Nihontō 日本刀 – Traditional Japanese Swords

Nihontō 日本刀 – Traditional Japanese Swords

After you have been training for a while in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu you will inevitably end up studying Kenjutsu 剣術 (Japanese Swordsmanship) from one of the Ryuha (Schools) such as Kukishinden Ryu Happo Hikenjutsu or Togakure Ryu Ninpo.

A few things need to be mentioned right from the start, we study Kenjutsu 剣術 in the Bujinkan not Kendo 剣道, Kenjutsu 剣術 is the umbrella term for all (koryū) schools of Japanese swordsmanship, in particular those that predate the Meiji Restoration. Kendo 剣道 which literally translates as “Sword Way” is a modernised sport which is rooted in Kenjutsu 剣術 so it was established after the country went through the Sengoku Jidai 戦国時代 “Age of Warring States” c. 1467 – c. 1603 and Meiji Restoration (Disbanding of the Samurai).
It could be likened to comparing a firefight to paint balling, Kenjutsu 剣術 was used to kill so the angling and technique is slightly different to Kendo 剣道, In Kendo 剣道 the aim is scoring points and you are not fighting with Shinken (Sharp) Katana so the movements are faster but you are far less likely to have a serious injury inflicted from a glancing cut.
Thats not to say that Kendo 剣道 is not a valid martial art as it most certainly is, many of the targets you attack are identical but the intention behind your technique is different which affects your movements and timing, In Kenjutsu 剣術 you draw in and ensnare the opponent to then finish them with one or two cuts, In Kendo 剣道 the point is much the same but their is far more swordplay for enjoyment.

Now the reason that I use the term Nihontō 日本刀 instead of Katana is because it’s important to acknowledge that their are a wide variety of Japanese swords, The Katana has featured alot in popular culture and is perhaps the most common sword used by Japanese martial arts practitioners but its not the only one used so Nihontō 日本刀 is an umbrella term that covers all traditional Japanese swords.

Some examples of the different Japanese sword types are:

  • Chokuto 大刀 – Straight Single Edged – Pre 10th Century – Most likely derived from China – Hira-Zukuri and Kiriha-Zukuri Tsukurikomi
  • Tsurugi 剣 – Broadsword Double Edged – Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi “Grass-Cutting Sword” – Seen as the sword of legends and particularly Fudo Myo-o the deity of wisdom and protector if the Yamabushi (Mountain Ascetics), It’s believed that Fudo Myo-o would use his Tsurugi to cut away the 3 poisons, desire, anger and confusion.
  • Tachi 太刀 – Big Sword – Worn slung with edge facing down – Main production period 900 to 1596 (Kotō period) – The Tachi is essentially the precursor of the Katana but is most commonly seen when wearing ō-yoroi 大鎧, This is due to the plates in the armour restricting the mobility of the wrist so drawing edge down is far more efficient.
  • Uchigatana 打刀 – Shorter than Tachi, Worn edge up – 1336 to 1573 Muromachi period – The Uchigatana although shorter in length is in many ways the evolution of the Tachi 太刀 into the Katana 刀, the Samurai class started wearing the Uchigatana with the edge upwards as it didn’t limit their movements when using polearms, The Mei (signature) of the swordsmith was also positioned on the opposite side of the sword to the Tachi to indicate it was to be worn edge facing up. The Tachi was almost completely abandoned in the Momoyama period c. 1573 to 1600 and replaced by Daisho 大小 comprised of a long and short Uchigatana worn together.
  • Katana 刀 – Slightly shorter with less curvature than a Tachi – Worn edge facing up – Muromachi period 1337 to 1573 – The Katana 刀 became most popular around 1400’s when it began regular production after the popularity of the Uchigatana amongst the Samurai classes. The Katana 刀 varied in size being longer in the 14th and 15th centuries, then decreasing in size by approximately 10cm in the 16th early century and increasing in length again by approximately 13cm by the late 16th century. The Katana was also worn as part of the Daisho 大小 set with a Wakizashi or Tanto.  Daisho 大小 were worn openly by the Samurai classes until the Meiji restoration when the carrying of swords was made illegal. Katana returned to production during the Showa period between 1875 and 1945 but were referred to as Guntō (Military Swords). Shinsakutō are newly made swords 1953–present.
  • Ōdachi 大太刀/Nodachi 野太刀 – Great Sword/Field Sword – Produced predominantly before 1615 when it began to decrease in popularity after the Siege of Osaka, Odachi were then illegalised by the Tokugawa Shogunate who banned sword over a certain length in 1617, 1626 and 1645.
  • Nagamaki 長巻 – “Long Wrapping” Sword – Longer handle shorter blade – Possibly first produced during the Heian period 794-1185 but most likely began production during the Kamakura period 1192 -1333 – The Nagamaki was most popular during the Muromachi period 1336 – 1573. Traditionally the Nagamaki 長巻 was used as an infantry weapon frequently used against cavalry.
  • Wakizashi  脇差 – Companion Sword/Short Sword – Has a blade between 30 and 60 cm – Wakizashi are not just smaller versions of the katana they could be forged differently or have a different blade geometry.
  • Kodachi 小太刀 – Small Tachi – Began production in the early Kamekura period 1185 – 1333 – Considered to be a primary short sword in its own right, the Kodachi 小太刀 was commercially available to citizens and was commonly carried by travellers, particularly merchants and caravans, for self defence against highwaymen.
  • Tanto 短刀 – Dagger/Short Sword – Dates back to the Heian period 794 – 1185 – Used in Tantojutsu mainly for piercing and stabbing, some Tanto known as Yoroi Toshi were used for piercing armour due to a heavier construction and blade geometry. The difference between Aikuchi and Tanto is mainly due to the lack of a Tsuba on the Aikuchi.

The Ninjatō (Ninja Sword) commonly associated with Ninjutsu in reality has very little historical basis, it’s closest historical counterpart would be the Chokuto 大刀. While personally I don’t believe it could be completely impossible that the Ninja may have historically used Chokuto 大刀, considering that many of the Ninja lineages passed from father to son over generations (as did their equipment) and that Ninja were most active during the Sengoku Jidai 戦国時代 “Age of Warring States” 1467 – 1603 when they were being oppressed by Oda Nobunaga, their is still no factual evidence to suggest the Ninja ever forged a single conventional Ninjatō.

The most likely reason for this sword often being mistaken for a historical Japanese Nihonto is it repeatedly featuring in Ninja movies and 80’s popular culture, It’s true that by using todays forging processes some high quality Ninjatō can be forged but historically the Ninja would use alternative weapons such as the Hanbo (Short Staff), Concealed weapons or pick up the Katana of a Samurai who had been defeated in battle.

The argument you will often hear in defence of the conventional Ninjatō existing is that it was specifically designed by the Ninja to be used as a large survival knife or machete, With the square Tsuba (Hilt) and reinforced Kojiri (Sheath End) being able to be used as a step for scaling walls and obstacles, with a longer Sageo (Sheath Cord) so that the Ninjatō could be retrieved from the base of the obstacle climbed. Although this may well be true of some of the modern Ninjatō, It certainly isn’t historically accurate.

The historical Ninjatō of the Togakure Ryu Ninja is essentially a slightly shorter Katana with a longer Saya (Sheath), This served a very functional purpose for the Ninja of the time and again highlights the difference between Kenjutsu 剣術 and Kendo 剣道, In Kenjutsu 剣術 the outcome of the encounter is often dictated by who can draw their sword and cut in one simultaneous motion the fastest, this means that the shorter blade used by the Togakure Ryu Ninja provided the vital split seconds needed to gain the advantage over the opponent. They quite literally would cut the opponent down before they had managed to draw their sword.

The extra space created in the Saya of the Togakure Ryu Ninjatō would also serve the additional purposes of concealing hidden messages and could be filled with Metsubishi 目潰し blinding powder.

As you can see in the image above the traditional Togakure Ryu Ninjatō is more similar to the Uchigatana 打刀 or Katana 刀 than the Chokuto 大刀 shaped blade seen used by Ninja in movies and popular culture, This is because the Chokuto 大刀shaped blades are less functional than the curved blade of the Tachi 太刀 or Katana 刀 for a number of reasons.

The Chokuto 大刀 has a straight blade, so when it is used to cut the target it will spread the pound per square inch of the blades impact across the straight edge of the blade, producing quite a shallow cut, with a curved blade such as the Katana 刀 you get the maximum pounds per square inch upon impact with the target, quite literally separating the target either side of the point of impact from the center along the blade length using the smallest area of cutting space available. The curvature of the Katana 刀 produces a far more devastating cut and would be a more desirable and efficient sword than the Chokuto 大刀 or Ninjatō purely on cutting capability.

I think its a possibility that around the time of Soke Daisuke Togakure (1100), The early Ninja may have used Chokuto 大刀 before the invention of the Tachi 太刀 or Katana 刀 as they would have been the heirlooms and offcasts of the time in the same way that bronze age weaponry would have been available at the dawn of the iron age, however that has no evidential basis and does not account for the association of the Ninjatō with Ninjutsu today.

A more likely cause for the association of the straight bladed Ninjatō with the Ninja, is the Kung Fu and Ninja movie boom of the 70’s and 80’s, the portraying of the straight bladed Chinese Jian and Kung Fu based Ninja characters fighting and jumping about would make anyone assume that Ninja traditionally used straight bladed swords. The plethora of fake Ninjutsu instructors like Ashida Kim and Frank Dux don’t help to dispel that myth either by fitting just about every hollywood Ninja movie cliché possible.

Another common misconception is that the Ninja would wear the sword on his back dressed completely in black, aside from the obvious impractical implications of dressing in a manner that identifies you instantly as a enemy spy, wearing a Katana on your back is simply impractical when it comes to combat, The draw length required to free the blade from the Saya is often considerably longer than your arm making it impossible to draw your sword. It is however possible with Wakizashi 脇差 or Kodachi 小太刀 like the one pictured below but then you are trading blade length for mobility and the blade still can’t be drawn as quickly as it can when being drawn from the hip.

The idea of a Ninja wearing the sword on his back however isn’t really that surprising as a lot of the Samurai in historical Japanese art are depicted wearing an Ōdachi (Greatsword) on their backs. However these Samurai often had assistants to aid them in drawing the Ōdachi as it would be impossible to draw unassisted, This can be seen in the Bujinkan as part of Kukishinden Ryu when two swordsman wearing Ōdachi on their backs turn so that they can assist each other when drawing, essentially taking the other persons Ōdachi to fight with. The Ōdachi was most often used on the battlefield when faced with mounted cavalry in a similar manner to the Nagamaki so the ability to draw it quickly wasn’t a concern

Their are only a select few advanced techniques that involve drawing a sword over the shoulder or from the back which all start with the Katana positioned at the hip except for if wearing an Ōdachi (Greatsword) . In conclusion the Ninja did not wear a Katana or Ninjatō statically on their backs.

Another popular misconception about Nihontō 日本刀 is that the Shirasaya 白鞘 (Unmounted Blade) was a standalone sword in its own right, due to it being featured in movies and popular culture but in reality mounting the blade into Shirasaya 白鞘 Koshirae (Fittings) was a way of storing the blade for a prolonged period of time.

The Shirasaya 白鞘 was a quite literally the bare essentials needed to house the blade, the basic Tsuka 柄 (Handle) to house the Nakago (Tang), 2 Mekugi 目釘 (Pins) and occasionally Sayagaki (Blade Information) would be engraved on the Tsuka  (Handle) or Saya (Scabbard) if the blade had been forged with a different geometry or cross section. The main reason for needing to store the blade in Shirasaya is that over time keeping the blade mounted in standard Koshirae will harm the blade as it encourages corrosion on the blade with Urushi laquered wood retaining moisture over time.

Shirasaya 白鞘 were never intended to be used in combat due to a number of factors such as the lack of a Tsuba (Handguard) and lack of Koshirae (Fittings) such as Fuchi  (Handle Collar) and Kashira  (Pommel) and Tsuka Ito 柄糸 (Handle Wrapping) would inherently make the Tsuka  (Handle) structurally weaker overall due to the lack of support provided by the banding around the Tsuka  (Handle) so they would have never been openly used on the battlefield.

This is not to be confused with Shinobi-zue (Ninja Canes) such as the Shikomizue 仕込み杖 which was a functional Chokuto 大刀 or Katana 刀 concealed within a walking stick or cane. It should be mentioned that Shinobi-zue are not exclusively blades concealed in sticks, staffs and canes but varied in length and also contained chains, hooks, arrows, climbing aids, breathing tubes, Fukiya 吹き矢 (blowguns) or even poison liquids or gasses.

The Chigiriki being a prime example of one of the chain variants of the Shinobi-zue, The Chigiriki consisted of a wooden or iron staff with a chain (sometimes retractable) and Iron Fundo 鎖分銅 (Weight, often spiked) concealed inside at one end, it was considered to be a more aggressive variant of the bladed Kusarigama 鎖鎌.

It’s important to mention that not all Nihontō are sharp, most Shinken (Sharp) Nihontō also have counterpart Iaitō or blunt bladed swords which are safer to use but provide the same weight as an actual Shinken Nihontō when training with it. They are often forged in exactly the same manner as a Shinken Nihontō with the same geometry and cross section (Kitae). Shinken Nihontō should only ever be used in the dojo when practicing Tameshigiri (Test Cutting on static targets) or Suemonogiri (Test cutting free moving targets), They should never be used when training with an Uke (Partner) for obvious reasons, such as cutting Uke in half! However experienced martial artists will often use Iaitō during demonstrations or to train with to simulate the weight of a real sword but an Iaitō is still an extremely dangerous weapon.

An Iaitō like the one above is almost indistinguishable from a Shinken without closer examination of the blades edge. The same can be the said for blade construction with Iaitō with the blades being forged and folded in the same way.

The subject of Nihontō 日本刀 is extremely extensive as their are still the topics of different Koshirae (Fittings), Blade geometry (Shape), Kitae (Folding process), Blade hardness, Zukiri (Kissaki Shape), Tsukamaki (Handle Wrapping), Urushi Nuri (Lacquering), etc.

The important thing to remember is that their are far more Nihontō 日本刀 than just the Katana 刀 alone and the only place for the Ninjatō is in Ninja movies. That’s not to say functional Ninjatō or Shirasaya don’t exist in modern society but this is a product of modern technology and has no historical relevance.

A variety of accessories would often adorn the Saya (Scabbard) such as Kodzuka (Small Knife) and Kogai (Hair Pins) and sometimes other items would be hidden in the base of the Tsuka (Handle) such as Bo Shuriken, medicinal salves and poisons.

A few additional blade types would be the Shikorogatana or serrated blade sword, Nanbokucho with a wider blade and Ō Kissaki, Shinobigatana with a shorter blade, Inverted blade katana where the edge is on the inside of the Nagasa (Curvature) and blades used by specific Ryuha such as Shinden Fudo Ryu, Kumogakure Ryu, Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, etc. In conclusion over time most Nihonto have increased or decreased in length, thickness, width, curvature and Koshirae according to the requirements of the individual swordsman rather than all Nihonto being a universal length or shape.