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Types of Japanese Swords An Exclusive Guide

The artistic beauty of Japanese swords consists of three main elements- the sword structure, grain structure, and the temper pattern along the swords’ cutting edge. Japanese swords are often considered to be the fighting weapons since their inception. Sword makers, however, did not consider the swords just as weapons. They did not fail to create perfection in the swords’ practical use as a weapon and they also maintained the artistic beauty of the swords.
There are various types of excellent and artistic Japanese swords that are well-known for their reputations.

Katana

Katana

Katana also referred to as the “Samurai Sword” has a distinctive appearance. It is a slender, curved, single-edged sword with a squared or circular guard and a long grip to hold properly with both the hands. It is renowned for its cutting ability and sharpness. Katana sword is historically associated with feudal Japan’s samurai. This sword was made during the Muromachi period that required faster weapons. So the sword was being worn with the blade facing up allowing the samurai to take out the sword and cut their enemy in one motion. The length of the sword has been varying since the ancient times ranging between 60 cm and 73 cm.

Tachi

Tachi

This is slightly longer than the Katana sword and is curvier in nature. It was historically used on horseback to draw it quickly and efficiently to cut down the enemy foot soldiers. It was introduced before katana as a battle-sword of feudal Japan’s warrior class. Tachi and Katana swords are differentiated on the basis of the blade fittings and how they are worn.

Nodachi

nodachi

It is a huge, two-handed sword mostly used on the open battlefields. Nodachi are longer than Tachi even though both have a similar appearance. It was historically carried by the foot soldiers and was used as a weapon for war versus open field engagements and cavalry. This sword has been used on the open fields rather than indoors because its huge length made it difficult to be used indoors or close quarters. It was a very effective weapon against cavalry. The soldiers used to carry the sword with the fuchi in the palms of their hands, flat edge against their shoulders and the blade facing outward. The weapon used to be thrown down at the enemy by the foot soldiers.

Wakizashi

The word wakizashi means “side insertion”. This has been a traditional sword of Japan with the blade length ranging between 30 cm and 60 cm, averaging at about 50 cm. It is a small sword, similar to but shorter than the Katana sword. The swordsmen of feudal Japan wore wakizashi along with the katana. This was known as daisho meaning “large and small”. While the katana was referred to as a long sword, the wakizashi was considered as the companion small sword. This pair allowed swordsmen to fight using both the weapons simultaneously for the maximum advantage. Wakizashi was often referred to as the “Honour Blade” because it was used as a backup weapon to kill defeated enemies or to commit ritual suicides. A swordsman would leave the katana with his servant, while entering a building, who would keep it on the rack. The wakizashi would be worn all the time as a side weapon for the samurai. This sword has been a constant companion of the samurai from the time he awoke to the time he slept, and while sleeping he would keep it under his pillow.

Tanto

tanto

This is a type of dagger with single or double-edged blade whose length ranges between 15 cm and 30 cm. Historically, it has been used as a stabbing sword. It is a straight weapon rather than curved.

Shin Gunto

Shin Gunto

This type of Japanese sword was originated as a part of the officers’ uniform of the Imperial Japanese Army from the year 1934 until the end of the World War II.

Uchigatana

Uchigatana

Uchigatana used to be worn by the samurai class. The blade length of the sword during the 16th century ranged between 60 cm and 70 cm. This could be easily used as a one-handed sword because of the thickness and short tang of the sword making it relatively light. The sword consists of a steep saki-zori and stout sugata. Drawing out the uchigatana and killing the enemy became a very smooth and fast action due to its convenience and effectiveness. It used to be compared to the tachi sword even though it was different in terms of use and feel. The main difference between the two is that uchigatana was worn with the edge-up in the samurai’s belt. Uchigatana became very popular due to these reasons- it was very convenient to wear and use, it did not interfere with the use of pole-arm, the increasing frequency of war fought on foot, and the need for speed on the open battlefields. Being shorter than tachi, uchigatana was more conveniently used in confined quarters like inside a building. Uchigatana’s blade has the curvature near the point of the sword. Since the sword was drawn from below, the act of cutting down the enemy became the act of striking. For a soldier on the horseback, such a sword was very convenient as it can come out of the sheath at the most effective angle for killing the enemy.

Tsurugi

Tsurugi

The Tsurugi sword is a special type of Japanese double-edged, straight sword used in the antiquity. This sword is akin to the Chinese sword, Jian. The present name of this sword is “Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi”. It is considered as one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.

Chokuto

Chokuto

Chokuto is a one-edged, straight Japanese sword originated prior to the 10th century. It was used on foot for slashing or stabbing the enemy and used to be worn hung from the waist. This is one of the earliest swords in the history of Japanese swords. The basic style and techniques of chokuto originated in ancient China and were brought by way of Korea to Japan in the 3rd centuries. The main feature of this sword is its straight blade.

Kodachi

Kodachi

Kodachi is basically a short or small tachi Japanese sword traditionally used by the samurai class of feudal Japan. Kodachi has a similar shape like tachi. It has a length of less than 60 cm. Kodachi is often confused with the wakizashi sword because of the length and handling techniques. Kodachi has a set length but wakizashi are made to complement the length of the katana or wielder’s height. Kodachi is too long to be called a dagger and too short to be called a sword, hence it is known as the primary short sword. The primary use of this sword is not known. It is claimed that it was used either as a companion sword or to be used by an adolescent. It was produced by some specific schools of sword makers during a particular time period. Kodachi was also available to the citizens and was carried by travellers, merchants and caravans as a self-defence weapon against bandits, highwaymen and brigands.

Ninja

Ninja

Ninja or ninjaken is a Japanese sword used by the Shinobi class of feudal Japan. It also appears in the popular culture among the warriors dressed in black. This is a beautifully carved sword with distinct features like straight, sleek and with a square guard.

Nagamaki

Nagamaki

This is a traditional Japanese sword used by the samurai class, with an extra-long handle. The blade is more than two feet and the handle is of similar length like the blade. The sword has a single-edged blade. The name “nagamaki” has been given by the tradition of the handle wrapping. The handle is wrapped with silk or leather cords in a criss-cross manner. It has been evolved from the very long nodachi swords as described in the 14th century literature. The blade’s length varies but mostly it is around 60 cm. Nagamaki found without the handle wrapping had metal collars around the hilt of the tang. Nagamaki consists of two or more pins to account for the added advantage of a longer handle. The wielding of the sword is very specific as the sword is held in a fixed position with both the hands in the same way the katana sword is held. The hands do not change when you handle the sword. Very few sliding actions are performed on the handle while handling the nagamaki sword. Nagamaki is designed mainly for large slicing strokes and sweeping. Historically it was used as an infantry weapon mostly against the cavalry.

Bokken

Bokken

Bokken is a wooden Japanese sword traditionally used for training. It has been modelled on the katana sword but sometimes it is also based on tanto or wakizashi sword. With proper training, it could be used as a deadly weapon too. It is often designed to match the balance and length of a real sword but a bit heavier. The extra weight also helps in building up muscles while training. Modern martial artists make use of the bokken sword that is made of denser wood than the one that used to be available to the samurai.

Zanbato

Zanbato

This sword has the size of claymore. This Japanese sword cannot be used in any actual combat but it is more of a demo of iron forging prowess. It may have been derived from the Chinese zhanmadao sword. Zanbato has been known to cut through the rider as well the horse simultaneously. The name zambato literally means horse-executing sword.

Daito

Daito

This is a very large Japanese sword that ranges in the daisho pair of swords. The word “daito” refers to the blade’s length of the sword which was originally about 70 cm to 90 cm.

Shinai

Shinai

This may not be actually a sword but it is a more flexible shaft of tied bamboo splints that are used to avoid injury. If it is used in the wrong manner, it may give serious injury and it tends to be extremely painful. The flexible shaft of bamboo splints tends to transfer energy much better than any solid object under certain conditions. It is better to wear padded armour while using this sword on the battlefields or during training.

Kyu Gunto

Kyu Gunto

This is an old military sword that was used by the Japanese military, post the Meiji Restoration. It roughly resembles a western-style sabre and has a very long grip and balance much like that of the katana sword. It is very easy to use by the officers who are quite familiar with all the Japanese weapons used in the military.
Dosu: This is a very small and short sword similar to a long knife. It was traditionally carried by the Yakuza and it is very convenient to use and easy to conceal.

Kaiken

Kaiken

This is so small in size that it cannot be called a traditional Japanese sword. It is a single, double-edged sword, more commonly known as a dagger that is about 20 cm to 25 cm long. It does not have any ornamental fittings and it is housed in a plain mount. It was traditionally used by the people of the samurai class in Japan. It is highly useful for self-defence mostly in the indoor areas. It was a ritual to carry a kaiken for a samurai woman while moving in with her husband after marriage. Samurai women used to carry a kaiken in self-defence in their kimono either in the sleeve pouch or in a pocket-like area. Kaiken is now known as Kwaiken or pocket knife prior to the modern orthographic reform.

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