Types of Japanese Swords – The history of Japan is a long and winding road, with many aspects of it adapted to pop culture and completely blowing up around the world. This country is full of wonderful traditions, intense mysteries, and exciting historical moments that have enraptured people for many years.
Arguably one of the most highly adapted aspects of Japanese culture into pop culture would be the samurai warriors. Known for their fighting prowess, enviable power, and distinct armour and weaponry, samurai warriors are just as intriguing as they are exciting to learn about.
One of the most prominent features of a samurai would be the sword used in battle, bringing us to the reason why we’re writing this article: aside from the popular katana sword, how many more do you know about?
Japanese pop culture, through anime and manga, tend to veer on the side of katana swords when animating weapons, thus it is understandable that it may be the only one people can list.
However, there are way more types than you would expect, each with its own distinct shape and style.
10 Popular Types of Japanese Swords
We’re going to list below 10 types of Japanese swords that may interest you, starting with the ever-popular katana and ending with one you’ve probably never heard of!
The katana sword is one of the most popular and recognisable swords. Often referred to as ‘The Samurai Sword’, the katana is characterised by a gently curved, single-edged upward-facing blade with a long grip for both hands.
The upward-facing aspect of the blade is to allow the warrior to deal a fatal blow to the enemy in just one move. It is a slender, relatively lightweight sword with an extremely sharp edge, and is renowned for its cutting ability.
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The tachi sword is referred to as the predecessor of the katana, for obvious reasons. Before the katana, the tachi was the sword of choice for Japanese warriors. It looks quite similar to the katana, except for the main differences of having a longer blade with a more pronounced curve.
The extra length of the tachi blade was favoured by warriors who rode horseback as it allowed them to reach their enemies easily.
Unlike the katana, the tachi features a downward-facing edge.
The chokuto sword is one of the earliest Japanese swords to have been recorded in existence. It is believed to have originated from China and was imported over to Japan close to the 10th century.
Compared to the katana and the tachi, the chokuto looks rather basic. It features a one-edge straight-cut blade with a simple handle. Warriors with this sword usually wore it hanging around the waist for easy access.
You may have seen movies or shows where samurai warriors are equipped with two swords at one time. In most cases, the swords would be a katana sword and a wakizashi sword.
Wakizashi swords are similar in style to the katana sword with the curved blade. The main difference is that it is shorter by up to 20cm. When a warrior wears both swords, the wakizashi acts as a backup weapon, hence its name wakizashi, meaning ‘side insertion’ in Japanese. It is the perfect complementary weapon to the katana.
In fights, the wakizashi has a number of uses. It acts as a shorter, smaller sword for fighting in confined spaces, it is used as a backup weapon to finish off enemies, and it is often the go-to swords by samurai warriors committing ritual suicide, or seppuku.
It’s believed that many warriors went to sleep with wakizashi swords underneath their pillows.
Nodachi swords are one of the biggest types of Japanese swords. If you’ve seen any movies where the samurai warrior is holding a massive sword that’s almost as big as him, it’s most likely a nodachi sword.
Nodachi swords are usually over 150cm. This is the reason why they were usually used as the perfect counter weapon for mounted enemies. Requiring two hands to maximise its power, the nodachi sword were often utilised by foot soldiers in open battlefields to strike down enemies.
The appearance of nodachi swords look very similar to tachi swords, however their lengths are a dead giveaway.
Just seeing a weapon of this size and structure is sure to strike fear in the enemy.
If you’re seeing a trend in which many swords draw similarities to the tachi, bravo for noticing! The tachi sword was used as a base and inspiration for many sword designs that came after, including the kodachi sword.
The kodachi sword does, in fact, have a similar shape to the tachi, however, it is noticeably shorter and smaller. Because of this, it is often mistaken as a wakizashi sword.
To get into the nitty gritty, the one way you can differentiate between a kodachi sword and a wakizashi sword is that the kodachi sword has a fixed length (usually 60cm), whereas the wakizashi sword’s length will entirely depend on the katana it is accompanying.
Also, a kodachi sword would often used by travellers and merchants as a self-defence tool rather than by warriors in serious battles.
The tanto sword is a distinct type of small but sharp Japanese dagger with a primary use of stabbing.
The tanto sword features either a single or double-edged blade that’s unusually straight and usually no more than 12 inches. It commonly accompanies the katana sword as a secondary weapon.
The tanto sword is highly regarded as one of the most respected samurai weapons used in history.
The uchigatana sword is probably one of the least known types of Japanese swords, and yes, it is once again a descendent of the tachi.
The uchigatana was primarily used in the 15th century by samurai warriors wanting a lighter weapon that could easily be handled both on ground and on horseback.
The general appearance of a uchigatana sword is similar to the tachi, however there are a few key differences between the two.
The uchigatana blade is shorter than the tachi by roughly 10cm or so, making it light and easy to handle. Unlike the tachi sword, the uchigatana blade is worn around the samurai belt with the edge facing up. The curvature of the tachi blade is towards the hilt, whereas the curvature of the uchigatana blade is near the tip, making it the weapon of choice for warriors wanting to combine drawing and striking in one single action.
This sword would be a highly recognisable one for those deeply invested in Japanese ninja culture. The shinobigatana has many other names it would be commonly referred to, such as the ninja sword or ninjaken, or even ninjato.
The main characteristic that differentiates this sword is the fact that its long blade is super straight and sleek with a square guard.
It is believed that ninjas from the Edo period used this as a weapon to dispatch enemies.
If you consumed a lot of Japanese content, you would have most likely come across these bokken swords before. Bokken refers to the long wooden swords you see warriors using during practice and training.
Bokken swords are commonly shaped like a katana, however, you will come across bokken shaped like wakizashi as well.
Bokken swords were produced so that training amongst warriors would leave as few casualties as possible. However, in the wrong (or right?) hands, the bokken could also become a deadly weapon.
The legend of Miyamoto Musashi is the perfect example of this.
In 1612, Miyamoto Musashi, a famous soldier of the Edo period, allegedly rowed to an island for a duel. On the way there, he fashioned a bokken sword out of one of the oars used to get there. Upon arrival, he quickly dealt a fatal blow to his enemy using his bokken sword.
Talk about great skills!
As you can see, there are just so many interesting types of Japanese swords to get into. From the on-field advantages to the to the burden of carrying them, every sword listed had its purpose. It definitely wasn’t just the katana that paved the way for samurai to win battles!
Now, equipped with the knowledge of some of the most popular types, may you can try and pick them out the next time you watch a Japanese movie!