Tanto: Everything You Need To Know About This Small Katana
The romantic portrayals of samurais in movies, T.V. shows, comics, and animes have captivated audiences worldwide. Other than the discipline and honour by which they live, numerous other aspects of their unique lives are sure to catch a person's attention. Of course, their beautiful and deadly weapon is one of those! Today I will examine the Tanto, a unique weapon samurai used.
Samurai in feudal Japan traditionally wore a short sword called a Tanto (短刀). These blades first saw service during the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.). Although most people associate the samurai with the Katana (or uchigatana to be more correct)) , almost every samurai carries a tanto. No doubt, it's an intriguing weapon with an equally fascinating backstory. Don't know much about this deadly weapon? Well, here I bring you all that you might need to know about these blades, from exciting facts to how it's different from popular Katana or Wazikashi and more!
What Is Tanto?
Tantō (短刀) is a short sword that the Samurai of Feudal Japan carried around on their belts for various purposes, such as self defense, ceremonial, or as utility knife . But its uses weren't exclusive to Samurais, even commoners would carry one around for self defense. Later, it evolved into a protective talisman that newborns and newlyweds wore.
Tanto looks pretty much just like a dagger, usually the blade length is less than one shaku (approximately 30 centimeters). The term "Tanto" is a relatively new. In earlier times, it was referred to as "koshigatana" (腰刀 waist sword), or simply as a 刀 "sword" to differentiate it from the longer "tachi."
The blade geometry of Tanto is usually hirazukuri , makes it a less curved blade than katana or wakizashi. Another special feature about Tanto is usually it has not tsuba (hand guard).
Although the primary function of Tanto blades was as stabbing weapons, the razor-sharp edge also made them effective for slashing.
How Long is a Tanto?
Although the length of the blade on a Japanese Tanto sword can vary, the standard size is between 6 inches (15 cm) - 12 inches (30 cm). Compared to traditional Japanese swords like the Katana or wakizashi, tanto knives were noticeably shorter. However, this length is not absolute and can be customized depending on its uses, when it was made, and the owner who uses it.
Any blade under 30 cm is considered a tanto under the current Japanese Firearms and Sword Law. However, before World War II and the Sword Abolishment Edict (廃刀令, Haitōrei), many blades longer than 30 centimetres were classified as Tanto. One example is Sun-nobi tanto (寸延), a long dagger with a blade length of roughly 33 cm.
Types of Tanto
Swordmakers have forged various styles of tanto over the past 700–800 years. based on their shapes and mountings, we can classify them into the following:
Aikuchi refer to type of tanto koshirae without a tsuba (handguard). The name "Aikuchi" can roughly translate to "close the mouth", comes from the way the handle and the sheath fit snugly together.
Hamidashi tsuba 喰出鍔:
Hamidashi Tsuba refer to a type of tanto koshirae with a small-sized tsuba (handguard) that slightly protrudes from the cutting edge. This type of tsuba is commonly found on tanto and small wakizashi about one shaku (approximately 30.3 cm) in length. When koiguchi (scabbard mouth) or kōgai (accessory) holes are present, the outer diameter of the tsuba is kept small, resulting in a large C-shaped notch rather than a standard hole. This specific design choice accommodates the smaller size of the tsuba while still providing functional and aesthetic value.
Sunobi Tanto 寸延短刀:
The Sunobi Tantō is a tanto with the typical characteristics, such as a less curved, hirazukuri blade geometry, but with a length exceeding 1 shaku (approximately 30.3 cm). Normally the blade length of a tanto should be less than 1 shaku, but Sunobi Tantō, appearing in the Nanboku-chō period and popular until the early Edo period, are an exception and still classified as tanto.
The "Yoroidoshi" (鎧通し), also known as "Metezashi" (馬手差し), is a type of tanto used in close combat against an opponent wearing samurai armor, by stabbing them in the gap.
This sword was typically held in the right hand in a reverse grip, with a blade length of no more than 9 sun 5 bu (approximately 28.8 cm), roughly extending up to the elbow. Additionally, during the siege of castles, it was used to wedge between stone walls as a foothold.
It is noted that when carrying the Yoroidōshi, unlike usual katana, it was worn with the handle facing backwards and the kojiri (the end tip of the scabbard) facing forwards. This was to prevent the sword from being easily taken by the opponent during close-quarters combat.
The Sasuga is a type of tanto popular among lower-ranking samurai who fought on foot during the Kamakura period. While their primary weapon was the naginata, the Sasuga was used as a secondary weapon in close combat or when the naginata was lost. With the popularity of larger Ōdachi katana, the Sasuga also became larger and eventually evolved into Uchigatana.
懐剣 Kaiken or 懐刀 Futokorogatana:
Kaiken, also known as Futokorogatana, refers to tanto carried for self-defense, commonly by samurai women and also by men in places where carrying longer swords was impractical. Designed for concealment and emphasizing functionality, they typically have simple koshirea without elaborate decorations or tsuba.
Denchūzashi is a tanto usually worn by high-ranking samurai, such as daimyo, when formally entering the palace (denchū 殿中) like the Edo Castle. This is because, during the Edo period, samurai were required by law to deposit their Uchigatana at the entrance when visiting the shōgun or a daimyō in the palace.
It signifies the absence of aggressive intentions within the palace. Characterized by a wrapped tsuka and a tsuba, it is also known as Chiisagatana. This type of sword was infamously used in the Edo Castle assault by Asano Naganori on Kira Yoshinaka, as depicted in the famous "Chūshingura 忠臣蔵" story. Despite the prohibition of drawing swords in the palace, there were reportedly seven such incidents during the Edo period.
Other than these common types, there are some unique designs as well:
Pistol Tanto: These are single shot pistols in tanto koshirae and are relatively rare. They were introduced into Japan in the 15th Century by the Portuguese and were used as a weapon of both military combat and personal defense. Most pistol tanto date from the late 18th and 19th Centuries.
Fan Tanto: These are tanto in koshirae simulating a folded Japanese fan. They were used by women and retired samurai as well as doctors, monks and others who did not wish to appear to be carrying a weapon.
Ken Tanto: These have double edged blades and were mainly made as Buddhist ritual implements. Some ken style tanto were made from cut down yari. Ken blades may have parallel edges or double concave shapes.
Common Blade Geometry for Tanto
Hirazukuri (平造) : Flat sided with mune. This is a very common style for tanto.
Katakiriha zukuri (片切刃造): Totally flat on one side with a chisel type edge on the opposite. This style is rare.
Moroha zukuri (両刃造): Double edged, tapering to point, shinogi runs to point, diamond shaped cross section. This style is somewhat rare.
Hochogata-zukuri(包丁): Pretty much like a kitchen knife. Wide, “stubby” hira-zukuri.
Unokubi zukuri (鵜首造): These are relatively common and often come with short hi halfway up the blade.
Occasions to Use Tanto
Tanto as weapon in battlefield
When it comes to convenience, no other blade comes close to Tanto. The initial purpose for these blades was as a weapon, and Samurais carried them around as a backup weapon for close-quarter fighting. It was a handy weapon for defense and assault due to its small size and strong blade.
From the Kamakura to the Muromachi period, samurai battles followed a certain protocol, starting with exchanges of arrows and tachi (long swords) before progressing to hand-to-hand combat known as "kumiuchi." In kumiuchi, a pinned opponent was stabbed through armor gaps with a short sword, often culminating in decapitation. The compactness of tanto made them ideal for such purposes. As warfare evolved from individual to group combat from the late Muromachi to the Sengoku period, the use of tanto in battlefields gradually declined.
Tanto as self defense weapon
In feudal Japan, many women used tanto for self-defense purposes, their tanto is called "Mamorigatana ( litereally means knife for defense守り刀). They would carry it secretly in their Obi belt, sleeves or even under the pillow for easy access.
Tanto as a Talisman or Protective Charm
In samurai families, it was an ancient custom to gift tanto as protective charms, or "Mamorigatana," on occasions like the birth of a child or the marriage of a daughter, to ward off evil and calamity. This tradition is declined with the implementation of the Sword Abolition Edict in the Meiji era.
However, in the Imperial Household, a ceremony called "Shiken no Gi 賜剣の儀" persists, where the Emperor bestows a tannto to newborn princes and princesses. This rite, dating back to the Heian period, is one of the first significant ceremonies performed for a newborn, symbolizing wishes for healthy growth. The gifted tanto is crafted by top swordsmiths like Living National Treasures or Mukansa swordsmiths. Traditionally the tanto is enclosed in a white saya, wrapped in red silk, and placed in a paulownia box with the Imperial crest. It is delivered by an Imperial messenger and placed beside the child's pillow.
Additionally, Tanto are also placed at the chest or pillow of a dead person. In Buddhism, Tanto is seen as a protective charm for the after life journey from this world to the next. In folk customs, it serves as a talisman against evil spirits or to prevent the dead person's impurities from affecting the living.
Tanto as seppuku knife
Also, Samurai will used the tanto to perform seppuku, which is a form of ritual suicide, when they needed to uphold their honor or when the situation required it. The Samurai would cut across his stomach from left to right, then twist the blade slightly upwards. If the Samurai was strong and brave enough, he would then bend forward, and his assistant (kaishakunin) would cut off his head with a katana.
Common Materials for Tanto
As with all samurai blades, master Japanese swordsmiths use Tamahagane, a type of carbon steel that uses iron sand, to make Tanto swords. These swordsmiths shape the steel into a blade by folding and hammering.
Most replica tantos have blades made of high-carbon steel, but they are not Tamahagane. Today's Tanto blades use more familiar materials like various metals and alloys than carbon steel. Damascus steel, recognizable for its wet, streaked look due to variable carbon levels, is also a common material for modern copies of tantos.
The swordmakers traditionally craft the handles(Tsuka) on tantos from wood and finish with lacquer or metal. Wrapping the handle in a ribbon or other material can make it easier to hold and adds a nice decorative touch. Bone, plastic, and other synthetic materials are all possible materials for the handles of contemporary tanto swords.
Special Things About Tanto
If you are not familiar with Tanto, you are missing out! There are a lot of unique and interesting facts about them that any sword-lover would be thrilled to hear about. The top 5 special things about Tanto would be:
Samurais Hid Their Tanto
The Tanto was so tiny that the samurai warrior could easily hide it under his robes. Samurai in feudal Japan frequently carried a tachi out in the open and a concealed tanto.
However, later on, these samurais switched to using the more modern wakizashi and tanto combo. The primary use of Tanto as a secondary weapon was for stabbing, slashing, and even ritual suicide. Overall, the Tanto was a versatile weapon. Women also concealed a tanto for self-defence under their sleeves or obi (belt).
Tanto was used in seppuku
Seppuku, also known as harakiri, is a form of ritual suicide by disembowelment that was practiced by samurai in feudal Japan to restore honor to their family following disgrace or failure. It was considered a highly honorable way to die and was often used to avoid falling into enemy hands or as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed serious offenses.
The tanto used in seppuku was often a special blade, shorter and more blunt than a typical tanto. It was sometimes placed in a box before the ritual and offered to the samurai, who would then open the box and carry out the act. The blade was chosen for its symbolic significance rather than its practicality as a weapon.
Can Tanto Penetrate Armors?
We know samurai's iconic weapons are tachi or uchigatana, However, its effectiveness against samurai armor would be limited. Samurai armor was designed to protect against various types of weapons, including swords. The layers of lacquered plates (kozane) and chainmail are good at defending slashing attacks.
However, the tanto could be used to exploit gaps in the armor, such as the joints or the neck area. This unique form of Tanto had a new name, "Yoroi doshi."
Difference Between Tanto and Katana
There are some critical differences between a Tanto and a Katana. Some of the top ones include:
The size and shape of the blade is the primary distinction between a Katana and a Tanto. When measuring blade length, a katana is defined as having an edge longer than 1 shaku (or 30.3). A Tanto is defined as having a blade shorter than 1 shaku and either straight or mildly curved.
Tantos are meant for stabbing and piercing, whereas katanas are used for slicing and chopping.
Traditionally, when you wear a Katana, you would sheath it with the cutting edge facing up and at your waist. On the other hand, you would wear a Tanto typically in your belt or sleeves, and the cutting edge should be facing down.
Difference Between Wakizashi and Tanto
The Wakizashi and Tanto are smaller than a Katana, so one may easily get confused differentiating between them. However, they are different from one another and have distinct characteristics. The most common differences include -
In feudal Japan, a Wakizashi was used for slicing, while a Tanto knife was used for stabbing.
The modern Tanto is shorter at less than 30 centimetres. On the other hand, the wakizashi's blade is typically between 30 and 60 centimetres long, making it a relatively short sword.
like the Katana, the wakizashi has a tsuba for hand protection. Tanto daggers with Hamidashi mounting have tiny guards, but they are basically useless for defense.
The Katana and wakizashi of the Daisho pair were always on the samurai's person. Still, the Tanto was always at the ready, even while armoured. While only the samurai class could carry the Daisho, commuters were not required to leave their short swords and daggers at the door.
Tanto in Martial Art
Many different styles of martial arts make use of the Tanto. These martial art practitioners typically use a Tanto with dull, wooden or plastic blades. For more advanced demonstrations and training in these martial arts, Tantos with dull metal blade is more common. Aikijutsu, Aikido, Ninjutsu, and Ju are just a few martial arts that use the Tanto.
There's even a brand-new martial arts school that evolved around the Tanto. The practitioners of this art, Tantojutsu, would face off against one another to strike and defend themselves. The samurai were not the only ones who practised Tantojutsu. A long-bladed sword was illegal to own in feudal Japan. However, because of the Tanto's smaller blade, it was legal for citizens to hold them.
As a result, many locals began training in Tantojutsu to become more skilled with the weapon. The Kaiken, a shorter variation of the Tanto, was the standard weapon of choice for these people. Although Tantojutsu's popularity has decreased over the years, it is still taught at some dojos.
Famous Tanto in History
Throughout history, there have been several famous tanto swords that have become well-known for their exceptional quality, significance, and fascinating backstories. Some of the most famous Tanto in History include:
Tanto Mei Raikoukou” (短刀 銘 来国光)
The “Tanto Mei Raikoukou” (短刀 銘 来国光) is a tanto made by Raikoukou. It is a prestigious sword that was bestowed to Oda Urakusai (Oda Nagamasu), the youngest brother of Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of Japan, by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s third son, Toyotomi Hideyori.
The length of the sword is 9 sun 1 bu 5 rin (about 27.7 cm). A characteristic feature is the carving of a Soken (a sword that is the incarnation of Fudo Myoo) on the Sashiomote (the side that comes out when the Japanese sword is worn on the waist) up to the middle of the Nakago (the part that is contained in the handle). It is a masterpiece listed in the “Kyoho Meibutsu Cho” with a price of 5000 kan (about 370 million yen in current prices).
Tanto Mei Bishu Osafune Jyu Nagayoshi” (短刀 銘 備州長船住長義)
The “Tanto Mei Bishu Osafune Jyu Nagayoshi” (短刀 銘 備州長船住長義) is a tanto made by the swordsmith “Osafune Nagayoshi” (Osafune Nagayoshi / Chogi) who was active in Bizen Province (currently eastern Okayama Prefecture) during the Nanbokucho period. This tanto was a favorite of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and later it was received by Toyotomi’s retainer “Maeda Toshiie” at Osaka Castle (Osaka Castle), and since then it has been handed down to the Maeda family of Kaga Domain, making it a prestigious famous sword.
The swordsmith, Osafune Nagayoshi, is one of the “Osafune Four Heavenly Kings” representing the “Osafune School”, a group of swordsmiths that flourished in Bizen Province, and is also listed among the “Masamune Jittei” (Masamune’s Ten Disciples), the ten high disciples of the swordsmith Masamune, who is called the “Ancestor of the Revival of Japanese Swords”.
The characteristic of Nagayoshi is that, unlike the Bizen tradition of “scent-based” wood grain tempering (mokume gita), he mainly used the Soshu tradition of “rough boiling-based” flat grain tempering (itame gita). This tanto is one of the pieces that clearly shows Nagayoshi’s characteristics.
Historically significant and intricately crafted, Japanese swords offer a unique glimpse into Japanese society. Compared to traditional Japanese blades, the Tanto stands out for its beauty, adaptability, and rich cultural importance. But of course, not everyone is well-familiar with this blade. So we bring you everything you need to know about Tanto!