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Japanese sword types and their historical development

Japanese swords types introduction

All Japanese, curved long swords with a single-edged blade are commonly referred to as the samurai sword, usually called katana (Japanese 刀). In this article we would like to sketch different types of Japanese swords and roughly classify and differentiate them in their historical development.

A clue for the correct name of a Japanese sword is the length of the blade, but here there is overlap between “short long swords” and “long short swords”, which can be the same length.
Ultimately, the mount (Koshirae) is decisive for the naming.

Before we mention the corresponding names, the important basic information that the expressions Katana / Gatana / To / Chi all correspond to the Japanese character 刀. Most of the names from the world of Japanese swords are made up of an addition and this character, e.g. 太 刀 = Tachi = Ta Chi, which means big sword.

Chokuto (直 刀)

The chokuto is a straight sword that was found in tombs from the fourth and fifth centuries in Japan. These very early models were likely imports from China that made their way into Japan. They already have a single-edged blade and can therefore be regarded as a direct forerunner of the later swords of the samurai. Unfortunately, it is not known when the manufacture of these swords began in Japan. The first swords were pure replicas of Chinese swords from the same period. Over time, however, the later swords of the samurai developed from this in Japan.

Tsurugi (剣)

It probably originated in China and was used in Japan from the middle of the seventh century. This sword had a straight, double-edged blade. It therefore does not correspond to the shape of the later swords of the samurai and was not used in Japan for as long as in China. With the development of curved blades, this type of sword has lost its importance in Japan.

Tachi (太 刀)

According to legend, the blacksmith Amakuni forged the first sword of this type as early as the 8th century. During political changes in ancient Japan, the new class of samurai emerged around the beginning of the 10th century, and they maintained their claims to power through acts of war. As their main weapon, the samurai chose single-edged swords with a curved blade. From then on, the legendary swords of the samurai continued to develop. The swords of the samurai are divided into different development epochs. If necessary, we will deepen this point at another point. However, it is too extensive to be dealt with here.

Most early sword blades have a blade length of 120 cm and more and were tachi. Tachi are long, massive, curved Japanese swords. Tachi means "big sword". It was mainly used by riders and is designed in terms of size and nature to attack unridden opponents from the horse. It is characterized by the relatively large curvature of the blade and the curved handle. It is worn with the cutting edge down on the belt.

Uchigatana (打 刀)

The Uchigatana established itself in the 14th century. The Uchigatana is smaller than the Tachi. Therefore it is suitable for fights in small spaces (e.g. in buildings). It was worn on the belt with the cutting edge up and could be pulled much faster. In contrast to the Tachi, the Uchigatana has a straight handle. The name Uchigatana corresponds to the name Katana.

Katana (刀)

Over time, the blades of the original Tachi became shorter and shorter for better handling. Another development was that the swords are carried with the edge upwards on the belt. These are the characteristics of the katana. Katana became common in the 14th century and especially in the peace period from the 17th century. It is worn on the belt and has a rather straight handle. It is the samurai's legendary primary weapon.
The length is roughly 100 cm.
It is the most widely recognized sword among the swords of the samurai.

Wakizashi (脇 差)

Wakizashi is the samurai's somewhat shorter sword. It was created around the same time as the katana. It is a secondary weapon and is wielded with one hand, so it was almost the direct descendant of the Uchigatana.
The length is roughly 70 cm. The cutting edge points upwards when worn on the belt.
This sword was very popular especially during the peace period from the early 17th century and was mostly worn together with the katana.

 

Katana & Wakizashi from our shop

Daisho (大小)

Daisho (literally translated "big / small") is used in the Japanese language for similar pairs of a small and a large object. In connection with swords, it refers to a pair of swords consisting of a long and a short sword.
It was considered a status symbol for the samurai because they were allowed to wear swords in public. A Daisho consists of Daito and Shoto:

Daito (大刀)

The Daito (= "long sword") is the longer sword of the pair of swords. Often the katana forms as the longer sword of the daisho. The longer sword was usually the fighter's primary weapon.

Shoto (小刀)

The Shoto (= "small sword") is the shorter sword of the couple that was used as a "secondary weapon". A wakizashi was often used as a shoto.

Tanto (短刀)

Translated means short sword and can be seen as a knife or dagger. It has a length of approx. 30 cm. Samurai often wore it as an additional weapon to their normal swords. But it was also worn by other people.

The end of social importance

It was one of the privileges of the samurai to be able to wear the daisho in public. During the long period of peace from the early 17th century, samurai swords and their design became a status symbol. With the swords it was shown to the outside who one was. Therefore, the warlike benefit moved into the background and the artistic aspect moved more into the foreground.

In the course of the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, the samurai lost their special privileges and it was no longer allowed to carry swords in public.
That is why the swords were kept at home from now on and were no longer the public identification mark of a complete social class.
The earlier public significance of the swords was lost.

Gun-to (軍刀) / Kyu-gunto (旧 軍刀) / Shin-gunto (新 軍刀)

Gunto is an umbrella term for swords used by the Japanese military.

During the industrialization of Japan in the 19th century, the original sword style fell by the wayside. After receiving training from Western military advisers, the imperial armed forces used swords with a predominantly Western design: relatively straight swords with a saber-like design. In Japanese these weapons are called kyu-gunto or "old army swords".

During the 1930s, nationalism spread across Japan. This was cheered on by the fascist government of Japan, which had decided to replace the Kyu-Gunto with a modernized version of the Uchigatana in order to give its powers historical / cultural dignity.

This new weapon was the Shin-Gunto or the "new army sword". It was intended for officer use in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.

The end of military importance

Firearms were widespread in Japan from the middle of the 16th century, so swords gradually lost their military importance.
Even in World War II, the Japanese military still wore swords as an accessory weapon, more for symbolic reasons.
After Japan's defeat in World War II, Japan was occupied by the United States. The American military had set itself the goal of taking over all weapons in the country as a symbolic act.

In this course, all swords of the Japanese military were withdrawn, so the military meaning of the samurai sword finally ended.
Many swords from Japan were brought to the USA or destroyed during the action. Fortunately, the original plan was not fully implemented, but many culturally valuable art objects have been lost, such as the Honjo Masamune, to which we have dedicated a separate article.
But some specimens have survived, such as the legendary Tenka-Goken.

Development since the post-war period

During the occupation of Japan, it was forbidden to make swords. As a result, the line was interrupted and knowledge about the manufacture of blades could not be passed on seamlessly. After the end of the occupation, the production of swords started again, but very strictly regulated.
In Japan, only specially licensed swordsmiths are allowed to make swords using the traditional method and the amount that a blacksmith can produce is limited.
This strict regulation leads to the high quality and high prices that swords from Japan have. Due to the regulation, the possibilities and innovation perspectives are also very limited.
The first companies specializing in the production of samurai swords outside of Japan appeared in the 1990s.
Outside of Japan, blades can be produced without strict regulation and therefore exclusively according to the needs of the market.

That is why there are different streams of development nowadays:
On the one hand the strictly regulated market in Japan, which produces very high quality swords and is therefore particularly interesting for collectors and well-heeled enthusiasts.
On the other hand, there is the free market outside of Japan, which uses adapted production methods to make swords. This market offers the opportunity to get swords at prices that would not be possible in Japan. But due to the low level of regulation, there are also many products of poor quality on the market. In addition, the market is littered with misinformation, for example about the folding and construction of sword blades. That is why it is important to buy from a dealer with (real) expertise. Because even brands that have built a good reputation through marketing are often not the real thing. Buy cheap samurai swords with a good price-performance ratio in our shop.

More commonly used names

In the previous text we tried to roughly describe the development of the Japanese sword. Of course there are many other names in connection with the Japanese sword types, so here are a few more frequently used terms.

Bokken (木 剣) and Bokuto (木 剣)

A training sword made of wood. The name is made up of the word Boku (wood) and Ken or To for sword. The term Bokuto is widespread in Japan, while outside of Japan the term Bokken has become established.

Iaido (居 合 道)

Iaido is the "art of drawing the sword". A martial arts discipline that deals with the innumerable ways to draw a Japanese sword.

Iaito (居 合 刀)

A training sword with a blunt metal blade, so it is only intended for practice. The blades are often made of an aluminum mixture in contrast to swords made of the common types of steel. It's relatively easy to take the strain off the joints while exercising, which is especially important for beginners. The term is often and often confused with the similar term Iaido.

Kendo (剣 道)

Translated means "the way of the sword". A martial art in which, according to modern interpretation, fighting with a sword is trained.

Kenjutsu (剣 術)

"The Art of the Sword". A martial arts discipline that teaches how to use a sword according to traditional standards.

Nihonto (日本 刀)

Consists of the terms Nihon = Japan and To = sword. So an umbrella term for all swords from Japan.

Nodachi (野 太 刀)

Translated, Nodachi means field tachi, which means large field sword.

Odachi (大 太 刀)

Translated means big Tachi, which translates as a complete big big sword. Basically a larger Tachi, although there is no precise definition of when a normal Tachi counts as an Odachi.

Kodachi (小 太 刀)

Consists of the terms Ko (= small) and Tachi. So it is a small Tachi with a length of approx. 70 cm. This makes it roughly the size of a wakizashi. The Kodachi is worn on the belt like a Tachi with the blade pointing downwards.

Ham (新 刀)

A real sword with a sharp blade. It is the counterpart to the Iaito. The Iaito has a blunt blade made of light metal, while the Shinken has a blade made of steel and is sharp. It is also used in some martial arts by advanced practitioners in normal training. Such swords are also suitable for cutting exercises.

In this video we show a few of the mentioned sword types:

 

In addition to the history of the sword, there have been countless outstanding samurai and leaders in Japanese history. You can find our top 10 most outstanding personalities in this post.