Different Types of Katana explained
Tōken (刀剣), what we will called a Katana, or more specific in English, Nihonto (日本刀), refers to all kinds of iron weapons that were made in Japan. There are various types of swords, and their appearances and shapes have changed in line with the changes of eras and combat styles. From "Chokuto" (straight swords), to "Tachi" (long swords), "Uchigatana" (strike swords), "Wakizashi" (side inserted swords), and "Tanto" (short swords), even the sword for Ninja (Ninjato) there are many types. This article will introduce the 10 types of Katana.
“Chokuto" (直刀) refers to a straight swords without a curve, used before the middle of the Heian period. Bronze and iron tools were introduced to Japan from the continent in the Yayoi period. After that, ironmaking technology developed in Japan, and forging of iron tools began. While there are many different opinions about when the chokuto was invented, the common understanding is that it was around the late Kofun period.
Most of the Chokuto made at that time were excavated items, so many of them are rusty or have not retained their original shape, making it impossible to determine the exact year they were made. However, while the sword body has become fragile, the accompanying scabbard (saya) is often found keeping in its good state. Therefore, it's possible to analyze what type of sword it was based on the material and decorations. It's said that Chokuto with luxurious scabbards were mainly used as ceremonial swords, for rituals, or as gifts or offerings to people in power, rather than for actual combat.
Also, there are several types of Chokuto. The sword bodies initially made were simple, but gradually the “kantō-tachi”(環頭大刀), swords with decorations of gold and silver on the hilt and scabbard, started to be made.
The "kondōsō kantō tachi goshiraei"金銅荘環頭大刀拵 housed in the "Omura Shrine" in Takaoka District, Kochi Prefecture, has a splendid ring-shaped decoration on the hilt. It's a valuable sword that has been enshrined for over 1,000 years as a sacred object.
The "Seven Star Sword" is a Chokuto that is said to have been possessed by "Prince Shotoku" (also known as Prince Umayado). The name comes from the "Big Dipper" pattern inlaid with gold on the sword body, and it was made in the Asuka period.
"Tachi"太刀 refers to curved swords that began to be made around the end of the Heian period, tachi looks like the katana we are familiar with today. Like a bow, they curve, and the part of the blade close to the Nakago 茎 (the tang of the sword) has a strong curve, this shape called "Koshizori"腰反.
These blades are over 60 cm long and were worn at the waist with the edge facing downwards, a method referred to as "haku"佩く or "haiyou suru”佩用する.
The prototype of the Tachi, called "Wantou"湾刀, began to be made from the early Heian period. The Wantou later became known as Tachi and, as they were more suitable for slashing opponents than Chokuto, were used until the Nanboku-cho period when horseback combat was the mainstream.
Depending on the size, Tachi can be divided into three types: "ōdachi" (large Tachi), Tachi, and "Kodachi" (small Tachi).
"ōdachi", also called "Nodachi", are large Tachi with a blade length of over 90 cm. Originally, these swords were made to be dedicated to shrines, but it's said that they were actually used on battlefields. ōdachi were only allowed to be owned by high-ranking samurai. However, due to their size making them inconvenient to carry, often times they were carried by attendants on the battlefield. When using the Ootachi, the sword was either drawn while the attendant held the scabbard, or the attendant drew the sword from the scabbard and handed it over.
Existing ōdachi include the "Shida ōdachi" stored at the "Yahiko Shrine" in Niigata Prefecture, and "Nenekirimaru" at the "Nikko Futara-san Shrine" in Tochigi Prefecture. Both of these swords are designated as important cultural properties of the country.
"Kodachi" are Tachi with a blade length of less than 60 cm, made from the middle of the Kamakura period. They were rarely used in actual combat, but were mainly used in ceremonies and celebrations. They are similar in size to the "Wakizashi" seen from the end of the Sengoku period, so they are sometimes considered to be the same, but they are classified as Tachi due to their shape and curvature features.
"Uchigatana"打刀 refers to swords that are generally called "Japanese swords”, which is the “katana” we know today. They have a blade length of over 60 cm and a characteristic shallow curve compare to Tachi. For the curve, it has the shape of "Sakizori"先反, where the part near the tip curves. Unlike Tachi, which are worn with the edge facing downwards, Uchigatana are typically worn with the edge facing upwards.
From the middle of the Heian period to the middle of the Muromachi period, Tachi were treasured for their length, which was convenient for slashing while fighting on a horseback. In the Sengoku era at the end of the Muromachi period, the nature of battles changed from individual horseback combat to group infantry battles. As a result, Uchigatana, which were suitable for infantry combat, became mainstream.
The Tachi used in the past were modified by a process called "Suriage", which involved shortening the tang or the blade, and were then used as Uchigatana. Although Suriage often removes the inscription (the name of the swordsmith and the year of manufacture cut into the tang), the characteristics of the hamon (blade pattern) and the jigane (ground steel) can be used to analyze the swordsmith and the year of manufacture.
A "wakizashi"脇差 is a Japanese sword with a blade length between one shaku (about 30cm) and less than two shaku (about 60cm). The wakizashi emerged in the Muromachi period and was used as a sidearm along with tachi or uchigatana. There are various theories, but the name is believed to have originated from the fact that it was worn "at the side of the waist".
Like uchigatana, the blade of a wakizashi is worn facing up, but because it is shorter than an uchigatana, it was useful for close combat or in cramped spaces. It was also used as an emergency weapon in case the uchigatana was broken or chipped.
The wakizashi can be classified into three types according to its length: "large wakizashi", "medium wakizashi", and "small wakizashi”.
Large wakizashi... length from 1 shaku 8 sun (about 54.5cm) to less than 2 shaku (about 60.6cm).
Medium wakizashi... length from 1 shaku 3 sun (about 40cm) to less than 1 shaku 8 sun (about 54.5cm).
Small wakizashi... length less than 1 shaku 3 sun (about 40cm).
In many In Japanese TV shows and movies, it is common to see characters wielding two swords, one large and one small. This dual-sword style is often depicted in various forms of media, including samurai dramas and anime.
This style is said to have originated around the end of the Muromachi period. The larger sword is the uchigatana, and the smaller one is the wakizashi. In the Edo period, samurai were required to carry 2 swords. Also, even non-samurai regular people were only allowed to carry a wakizashi, leading to the production of many wakizashi during this period.
A "tantō"短刀 is a Japanese sword with a blade length of less than one shaku (about 30cm). It was also called a “koshigatana"腰刀 (means waist katana) because samurai wore it with the blade facing up at their waist. From the Kamakura period to the Muromachi period, it was used to decapitate enemies in hand-to-hand combat, tanto is good at stabbing enemy thought the gap of their samurai armor. but it was no longer used in battle by the Momoyama period.
In the Edo period and onwards, daughters of samurai families often carried tantō for self-defense. Because they often carried it in their bosom, it was called a “kaiken"懐剣 (dragger). The tantō can be mistaken for a wakizashi due to its size, but if the koshirae (mountings) has a tsuba (guard), it's a wakizashi, if it doesn't have a tsuba and is an "aikuchi koshirae"合口拵 or "bikushi koshirae"匕首拵, it's a tantō.
A "naginata"薙刀 is a long-handled bladed weapon specialized for "mowing down" an opponent. It originated in the Heian period and played a major role in many battles during the Nanboku-chō period. It was originally written as "long sword"長刀, but later, in order to distinguish it from the uchigatana which came to be called a long sword in contrast to the tantō, the character 薙刀 for naginata was adopted.
The length and shape of the naginata varied with the times. In the Kamakura period, the handle was about 4 shaku (about 120cm) and the blade was about 3 shaku (about 90cm), which was shorter compared to later naginata. On the other hand, the "ō-naginata" that appeared in the period of the Nanboku-chō had an even longer blade and handle.
According to records, naginata with a handle length of about 5 shaku (about 150cm) and a blade length of 6 shaku 3 sun (about 190cm) existed. The naginata was popular as a main weapon in the period of the Nanboku-chō, but as the style of battle changed to group combat in the Sengoku period, there were incidents of accidentally injuring allies. Therefore, the "yari" (spear), another long-handled weapon, began to be used in battle, and the naginata gradually Obsolete. After that, it was reshaped into a wakizashi called "naginata-naoshi" and ended its role as a long-handled weapon.
The spear (Yari) replaced the naginata, which had been widely used before, becoming popular in the late Sengoku period when the form of battle transitioned from horseback to foot combat.
"Nagamaki"長巻 is a type of sword similar to the naginata, but there is no clear definition for it. It's said to have evolved to make large swords easier to handle. Differences between nagamaki and naginata typically include size, curvature of the blade, presence of yokote (a line separating the blade from the kissaki), and differences in handle wrapping.
A typical naginata blade length is about 60cm, and the handle length is about 270cm. On the other hand, the blade length of a nagamaki is about 90cm, and the handle length is from about 90cm to about 120cm, so the blade and handle lengths are almost the same.
Naginata often have a deep curvature, while nagamaki have a shallow one. Moreover, nagamaki often have a style of hamon line within the tip ("boshi") that does not curve back towards the edge.
Yokote refers to a boundary line appearing at the tip of the sword. This is a feature typically seen in Japanese swords made with a ridge line ("shinogi-zukuri"shape), but naginata do not have a yokote, while nagamaki do.
The handle of a naginata often has little decoration, but nagamaki are characterized by handles wrapped in hemp or leather, which is where the name comes from.
Naginata can be classified into three types depending on their shape: "Shizuka-gata naginata", "Tomoe-gata naginata", and "Tsukushi naginata". In contrast, there is only one type of nagamaki.
Nagamaki and naginata were used differently. Both are good at sweeping away targets, but since the handle of a naginata is longer than the blade, it is suitable for swinging around. However, because the length of the handle and the blade of a nagamaki is almost the same, while it had sufficient power, it was physically difficult to swing around like a naginata.
A spear (Yari) 槍 is a type of sword that attaches a blade to the end of a long handle. It is a weapon intended mainly for stabbing, and is one of the most primitive and old weapons in the whole world. In Japan, a predecessor of the spear called the "hoko" was used around the Yayoi period, and the shape and usage changed with time, developing into the spear.
A characteristic of the spear is that it can be disassembled into the "ho" (blade) and handle. Depending on the type of spear, the sizes vary. "Long-handle spear" has a blade about 20cm long, and "large-body spear" has a blade about 60cm long. The length of the handle varies depending on the swordsmith and the era, but in the long-handle spear it is about 4-6m, and in the large-body spear it is over 4m. There is also a record of a long-handle spear with a handle of about 8m.
Spears, which excelled in close combat, became popular in the late Sengoku period when the form of battle transitioned from horseback combat to foot combat. Replacing the previously active naginata, the spear began to be widely used.
"Hoko"矛 is a lance that has been around for so long that its name appears in ancient Japanese texts like the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. It was used not only in Japan but all over the world, and it is considered the predecessor to spears and naginata. A characteristic of the hoko is that the blade is broad and double-edged. Compared to a spear, which is intended for stabbing and therefore has a sharp tip, the hoko is intended for "cutting", so the tip of the blade has a rounded shape.
While the hoko was a weapon for cutting, it could also be modified as a long-handled weapon for thrusting. The tip of the hoko's handle is hollow, so a handle is inserted and fixed into this part. The hoko was typically handled with both hands, but when used as a long-handled weapon for thrusting, a shield could also be equipped in one hand. In other words, depending on the battlefield situation, the hoko was a weapon that could be used separately for "cutting" and “thrusting".
"Sword" 剣 is a general term for bladed weapons seen not only in Japan but also in the West. The beginning of the sword, whether in the East or West, was just a stone tool with a sharp edge made by splitting or sharpening a stone.
Later, with the advent of metalworking technology, weapons of any shape were made using copper, bronze, and iron. Gradually, as the shapes became refined and differentiated according to use, swords with blades on both sides were born.
In Japan, during the Yayoi period, double-edged bronze swords were cast, and by the Kofun period, ironmaking technology was established, and practical swords were manufactured. As evidence, double-edged straight swords can be seen in artifacts from the early Kofun period.
However, in the Nara period, the appearance of the single-edged straight "Korean sword" (a sword that came from Goguryeo, which corresponds to present-day Korean peninsula), suggests that the transition from double-edged swords to single-edged swords took place at an early stage in Japan.
The sword that is considered to be from this transitional period is the "Kogarasumaru", a treasure of the Heike clan. The Kogarasumaru is said to be a "double-edged tip construction", a Japanese sword whose tip has the shape of a sword, and was thought to be a sword effective for both thrusting and slashing.