Japanese Swords: 101- “Not Every Sword Is A Katana”

Through no fault of anyone in particular, except for rumor and natural progression, terms for various items have become commonplace. Whether a word was used among family and friends, because it’s just easier to say the wrong word, or because modern marketing has us trained to their vocabulary, we frequently assign a ‘name’ to things which simply aren’t true, or use a word so frequently it loses its impact and intention (called Semantic Satiation, by the way). Example:  “Buffalo Wings” are not Buffalo’s wings, they are chicken wings, right? Such is the case with “Katana”. It is my hope that we may find a few new words to help uphold the diversity that in weapon-making, identifying, and using.  So without further adieu, a quick list to what Japanese swords are actually called, and a spot-check way to tell them apart. *

There are three main divisions, usually, although there are deeper designations the further one gets into collecting, but for a good base, there are primarily: Tanto, Wakizashi, and Katana. Read More… 

Img Source: https://swordsandarmor.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/japanese-swords-types1.jpg?w=529

Img Source: https://swordsandarmor.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/japanese-swords-types1.jpg?w=529

A Katana is technically the longest of these. Keep in mind, when considering these items; we are speaking of simply the blade length. The “Tsuka”, or Handle (Hilt if talking European swords) is in addition to the measurement.

Katana: Originally, “Uchigatana”, eventually shortened to “Katana” which really, just means “sword, or knife”. Since Japanese blades are measured in what are called, “Shaku”, which is the equivalent of roughly 12”, think of “Shaku” as a “foot”. That’s what helped me initially. Now, to have what is classified “Katana”, it must be more than 2 Saku, but generally longer than that but typically not longer than 36” (3 Saku, give or take). The Katana were actually the ‘newest’ of the blades used in war, in regard to their invention date. Their predecessor the “Tachi”, were often used solo, or along with a very short companion blade known as… the Tanto (which from the exposition, should sound familiar).We will learn more on this term later.

Wakizashi: This roughly translates as “sideways sword”, and runs the span between 1 and 2 “Shaku;” essentially, twelve inches, to twenty-four inches.  In a “Shirasaya” Set (the sets you see in a rack of three blades in scabbards, smallest to largest), this is typically the second blade in the series of the three. Picture in your mind a traditional Samurai, or at least how movies have sometimes depicted them. Usually in some sort of Dojo style setting, amongst a group of people there are people wearing wide billowing clothing. The tops, a white, or light colored garment, and the bottoms, look something like the love child of 1980’s parachute pants mixed with a Serape worn at a beach. In your mind’s eye, picture the weapons they might carry. Usually, a longer sword on one side, and a smaller sword on the opposite side… Wakizashi! When worn together like that, the pair is called, “Daisho.” As a learning tool, this might more easily be memorized as “big-little”, the translation of “Daisho.” This was generally a sign of warrior class in Feudal Japan (especially prior to the intervention of the government). The term “Wakizashi” itself would be used for a while, much in the same way that we mistake all facial tissue as “Kleenex.” So, all companion swords would be understood as just that, (companion weapon) if it was termed, “Wakizashi.”  Eventually, the Japanese government would (as all governments seem to do) want to intervene itself, and dictate which type of sword could be worn by which class, and thereafter, we witness the decline of the Wakizashi. Historically, this was traditionally the blade used for committing “Seppuku”, or ritual suicide, which by the way is where we get the phrase, “fall on one’s sword.”  The Wakizashi, as a weapon was one of the only blades allowed to be carried inside castles, while Katanas were ‘checked at the door.’ However, while Wakizashi and Katana are the more contemporary names, recognized in the world of ‘Asian’ swords, they…like all things, had predecessors. Meet, the Tanto.

Tanto: These “swords” are actually closer kin to knives, than swords, given their length (Less than 1 Shaku.) Traditionally, Tanto, and “Tachi” were worn by Feudal Japanese Samurai, much in the same way that Katana and Wakizashi were, with the exception that the Tanto and Tachi were used long before the Daisho (which, as we remember, is the Katana / Wakizashi Combo, worn together). With the new wave of cool blades trending in Feudal Japan, the Tanto became relegated to being considered ‘retro’, and were used generally, in a simply nostalgic sense. That ended, however, many, many years later, with the World War II Era, where the Japanese began to wear Tanto again, as a nod to past warriors, and as such, witnessed resurgence in popularity. With the incline of interest in Eastern Martial Arts during the latter part of the 19th Century, Tanto, as a weapon again gained popularity, and once again began being manufactured as collectors, and training items. It is fitting then, that with the immigration of Japanese to the United States, the “Tanto” became the prototype for later knives, which were modeled after them. To this day, we in the industry, use “Tanto” to describe a type of point on a knife (drop point, tanto, etc.) So here, we come full circle! That term should now sound familiar, and now you know why!

Hopefully, through this piece, we have learned a few new terms to help in the identification of Eastern Weaponry. If nothing else, the words are just fun to say, especially with inflection. Try it out loud… … No seriously, try it. See what I mean! Awesome words!

In the coming weeks, there will be very unique, and very awesome blades being auctioned at Pot Of Gold Estate Auctions, so keep your eyes peeled for your favorite of the three: Tanto, Wakizashi, or Katana. As we move closer to the huge, annual Military Auction (December, 2015), more blogs will be written, by yours truly, to help with the identification of sword components, in addition to ways to help determine if a blade is worth a look, or not.

Godspeed, and thanks for reading.

Jeff Smith (Antiques & Collectibles Research and Evaluation Specialist, Pot Of Gold Auctions)

*Knowledge throughout this piece has been learned, and borrowed reverently from authors Clive Sinclair, Kanzan Sato, and John Yumoto.  Practice and application resulted from self-study.