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 Hein era (794-1185 A.D.). Although their primary function was as stabbing weapons, the razor-sharp edge also made them effective for slashing. While some tanto blades might be single-edged, others can also be double-edged.

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 ceremonial purposes. But its uses weren't exclusive to Samurais; even commoners would carry one around for self-defence. Later, it evolved into a protective talisman that newborns and newlyweds wore. These blades first saw service during the Hein era (794-1185 A.D.).

Tanto looks pretty much just like a dagger. In contrast to the flat or curved bellies of typical pocket knives, these have an angular, practically noncontinuous edge constructed of two cutting surfaces. The cutting edge of a tanto knife extends from the handle in a line before abruptly changing course and advancing to the tip.

Although the primary function of Tanto blades was as stabbing weapons, the razor-sharp edge also made them effective for slashing. Even though swordplay has declined over a thousand years, the Tanto concepts and techniques are still used in modern martial arts. However, the once plain and functional Tanto has now evolved into a work of art. Although it's art, it's art that can kill you.

Special Things About Tanto

If you are not familiar with Tanto knives, 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 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 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."

Over a Dozen Blade Designs

The Tanto isn't limited to a specific blade style. Instead, swordmakers had an array of blade styles when crafting the Tanto.
In most cases, hira blades were utilized to make a tanto. It had bevelled edges around the blade and no dull spots. Another popular blade for tantos was the Shobu.

Tantos Are Once Again All the Rage

After World War II, when restrictions were placed on weapons production, the Tanto and other traditional Japanese swords fell out of favour. However, there has been a rise in fascination with this bladed weapon in recent years.

The Tanto is now highly prized by both collectors and martial artists. Collectors and fans of Japanese weapons and culture have a soft spot for the Tanto due to its fascinating past and innovative design. The tanto blade design has also gained popularity as a daily carry item, especially for jobs that call for piercing and cutting through solid materials.

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 ban on weapon production, many blades longer than 30 centimetres were classified as Tanto. One was Sunnobitanto, a huge dagger with a blade length of roughly 33 cm.

Overall, it's possible to find Tanto knives that are rather short, while others may be relatively long. Tanto-style blades you will find today, whether in Japan or elsewhere, can have a length that deviates from the classics.

Types of Tanto
Swordmakers have forged various tanto blade styles over the past 700–800 years. The three most frequent tanto mountings are the tsuba-mounted Tanto, the guardless Aikuchi, and the small-guarded Hamadashi. Other than these, there are quite a few unique types of Tanto, each with its distinct characteristics:

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.

Suguta Styles of Tanto: These include:

Hira-tsukuri: Flat sided with mune. This is a common style.
Katakiriha-tsukuri: Totally flat on one side with a chisel type edge on the opposite. This style is rare.
Moroha: Double edged, tapering to point, shinogi runs to point, diamond shaped cross section. This style is somewhat rare.
Hochogata-tsukuri: Wide, “stubby” hira-tsukuri.
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.

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.

Unokubi and Shobu style Tanto: These are relatively numerous and often come with short hi halfway up the blade.

Occasions to Use Tanto

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 defence and assault due to its small size and keen blade.

In feudal Japan, even women used this weapon for self-defence purposes. They would carry it secretly in their Obi belt or sleeves for protection. The Japanese martial arts make extensive use of it. Modern tanto blades, like the ancient tanto short swords, feature sturdy points that are excellent for piercing cuts.

The Tanto knife is at its most effective when used for stabbing. That sharp point can penetrate and pierce something, for example armor. Many EDC knives or everyday carry knives, also feature tanto blades. They have an exotic appearance and can perform typical duties such as opening mail, helping in the kitchen, and cutting wire and other supplies.

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 blade used for seppuku was about 11 inches long. 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.

Tanto Mounting

While Aikuchi and Hamidashi mountings are more popular, the tanto dagger can be seen in a simpler scabbard (saya) style. Here, I share more about the Aikuchi and Hamidashi mounting for Tanto swords:
Daggers with an Aikuchi mounting (fitting mouth) don't have a guard. There is no tsuba (guard) connecting the handle to the sheath of this Tanto. Even so, it has a lacquered scabbard and hilt, making it a type of Koshirae or decorative mounting. The mother-of-pearl inlay designs, phoenixes, and vines are popular decorative motifs.
The Aikuchi mounting was first seen on the Koshigatana, a forerunner of the wakizashi, to allow for the close wearing of armour. But by the Edo period, it had spread to the upper class as a fashionable mounting method for Tanto, or daggers.

When mounted in the Hamidashi style, a Tanto's Tsuba, or guard, is slightly bigger than the grip. The Tsuba typically features a hole opening for the dagger.
So the Tsuba has a hold to accommodate small Kozuka knives kept in the sheath pocket. The small blade is helpful as a letter opener, a hair trimmer, etc.

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 useless for defence.
The Tanto had many different blade shapes, whereas the wakizashi was a shorter katana. Both blades featured a single cutting edge.
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 waned over the years, it is still taught at some dojos. It's a lighthearted approach to learning the basics of tanto combat.

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:

The “Tanto Mei Raikoukou” (短刀 銘 来国光) is a short sword 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).

The “Tanto Mei Bishu Osafune Jyu Nagayoshi” (短刀 銘 備州長船住長義) is a short sword made by the swordsmith “Osafune Nagayoshi” (Osafune Nagayoshi / Chogi) who was active in Bizen Province (currently eastern Okayama Prefecture) during the Nanbokucho period. This short sword 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 short sword 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!

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