Difference between katana and tachi


When you hear the word "Samurai sword," what shape comes to mind? Swords like the "tanto," with blade length is less than 1 shaku (approximately 30.3 cm), or the "wakizashi," which is longer than the short sword and less than 2 shaku (approximately 60.6 cm), can be easily identified by their length.

However, among the various types of swords, the "tachi" and "uchigatana," which were commonly used in battles, both have a basic blade length of 2 shaku or more. Because of this, it might be difficult to distinguish between them at first glance.

In this article, we will introduce in detail the key points to distinguish a tachi and an uchigatana.

The Transition from Tachi to Uchigatana is mainly in "Shape" and "Curvature"

One characteristic that tachi and uchigatana have in common is that their blade length is more than 2 shaku. And the most significant point to distinguish between them is the "shape," or "body balance," also known as "taihai," which refers to the part of the sword body excluding the "nakago" (tang). Various parts contribute to the shape of a sword. Among them, the "curvature," which significantly defines the dignity and beauty of the sword itself, is one of the important points.

Moreover, the tachi from this era had a "slender" shape where the "sakihaba" (width at the tip: straight-line distance from the blade edge to the back near the yokote) was narrower than the "motohaba" (width at the base: straight-line distance from the blade edge to the back at the hamachi), which resulted in a "small point/small kissaki." This lent an elegant and refined atmosphere to the sword.

As time progressed from the Kamakura to the Nanbokucho period, the center of the curvature of such tachi moved upwards, and the curvature itself became shallower. The difference between the body width and the base width gradually became smaller.

As the curvature gradually became shallower, the uchigatana replaced the tachi as the mainstream. The Sengoku period was the time when the uchigatana reached its peak. During this era when warlords fought day and night to conquer the country, a large number of uchigatana were made.

Originally, the uchigatana had a "hirazukuri" (flat-forged) shape similar to a lengthened short sword, but like the tachi, it became commonly made in a "shinogi-zukuri" (ridgeline-forged) style.

Furthermore, from the Muromachi period onwards, it became popular to cut down the tang of a sword that was originally a long tachi and shorten the blade for ease of use, thereby converting it into an uchigatana. This process is called "suriage" (shortening), and notable figures who actively engaged in this were "Oda Nobunaga" and "Toyotomi Hideyoshi." Specifically, the practice of shortening the tang to the point where the original signature is lost and reshaping the blade part into a tang is known as "oosuriage" (major shortening).

For example, "Heshikiri Hasebe," which is said to have been a favorite sword of Oda Nobunaga, bestowed upon Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and then passed down to the Kuroda family, was originally an "oodachi" (large tachi) with a longer blade length than a tachi, but was later shortened into an uchigatana.

Thus, the uchigatana that exist today are of two types: swords that were initially made as uchigatana, and swords that were originally tachi but were shortened.

The method of wearing is another important and easy to spot factor that distinguish between a tachi and an uchigatana, including differences in curvature and form. The basic way to wear a tachi is to "hang it from the waist" on the left side with the blade facing down.

When a tachi is worn with the blade facing down, the side facing outwards from the body is called the "hakiomote", and the swordsmith usually inscribes his signature on this side of the tang.

On the other hand, an uchigatana is carried by "inserting it into the belt" with the blade facing up. Similar to a tachi, when an uchigatana is worn with the blade facing up, the side facing outwards from the body is called the "sashiomote", and many uchigatana have the smith's signature on this side of the tang.

Therefore, checking whether the signature is on the hakiomote or sashiomote side is one of the clues to distinguish between a tachi and an uchigatana.

Also, when exhibited in museums, tachi are often placed with the blade facing down, and uchigatana are placed with the blade facing up. The reason for these differences between tachi and uchigatana is the change in combat styles involving swords over time.

As mentioned earlier, the form of the tachi in Japanese swords was established around the late Heian period. The dominant style of combat at this time was "mounted combat", where combat was conducted while riding a horse.
Since the attack method of "horseback archery" was popular, the tachi of this era were used as auxiliary weapons when descending from a horse or when arrows ran out.

However, around the start of the "Jisho-Juei War" in 1180, which was a series of major battles in the "Genpei War", the use of tachi on horseback increased.
Because a longer sword is advantageous in mounted combat, the tachi, which developed with mounted combat in mind, has a longer blade and stronger curvature compared to an uchigatana. In addition, the tachi was hung from the waist belt in the samurai armor with the blade facing down to prevent the "kojiri" (a metal fitting attached to the tip of the scabbard) from hitting the horse's hindquarters like a whip.

The tachi was used in battles until around the Nanbokucho period, but by the late Muromachi period, it was replaced by the uchigatana.

The biggest reason for this was a change in combat style from mounted combat to "foot combat". In mounted combat, there was a certain distance between opposing parties, but in foot combat, it became a close-quarters battle.
Therefore, how quickly one could draw the sword from the scabbard when an enemy was in front of them became a key point in the outcome of the battle.
Therefore, the uchigatana, which made operation easier by reducing the curvature and shortening the length of the sword, appeared. The main weapons on the battlefield shifted from the tachi to the uchigatana.

Although it may seem that the tachi has lost its role, in fact, even before the samurai took power, the tachi was influenced by aristocratic culture and was used as a glamorous "decoration tachi" (kazatachi) at celebrations and ceremonies.
This custom continued even after the tachi finished its role in battle, and there are records of tachi being given on occasions such as coming-of-age ceremonies or the birth of an heir.

In contrast to the aristocracy's decorative tachi, the samurai class had the tachi established by the Edo shogunate for ceremonial purposes, which was called the "itomaki tachi".

The itomaki tachi, which came with a decorative lacquered scabbard, exuded a glamorous and dignified atmosphere and was treated as a weapon symbolizing the power of the samurai, samurai will spend a good fortune on their custom katana

On the other hand, when it came to the Edo period, the uchigatana began to be worn in a set with a wakizashi.

This was called "daisho", and the maximum dimensions of the uchigatana were determined by the order of the shogunate. Therefore, during this time, there was an increase in the practice of reshaping tachi that were too long into uchigatana.
In the peaceful Edo period, when there were no battles, the uchigatana, which was no longer used as a weapon, began to be carried in everyday life because the daisho 2-piece difference became a sign of the samurai status.

In actual battle, the koshirae, which is essential for carrying a sword, did not require much decoration. However, with the arrival of a peaceful era without war, "uchigatana koshirae" were created, reflecting the preferences of the owners and creators of the uchigatana, and many have been preserved to this day, elaborating on various tastes.

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