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Shields were considered useful in Europe until the development of full plate armor. Despite the fact that they never had anything comparable to plate armor, shield use was apparently abandoned by the Edo period. The freestanding tate was used to protect archers, but aside from this, shields don't seem to be used at all.

Some argue that shield use was obsolete by the Edo period because they were clumsy, and because Japan lacked Hellenistic influences. While I'm not sure I agree with that, I am unable to evaluate that assertion.

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Because they used a wakizashi instead. The inferior quality of medieval and pre-medieval European metallurgy (compared to Japanese) may have been the cause of the real question:

Why did Europeans continue to use a shield so late, instead of the more efficient use of a sword-catcher, second sword, or buckler?
[edit] Or a second hand on the main sword to steady and strengthen it.

When modern European metallurgy started to catch up with Japanese, modern fencing styles had begun developing as well, resulting in the shield being incorporated in the sword itself, as it's hilt.

It is also important that a shield is primarily a defence against missile fire, and only secondarily a defence against melee weapons. As noted here (page 107) the quality of Japanese armour combined, with the failure to utilize crossbows and the relative weakness of their strung bows, meant that a samurai was well protected against missile fire by his armour:

Japanese bushi confronted very different technological as well as geographical and organizational circumstances. To begin with, they were forced to make do with bows distinctly inferior to those available on the continent. The kiyune and fusetake-yumi of the tenth to twelfth centuries were particularly weak and, used in conjunction with the heavy oyoiroi armors favoured by early medieval samurai, forced warriors to shoot only at very close range - usually less than 10 metres - and to target with precision the gaps and weak points in the armour of specific opponents.

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Wow, where to start.

Basically, ignore anything in the previous answer regarding Europe and shields.

As far European metallurgy goes, pattern welding was in use as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The technique continued to be used up until about the end of the viking era (mid 11th century) when quenching and tempering basically took over.

As a general rule, shields got smaller as armour got better and became more common. Far from being a secondary defence in melee, shields are not clumsy and are excellent for both attack and defense. As I said, they fell out of use in Europe because improvements in body armour made them superfluous. NOT because your off-hand can be put to better use. Unless you are extremely well trained, using two swords is simply an invitation for a humiliating death. I think it's important to note that the wakizashi was a back up sword, used for close quarters/indoor fighting and beheading defeated opponents.

But getting back to the question (finally), shields were used in ancient Japan but fell out of favour. I think the main reason for this was the predilection of Japanese warriors for two handed weapons, most notably the spear and bow. Both of these are important battlefield weapons, for obvious reasons, and were the preferred weapons of samurai.

So basically, two handed spears and bows were hugely popular in Japan and hand held shields aren't particularly useful for archers and spearmen.

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The katana is a hand-and-a-half sword. Those with sufficient strength and dexterity hold a second sword in the off hand (as Miyamota Musashi). Those without use it as a two-handed sword and block opposing blows with the blade and hilt of the sword as in modern fencing. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:26
    
Here is a link to Musashi's Niten Ichi-ryu, or two swords as one, style of two-sword fighting: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hy%C5%8Dh%C5%8D_Niten_Ichi-ry%C5%AB –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:36
    
re "hand held shields aren't particularly useful for archers and spearmen." Kindly explain why Greek hoplites and Alexander's sarissa-armed phalanxes found them so useful then. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 4 '13 at 2:47
    
If I remember correctly, Musashi didn't usually use two swords when fighting duals. As I stated, it takes a LOT of training to fight effectively with two swords and even then, as battlefield technique it is of dubious value. In a well balanced sword, strength is less of an issue. Using a hand and half (or bastard) sword one handed sacrifices speed, control and leverage. –  Hux Oct 4 '13 at 12:13
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@Pieter Geerkens - Japanese battle was based around single combat - a samurai picking an opponent and going after them. Phalanx, maniple and hoplite warfare depended on massed infantry in close formation, where a shield is right handy. Also, note that Musashi was a duelist and not a particularly accomplished soldier: two-handed technique was not practical in combat. Katanas were not practical in combat - pole-arms were far more common and effective primary weapons on the battlefield in medieval Japanese warfare. –  RI Swamp Yankee Oct 4 '13 at 13:16
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