Japan has a rich and fascinating history when it comes to swords and polearms. From the elegant tachi sword used by samurai, to the powerful naginata used by monks and women warriors, these weapons played a crucial role in Japanese culture and warfare. Join us on a journey through time as we explore the evolution of Japanese swords and polearms.
Chokuto - The Ancient Sword
We owe this one a lot because it was the predecessor of the Japanese swords we grew to love.
The chokuto is one of the earliest forms of Japanese sword. It dates back to the Yayoi period and is characterized by its straight blade. The chokuto was not only used in Japan, but also in neighboring countries such as China and Korea. It was a popular weapon among the warrior class, and was used primarily for cutting and slicing. The straight blade of the chokuto made it well-suited for thrusting, but it was not as effective in this regard as later curved swords.
Over time, the chokuto began to evolve into other types of Japanese swords, such as the tachi and katana.
Tachi - The Elegant Sword of the Heian Period
The tachi was a type of sword that was popular during the Heian period. It was longer and more curved than its predecessor, the chokuto, and was worn suspended from the samurai’s belt, with the edge facing downwards. The tachi was primarily used for cavalry combat, as its length and curve made it ideal for slashing down at opponents from horseback.
The tachi is also known for being the father of the katana.
Katana - The Iconic Samurai Sword
The katana is perhaps the most famous Japanese sword of all time. It emerged during the Muromachi period, and was used by samurai for close combat on foot. The katana was a versatile weapon, as it could be used for both slashing and thrusting.
It had a single-edged, curved blade, that was also thick (a deadly combination for slashing). The katana was renowned for its sharpness, and samurai would often test their blades by cutting through thick bamboo stalks (or even bodies of prisoners, but we don’t talk about that).
Wakizashi - The Honor Blade
The wakizashi was a short sword that was often worn in conjunction with the katana. It was used for close-quarters combat, especially inside buildings. The wakizashi was also used as a backup weapon, in case the samurai’s katana was lost or damaged during battle.
However, one of the main things that differentiate the Wakizashi is that it was used for committing seppuku — its short length and thin blade made it the perfect tool for the task. Thus, it ended up being known as The Honor Blade.
Tanto - The (Extra) Short Sword
Is it a dagger? Is it a sword that is just very short? The debate still keeps going today. What’s beyond any doubt is that the tanto is one of the most widespread Japanese weapons. So much so that many modern kitchen and tactical knives use its sturdy design as inspiration.
The tanto was primarily used for stabbing, rather than slashing. It was ideal to penetrate through the gaps in heavy armor. It was often carried by samurai as a backup weapon, and could also be used for performing seppuku.
Yari - The Spear
The yari was a spear that was used by samurai during the Sengoku period. The yari was typically around 2-4m long, and had a long, narrow blade that was designed for thrusting. It would sometimes come in varied designs with different spikes protruding. Did that make them better than a normal spear? That’s up for debate.
The yari was a versatile weapon, as it could be used both on foot and on horseback. It was also effective against cavalry charges, as it could be used to impale horses.
Naginata - The Spear-Sword
The naginata was a polearm that was primarily used by monks, foot soldiers, and women warriors (known as onna-bugeisha). The naginata had a long, curved blade that was attached to a long wooden pole. Yes, basically a spear with a sword blade at the top.
It was a versatile weapon, as it could be used for slashing, thrusting, and even disarming opponents. The naginata was particularly effective against cavalry, as its long reach allowed warriors to strike at the riders from a safe distance.
There are many great stories about warriors with Naginatas. One of them, maybe the most famous one, was about a monk that deflected hundreds of arrows with it.
Shikomizue - The Sword Cane
Imagine quietly walking down a path and seeing an old man with a cane. Imagine getting stabbed by that old man just a few seconds later, and you’ll see why this was such a breakthrough back in feudal times.
The shikomizue was a cane that had a hidden sword blade inside. It was used primarily by old samurai during the Edo period as a concealed weapon, but legend says shinobi agents used them too. The blade was usually similar to that of a wakizashi, and was hidden inside the cane when not in use.
The shikomizue was particularly useful in situations where weapons were not allowed, as it allowed the user to defend themselves without arousing suspicion. One example of this is during meetings at the Emperor’s palace, in which carrying weapons was strictly forbidden.
Shirasaya - The Plain Wooden Sword
The shirasaya is a type of sword that is characterized by its plain wooden scabbard and handle. The blade itself can be any type of Japanese sword, such as a katana or wakizashi, but it is the simplicity of the shirasaya that sets it apart — truly a work of art.
The shirasaya was originally used as a storage scabbard for Japanese swords. When not in use, a samurai would place their sword in a shirasaya to protect the blade and prevent rust. Over time, the shirasaya began to be used as a training sword as well.
Today, the shirasaya is still used as a training sword, but it has also become popular as a decorative item. The plain wooden scabbard and handle make it a popular choice for collectors and enthusiasts who appreciate the beauty of simple design.
Many shirasaya swords are also custom-made, with the handle and scabbard carved to fit the sword’s specific dimensions.
Ninjato - The Sword of the Ninja
The ninjato, also known as the shinobigatana or ninja sword, is a Japanese sword that is often associated with the ninja, a group of warriors and spies who operated in feudal Japan. The ninjato is characterized by its straight blade and square guard, and is often depicted as a short sword.
However, there is some debate over the authenticity of the ninjato as a historical weapon. Some experts believe that the ninjato was a purely fictional weapon that was created for use in movies and popular culture. Others believe that the ninjato was a real weapon that was used by the ninja, but that it was not significantly different from other Japanese swords of the time.