These mysterious weapons were already obsolete when the first ethnographers encountered them.
Sheathed 88 cm
Sword 83.8 cm
Blade 60 cm
Base 9 mm
Middle 4.5 mm
5 cm from 3.5 mm
Base 32 mm
Middle 25 mm
5 cm from 17 mm
8.9 cm from guard
Iron, steel, wood, brass, cotton, rattan, lacquer
Probably 18th-19th century
Anything similar for sale?
Japan in the 16th century was in the Sengoku period, literally "Warring States." A time of fierce civil war and clashes between warlords. Around the same time, Europeans started to arrive on the scene and brought Christianity to the country, which was soon outlawed. Both events lead to a mass of Japanese refugees, mostly men and a good majority of them samurai, sailors, and/or converted Christians who did not feel safe anymore.
These boats attempted to land on Chinese shores, where they were not welcomed and seen as pirates. Many of them indeed fell into piracy, but some others sailed on to find more welcome homes. They found this among others in Vietnam and Thailand, where Japanese settlements started to appear. From here, the Japanese found work as translators, middlemen, traders, and mercenaries.
Because the trip was extremely dangerous, these settlers were mostly men. They married locally and within 2-3 generations, these Japanese communities had completely assimilated into local culture, with no-one left who could even speak Japanese. One of the few elements of Japanese culture that did have a lasting effect in the area was the design of their swords. In the beginning these swords were very close to Japanese swords but over time, the design elements watered down.
A Southeast Asian sword that is clearly inspired on the Japanese katana. It has a narrow, single-edged blade, with a single groove on both sides. The spine is flat. It is quite strongly curved and with an accelerated curve through the hilt. This is typical for earlier Japanese swords, right up until the mid-16th century.
Other purely Japanese elements include the "habaki", a brass collar piece that significantly differs from the Chinese tūnkǒu (吞口), and the use of seppa (washers) on either side of the guard.
The guard itself is made of brass, pierced and chiseled with floral elements of unknown origin. There is something Indian about the leaves, which in that culture represents the "tree of life" but at the same time Japanese openwork guards were very much in vogue among its Japanese settlers.
The ferrule is somewhat bulging, in a way that is seen in both Thailand and Vietnam. The entire hilt is wrapped with narrow cord.
The wooden scabbard consists of two halves, tied together with sections of cord and rattan at the end. It is lacquered a dark brown with a local variant of urushi. A protrusion on the right side of the scabbard is another reference to Japan, where this element help a cord to attach the sword to a belt and prevent the scabbard from sliding along during a quick draw.
Dating & attribution
Being devoid of clear local stylistic elements, it is hard to pinpoint this sword exactly. However, the grip section provides a strong clue: it is not completely round or oval in cross-section but has flat sides, something we tend to only see on Vietnamese swords where the design element is inspired by Chinese swords of the 16th-18th centuries. So my best bet is that it is Vietnamese.
We face the same challenges with dating, as it doesn't follow local stylistic trends. I would say the 18th to early 19th century is most likely.
An interesting reminder of earlier samurai presence in the area.
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