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Japanese Sword Knowledge: Super Basics

Types of Japanese swords

When people hear the words "samurai sword" they may or may not be thinking of the same thing as the person next to them. This is fairly reasonable for the average person. However, if you're making at attempt to get beyond the average level of understanding, then you will need to at least get comfortable with some terminology.

NOTE: This is in complete contrast with what you will find the in the eBook: Samurai Sword Secrets. The eBook is devoted to skill development, and actually disparages paying too much attention on the effort of memorizing the academic side of sword knowledge. The book is designed to make the most of your sword-handling and physical skills.

I will not be particularly strict about certain vowel elongations which are common in Japanese, in which a letter "o" may correctly be followed by the letter "u". There are several instances in discussing terminology where this would be more technically correct, but often leads to misunderstandings among the very academically oriented students who have various levels of proficiency with the Japanese language. As such, please do not use this as a lesson in pronunciation and grammar, but as the overview of sword terminology it is meant to be.

The Big Category:

Just as the Japanese refer to the nation of Japan as "nihon" you will hear the term "nihonto" to describe a "japanese blade" or, very often to describe a "japanese sword".

Typically, a reference to a "nihonto" will be a "katana". While from a purely linguistic standpoint, the term "nihonto" could be ANY blade of Japan, it is certainly not used as such a blanket term. At the same time, it most certainly would not be used to describe particularly non-Japanese blades or swords. You will not hear European or American military Civil-War type swords being called "nihonto."

Big Brother:

"Katana" is a bit of a broad term. It may encompass a fairly long sword (most certainly the longer of the two most commonly recognized swords carried in the belt of samurai). However, it may even be used to describe a rather short (though not as short as a "short sword") blade, with a handle made for a single hand. These may be called "chisa-gatana" or "small katana" and were available to non-samurai (merchants, etc) for carry and use.

Particularly if a person in training (or battle) would be wearing a set of long & short swords ("dai-sho" or "big-little") then you may also hear the term "daito" or "big-sword" to refer to the katana, as well.

The Other Half

A "wakizashi" is the smaller half of the "dai-sho" set. It is literally the sword that is inserted (zashi) under the eaves of the other sword (for reference, a person's armpit is also called a "waki," although this term is used a bit more liberally than to refer to that one anatomical area).

The other main term used to refer to this short sword is "kodachi" or "small tachi" ... this is quite funny, really:

Much Bigger Brother

The "tachi" is a much longer sword than the katana, typically with more curvature, and a different method of wear and carry. The tachi is large enough to be used quite well even on horseback, whereas a wakizashi would be prohibitively small for any such comparable use.

There is even a larger version of the Japanese sword which carries a similar name; these are often called "no-dachi" or "o-tachi" ... "field sword" or "huge sword" respectively.

Wearing / Carrying:

The largest difference to be considered in appropriate carry is probabl also the one thing that almost all movies tend to get comletely wrong. Let's clear that up right now.

Tachi: worn on the left side / blade down in the scabbard / handle forward / slung below the belt by a pair of loops designed for the purpose.

Katana: worn on the left side / blade UP in the scabbard / handle forward / inserted in the belt, closest to the body

Wakizashi: worn under the katana / blade UP in the scabbard / handle near the navel / inserted in the belt one layer away from the body (this is in part to protect the scabbards from rubbing against each other and causing damage from daily wear and use).

It is very important to consider the placement of these two swords, so that neither will be in the way of quickly and surely drawing the other. Likewise, it would have been important to have the ability for the left hand to draw the short sword without the aid of the right hand, possibly for use in two-sword techniques, or even in the case of injury to the right hand/arm.

Not the Best Job in the Army:

In the case of the enormous nodachi or otachi, it would not be entirely out of place for samurai to have these carried by a servant. In such a case, the servant would likely maintain possession of the scabbard while the sword was put to use in battle (that certainly paints an interesting picture of what it was like to work for a samurai, I'd say).

Remember the little guy:

Even smaller than the one-handed small sword, "kodachi" is the "tanto." In this case, the name is quite helpful in understanding its nature: tan-to = short blade. This could be carried just about anywhere it was useful for the person carrying it. That is, samurai would not find it useful to wear it externally at the left side, as there were already two swords and scabbards occupying that space.

A member of a lower social class would possibly find that a useful location, though. The tanto may comfortably be carried and deployed from the back, tucked into the belt with the handle towards the drawing hand, or (if small enough) inside the jacket, concealed from casual observers.

The VERY Big Swords:

There are also a handful of common designs for spear, halberds, and various pole arms of the samurai. Among the most well known, and relevant to our discussion here, is the "naginata." This graceful weapon is really nothing more than a fantastic reach advantage: an enromously elongated handle, with a curved blade at the end with a strong resemblance to a katana, though usually the blade is much shorter and with more pronounced curvature. The simplicity behind the design of this weapon is reflected in its name, which simply indicates that it is a (very) "long sword."

Measuring Up:

Finally, Japanese swords are still often named according to their traditional measurements. The metric system was not in use in old Japan, and the (now) American system of feet and inches has never been adopted there. Instead, the standard measures of length that are useful in sword discussions are:

shaku: about 0.3 meters (one foot)

sun: about 0.03 meters (about a tenth of one foot - a little bigger than an inch)

bun: about 3mm (less than 1/8 inch)


I hope this helps fill in some gaps or answer some questions.

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