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Japanese Swords and their Types Classification



The Samurai has captured the imagination of many of us for centuries. Not only in Japan, but also in the rest of the world. The samurai has become an iconic figure, of almost mythical proportions. That is not surprising when you look at Japanese history. These warriors have been in service in Japan for no less than 700 years and have enjoyed high respect and social status for a long time.
Samurai were an elite warrior class in Japan from roughly the early 12th century to the mid-19th century. The origin of the samurai goes back to the Heian period (794-1185). Then military service was abolished. In the old system there were local army units. Militias were now deployed. This kondei system meant that groups of professional, local warriors, from lower official families, now kept order. These warriors were also called Samurai. The term comes from the verb saburau ('to serve'). Samurai literally means "one who serves." They served the court nobility as soldiers and thus had a protective function. But they were also used to collect taxes from the population. Somewhat comparable to the Western feudal system of feudal lords. All Japanese curved or straight long swords with a single-sided cutting edge are commonly referred to as a samurai sword, usually a katana or wakizashi. In this article, we would like to outline different types of Japanese swords and roughly classify and differentiate them in their historical development.
The length of the cutting edge or in Japanese "nagasa" gives a clue to the correct name of a Japanese sword:

  • tanto has a cutting length of up to 29.9 cm
  • wakizashi has a cutting length of 30cm to 59.9cm
  • katana and Tachi from 60.0cm and longer

Ultimately, the mount or Koshirae is crucial for the naming and wearing of the sword in a period.



Tachi

According to tradition, the blacksmith Amakuni forged the first sword of this type as early as the 8th century. During political changes in ancient Japan around the early 10th century, the new class of samurai emerged, who maintained their claims to power through acts of war. As the main weapon, the samurai chose single-edged swords as a curved long sword. From then on, the legendary swords of the samurai continued to evolve. The swords of the samurai are divided into different periods of development.

Most early sword blades have a cutting length of up to 150 cm and were the No-dachi and Tachi. Tachi means long curved Japanese sword or means “great sword”. It was mainly used by horsemen and was designed by size and nature to allow opponents to walk from it attack a horse. Characteristic is the relatively large curvature of the blade and the curved handle. It is worn behind the Obi with the cut face down.



Uchikatana

The Uchigatana/Uchikatana was developed in the 14th century. The uchigatana is smaller than the tachi. Therefore, it is suitable for combat in small spaces (for example, inside buildings). It was worn on the belt with the cutting edge up, which made it much quicker to pull. Unlike the tachi, the grip of the uchigatana is straight. The name Uchigatana corresponds to the name Katana.



Katana

Over time, the original tachi's swords got shorter and shorter for better handling. Another development was that the swords were worn with the edge upwards on the belt. These are the characteristics of the katana. Katana became common in the 14th century and especially during the peace period from the Muromachi period. It is worn on the belt and has a straight handle. It is the legendary primary weapon of the samurai. The length/nagasa is approx. 70 cm to 100 cm.
It is the most revered sword among the samurai's weapons.



Wakizashi

A wakizashi is the slightly shorter sword (up to 59.9 cm) of the samurai. It emerged around the same time as the katana. It is a secondary weapon and is wielded with one hand, so it is a direct descendant of the Uchigatana. The cutting edge faces up when worn behind the Obi. Especially during the peace period from the early 17th century, this sword was very popular and was usually worn with the katana like a DaiSho.



Daisho

Daisho (literally big and small) is used in Japanese for similar pairs of a small and a large sword. In the context of swords, it denotes a sword pair consisting of a long sword and a short sword with similar koshirae/mounts. It was considered a status symbol of the samurai, as they were allowed to carry the sword in public. A Daisho consists of Daito and Shoto.



Daito

The Daito (long sword) is the longer sword of the pair of swords. Often forms the katana as the longer sword of the dasho. The longer sword was usually the primary weapon of the samurai.



Shoto

The shoto (short sword) is the pair's shorter sword that was used as a “secondary weapon”.
A wakizashi was often used as a shoto in the home or confined spaces.



Tanto

Translated means short sword and can be seen as knife or dagger. It has a maximum length of 30 cm.
The Samurai often wore it indoors where no swords were carried.



The End of the Samurai Era

It was one of the privileges of the samurai to wear a katana or the dasho in public. During the long period of peace from the early 17th century, samurai swords and their design became status symbols. So the swords were used to show the outside world who you are. As a result, the warlike use faded into the background and the artistic ability of the blacksmith came to the fore.
In the course of the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, the samurai lost their special privileges (1876) and they were no longer allowed to carry the swords in public. With this, the earlier importance of the swords was lost.



Gunto or Shin-gunto

Gunto or Shin-gunto is an umbrella term for Japanese military swords.
During the industrialization of Japan in the 19th century, the original sword style was not used. After being trained by Western military advisers, the Imperial troops used swords of predominantly Western design: relatively straight swords with a saber-like design. In Japanese, these weapons are called kyu-gunto. This new weapon was the shin-gunto or "new army sword". It was intended for officer use in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.



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