What is Tanto


"Tanto" is a type of Japanese sword, a short blade with little curvature, basically like a dagger. Unlike tachi or uchigatana, that are mainly used by men in battlefield. Tanto has been treasured since ancient times as a personal defense sword that can be handled by women and children. Among the swordsmiths who made tantō, there are some "masters of tantō" who have produced many works designated as national treasures or important cultural properties. This article will introduce the basic knowledge of tantō, the swordsmiths who made excellent tantō, and famous swords, hoping to help you better customize your own tanto.

Characteristics of Tanto

A "tanto" is a Japanese sword with a blade length of less than 1 shaku (approximately 30 cm). The term tantō was created relatively recently. It is said that in the old days, it was called a "koshigatana" (腰刀) because samurai wore it at their waist with the blade facing upward, or a "katana" as a short sword in contrast to longer swords like tachi.
Although a tantō is sometimes confused with a "wakizashi" (脇差: a sword of 1 shaku [approximately 30 cm] to less than 2 shaku [approximately 60 cm]) due to its size, it is possible to distinguish them by the presence of a guard (tsuba) on the wakizashi, or if it is a tantō, by the lack of a tsuba, being in the style of "aikuchi-koshirae" or "hishu-koshirae".

Use of Tantō
Tantō was primarily used as a weapon for self-defense because it could be handled even by women and children who lacked physical strength. The most famous tantō used for self-defense that has survived to the present day is a tantō called "Hirano Toshiro", an imperial property made by the swordsmith Awataguchi Yoshimitsu and known as the pillow sword of the Empress.
Also, the tantō was used as an amulet to protect the owner from disease and disaster.
In the imperial family and the princely families, a ceremony called "Shiken no Gi" is held to present a newly made tantō to a newborn child. In traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies, the bride tucks a short sword called a "kaiken" into her obi (sash), a vestige of the time when daughters of samurai families carried a kaiken for self-defense. Since the kaiken also had the meaning of an amulet to ward off evil, it is still used as an essential item in bridal costumes.

Types of Tantō
A "kaiken" is a short sword also known as a "hidden sword" or "pocket sword" (futokoro-gatana), carried hidden in the breast when it was not possible to wear a wakizashi. The Honami family, sword appraisers, listed swords of 4 sun (about 12 cm) to 5 sun (about 15 cm) in length as kaiken in their papers. Small swords like "tōsu" (a kind of tool for cutting) or "kozuka-kogatana" (a small sword attached to a Japanese sword) are also classified as kaiken. Kaiken is typically made with minimal decorations on the saya to make it easy to put into the pocket. Features of the scabbard include not wrapping the hilt with a cord and not attaching a tsuba, so it was designed to be easy to put into the pocket.

A "yoroi-dōshi" is a kind of short sword, also known as a "metezashi", used when confronting an opponent wearing samurai armor. Since it is usually held in the right hand in a reverse grip, the blade length is generally less than 9 sun 5 bu (approximately 28.8 cm), or up to the length of the elbow. Also, when attacking a castle, it was used as a foothold by sticking it into the gaps in the stone walls. Since there was a risk that the yoroi-dōshi could be snatched away by the opponent when grappling, it is said that it was worn with the hilt at the back and the end of the scabbard (kojiri) at the front, unlike regular swords.

Sunnobi Tantō 寸延短刀
A "sunnobi tantō" is a tantō with a length of more than 1 shaku (about 30 cm). Under the current registration system, it is classified as a wakizashi, but it is considered a type of tantō because it was made for the purpose of a tantō. Sunnobi tantō were actively made from the end of the Kamakura period. There are many copies of sunnobi tantō made by famous swordsmiths, and some of these copies have become valuable materials because the originals were lost due to wars and other reasons.

Swordsmiths Known as "Tantō Masters"
Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, also known as "Tōshirō Yoshimitsu", was a swordsmith of the "Awataguchi School" active in Yamashiro Province (the southern part of present-day Kyoto) during the middle of the Kamakura period. His tantō "Yagen Tōshirō", one of his masterpieces, gained recognition as a "sword that protects its owner" from an anecdote in which it prevented the seppuku of the Muromachi period's guardian lord "Hatakeyama Masanaga". Consequently, his works were treasured by the Tokugawa Shogunate and various daimyos. Many of Yoshimitsu's works are designated as national treasures or important cultural properties, and they are known as the typical examples of "horse-hand stabbings".
Shintō Gokunimitsu
Shintō Gokunimitsu is known for having established one of the "Five Traditions", the "Sōshū Tradition". Many of his works have been designated as national treasures or important cultural properties.
Famous Tantō
Tantō Inscription: Raikunimitsu (Famous Yūraku Raikunimitsu)
The "Tantō Inscription: Raikunimitsu" is a tantō crafted by Raikunimitsu. This esteemed blade was gifted to Oda Yūrakusai (Oda Nagamasu), the younger brother of Oda Nobunaga who was one of the three great unifiers of Japan, by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's third son, Toyotomi Hideyori. The length of the blade is 9 sun 1 bu 5 rin (about 27.7 cm). Its distinguishing feature is the engraving of the sukoken (a sword representing the incarnation of Fudō Myōō) on the outer face of the blade when it is worn at the waist. It is listed as being worth 5,000 koku (roughly 370 million yen in current prices) in the Kyōhō Meibutsu Register.
Tantō Inscription: Bishū Osafune Nagayoshi Residence
The "Tantō Inscription: Bishū Osafune Nagayoshi Residence" (also known as the famous Ōsaka Nagayoshi) is a tantō crafted by Osafune Nagayoshi, a swordsmith active in Bizen Province (now the eastern part of Okayama Prefecture) during the Nanboku-chō period. This esteemed blade was Toyotomi Hideyoshi's beloved sword and was later gifted to Maeda Toshiie, a retainer of the Toyotomi family, in Osaka Castle, then passed down to the Maeda family of the Kaga Domain. The swordsmith Nagayoshi is known for being one of the "Four Heavenly Kings of Osafune" and is included among the ten best disciples of Masamune, a swordsmith hailed as the "Father of the Restoration of Japanese Swords". Nagayoshi's unique feature is his style, which emphasizes the grain of the sword in the Bizen tradition, instead of the more rough and wild style seen in the Sōshū tradition.
Tantō Inscription: Mitsukane Enkyū Year 2, February
The "Tantō Inscription: Mitsukane Enkyū Year 2, February" is a tantō crafted by Mitsukane of the Rai School, who was active in Bizen Province during the late Kamakura period. Mitsukane is a representative master craftsman of the Rai School and is also known as "Chūdō Rai" because he forged swords in the "Konpon Chūdō" of "Enryaku-ji Temple" on Mt. Hiei. This tantō is characterized by having an engraving of the seed syllable of Fudō Myōō and sukoken on the outward-facing side, and the seed syllable of Fudō Myōō and a pair of iron chopsticks (used in esoteric Buddhist rituals to burn goma) on the inward-facing side.

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