Tachi, the Sword That Preceded the Katana

The Tachi Sword

Tachi emerged even before the Katana did. More importantly, it provided the basis for the invention and development of the Katana. Therefore, without this sword, there would not have been Katana.

Suppose one asks, “What is the best Japanese sword?” Without much thinking, one can mention Katana right away. It is the most recognized among several of its kind. What more, it is undoubtedly the most popular in history.

What Basically is This and How Does it Compare to Katana?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like the Katana, Tachi is a traditional Japanese sword. It is one of the many swords feudal Samurai used to wear. It has a single edge and a handle that accommodates both hands. In addition, its blade has a curve.

Meanwhile, it differs in terms of length. Notably, it is longer. Its blade measures about 70 to 80 centimeters. That of the former is only around 60 centimeters.

In proportion to its length, it weighs lighter. It has a greater taper from the hilt to the point. Still, it has a more prominent curve. Its point area is smaller than usual.

Furthermore, the location of its signature is different. Normally, swordsmiths write theirs on one side of the sword’s tang. This is the case for the Katana. However, Tachi has this on the other side.

As a result, the way of wearing it also makes a difference. Particularly, swordsmen wear it with the cutting edge facing down. Whereas, they wear Katana with the edge facing up.

What are Its General Uses, Types, and Sizes?

Like any sword, Tachi makes itself useful for both practice and combat. Also, the sword serves swordsmen well during competitions. Even so, it is perfect for demonstration such as in teaching.

However, regardless of the use, blade length is what generally matters. Particularly, student size ranges from 4 to 6 feet on the average. Straight type, or Chokuto, measures 22 to 35 inches. Lastly, the broad type is about 20 to 32 inches.

What is the Proper Way to Display It?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is actually a stand for swords, specifically for Katana. However, it proves fit for Tachi as well. Swordsmen call this the Katanakake. Made of wood, it has two hook-like shapes at either side. Displaying swords horizontally, it can accommodate more than one piece. It just depends on the construction of the weapon.

Meanwhile, Tachi has its own stand too, the Tachi Kake. However, it is a little shorter in height than the sword. Anyway, it has a nice flat base, making it sit vertically on the ground. This allows the sword to stand steadily and rest on it. In this position, the Tsuka sits at the bottom since it is the heaviest end. Thus, the sword is in a little indentation to keep it from sliding out.

Now, Japanese swords usually display themselves in the manner users wear them. For instance, Katana has its cutting edge facing upwards through the Obi. This is how it sits on the Katanakake. In this position, the Tsuka is on the left. It shows the Kurikata along with the display knot of the Sageo.

Meanwhile, Tachi hangs itself from a belt on Ashi, special rope hangers. Hence, its cutting edge faces downwards. This is true when it is on the Tachi Kake.

Furthermore, the position of the Tsuka means something. If it is on the left, the sword owner feels safe. In other words, he trusts the people around him. Meanwhile, if it is on the right, he feels better. That is, the sword is more accessible and available anytime.

How Did It Emerge and Develop?

Ancient Asian cultures had greatly influenced Japan’s early history. Korea, specifically, had the biggest impact on most of its innovations. It introduced rice cultivation, iron tools, and related technology. Hence, Japan imported iron tools to construct metal swords.

The oldest two on record were those from the Wei Dynasty in 240 AD. These were presents Queen Himiko of China received.

In 280 AD, Japan imported more iron materials from China. Hence, the Japanese began forging and manufacturing their own blades. Particularly, in the 5th century, they developed Chokuto. These were straight and single-edged Tachi.

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Heian Period

This period had Kammu Tenno as the ruler. He moved the capital from Nara to Kyoto.

During this term, the Japanese adopted Chinese influences into their culture. Part of this was the development of a method of sword forging. In this process, they wrapped a soft inner core into harder steel. The swords with this feature belonged to the Ko-Bizen tradition. This occurred around 950 AD, the transition period from aristocracy to the Samurai rule.

After the middle-stage war, the battle style changed. Particularly, swordsmen began fighting on horseback. This resulted in a revolution in sword making, attributing itself to Amakuni. Dubbed as the Little Crow, he was the maker of the Kogarasumaru. This sword was the first curved Nipponto. Currently, it is in the Imperial Household Collection.

During this time, Amakuni was the emperor’s swordsmith. However, seeing many soldiers breaking the sword after fighting greatly disappointed him. Thus, he tried to discover a better way to make swords.

One night he dreamed of Inari, the Kami of swordsmiths. Particularly, he taught him how to wrap a soft steel core inside a harder one. Also, he revealed how a curved edge can be more shock resistant. Eventually, Amakuni made the Kogarasu Maru the following day. This became the first documented Nihonto.

Worth mentioning too, this period was the pioneering stage of the Tachi. As blade signing was customary, most of these swords had swordsmiths’ signatures. The oldest one was the Sanjou Munechika Tachi. Also, Naminohira Yukimasa Tachi was among the earliest. However, it had an engraved date aside from the signature.

Kamakura Period

Minamoto no Yoritomo moved his Shogunate to Kamakura. This brought about the Kamakura Shogunate. Ruling this was Emperor Gotoba, marking the beginning of the Samurai rule.

Serving as the cultural capital was Kamakura. It was here swordsmiths from all over the country gathered for business. One of these was Masamune, with his Jittetsu or ten disciples. He contributed much to the best blades the period had ever produced.

Meanwhile, from 1184 to 1231, the Shogunate encountered internal political trouble. Consequently, there was an increase in the demand for swords all over the country. This meant more significant improvements in swordsmithing.

For instance, Tachi now curved at the waist of the blade. This was in contrast to the previous blades which curved at the ridge side. Also, the tip became slightly bigger. There was also a change in the width of the body.

After the 1232 war, the Hojo clan took control of the Shogunate. During this reign, the Kamakura became the center of the Samurai culture. As a result, the demand for swords also increased.

To keep up with this, the government called in excellent swordsmiths. These artists could have copied the older Tachi models. Instead, they completely changed their shape. That is, the width became thicker. Also, the edge now had a cross-section resembling a clamshell. The blade curvature moved up.

Swords further improved after the 1274-1281 Mongolian invasions. While the Japanese used to fight in single duels, the invaders came in organized formations.

Also, the former noticed how light the latter’s armors were. This allowed quick and easy movement. As such, Japanese swordsmiths tried to make Tachi lighter. They refined its shape. Now, it could chop without being entrapped.

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Nanbokucho Period

In 1334, Emperor Godaigo attempted to overthrow the Shogunate. Restoring the power of the imperial court was also his motive. Unfortunately, the ruler raised his own emperor, Komyo, to power. Hence, power split into two courts. The desperate Godaigo built his own government in Yoshino. On the other hand, Komyo had his own in Kyoto.

The two camps fought for about 60 years. Hence, there was a strong need for swords. With this, the shape of the blades changed once more. Even the battle formation significantly altered.

For instance, foot soldiers now surrounded a leader riding on a horse. As such, swordsmiths developed longer Tachi. A piece now measured 85 centimeters to 1 meter. Certainly, this size suited the new style of horseback fighting.

Muromachi Period


Taking place in this period was the Onin War. It spearheaded the Sengoku Jidai or the so-called Warring States Period. This brought Japan into constant, bloody conflict.

During this era, Samurai began using Uchigatana. However, they still used Tachi. Its shape looked like that in the Kamakura Period. Particularly, Mihaba was narrow while Kissaki was small.

However, the curvature altered in that its center now moved ahead. Also, the part toward the tip curved itself around Monouchi. This characteristic was almost similar to that of the Katana. In fact, this was the transition from the former to the latter. Hence, it now became difficult to distinguish between the two.

The only thing that could determine the difference was the Mei. This was the term for the swordsmith’s signature.

With the rising popularity of Katana in 1394-1466, Tachi became shorter. It proved easier to carry and faster to draw. Meanwhile, the blade curvature now moved to the center.

In 1467-1554, the sword became even shorter. From 70 centimeters, it reduced to 60 to 65 centimeters. This size proved to be suitable for chopping with one hand. It also allowed for a quicker draw.

In 1555-1595, Katana replaced Tachi as the primary Samurai sword. During this period, wearers wore Tachi with the cutting edge downward. Meanwhile, they wore Katana with the edge upward. The Mei should always be on the outside part. As such, the two had theirs in opposite directions.

Edo Period

In this era, Shinto or “new swords” emerged and became popular. New materials and methods comprised the making of these weapons. Also, better technology-enhanced them.

There came a huge demand for blades that lasted for 100 years. Hence, swordsmiths mass-produced swords. In this, they never used traditionally inherited swordsmithing methods.

In 1596-1623, they made swords which they called Keigen-Shinto. These included shortened Tachi measuring about 70 centimeters. To keep up with the new fashion, users now wore them in the waist.

In 1658-1683, Edo and Osaka became the center of sword making. A new style of swords emerged. That is, the blade had extremely small curvature. As such, swordsmiths reduced the size of longswords to 70 centimeters. Also, they focused more on the sharpness and functionality of the blade.

Post-World War 2 Period

The World War 2 ended with Japan surrendering to America. This resulted to 400 000 swords becoming war trophies for the Americans. Honjo Masamune was among these. In fact, it was the swordsmen’s favorite sword during the Tokugawa Shogunate. Also, it was a Kokuho national treasure. Many other works were missing. Some were even destroyed, including the very fine blades.

Moreover, the Samurai lost their old privileges including the right to carry Daisho. This has been the condition for almost 250 years. Needless to say, swords lost market. Hence, swordsmiths had to look for other sources of income. Obviously, they abandoned the production of blades.

Fortunately, Japan saw a rebirth of traditional sword manufacturers in the 1930s. Meiji Tenno was one of them. A Nihonto lover, he strived to preserve ancient traditions by making his own swords. Also, Yasakuni developed swords which became this period’s best weapons.

Moreover, in 1946-1953, allied forces granted permission for swordsmithing. As such, smiths made at least 60 swords. These were for the great ceremony of the renewal of Ise Shrine. This ceremonial lasted for about a thousand years. However, the ceremony requested the swords to be of ancient Jokoto style. That is, they could not have curves.

Eventually, in 1953, the government removed the ban on sword making. This paved way for the reproduction of Japanese swords. However, they were for the sake of art, not for fighting purposes.

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