The sword was the preferred weapon of the samurai as well as the warrior’s symbol of office in the Edo period. All other classes of people were prohibited from bearing any arms. During the Edo period, the social position of the samurai class was ideologically affirmed by the use of Confucian social philosophy under which the samurai was to embody the best of the literary arts with the best of the arts of war. Of the military arts, the Way of the Sword was the supreme.
The term borrows the word ‘way’ from the tao or Way of Taoism. This word is frequently applied in other contexts to other ‘Ways’: Shinto is the Way of the Gods, Bushido is the Way of the Warrior, Judo is literally the ‘Way of Softness’ or a form of unarmed combat. The word can be applied in a wide variety of contexts and also has the meaning of ‘road’ as in Nakasendo.
The implication, then, is that the ‘way’ of the sword is a complete philosophy as well as a military technique which centers on the sword. In its simplest, the Way of the Sword is an intense focus on learning how to use the samurai sword in the most effective way. In a more complex meaning, this Way is a complete devotion to a view of life based on the sword, its mystical qualities, and techniques of its use.
Men like Miyamoto Musashi of the early 17th century were devoted to this sense of the Way of the Sword: they sought meaning in life from the sword. In the late Edo period, the military arts in general and the Way of the Sword in particular was re-emphasized, partly as a criticism of the compromises necessary to be successful in the Tokugawa shogunate or any of the domains governments. In the 20th century, well after the sword was banned and ownership of swords severely restricted, the Way of the Warrior, which was connected to the Way of the Sword, was idealized as being pure such as only the cold steel of the sword could be. The Way of the Sword is still idealized today, particularly by right wing groups, including gangsters. The novelist Mishima Yukio was attracted to the sword in his writings and in his life: an assistant at his suicide lopped off his head with one when his attempted coup d’etat at the Self Defense Forces headquarters failed in 1970.