Before the advent of firearms, swords were the primary weapon on historic battlefields. Japanese swords are perhaps the most iconic and have been well known throughout the centuries for their elegant combination of beauty and function. There are many different types of Japanese sword styles and each one was designed with a unique purpose. Knowing what the major varieties are and what sets them apart can help you find the perfect pieces to add to your collection.
Parts of a Japanese Sword
Before breaking down the types of Japanese swords, it may be helpful to understand the components that make up these weapons. There are many very specific parts, but the ones listed below are what you will hear discussed most frequently. The sword displayed in the diagram is a katana.
The parts of a Japanese sword include:
- Kashira: the part at the end of the sword grip, similar to a European sword's pommel
- Tsuka: the part of the sword that the warrior holds, translated as either grip or handle
- Same: the ray skin that covers the tsuka
- Ito: a silk wrapping that goes over the same and covers the tsuka
- Tsuba: the guard between the blade and the tsuka
- Blade: the metal portion, which is defined by several features
- Bo-hi: also called the blood groove, this is a section that is carved out of the sword’s blade to reduce its weight
- Mune: the back edge or spine of the blade
- Shinogi: the raised line where the blade transitions from the thicker part of the sword to the cutting edge
- Shinogi-ji: the thicker section of the sword between the shinogi and the mune
- Ji: the section of the sword between the shinogi and the cutting edge
- Hamon: the line between the cutting edge and the ji where the blade changes thickness, caused by differential tempering
- Ha: sometimes called yakiba, the cutting edge of the blade
- Kissaki: the tip of the blade
- Boshi: the rounded edge on the kissaki
Many Japanese swords were carried by the samurai class. One exception is the shinobigatana, also called the ninjatō or ninjaken. The first account of a shinobigatana was in 1956. This weapon is still being used by modern ninjutsu practitioners. It is said that shinobi (ninjas) in feudal Japan used these swords, although there is no physical evidence of their existence during this time.
A ninja sword looks different from a katana because it has a straight blade instead of a curved one. A ninjatō is usually less than 60 centimeters long and is made of thicker metal than a katana. The alleged reason for the straight shape is that ninjas, unlike samurai, would have to forge their own weapons. A straight blade was much easier than the refined curve of other types of Japanese swords. Although it was shorter and looked different than a katana, shinobigatanas would have been used very similarly to other traditional Japanese swords.
Types of Samurai Swords
The most popular Japanese swords are those that would have been used by the samurai class in feudal Japan.
Some of the most well-known types of samurai swords are:
A katana is probably what most people picture when they think of Japanese swords and is one of the most iconic types of weapons in history. This style of sword is believed to have been developed between the late 1300s and mid-1500s, which was the Muromachi period of Japanese history. Katanas were considered essential to life as a samurai. They were presented to future warriors at their birth and would remain close to them until their death.
The creation of a fine katana involves the fusion of art and technology. During the height of the samurai age, between the 13th and 15th centuries, famous sword makers gained renown for their craft. During the creation of a katana, Shinto priests would bless both the sword and the swordsmith.
A katana has a signature curved blade that makes it easy to differentiate from a straight shinobigatana or from earlier styles of Japanese swords that had more Chinese influence. The length differentiates a katana from other samurai swords. The blade is between 60 and 73 centimeters. A katana has a single edge and would be stored blade-up for quick access.
Wakizashi means "side insertion" in Japanese and these were the back-up weapons of samurai. They would carry a katana and wakizashi together and the combination was known as Daishō, meaning "large and small." The wakizashi was to be kept with the samurai at all times and was used for close-quarters combat. Samurai would also use this type of sword for seppuku. This was a type of ritual suicide where samurais would disembowel themselves to avoid dishonor according to Bushido, their honor code or "way of the warrior." This practice led to a wakizashi sometimes being called an "honor blade."
To tell the difference between a wakizashi and katana, consider the blade length. A wakizashi is shorter, between 40 and 60 centimeters. Other parts of the two types of swords are fairly similar. A wakizashi is also curved with a single cutting edge.
A tanto is a small Japanese sword that is used as a knife. These weapons were common before the wakizashi/katana combination became more popular. They would also be carried as weapons during visits or other situations where a longer sword would be less ideal. Women would sometimes carry a small tanto called a kaiken in their obi (belt) for self-defense.
There are many different styles of tanto swords and the way they look can vary considerably. The one aspect that stays the same is the short blade, which is usually under 30 centimeters and can be as small as 12 or 15 centimeters. Traditional tantos have a straight blade, although some have curved blades similar to katanas and wakizashi. Some styles do have a tsuba whereas others do not and the blade can be single-edged (more common) or double-edged. The most common style is called hira and this type has no shinogi. Varieties with shinogi are rarer because they are more difficult to make and are often the result of a longer sword being broken and cut down.
Fine Japanese Swords
Armory offers a wide selection of Japanese swords including ninjaken, katanas, wakizashi, and tantos. These collector's pieces are gorgeous and are made with supreme craftsmanship and attention to detail. We also have other types of Asian swords, including Chinese Shaolin swords.