Weapons of Samurai
SAMURAI. Samurai students at the Arizona Hombu Dojo learn samurai sword, pole-arm (naginata), spear (yari), staff (bo), half-staff (hanbo), throwing arts (jujutsu), knife (tanto), rope restraints (hojojutsu), short stick (kuboton), cane (tsune) and others.
Swords of Feudal Japan are generally known as Japanese swords (日本刀) or nihonto. The kanji includes ‘日’ ideograph for sun, and ‘本’ for ‘origin’ or ‘root’ (a graphic of a tree with root at base). These two kanji (日本) combined represent Japan (origin of the sun). The third kanji (刀) represents sword. Japanese sword lengths are measured in shaku (average distance between nodes of a mature bamboo stem ~1 foot). The primary shaku was equal to 30.3 cm (11.93 inches) resulting in the following general classification:
- tanto (knife or dagger) = 1 shaku or less;
- wakizashi or kodachi (short swords known as shoto) = 1 to 2 shaku;
- katana or tachi (long swords known as daito) = more than 2 shaku;
- odachi (long swords) = more than 3 shaku.
LONG SWORDS - Daito
Odachi (otachi) (大太刀). The ‘o’ in odachi refers to ‘great’. The kanji for ‘great’ is written as ‘大’ or big. Odachi predated katana and had unique characteristics. Not only was the sword noticeably long, odachi was marked by religious inscriptions imprinted on the tang. It is thought odachi was used in ceremonies prior to battle. Because of their length (5 to 6 shaku)(often longer than a samurai was tall), it is thought some were used as cavalry swords carried on one’s back, in hand, attached to a horse, or by an assistant who followed the samurai. The nodachi is often confused with odachi. However, nodachi refers to any type of long battlefield sword (daito) as well as a tachi and is often misapplied to any over-sized Japanese sword. It has the appearance of tachi, but significantly longer. The sword may have been used for dueling.
Katana (刀). The most common sword is katana (刀) referred to as Samurai Sword by Westerners. The katana is a single edged sword with curved blade whose possession was restricted to samurai. It was thought that katana were the soul of samurai. The samurai actually provided names to their swords, as they were considered to be alive. Katana (pronounced kah-ta-nah) is larger than 2 shaku and has a more moderate curve than tachi. The katana was worn on the left hip (there were no left-handed samurai) with cutting edge (ha) up. The blade included a circular to square guard (tsuba) separating it from a long grip handle and pommel (tuska). The blade of katana along with the portion of the blade known as the nakago that extends into the handle, was all one continuous piece known as tang. Those katana made for combat (shinken) and training (iaito) have full tang. This simply means the nakago and ken (blade) are one, uninterrupted, piece of steel. Many cheap iaito sold at martial arts outlets have two pieces - a blade and handle. These will loosen over time until the handle separates from the blade. To train in the Arizona Hombu dojo, the iaito must have a dull edge. Shinken (sharp blades) are too dangerous for dojo use & in Arizona should be reserved for trimming cactus.
The grip handle of katana is covered with ray skin leather (sa-me’) and wrapped with cord known as ito. To hold the handle in place, a hole was punched into the steel nakago and a small bamboo peg (mekugi) forced through the handle into the nakago. When the handle is removed from a well-made katana by forcing the mekugi out, a swordsmith’s signature should be carved into the nakago. The katana is carried in a scabbard known as saya.
Tachi (太刀). Katana and tachi look similar but can be distinguished by locating the mei (signature) on the sword’s nakago under the handle. When worn, the mei would be carved on that side of the tang that would face outward when placed in one’s obi. Because the tachi was worn with the cutting edge down opposite of the katana, the mei is on the opposite side of the tang. The tachi was often considered as a spare blade for battle. There were tachi with variations from the classical weapon that not only included odachi but also included a shorter sword known as kodachi with similar length to wakizashi.
SHORT SWORDS - Shoto
Wakizashi (脇差). The wakizashi, also referred to as wakizashi no kataka, translates as ‘sword inserted at one’s side’. Wakizashi had a 1 to 2 shaku blade. Those closer in length to katana were referred to as o-wakazashi. Shorter blade wakizashi were known as ko-wakizashi. The wakizashi was worn with katana and the pair was referred to as daisho which translates as ‘dai’ (big) and ‘sho’ (little).
The wakizashi was a back-up sword for close quarters fighting and for seppuku (ritual suicide). The size of wakizashi was not regulated until the Edo Period in 1638 AD, when only samurai were allowed to wear katana of a regulated length. At that time wakizashi were also regulated. Samurai were allowed to wear both while those of the chonin class (merchants) were only allowed to wear a shorter ko-wakizashi to protect themselves from bandits. It was customary for samurai to leave katana at a door of a castle, but they always carried wakizashi. The wakizashi was the samurai’s honor blade and would never leave his/hers side, so much so, that it is reported samurai even slept with them under their pillows.
KNIFE - Tanto. The tanto was a knife worn by samurai. One variety was yoroi toshi or dagger (about 8 inches long) that had a great thickness for piercing armor. Another was aikuchi (匕首) which had a distinct characteristic of no tsuba, similar to another dagger known as a kaiken. Even so, many tanto had tsuba. At the Arizona Hombu dojo, we train with a variety of tanto known as aikuchi and karambit. We also teach kata developed by Soke Hausel. Along with teaching knife, we also train in a number of self-defense applications against a knife (watch video).
Chokuto. The chokuto had a straight blade and introduced to Japan from Korea.
Kusanagi no Tsurugi. A double-edged sword used in 5th century Japan similar to the ken tanto (double-edged knife).
Shirasaya (白鞘). Shirasaya translates as ‘white scabbard’. This sword that had a plain wood blade mount consisting of a saya (scabbard) with a tsuka (hilt) and traditionally used for storage when a sword blade was not needed for some time. In this form, it was not used on a battlefield.
Shikomi-zue (仕込み杖). The shikomi-zue is a sword-stick. These typically contained a blade inside a cane (tsue) for concealment. Some of these also other weapons such as pepper powder (metsubuski), chains, hooks, etc.
SWORD ARTS We train in a number of sword or samurai arts including kenjutsu, iaido, naginatajutsu, sojutsu, and hanbojutsu at the Arizona Hombu dojo.
Left - Amira attacks Ben with katana (sword), while Ben blocks her down cut with his yari (spear).
Kenjutsu (sword techniques) Combat sword training is similar to kendo (way of sword); however, kendo is sport. Both focus on techniques of the sword after it has been drawn from saya (scabbard). Kendo-ka practice with bamboo swords known as shinai, while wearing padded clothing known as bogy wotj and head gear known as men. Kenjutsu practitioners train with sword or wooden sword, for combat.
Iaijutsu, iaido (居合道) & battojutsu (抜刀術) are martial arts of fast draw swords. Battojutsu incorporates multiple cuts following a draw; while iaido emphasizes reaction to unknown scenarios, or to sudden & swift attacks. In iaido, the student begins with a bokken (wooden practice sword) and switches to iaito (dull-edged practice sword). Because iaido is practiced with a weapon, whether dull or live, nearly all training is by kata that includes drawing the weapon followed by cuts and finishing with ceremonial de-blooding and replacing the weapon into the saya. Sparring is not part of iaido but is instead restricted to kendo and kenjutsu. Sword testing, (tameshigiri) was designed to test the blade’s sharpness and the practitioner’s ability to cut a variety of materials - at the Arizona Hombu dojo - we sometimes practice on pumpkins around Halloween.
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