if they have grown old and do not wish to burden their family or wish to seek redemption (though if they have been dishonored they more often perform seppuku). Due to this, it isn’t uncommon for monks to wield swords in the event that a monastic order becomes embroiled in a martial dispute. Naginata and bows remain the weapons of choice for monks, however, as most prefer to strive for humility.
Occasionally a family head dies before his heir reaches an age where he is capable of rule. In this event the child’s mother (if she survives) is named regent. During this regency she wears her husband’s wakizashi, or a unsharpened ceremonial sword, as a mark of her custodial role. In the event that she wears her husband’s sword she is not permitted to draw it. (Note: If the mother is also dead the regency falls to the eldest surviving male of the family line. This often results in the family’s leadership being usurped).
The Empire views the most foreign nations they have had contact with as barbarians, however international diplomacy remains necessary to ensure the security of the borders. Because samurai view non-samurai as beneath their notice these diplomats are customarily provided with a wakizashi to elevate them to a status where they are worthy of negotiation. Typically these blades are made specifically for this purpose, and are often destroyed after the diplomat’s departure.
Although onna-bugeisha have always preferred the naginata, they have historically been permitted to wear and wield katana and wakizashi, provided they have received an education in their use and care equal to that of a samurai. In order for this to happen she would need to be granted the blades from a blood relative (upon his death), and would be expected to pass the blades to her first-born son. In theory this is still acceptable, however it has not happened for some time.
A Sword’s Lineage
Those who are permitted to carry swords are expected to know the lineage of their blades. What this means is they should be able to recite the history of who has previously wielded the weapons. This knowledge is considered vital as samurai believe that the spirits of previous wielders watch over and offer guidance to the current bearer. Remembering these individuals (and in some families, remembering their accomplishments) is a way to honor them and ensure their continued support.
The exact method used to choose who shall wield any particular blade varies from family to family, however they are rarely passed directly from one generation to the next (e.g. father to son). For example, one common tradition is that the eldest son in the family’s main branch will receive his grandfather’s blade. Other families attempt to “spiritually match” blades to a new wielder.
Because the rules that govern how a blade is passed on are not uniform across the Empire, and because swords occasionally move from one family to another, the family which is considered a sword’s legal custodians are expected to keep a record of every blade under their care. This record indicates who has carried the weapon and their accomplishments (in addition to their failings). Blades which have been carried by many individual with impressive achievements are considered to have a strong lineage and are often given to a family’s most promising sons.
Failings mostly include actions which cause an individual, and by extension their family, to lose prestige or honor. Should the wielder commit seppuku following this breach the failing is not recorded as the act is considered to have been erased by their show of remorse. For most minor failings, such as causing mild embarrassment, choosing not cleanse the failing is acceptable—the blade’s legacy will be mildly compromised however this will hopefully be offset by the samurai’s future actions.
(Important note: Dying in battle or as a result of a duel is not considered a failing in and of itself. As all samurai are technically warriors, regardless of their chosen profession, those who have fallen in combat are viewed as having died honorably in the line of duty. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for death while fighting against impossible odds to be listed as a wielder’s achievements as such dedication to duty is considered admirable.)
In the case of major breaches of honor an individual is expected to commit seppuku, and in especially egregious cases may be ordered to do so by his superiors or family. Refusal to do so results in the samurai being made ronin and compounds the severity of the dishonor to the point that the swords the samurai carries are thereafter considered tainted, generally irrevocably. The only hope the sword has in that event is for the samurai to somehow restore his honor. Very few families are willing to risk the rehabilitation of these dubious weapons; most are destroyed.
Because of the risk that a blade may be tainted by future wielders some blades are ultimately “retired” if they gain a prestigious enough lineage. In these cases the sword will either be buried with its last wielder (if the decision was made before or shortly after his death), or donated to the monastic orders to serve as a relic.
While most swords stay within a single family for generations it isn’t uncommon for them to occasionally change hands. Usually this happens when a larger, successful family finds itself with a surplus of weapons. In this case they typically offer the weapons with less favorable lineages to their vassal families (never to individuals). More rarely, a samurai may marry into another family, in which case his blades are transferred to his new family’s care unless otherwise stipulated by the marriage agreement. In either case it is paramount that the record of the blade’s lineage be transferred to its new custodians.