When we think of Japanese swords, the first name that comes to mind is the katana. It's the most well-known, to the point that this term originally referred to a particular sword model but has become the word for any Japanese sword. However, there's another term known to enthusiasts, which is nihontō, defining a traditionally crafted Japanese sword. But even though the katana is the most commonly used name, it's not the oldest. So, what is the first Japanese sword ever produced? Do you know the main current models? Verify your knowledge in the fascinating realm of Japanese swords through reading our article.
Main Japanese Swords
Tachi or 太刀
The tachi is derived from the chokutō, but it's the first forged Japanese sword. Originally designed for horseback warriors, it was worn edge down. However, a two-handed combat technique emerged, practiced by foot samurais.
The tachi has a blade larger than the katana, about 10 cm longer, thinner, and already curved, although its curvature is different. The point of the strongest curvature of the tachi blade is in the first third, making it easier to draw. However, the katana replaced the tachi. The katana proved more efficient in defeating opponents, delivering deadlier blows.
Katana or 刀
An emblematic and iconic sword of the samurai, the katana boasts an unparalleled cutting edge and a single-edged, curved blade, highly sharp and about 60 cm long, or two shaku, the traditional Japanese measure. This is due to its unique manufacturing process, involving clay tempering by a master blacksmith, followed by meticulous manual polishing by a togishi, a craftsman specialized in polishing sword blades. The katana's point of strongest curvature lies in the middle of the blade.
The samurai wore the katana slung edge up in their obi (belt) for quick and safe drawing. During calmer periods in Japanese history, it evolved into more of a ceremonial than a warrior role. Today, the katana remains the most beloved Japanese sword.
Wakizashi or 脇差
The wakizashi is a similar version to the katana but with a smaller blade, ranging from 30 to 60 cm. Its easier handling made it suitable for close-quarters combat. The combination of a katana and a wakizashi is known as the daishō or 大小 and was the traditional pair of samurai swords. Unlike the katana, the wakizashi could also be carried by wealthy merchants. It was the weapon used specifically for seppuku, the ritual suicide that allowed the samurai to cleanse their honor.
Tantō or 短刀
The tantō refers to a slightly curved blade and is smaller in size, more like a dagger, with a blade length of less than one shaku, about 30 cm. It can be with or without a guard. In the latter case, it's called a monture aiguchi, without a guard (tsuba) and with a diameter equal to that of the tsuka, the handle, and therefore not visible. In the version with tsuba, it's a buke-zukuri mount, with a guard and a cord called the sageo to attach the sheath to the belt. A slightly smaller version meant to be concealed in clothing existed, known as a kaiken. These were primarily used by female samurai.
Ninjatō or 忍者刀
Myth or reality, the ninjatō remains a mystery. A short sword with a straight blade and a size under 50 cm, it features a large square tsuba allowing for support while climbing walls. It is said to have been a ninja weapon, but nothing is certain, nor is its origin. To learn more about the ninjatō, visit our page dedicated to this weapon.
Lesser-Known Japanese Swords
Uchigatana or 打刀
The uchigatana gained popularity through the game Elden Ring. However, it was indeed a real Japanese sword. It is one of the ancestors of the katana but of lower quality, primarily used by low-ranking warriors, not part of the armament of honorable and valiant samurai. It could be wielded with one or two hands.
Ōdachi or 大太刀 and Nōdachi or 野太刀
These two swords are grouped together as they are very similar, differing mainly in semantics. The ōdachi is a traditionally forged long sword, with a large size, as its blade is about 90 cm long or 3 shaku. Its name means "long fine sword." As for the nōdachi, the kanji similarity is evident. Its translation would be "field sword," in the sense of a battlefield. Its length is also oversized, making both swords challenging to wield with two hands and requiring assistance from another person to draw. Moreover, their cost, difficulty in forging, and weight led to their limited use over time.
Nagamaki or 長巻
The nagamaki is a polearm weapon, with a pointed blade fixed to a handle, resembling what we would call a lance in the west. Used between the 12th and 14th centuries, its slightly curved blade was about 70 to 100 cm long, with the handle only slightly longer. It was used by common warriors and infantry. In a version with a shorter blade but a longer handle, it became a naginata or 薙刀.
Bokken or 木剣
The most well-known of all is the bokken, often referred to as bokutō in Japan. It's a wooden version of the katana and, like its counterpart, it has become the standard name for a sword made of wood. It was the favorite weapon of a famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi.
Iaitō or 居合刀
The iaitō, on the other hand, is made of metal, but it's not sharp. It's the training weapon for practitioners of iaido, a martial art focused on quick drawing. Although not sharp, its sharp point can cause injuries, so it must be handled with great care.
Shinaī or 竹刀
The shinaī is a sword made of bamboo slats held together by leather. The materials used allow it to be used for strikes that won't cause injuries, even if the opponent is not wearing body protection. Practitioners of kendo engage in training with the shinaī.