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Arizona Hombu Karate Dojo

Traditional Okinawan Martial Arts (Karate, Kobudo, Self-Defense, Samurai Arts)

Weapons of Samurai

SAMURAISamurai 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 swordJapanese 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


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 samuraiThe 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 ()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-nahis 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 edgeShinken (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.


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 sportBoth 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 menKenjutsu practitioners train with sword or wooden sword, for combat.

    Iaijutsuiaido (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. 

    Naginata (なぎなた, 薙刀) is one of several bladed weapons in the arsenal of the samurai class. A halberd, or pole arm, the naginata had a long wooden pole for handle attached to a curved blade. Naginata means ‘mowing down sword’ or ‘reaping sword’. The dictionary defines ‘reaping’ as ‘harvesting with a sickle’. This definition provides a visual of what the weapon's use. Naginata varied in size: the shaft was reported to range from 5 to 9 shaku and blade 1 to 3 shaku. The blade of some naginata were recycled from katana while other blades were forged specifically for naginata

    The shaft of naginata is equipped with a pommel known as ishizuki. The ishizuki is a counterweight used for striking between armor plates of an enemy. Similar pommel were found on yari. The shaft of the naginata was oval-shape to allow samurai to ‘feel’ the orientation of the blade while swinging the weapon in combat. Like many weapons in martial arts, the origin of naginata is uncertain. Even so, many suggest it descended from the Chinese Guan Dao. Others point out that naginata was used by Japanese for centuries, back to the Heian Period (794 to 1185 AD). Others claim naginata was used earlier by sohei (warrior monks) during the Nara Period (710 to 794 AD).

    During one of many Japanese wars (1180–1185 AD), naginata rose to a position prominence. Cavalry battles had become important and naginata proved effective in disabling riders. During the Edo Period (1603 to 1868 AD) naginata became less common, and instead was adopted as a symbol of social status for women of samurai class and naginata was often given as a part of a samurai daughter's dowry. Although women did not typically fight on the battlefield, those of samurai class were expected to defend their homes. Koryu Naginata training became part of the public school curriculum in Japan after the Menji Restoration (1868). After world war II, martial arts were banned in Japan for five years and then in 1950, a modern system of naginata training known as atarashii naginata (new naginata) was developed. This system is practiced as a gendai sport with emphasis on etiquette.

    Yari. Sojutsu is the art of samurai spear. The spear, known as yariwas favored by some samurai and warrior monks. Yari is thought to have originated in China; however, others suggest the spear is as old as Japan. Some suggest yari is simply a spear, others suggest to be a true yari, the blade must have a full tang and the tang must slide inside a pole. Even so, researchers separate Japanese spears into categories: (1) hoko or early spears use by Japanese ancestors, (2) hoko yari or yari-like spears that originated in China, and (3) yari blades with full tang that exhibit unique metallurgy and sword-smith characteristics indigenous to Japan.

    The edges of yari blades were razor sharp and a weighted pommel known as a hirumaki and the pole was used for striking. Some blades came with sharpened horns or cross blades known as jumonji yari (also magari yari). These looked like a cross and were similar in shape to the Japanese number 10. Ten translates as ‘ju’, thus the origin of the root of jumonji. Some jumonji also had cross bars similar to the Okinawan nunte bo (aka nunti). The nunte bo was an Okinawan spear with three prongs with the shorter prongs directed in opposite directions. During the Heian Period, yari were su-yari (straight blades). 

    Both yari and naginata had an advantage of reach over horse-mounted samurai. Near the latter half of the 16th century, Japanese foot soldiers known as ashigaru were armed with long pikes (nagae yari) to defend against cavalry charges. Some yari were as long as 18-feet while most were 10- and 12-feet-long. Some foot soldiers used nagae yari to stop the cavalry, others carried shorter su yariarquebusiers (muzzle-loaded firearms) and yumi (bows). 

    Hanbo. The hanbo (半棒), or ‘half-bo’ is taught in jujutsu and ninjutsu schools. According to a summary on Kukishin Ryu, legend suggests that during battle between Kuriyama Ukon and General Suzuki Tangonokami Katsuhisa in 1575, Kuriyama was armed with yari and Suzuki with katana. During the battle, Suzuki sliced through Kuriyama’s spear cutting it in half, even so, Kuriyama was able to overwhelm Suzuki with the broken spear handle and Kuriyama realized the importance of the short staff and later developed hanbo-jutsu

    Hanbo are traditionally three shaku (36 inches), or half the length of a traditional bo. A bo can be referred to as roku-shakubo, or a stick of 6 shaku. The hanbo is used in training by Japanese law enforcement, and became promintent during the late 19th Century during the Edo Period, when law enforcement officers were armed with wooden staffs and responsible for disarming samurai. These officers worked in teams and attacked the samurai simultaneously to disarm and restrain them with rope (hojojutsu).

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