Disclaimer: I am not trolling for comments with this post, as I can see from the comments on Youtube that this is an emotional subject for some reason. I am not sure why although at least some commenters did refer to sources if readers wanted more information.
I was originally looking at a copy of the National Geographic special on The Medieval Fight Book (note, this is part 3 of 4), written by Hans Talhoffer. A fascinating special in itself and it also had Bettany Hughes as one of the commentators; beauty and a planet sized brain, the ultimate...sorry, minor digression. While looking at the videos I noticed that there were other postings about katanas versus longswords and knights versus samurai. They piqued my interest.
There were videos that were obvioulsy for fun but there were others that were more serious. This one I believe had Lee Ermey in it and was possibly from the TV series, Mail Call, although I have never watched the series so I cannot be certain. There are a number of comments underneath the video and they are mainly defending the longsword and debunking the 'win' of the katana in the show. Some of the commenters have obviously watched the clip in greater detail than I considering their comments. I do not take this clip as the last word on this subject because even though the swords were up against the same targets we do not know much about the actual swords. I would also say that to be fair to both swords they probably needed to have a range of katanas and longswords representative of that era. I thought I noticed some different grips and stands used by Ermey when using the two swords but that could have been driven by the swords themselves. What I did take away was that in that the series of tests the katana used appeared to be superior to the longsword. I am not saying that katanas are superior to longswords only that in that clip, with those examples of the two classes of swords tested, the katana was the winner.
Swords are combat weapons and testing them on stationary targets means that you are not testing the system, because the knight and samurai were combat systems in today's parlance. The sword was the 'shooter' and it was powered by the body and received targeting data from the eyes and ears, 'the sensor.' I was therefore interested in these videos here, here, here, and here (this one in particular as it showed two two-handed weapons being used in completely different styles, katana weight forward and longsword weight back). This video and this oneprobably showed some of the more highly skilled exponents fighting although there were comments debating that and also criticising the katana user for his attitude. These videos all appear to be from the same source and they are not so much about the weapons but how they were used. A sword can be the epitome of metallurgy and construction but if the usage of it lacks skill and understanding then it is but a lump of metal and the user should consider firearms. The video here helps demonstrate the importance of the overall 'system.' It is a fight between a sparring katana and a sparring claymore with the claymore wielder getting more hits on his opponent than he received. About halfway through they swap weapons and the person using the western style of fighting continued to score more hits even with the katana's shorter length versus the claymore. So these videos do not add much to the debate about which is better, the katana or longsword, but they do start answering which weapon system is better, that supporting the katana or that supporting the longsword. (I did wonder if the katana fighters in these videos were using kendo forms or kenjutsu styles. Some of it did look like kendo which would be like putting a fencer up against a western martial artists sword fighter.) And good on the group for filming these sparring bouts as this is a fight that never occurred historically and so it is fascinating to see it occur and wonder how close it would have been if they really were swinging proper blades and trying to kill each other in a true fight.
Taking the 'system' approach further was this video that featured involvement from the Royal Armouries; I cannot recommend highly enough a visit to Leeds in the UK to see this facility. It was from a National Geographic documentary on the samurai sword so you can see where the focus was. It was very interesting and there were also some good comparisons about the usage of the swords. At about the 10 second mark there was a split screen and a samurai and a knight were dressed in their battle gear side by side and when both were complete they drew their swords. The samurai had his sword ready much faster than the knight. Again, I am not saying that this would happen on all occasions across all varieties of swords and given the focus on the documentary this outcome may have been inevitable. You can also not be certain of the skill levels of each of the people. Another telling scene appeared at about 45 seconds when they did cuts against a straw bundle. A split screen appeared about 1 minute 26 seconds and they both did their first cut, one handed. It was a European broadsword and it did not appear to be what would be called a longsword. Both cut through the straw and then they both brought a second hand onto the grip for their next cut. The katana cut through twice more to the broadsword's single cut. In my opinion the broadsword was probably being swung at a harder rate than the katana and so it took the fencer longer to stop it and commence his next cut. The conclusion of the second cut by the person with the broadsword had him 'wasted,' in George Steele's parlance, as it would have taken him far too long to come back for another cut if he had not incapacitated his oponent. Again, the skill level of the two people could be questioned but in that test with those people and those specific swords the katana appeared to be much faster, that counts in a sword fight. Again, I am not saying this holds true for all katanas and all weilders of swords.
I think that this video went furthest with the samurai system versus the knight system. Basically what would have happened if a samurai and a knight had met individually on the battlefield and started to fight in their typical way, starting with what weapons they would have used first, that is a bow for the samurai and a lance for a knight. I am not sure how the creator of this clip came up with his decision on victory and I feel that he downplayed the thrusting effectiveness of the katana. It is feasible that with speed a samurai could have taken the knight's longsword off line and then thrust his sword into an unprotected area of the knight's armour, which in reality was what knights were doing to each other with longswords. I think that the creator of the clip also downplayed the effectiveness of the samurai bow and arrow although the knight's horse may have been more capable than the samurai's mount. It is important to realise that the samurai's horse was not as large then as it is commonly portrayed in samurai movies; the knight may have had a good chance to close the distance quickly with a mounted samurai.
I think that a katana probably was a superior sword in its day compared to western swords of the same era. This comes down to the speed and rapid transitions that could be achieved by the sword as well as the quality of the blade itself. I think that the samurai system and the knight system around the 1200s and 1300s would have been a very good fight. Then, things started changing. The samurai sword went through refinement rather than evolution whereas Western swords continued to evolve. More importantly Western styles of warfare continued to evolve. I think a samurai style army would have found a western army increasingly difficult to deal with as the centuries progressed. The Tokugawa Shogunate bought peace to Japan at the cost of military stagnation.
While the issues of Japan are unique I also wonder if it is not caught up in the points that Ian Morris and Niall Ferguson were making in their respective books about the West overtaking the East in the development stakes around the 1500s. So if there, as I have stated above, a superiority to be found in Japanese swords and possibly in their armies why did this not continue to develop? As historians we can bookend a period and examine it but we should always look at the narrative of history to see what is occurring to link up all the periods that we study. It is clear that the debate on the merits of swords and systems will continue for many years still.