Buying a Japanese sword is like shopping for an automobile. You could go to a car dealer and pick a subcompact, midsize sedan, SUV, truck, or wagon. It’s the same with Japanese swords. These tools come in different types, serving various purposes. Your choice depends on your objective and appreciation of these instruments of destruction.
So, what Japanese swords should you know? Are there other bladed weapons from the Land of the Rising Sun worth your money? Let’s find out.
Japanese Swords of the Samurai and Other Warriors
The Nihonto, or Japanese sword, is one of the most beautiful bladed weapons in the world. It’s rich in history and speaks volumes about the Japanese’s penchant for perfection. Here’s a list of Japanese swords the Samurai and other Japanese warriors used in the past worth checking out.
The katana is the quintessential Japanese sword. Ask anyone, especially less-informed gaijins (foreigners), and they will tell you that a Japanese sword is the same as a katana.
Unfortunately, a katana is only one of several types of sword the Samurai used. It’s a medium-length sword with a curved blade, rising to prominence in 14th-century Japan. The Samurai weren’t the only ones who used a katana. This sword was also a favorite of Iaido and Kendo practitioners, shinobis or ninjas, and onna-musha (female Samurai).
Samurai warriors started using the katana during the Nanboku-cho period between 1336 and 1392. Unlike other Japanese swords, the katana has a single cutting edge and a thick opposing spine. The blade extends about 24 to 31 inches from the tip (kissaki) to the tsuba. Its curved back never exceeds 1.5 centimeters from an imaginary line between the blade tip and the habaki.
The Samurai always wear the katana with its sharp edge facing up. This sword orientation facilitates effortless drawing, enabling the warrior to deliver a quick strike in one fluid motion.
As mentioned, the katana IS the quintessential Japanese sword. Its popularity extends beyond national borders, and the Japanese government considers it one of the land’s prized possessions. It’s a work of art symbolizing Japanese pride, history, and culture.
Chokuto Japanese straight swords by MET on Wikimedia Commons.
Historians believe the chokuto is one of the earliest Japanese swords, dating as far back as the 4th century during the Kofun period. These blades are ancient and trace their origins from nearly identical weapons of Korea and Han Dynasty China.
The chokuto is a single-edged sword like the katana, except it features a straight blade, not curved. It’s perfect for slashing and stabbing like warriors would with a spear.
Several chokuto types existed from 300 to 794 AD. For example, the kanto-tachi of the Kofun Period closely resembled their Chinese counterparts, with a dragon- or phoenix-shaped ornament at the tsuka’s tip. On the other hand, the kabutsuchi-tachi had a fist-like decoration, while the rokkaku-sotoken had deer antlers.
The last chokuto type was the hoto-tachi, with the last surviving piece recorded in the Nara Period. Japanese warriors ditched the chokuto for the tachi by the mid-Heian Period.
It’s rare to find a chokuto Japanese sword today. The only places you can appreciate these swords would be in a museum.
A 12th-century Kazari-tachi by ColBase.
With the demise of the Chokuto came the Tachi, with a slightly curved blade resembling a saber. Its blade was somewhat longer than the katana, measuring 28 to 31 inches.
This Japanese sword is perfect for slashing, allowing horse-mounted Samurai to strike their opponents at lightning speeds. Unlike the katana, the Samurai wore the Tachi with its sharp edge facing down. They also secured it outside their armor. Unfortunately, this orientation meant warriors must draw the Tachi in two movements before they could deliver a fatal blow.
The Tachi replaced the Chokuto sometime in the mid-Heian Period and rose to fame between 900 and 1596. These swords were a favorite during the Koto Period. Although the Samurai preferred the katana, many high-ranking Samurai chose the Tachi for its slashing abilities.
Unsurprisingly, 70% of National Treasures of Japan-designated Japanese swords are Tachi, besting even the finest katana. So, you’re lucky if you can get your hands on an authentic Tachi.
A Koshigatana by ColBase.
The warrior class of the Heian Period required a secondary weapon to complement the Tachi. That task fell on the Koshigatana. It’s not a sword in the strictest sense but a dagger. Experts believe the Koshigatana is the direct predecessor of the modern Tanto.
Warriors wore the Koshigatana as daggers secured by a scabbard on their waists or hips. The battle knife featured a blade at most 11 inches but not shorter than seven.
It’s the perfect tool for close-quarters combat. During the Heian, Nanbokucho, and Kamakura Periods, samurai often carried three weapons – the Tachi, a Koshigatana, and a bow.
Surprisingly, this Japanese sword has a simple design. It doesn’t have the katana or Tachi’s characteristic tsuba, and its tsuka doesn't have wrapping. It was bare, although some swordsmiths improved the appearance by applying lacquer.
A Kodachi sword by Tokyo National Museum on Wikimedia Commons.
Call it the mini Tachi. That’s how most sword enthusiasts recognize the Kodachi. And why not? This Japanese sword has a blade that is not longer than 24 inches but not shorter than 16. From the blade’s tip to the hilt’s outermost edge, the Kodachi only spans about 33 inches. That’s two inches longer than the katana’s blade.
Sword enthusiasts consider the Kodachi the direct predecessor of the Wakizashi, although the latter can be slightly shorter. The comparison isn’t misguided because the Wakizashi is a katana’s companion sword, as the Kodachi is the Tachi’s partner in battle.
Historians believe noblemen of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) required a sword with blades shorter than the Tachi but longer than the Koshigatana. This weapon allowed the nobility to travel in coaches and carriages with a trustworthy blade for self-defense.
A Nodachi Samurai by CareLine Art.
This Japanese sword is the diametrical opposite of the Kodachi. If you arrange the three ancient swords, Kodachi, Tachi, and Nodachi (or Odachi), the latter would be the biggest (or longest).
The Nodachi is incredibly long, perfect for striking and slashing opponents without fear of a successful counterattack. Why? This sword’s blade can reach 148 inches or about 12.4 shaku. However, the average Nodachi blade length is approximately 35.8 inches or three shaku.
Still, the sword’s impressive reach makes it look more like a spear with an exceptionally long blade. One can expect the hilt to be at least twice more extended than the Tachi, giving the Samurai excellent control.
These swords were famous from 1336 to 1392, although limited to the cavalry and infantry. Although these Nanbokucho Period swords are still present, most are in shrines and temples for ceremonial purposes.
A Samurai wielding a Nagamaki by NexusMods.
The Nagamaki is an evolution of the Great Sword Nodachi (or Odachi). Some folks mistake it for the Naginata. One can appreciate this sword better by lengthening a Tachi’s hilt or handle, making it nearly as long as the blade.
Hence, the Nagamaki can have an overall sword length of about 51 inches from the kissaki to the hilt’s tip. The blade is at least 24 inches, and the handle is about the same length. Interestingly, the Nagamaki’s hilt features a katana-like wrapping.
Historians believe the Nagamaki originated during the late 8th century, although it was only during the mid-Kamakura Period when the sword was widely used. It rose to prominence during the Sengoku Period, replacing the Naginata and Yari in dense formations.
An Uchigatana by Iren Mischenko on ArtStation.
The Katana and Wakizashi are examples of this Japanese sword. The Uchigatana comes in two lengths: short for the Wakizashi and long for the Katana.
The Uchigatana replaced the Koshigatana in the mid-15th century, partnering with the Tachi in combat. Its medium-length blade and swift drawing characteristics prompted the Samurai to return the Tachi in later years.
Unlike the Tachi, the Uchigatana has its razor-sharp edge facing upward when worn under the belt. This orientation allowed the Samurai to draw the sword quickly and flexibly.
As mentioned, the Wakizashi is a Uchigatana and the direct successor to the Kodachi. It’s a secondary weapon to the Katana, allowing the Samurai to block with the longer sword and slash an opponent with the Wakizashi in a successful counterstrike.
Like the Katana, the Samurai wore the Wakizashi with its sharp edge facing up. It facilitates lightning-quick and fluid draws. It’s perfect for close-quarter engagements and self-defense. The Wakizashi can also be an excellent addition to formal Japanese attire.
The Wakizashi’s blade ranges from 12 to 24 inches and can have Katana-like features and ornaments.
The Tanto is the modern equivalent of the ancient Koshigatana dagger. The blade can be as short as 5.9 inches or as long as 11.8 inches or less than a shaku. It’s a tool for stabbing opponents, although some Samurai would use the Tanto for slashing opponents in close-quarter engagements.
Women of feudal Japan also carried a smaller version of the Tanto, a Kaiken. It’s the perfect tool for self-defense. Most Tanto daggers feature a single sharp edge, while others have double-sided designs.
An Iaidoka with an Iaito sword by Rodrigja on Wikimedia Commons.
The Iaito isn’t a combat sword but a practice tool. Samurai warriors never train with their deadly Tachis and Katanas. Instead, they rely on practice swords with an unsharpened edge. They resemble the Katana, except it doesn’t hurt a training partner when hit.
Most Iaito swords feature aluminum-zinc alloy. It’s a lighter material than steel, allowing students and Iaido practitioners to learn and master various Iaido techniques. This sword is also exempted from prohibitions in Japan, allowing locals and foreigners to carry the Iaito in public.
Other Bladed Weapons of the Samurai
The Samurai of feudal Japan didn’t limit their weapons to Katanas, Tachis, Wakizashis, and Tantos. They used other bladed tools to defeat enemies and protect their Daimyos. Here are other bladed weapons you might want to learn.
As mentioned, many folks think the Nagamaki and Naginata are one and the same sword. However, the latter is a Japanese sword, while the former is, strictly speaking, a polearm.
The Naginata features a blade extending from 33 to 39 inches and is secured to a wooden hilt. This Japanese weapon can reach 102 inches from the kissaki to the pole’s leading edge. Although slightly shorter than the biggest Nodachi, the Naginata was a formidable weapon during the Heian and Kamakura Periods.
It’s like a Tachi on a pole, extending a Samurai’s reach. It is the weapon of choice of feudal Japanese foot soldiers (Ashiganu) and warrior monks (Sohei). Slashing enemies is easy, thanks to the Naginata’s extended hilt and the blade’s razor-sharp edge.
This Tanto-like sword features two sharpened edges with a straight blade or nagasa. The Samurai often repurposed metal spearheads, turning them into Ken. It’s not strictly a battle weapon but a ceremonial tool and Buddhist offerings.
This Tanto is like the Ken, except it features a triangular cross-section perfect for piercing through an opponent’s armor. Like the Ken, the Yari is a repurposed spearhead but shorter.
Our Japanese Sword Collection
Katana Sword offers high-quality Japanese swords designed in the Land of the Rising Sun and forged by the expert hands of katana-kajis. We have handmade katana, ninjato, wakizashi, and tanto to satiate your sword-loving appetite. And if you’re quick enough, you could get your hands on rare antique swords.
Display these pieces in your living room or showcase them in the office. Wherever you decide to present these blades, count on them to be nothing short of stunning art pieces.
Bringing home a Japanese sword is easy if you know what type to buy. Our comprehensive guide enlightened you on the perfect blade to showcase in your home, office, or gallery. Although these swords are revered for their unmatched beauty, their centuries-old stories continue to capture global fascination and excite sword enthusiasts.