Nihontô – the Japanese sword (short curriculum)

In the early history Chinese swords were used in Japan, generally straight two-edged sword called ken (‘sword’; in Chinese jian). This developed into straight one-edged tachi (‘large sword’), that was carried hanging from belt horizontally cutting edge down. Eventually tachi got a curved form while method of carrying stayed the same. Tachi was the sword both for fighting gear and court use.

For example officials used kodachi (‘short tachi‘), that was carried in the same way as tachi.

In the battlefield tachi was accompanied by a shorter weapon, like yoroidôshi, koshigatana or tantô. Most likely these developed into a backup sword, that was carried thrusted to belt cutting edge up, uchigatana (supposedly ‘one-sided hitting blade’).

While the style of combat evolved to fighting unmounted uchigatana was made longer and developed into katana. It seems tachi and katana were used side by side, tachi being better for cavalry and katana for infantry. At this point the sword was a back-up weapon for yari (spear).

As time went on tachi got shorter and katana longer, so that the length and shape started to be similar. Before long the same blade could be worn as tachi with yoroi and as katana while in civilian clothing.

Some amount of longer, on average two metre long, swords were used: Nodachi (‘field tachi‘), ôdachi (‘large tachi‘; possibly only symbolic use), wakodachi (‘pirate tachi‘), seoidachi (‘tachi carried on the back’; possibly umbrella term for all of these), chôken (‘long sword’),… These were brought into battle either carried tied to back or carried by an assistant.

Katana was carried also while in civilian clothing, and it started to be paired with similarly carried wakizashi (‘insert at the side of the body’). I would assume the use of wakizashi being the result of the example of the older shorter swords. The pair of swords in similar fittings was known as daishô (‘long-short’), which comes from the words meaning long and short swords, daitô and shôtô. During the Tokugawa Period (1603-1867) carrying the daishô became a symbol for samurai: Carrying two swords was forbidden for other social classes.

In 1876 carrying the daishô was forbidden for other than police and army. By the change of century the military started to use swords of European or Russian style.

In 1935 Japanese Army and Navy start to use a nihontô carried almost like a tachi: shin-guntô (‘new army sword’) and kai-guntô (‘navy sword’). These were either poor quality industrial production, new production from Yasukuni jinja or inherited swords fitted according to regulations.

After Japan lost the Second World War the military gave away their swords in 1945 (after which US occupation forces confiscated swords also from civilians). From this on European style swords have been used.

– Jukka Nummenranta, shidôshi, dôjô-chô


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