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Tanto Blades: Information For The Curious


The tanto is best recognized as a shorter blade used by the samurai class. This is a sword that is used in many different pop culture films and books, and holds the similarity of adoration that the katana does. This article is going to explore the tanto with its rich and long history, as well as the different types of tanto, and how to show respect to this historic blade.


History Of The Tanto

The tanto is yet another traditional sword worn by the samurai class of feudal Japan. Its translation means, “short blade.” The tanto has a rich history in feudal Japan and spans back many centuries. This blade started out as one for fighting, but as the years progressed so too did the use of the blade. It slowly became more ornate with more symbolic meaning and was used in more ceremonies. This blade was one of two that samurai used for ritual suicide with the other blade being the wakizashi. The different eras of the tanto sword are Heian to Muromachi, Momyama to early Edo, the late Edo Age, and Meiji to present. In the following portion, we will discuss each era and how this blade was used.


·       Heian to Muromachi: The tanto came about towards the middle of the Heian period, but it did not start out as a blade for combat; this came about later. There were a few times the blade was used as a weapon, but those were few and far between. As the eras began to change, the blade started to be produced more by tanto artisans and the Kamakura period saw more tanto weapons that ever before. As the eras progressed, the tanto became more artistic, but had a clear distinction between the older blades. The older blades were more traditional and ornate while the newer blades were made in a more popular style. This style included a blade that was 40 cm as opposed to 30, and with an ornate hilt that included religious allusions to the Hachiman belief system.

·       Momoyama to Early Edo Age: Sword smiths did not make very many blades during this era and the tachi and tanto were replaced by the katana and wakizashi as the more commonly used weapons. Any tanto blades made in this era were copies made from the older versions and were mainly for decoration, not combat. This is because this era saw the unification of Japan, and the rulers saw little need for fighting or blades.

·       Late Edo Age: Yet again, this era saw only a small amount of tanto being forged with many being from the later periods. Historians say that the tanto used in combat were prehistoric blades or ancient, with many only being copies of past blades. Suishinshi Masahide predominately crafted the “new” blades in the Edo era.

·       Meiji to present: As World War II approached, the rise in tanto being forged started. This was because Japan had an emperor again, and the Imperial Court started to wear the traditional tachi and tanto combination, instead of the katana and wakizashi. Once World War II ended, the rise in tanto blades stopped and plummeted yet again. This was because of restrictions being placed on blade forging. The popularity of tanto increased in America around the 1980s as Americans began to become fascinated with martial arts. This created quite the demand for tanto blades, and several forges now make them. As we will discuss later in the article, the design for the tanto helped to inspire many tactical knives that are now used for many purposes.


Types Of Tanto

Tanto blades have several different types that have changed throughout the years. Because of how long this blade has been around, the types are numerous. Here are just a few of the many types of tanto:


·       Shinogi: A shinogi is the common shape for many swords, but it is quite rare for the tanto. The majority of tanto blades with this form are usually blades that were “cut down” from the sword that broke in combat. When making the blade in this style, it means that the central ridge runs the whole length of the blade and is between the blade’s edges and body.

·       Hira: This is one of the most common forms of tanto, and it does not have a shinogi style. The edge runs from the edge portion of the blade all the way to the back without separations placed throughout the blade. The reason this is such a popular design is because it is quite easy to make; very simplistic.

·       Kissaki-morohoa: A very rare blade that has a point that is double-edged. This blade is known for its distinct shape. In fact, a well-known historical blade is a kissaki-moroha. This blade is the style of the Kogarasu Maru (little crow), which is now considered a national treasure of Japan.

·       Kubikiri: This is yet another rare tanto with its sharp blade running on the inside of the curve instead of on the outside. This blade does not have a point, unlike many other swords, which has interested sword and history enthusiasts alike. People refer to this sword as the “head cutter.” Many believe that a samurai’s assistant wore the kubikiri; an assistant would follow behind the samurai cutting off the heads of the vanquished enemies. (Heads were the trophies taken by the samurai when they defeated an opponent.) Others believe that this particular sword was worn as decoration, much like a badge today, by high-ranking officials in the armies, as well as by doctors. Many also believe that it was used for charcoal on incense cutting, as well as a tool to artistically cut a bonsai tree.


There are many other tanto blades, including the osoraku, hochogata, katakiriha, moroha

aikuchi, hamidashi, kaiken tanto, fan tanto, ken tanto, yari, and modern tanto blades. We will be discussing the modern usage of the tanto in the form of tactical blades in the next section “modern usage.”


Modern Usage

The tanto blade design is one that many tactical knife makers use in the United States. These became popular post 1980s, and several different knife makers began selling “American Tanto” to those who purchased tactical knives. One of the first manufacturers was Cold Steel, but many more have since started using a tanto design for their weapons. Most tactical knives or modern tanto utilize a thicker spine, which reaches from the tang to the tip. This increases the strength of the knife’s tip. These knives also tend to have a handle that allows for stronger, easier grip for better control of the knife.


Using Tanto In Martial Arts

This blade has become quite popular with those who practice different martial arts. These are used primarily as training weapons and are often times blunt wooden swords or plastic. Those who use this blade in martial arts and are more advanced will be able to use blunt metal blades for more in-depth training and demonstrations of how to use the tanto. The different martial arts that utilize tanto are:


·       Aikido

·       Aikijutsu

·       Jujustu

·       Koryu Bujustsu

·       Ninjusts

·       Shorinji Kempo

·       Modern Arnis


Learning To Use And Respect The Blade

If you have an interest in learning different martial arts surrounding the usage of tanto, it is always wise to seek out a sensei. A sensei, or leader, can help you learn how to use the blade adequately, while maintaining respect for it. You will also learn how to use it safely, lessening the potential for injury from the blade.


This blade deserves as much respect as possible, much like any other samurai blades. One of the main things to remember is that it is a weapon and if you order one that is sharp, it can and will cause injuries if not properly respected. Handle it with care and consider following the above instruction and finding a sensei. You should also respect this blade as it carries such a rich history and spans generations. It is incredible to realize just how long this blade has been around and how long it has lasted.


Taking Care Of The Blade

When you purchase a samurai blade, whether it is a tanto or a samurai sword, you will need to make sure you take good care of it. Here are a few steps to make sure the blade stays sharp and avoids rusting or molding:


·       Always wipe the blade with a specialized cloth. This will clean off any dust, dirt, or other materials, which could cause the blade to degrade.

·       Oil the tanto with the proper oil for swords. This comes with any sword care kit, which should be something you purchase when you buy your sword.

·       Clean the handle with the appropriate cleaner – if you have a wooden handle, make sure to use appropriate wood cleaner.

·       Polish the sword so that it will keep its gorgeous sheen. This will also clear up any potential dirt or dust you may have missed.


In Closing

A tanto will be a great addition to any samurai swords collection, especially if you already own a tachi. This is a great way to remember the historical aspects of feudal Japan, paying respect to a tradition that has been around longer than some countries.