Tanto History, usage and type explained


Japanese swords can be divided into eight categories based on their shape and size. Among them, the shortest swords are called "Tanto" and have played different roles than Tachi and Uchigatana.

This article will explain the history, purpose and types of Tanto.

What is Tanto

Tanto refers to Japanese swords with a blade length of 1 shaku (about 30.3 cm) or less. The term "Tanto" is relatively recent, and it was traditionally called "Koshigatana" or simply "Katana" to distinguish it from Tachi. The commonly used form is a Hirazukuri, which has less curvature. While there are smaller Japanese swords like Wakizashi, Wakizashi refers to Japanese swords with a blade length of more than 1 shaku and less than 2 shaku (about 60.6 cm). Also, while Wakizashi has a Tsuba (guard), Tanto generally does not have a Tsuba.

Uses of Tanto
Let's introduce the uses of Tanto. From the Kamakura to the Muromachi period, Tanto were used as weapons, but at the peaceful Edo period, they began to be used for self-defense and as amulets.

Use as a weapon on the battlefield
Tanto were said to be used as weapons from the Kamakura to the Muromachi period. There were rules for the advancement of samurai battles at the time, and after battling with arrows and Tachi, there was a "Kumiuchi", a struggle where they would close combat one-on-one with the opponent. During this Kumiuchi, they would stab the opponent who had been pinned down through the gaps in their samurai armor with a sword, and eventually take the head. Because of such usage, there was no need for length, and Tanto is the best choice of weapon in this case.

From the late Muromachi period to the Sengoku period, the way of war changed from individual combat to group battles, and Kumiuchi became less common. Therefore, it is said that the use of Tanto on the battlefield became less frequent.

Use for self-defense
In the Edo period, samurai women were allowed by the shogunate to carry Tanto as "defensive swords" for self-defense. This was said to have two meanings: to protect oneself, and to protect one's honor and commit suicide in an emergency. Although this custom disappeared in the Meiji era, the defensive sword "Kaiken" became used as one of the common accessories for a bride's traditional Japanese attire.

Use as an amulet
In the samurai class, there has been a long-standing custom of giving a Tanto as a "defensive sword" as an amulet to protect against disasters and evil when a child is born or a daughter is married off. With the enactment of the Sword Abolition Order in the Meiji era, this custom gradually fell out of use, but in the Imperial Family, there is still a ceremony called "Shiken no Gi" (Ceremony of the Granting of Swords) in which the Emperor gives a Tanto to a newly born imperial child. The Shiken no Gi is believed to have been held since the Heian period and is an important ceremony that is performed first when a child is born. On the day of birth or the next day, a defensive sword is presented from the Emperor with wishes for the healthy growth of the child. The custom tanto given are made by top-class swordsmiths, such as Living National Treasures and Mukaansa swordsmiths. The sword is placed in shirasaya, wrapped in a red silk cloth, and put in a paulownia box with the imperial family's crest, and is delivered by the Emperor's messenger and placed at the bedside of the newborn child, as is customary.

In addition to this, defensive swords are sometimes placed at the chest or bedside of a deceased loved one. There are various theories as to the reason for this, but in Buddhism, it is believed to be an amulet for the journey from this world to the afterlife, and in folk customs, it is thought to protect from the evil spirits and prevent the impurity.

Types of Tanto
Even though they are all called Tanto, they are divided into several types based on shape and Koshirae. Let me introduce the main ones.

Aikuchi, Hishu
Aikuchi and Hishu refer to short swords without a Tsuba, so they can also be called synonyms for Tanto. They began to be called "Aikuchi" because the mouth of the handle and the scabbard fit perfectly. "Hishu" is a Chinese word for "dagger", but in Japan, it is also read as "Aikuchi", and refers to the same thing as Aikuchi. However, the Chinese "Hishu" is different from the Japanese Aikuchi, Hishu in definition and shape.

Sunnobi Tanto
Sunnobi Tanto are swords that have the features of Tanto such as a lack of curvature and a Hirazukuri blade shape, and refer to those with a blade length exceeding 1 shaku (about 30.3 cm). Tanto are originally Japanese swords with a blade length of 1 shaku or less, but those that qualify as Sunnobi Tanto are classified as Tanto as an exception. They appeared in the Nanboku-cho period and were actively made from the late Muromachi period to the early Edo period.


Yoroidoshi is a Tanto used to fight opponents wearing armor during Kumiuchi. It was used to stab the opponent who had been pinned down through the gaps in the armor. Because it is used in a reverse grip, the blade is shorter, 9 sun 5 bu (about 28.8 cm) or less. In order to make it easy to use during Kumiuchi, it was worn with the handle towards the back on the Mete (right hand) side, so it is also called "Metezashi". It is characterized by a thick blade at the hand and no curvature, with a thin tip.

The Sasuga is a type of Tanto that became popular among lower-ranking warriors who fought on foot in the service of mounted warriors during the Kamakura period. At the time, the main weapon of these lower-ranking warriors who did not ride was the Naginata, but the Sasuga was a Tanto used as a supplementary weapon when they lost the Naginata or when the battle became chaotic and the long-handled Naginata could not be used. In the late Kamakura period and the Nanboku-cho period, when Odatachi, which had a wider blade width and longer length than Tachi, became popular, the Sasuga also grew in size in response to this change and is thought to have developed into Uchigatana.

Kaiken, Futokorogatana
Kaiken, or Futokorogatana, refers to a Tanto that is always carried in the bosom for self-defense. It was an important weapon for self-defense for samurai women and also for samurai men in places where they could not carry a long Japanese sword. In order to make it easy to put in the bosom, the exterior is typically kept as simple as possible, and features of the Koshirae include that it is made with a focus on practicality, without wrapping Tsukaito or attaching a Tsuba. It is also known as Onken, Kakushigatana, Mamorigatana, and so on.

Denchuzashi is a sword worn by high-ranking samurai such as daimyos when they go to the palace (within Edo Castle) in full dress. When going to the castle in full dress, they could not wear a regular sword, and wore a Denchuzashi to show that they had no intention of fighting in the palace. The handle is wrapped in Tsukaito, and it is a short sword with a Tsuba, also known as Chisagatana. The sword used when Asano Takumi no Kami slashed Kira Kozukenosuke, a hatamoto, inside Edo Castle, which is famous in "Chushingura", was also this sword. Although it was strictly forbidden to draw a sword in the palace, there are said to have been seven incidents of violent altercations, including this Ako incident, during the Edo period.

A familiar presence with a role as an amulet from ancient times
Tanto are not only weapons for battle but have also been used as weapons for self-defense and as amulets. The "Shiken no Gi" is performed in the Imperial Family, and the defensive sword is one of the common bridal accessories in traditional Japanese dress, and its culture and customs are firmly connected to the present. 

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