Knowledge for a Samurai

Below is a hand picked collection of historical and cultural information about Samurai and other related topics. Click the title to view a particular article.


Bushido, meaning “Way of the Warrior”, is a Japanese code of conduct and a way of life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry. It originates from the samurai moral code and stresses frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery and honor unto death. Born of two main influences, the violent existence of the Samurai was tempered by the wisdom and serenity of Confucianism and Buddhism. Bushido developed between the 9th to 12th centuries and numerous translated documents dating from the 12th to 16th centuries demonstrate its wide influence across the whole of Japan.

According to the Japanese dictionary Shogakukan Kokugo Daijiten, “Bushido is defined as a unique philosophy (ronri) that spread through the warrior class from the Muromachi (chusei) period.” Nitobe Inazo, in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, described it in this way. “…Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe… More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten… It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career.”

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, aspects of Bushido became formalized into Japanese Feudal Law.

Translation of documents related to Bushido began in the 1970’s with Dr. Carl Steenstrup who performed a lifetime of research into the ethical codes of famous Samurai clans including Hojo Soun and Imagawa Ryoshun. Steenstrup’s 1977 dissertation at Harvard University was entitled “Hojo Shigetoki (1198–1261) and his Role in the History of Political and Ethical Ideas in Japan”. Steenstrup holds two Phd’s in Japanese History–one from Harvard in 1977 and another from The University of Copenhagen in 1979.

According to the editors of Monumenta Nipponica, “Tens of thousands of documents survive from the medieval period… Only a few have been translated into English, or are likely ever to appear in translation.” One of the oldest English-language academic journals in the field of Asian studies, much of Dr. Steenstrup’s significant findings were written for MN.

Primary research into Bushido was later conducted by William Scott Wilson in his 1982 text “Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors” . The writings span hundreds of years, family lineage, geography, social class and writing style–yet share a common set of values. Wilson’s work also examined the earliest Japanese writings in the 8th century: The Kojiki (712AD), Shoku Nihongi (797AD),the Kokinshu (early 10th century), Konjaku Monogatari (CA 1106ad), and The Heike Monogatari (1371) as well as the Chinese Classics. (the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Mencius.(CA 500BC)). Wilson holds a Master’s Degree in Japanese Language and Literature from the University of Washington at Seattle in 1979 and served as a Consular Specialist for the Consulate General of Japan in Seattle in 1980. Mr. Wilson recently received Japan’s Foreign Minister’s Commendation from the Consulate General of Japan in Miami, Masakazu Toshikage on November 15, 2005.

Historical development

Early history to 12th centuries

According to Wilson, the four Confucian classics: the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Mencius, are mentioned specifically in the warrior’s own precepts as suggested reading. Takeda Nobushige included examples of what was considered proper reading for the educated warrior. His “Ninety-Nine Articles”, lists the Analects of Confucius as one of the main texts of study. Wilson describes Confucianism as “Basically a philosophy of humanism which places much emphasis on education, rationalism, sincerity of action, and the relationships of people involved in society, rather than spiritual affairs or speculation on life after death.”

The stylings of Bushido have existed in the Japanese literature from the earliest recorded literary history of Japan, predating the introduction of Confucian ethic from China. The Kojiki is Japan’s oldest extant book. Written in AD 712,it contains passages about Yamato Takeru, the son of the Emperor Keiko. It provides an early indication of the values and literary self-image of the bushido ideal, including references to the use and admiration of the sword by Japanese warriors. Yamato Takeru may be considered the rough ideal of the Japanese warrior to come. He is sincere and loyal, slicing up his father’s enemies “like melons,” unbending and yet not unfeeling, as can be seen in his laments for lost wives and homeland, and in his willingness to combat the enemy alone. Most important, his portrayal in the Kojiki shows that the ideal of harmonizing the literary with the martial may have been an early trait of Japanese civilization, appealing to the Japanese long before its introduction from Confucian China.

This early conceptualizing of a Japanese self-image of the “ideal warrior” can further be found in the Shoku Nihongi, an early history of Japan written in the year 797. A section of the book covering the year AD 721 is notable for an early use of the term in Japanese literature and a reference to the educated warrior-poet ideal. The term bushi entered the Japanese vocabulary with the general introduction of Chinese literature and added to the indigenous words, tsuwamono and mononofu.

In Kokin Wakash? (early 10th century), the first imperial anthology of poems, there is an early reference to Saburau — originally a verb meaning “to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society.” In Japanese, the pronunciation would become saburai. By the end of the 12th century, saburai, an old word for samurai, became synonymous with bushi almost entirely and the word was closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class.

13th to 16th centuries

From the Bushido literature of the 13th to 16th Centuries, there exists an abundance of literary references to the ideals of Bushido.

Compiled in 1371, the Heike Monogatari chronicles the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century—a conflict known as the Gempei War. Clearly depicted throughout the Heike Monogatari is the ideal of the cultivated warrior. The warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. By the time of Imagawa Ryoshun’s Regulations at the beginning of the 15th century, the Bushido ideal had already reached its balanced state.

Other examples of the evolution in the Bushido literature of the 13th to 16th centuries included:

  • Hojo_shigetoki
    Hojo Shigetoki (1198-1261 A.D.)
    Shiba Yoshimasa (1350-1410 A.D.)
  • Imagawa_Ryoshun
    Imagawa Sadayo (1325-1420 A.D.)
    Asakura Toshikage (1428-1481 A.D.)
    Hojo Nagauji (1432-1519 A.D.)
    Asakura Norikage (1474-1555 A.D.)
    Takeda Shingen (1521-1573 A.D.)
    Takeda Nobushige (1525-1561 A.D.)
    Nabeshima Naoshige (1538-1618 A.D.)
  • The_Last_Statement_of_Torii_Mototada
    Torii Mototada (1539-1600 A.D.)
  • The_Precepts_of_Kato_Kiyomasa
    Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611 A.D.)
    Kuroda Nagamasa (1568-1623 A.D.)

This period of early development of Bushido, as depicted in these various writings and house codes, already includes the concepts of an all encompassing loyalty to their master, filial piety and reverence to the Emperor. It indicates the need for both compassion for those of a lower station, and for the preservation of their name. Early Bushido literature further enforces the requirement to conduct themselves with calmness, fairness, justice, and politeness. The relationship between learning and the way of the warrior is clearly articulated, one being a natural partner to the other. Finding a proper death in battle, for the cause of their lord, also features strongly in this early history.

17th to 19th centuries

Although Japan enjoyed a period of peace during the Sakoku (“closed country”) period from the 17th to the mid-19th century, the samurai class remained and continued to play a central role in the policing of the country. It has been suggested that this period of relative peace led to the refinement and formalism of Bushido that can be traced back through the era of feudal Japan, or the Edo Period. Literature of the 17th to 19th Century contains many ideas of the philosophy of Bushido. This includes:

  • The Last Statement of Torii Mototada (1539-1600 AD)
  • Kuroda Nagamasa (1568-1623 AD)
  • Nabeshima Naoshige (1538-1618 A.D.)
  • Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645 AD)
  • Budoshoshinshu by Taira Shigesuke Daidoji Yuzan (1639-1730 AD)
  • Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo


Bushido expanded and formalized the earlier code of the samurai, and stressed frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honor to the death. Under the Bushido ideal, if a samurai failed to uphold his honor he could regain it by performing seppuku (ritual suicide).

In an excerpt from his book Samurai: The World of the Warrior, historian Stephen Turnbull describes the role of Seppuku in feudal Japan:

In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it was an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony.

Bushido was widely practiced and it is surprising how uniform the samurai code remained over time, crossing over all geographic and socio-economic backgrounds of the samurai. The samurai represented a wide populace numbering from 7% to 10% of the Japanese population, and the first Meiji era census at the end of the 19th century counted 1,282,000 members of the “high samurais”, allowed to ride a horse, and 492,000 members of the “low samurai”, allowed to wear two swords but not to ride a horse, in a country of about 25 million.

Other parts of the Bushido philosophy cover methods of raising children, appearance and grooming, and most of all, constant preparation for death. One might say that death is at the very center of Bushido as the overall purpose- to die a good death and with one’s honor intact.

Seven virtues of Bushido

The Bushido code is typified by seven virtues:

  • “Gi” – The Right Decision. Rectitude.
  • “Yu” – Valor
  • “Jin” – Benevolence
  • “Rei” – Respect
  • “Makoto” – Honesty
  • “Meiyo” – Honor
  • “Chugi” – Loyalty

Modern bushido

Some people in Japan as well as other countries follow the same virtues listed above under the philosophical term modern bushido. The idea was derived from the fact that the Japanese male should be able to adapt his beliefs and philosophies to a changing world.

In an excerpt of James Williams’ article “Virtue of the sword”, a fairly simple explanation of modern bushido can be found:

The warrior protects and defends because he realizes the value of others. He knows that they are essential to society and, in his gift of service, recognizes and values theirs… take the extra moment in dark parking lots at night to make sure that a woman gets into her car safely before leaving yourself. Daily involvement in acts such as these are as much a part of training as time spent in the dojo, and indeed should be the reason for that time spent training… When faced with a woman or child in a situation in which they are vulnerable, there are two types of men: those who would offer succor and aid, and those who would prey upon them. And in modern society, there is another loathsome breed who would totally ignore their plight!


The concept of a dojo as a martial arts training place is a Western concept; in Japan, any physical training facility, including professional wrestling schools may be called dojos as well depending on the context.”

A proper Japanese martial arts dojo is considered special and is well cared for by its users. In many styles it is traditional to conduct a ritual cleaning of the dojo at the end of each training session (called souji, which translates from Japanese as “cleaning”). Besides the obvious hygienic benefits of regular cleaning it also serves to reinforce the fact that dojo are supposed to be supported and managed by the student body, not the school’s instructional staff. This attitude has become lost in many modern, commercial dojo that are founded and run by a small group of people or instructors. In fact, it is not uncommon that in traditional schools (koryu), dojo are rarely used for training at all, instead being reserved for more symbolic or formal occasions. The actual training is conducted typically outdoors or in a less formal area.


Ancient history

Fan history stretches back thousands of years. Since antiquity, fans have possessed a dual function – a status symbol and a useful ornament. In the course of their development, fans have been made of a variety of materials and have included decorative artwork. The simplest fans are leaves or flat objects, waved to produce a cooler atmosphere. These rigid or folding hand-held implements have been used for cooling, for air circulation, as a ceremonial device, and as a sartorial accessory throughout the world from ancient times. They are still widely used.

Asian history

In China, screen fans were used throughout society. The earliest known Chinese fans are a pair of woven bamboo side-mounted fans from the 2nd century BC. The Chinese character for “fan” (?) is etymologically derived from a picture of feathers under a roof. The Chinese fixed fan, pien-mien, means ‘to agitate the air’.

ans were part of the social status for the Chinese people. A particular status and gender would accord a specific type of fan to an individual. The folding fan was invented in Japan in the 8th century and taken to China in the 9th century. The Akomeogi (or Japanese folding fan; ??; Hi


Geisha are traditional, female Japanese entertainers, whose skills include performing various Japanese arts, such as classical music and dance. Contrary to popular western belief, geisha are not prostitutes.


“Geisha,” pronounced , is a proper noun. Like all Japanese nouns, there are no distinct singular or plural variants of the term. The word consists of two kanji, ? (gei) meaning “art” and ? (sha) meaning “person” or “doer”. The most direct translation of geisha into English would be “artist” or “performing artist”.

Another term used in Japan is geiko, a word from the kyoto dialect. Full-fledged geisha in Kyoto are called geiko. This term is also commonly used in the region to distinguish geisha practiced in traditional arts from prostitutes who have co-opted the name and attire of geisha (see below). Prostitutes wear the bow of their sash, or obi, in front of their kimono, but geisha wear their obi at the back. True geisha, who do not engage in paid sexual activity, usually had the luxury of a professional aide to help them in the difficult process of dressing; their clothing is made up of several layers of kimono and undergarments, and an obi is more than a simple band of cloth. Dressing could take over an hour, even with professional help. Prostitutes, however, had to take off their obi several times a day, so theirs were far less complex, and tied at the front for ease of removal and replacement.

Apprentice geisha are called maiko. This word is made of the kanji ? (mai) meaning “dancing” and ? (ko) meaning “child”. It is the maiko, with her white make-up and elaborate kimono and hairstyle, that has become the stereotype of a “geisha” to westerners, rather than the true geisha.

Tokyo geisha generally do not follow the ritualized Kyoto maiko apprentice process. The training period can be six months to a year – notably shorter than a Kyoto maiko – before she debuts as a full geisha. The trainee is referred to as a han’gyoku (??) or “half-jewel”, or by the more generic term o-shaku (??), lit. “one who pours (alcohol)”. On average, Tokyo geisha tend to be older than their Kyoto counterparts, many holding formal degrees from university.

Stages of training

Traditionally, they began their training at a very young age. Although some girls were sold to geisha houses (“okiya”) as children, this was not common practice in reputable districts. Daughters of geisha were often brought up as geisha themselves, usually as the successor (“atotori” meaning heir) or daughter-role (“musume-bun”) to the okiya.

The first stage of training was called shikomi. When girls first arrived at the okiya, they would be put to work as maids, or do everything they are told. The work was difficult with the intent to “make” and “break” the new girls. The most junior shikomi of the house would have to wait late into the night for the senior geisha to return from engagements, sometimes as late as two or three in the morning. During this stage of training, the shikomi would go to classes at the hanamachi’s geisha school. In modern times, this stage still exists, mostly to accustom the girls to the traditional dialect, traditions and dress of the “kary?kai.”

Once the recruit became proficient with the geisha arts, and passed a final, difficult dance exam, she would be promoted to the second stage of training: minarai. Minarai are relieved from their housekeeping duties. The minarai stage focuses on training in the field. Although minarai attend ozashiki (banquets in which guests are attended by geisha), they do not participate at an advanced level. Their kimono, more elaborate than even a maiko’s, are intended to do the talking for them. Minarai can be hired for parties, but are usually uninvited (yet welcomed) guests at parties that their onee-san (“onee-san” meaning “older sister”, and is the Minarai’s senior) attends. They charge 1/3 hanadai. Minarai generally work closely with a particular tea house (called “minarai-jaya”) learning from the “okaa-san” (proprietor of the house). These techniques are not taught in school, as skills such as conversation and gaming can only be absorbed through practice. This stage lasts only about a month or so.

After a short period of time, the third (and most famous) stage of training began, called maiko. Maiko are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor and follow them around to all their engagements. The onee-san/imouto-san (junior) relationship is extremely important. Since the onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi, her teaching is vital. She will teach her proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, and dancing, the casual talk of conversation, which is also important for a maiko to learn for future invitations to more teahouses and gatherings. The onee-san will even help pick the maiko’s new professional name with kanji or symbols related to her own name. One would suggest that geisha are prone to “flirt,” but it is only their nature to seem demure and innocent. Regional variations exist, as the han’gyoku of Tokyo are known for being sassy and the Kyoto maiko are known for being demure.

After a period as short as six months (in Tokyo) or as long as five years (in Kyoto), the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha, and charges full price for her time. Geisha remain as such until they retire.

Modern geisha

Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi (?? “flower towns”), particularly during their apprenticeship. Many experienced geisha who are successful enough choose to live independently. The elegant, high-culture world that geisha are a part of is called kary?kai (??? “the flower and willow world”).

Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing junior high school or even high school or college, with many women beginning their careers in adulthood. Geisha still study traditional instruments like the shamisen, shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony, literature and poetry. By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, and in dealing with clients.

Kyoto is considered by many to be where the geisha tradition is the strongest today, including Gion Kobu. The geisha in these districts are known as geiko. The Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also well known.

In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today there are far fewer. The exact number is unknown to outsiders, and is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000, mostly in the resort town of Atami. Most common are sightings of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.

A sluggish economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the exclusive nature of the flower and willow world, and the expense of being entertained by geisha have all contributed to the tradition’s decline.

Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (??, ochaya) or at traditional Japanese restaurants (ry?tei). Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn, and is called senk?dai (???, “incense stick fee”) or gyokudai (?? “jewel fee”). In Kyoto the terms “ohana” (???and “hanadai” (??), meaning “flower fees”, are preferred. The customer makes arrangements through the geisha union office (?? kenban), which keeps each geisha’s schedule and makes her appointments both for entertaining and for training.

Geisha and prostitution

There remains some confusion, even within Japan, about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are frequently depicted as expensive prostitutes in Western popular culture. Geisha are entertainers, their purpose being to entertain their customer, be it by reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or engaging in light conversation. Geisha engagements may include flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is uniquely Japanese, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to be. Geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients.

Geisha have sometimes been confused with the traditional high-class courtesans called oiran. Like geisha, oiran wear elaborate hairstyles and white makeup. A simple way to distinguish between the two is that oiran, as prostitutes, tie their obi in the front. Geisha tie their obi in the back in the usual manner. During the Edo period, prostitution was legal and prostitutes such as the oiran were licensed by the government. By contrast, geisha were strictly forbidden from holding a prostitution license, and were officially forbidden to ever have sex with their customers. The licensing arrangement led to the derogatory term ‘double registration’, referring to promiscuous geisha.

During occupied Japan, many Japanese prostitutes marketed themselves as geisha to American GIs. These prostitutes became known as ‘geesha girls’, due to a mis-pronunciation of the word geisha, and carried the image of geisha as prostitutes back to the United States.

Also, geisha working in onsen towns such as Atami are dubbed onsen geisha. Onsen geisha have been given a bad reputation due to the prevalence of prostitutes in such towns who market themselves as ‘geisha’, as well as sordid rumors of dance routines like ‘Shallow River’ (which involves the ‘dancers’ lifting the skirts of their kimono higher and higher). In contrast to these ‘one-night geisha’, the true onsen geisha are in fact competent dancers and musicians.

Personal relationships and danna

Geisha are expected to be single women; those who choose to marry must retire from the profession.

It was traditional in the past for established geisha to take a danna, or patron. A danna was typically a wealthy man, sometimes married, who had the means to support the very large expenses related to a geisha’s traditional training and other costs. This sometimes occurs today as well, but very rarely.

A geisha and her danna may or may not be in love, but intimacy is never viewed as a reward for the danna’s financial support. The traditional conventions and values within such a relationship are very intricate and not well understood, even by many Japanese.

While it is true that a geisha is free to pursue personal relationships with men she meets through her work, such relationships are carefully chosen and unlikely to be casual. A hanamachi tends to be a very tight-knit community and a geisha’s good reputation is not taken lightly.

Geesha girls

Geesha girls are a type of prostitute, mainly active during the period of occupied Japan who almost exclusively serviced American GIs stationed in Japan. The term comes from a mispronunciation of the word geisha. They were also sometimes called panpan girls.

Originally, geesha girls dressed in kimono and imitated the look of actual geisha. Americans were unfamiliar with the culture of Japan, and did not know the difference between prostitutes in costume and actual geisha. The occupying American GIs who, shortly after their arrival in 1945, are said to have congregated on the Ginza and shouted in unison “We want geesha girls!”

Eventually, the term became a general word for any Japanese prostitutes or workers in the mizu shobai, and included bar hostesses and streetwalkers.

Geesha girls are speculated by researchers to be largely responsible for the continuing misconception in the West that geisha are prostitutes.


A geisha’s appearance changes throughout her career, from the girlish, heavily made up maiko, to the more sombre appearance of an older established geisha.


Today, the traditional make-up of the apprentice geisha is one of their most recognizable characteristics, though established geisha generally only wear full white face makeup characteristic of maiko during special performances.

The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. Originally the white base mask was made with lead, but after the discovery that it poisoned the skin and caused terrible skin and back problems for the older geisha towards the end of the Meiji Era, it was replaced with rice powder.

The application of makeup is hard to perfect and is a time-consuming process. Makeup is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying the kimono. First, a wax or oil substance, called bintsuke-abura, is applied to the skin. Next, white powder is mixed with water into a paste and applied with a bamboo brush starting from the neck, up. The white makeup covers the face, neck, and chest, with two or three unwhitened areas (forming a “W” or “V” shape, usually a traditional “W” shape) left on the nape, to accentuate this traditionally erotic area, and a line of bare skin around the hairline, which creates the illusion of a mask.

After the foundation layer is applied, a sponge is patted all over the face, throat, chest, the nape and neck to remove excess moisture and to blend the foundation. Next the eyes and eyebrows are drawn in. Traditionally charcoal was used, but today modern cosmetics are used. The eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black with a thin charcoal; a maiko also applies red around her eyes.

The lips are filled in using a small brush. The color comes in a small stick, which is melted in water. Crystallized sugar is then added to give the lips lustre. Rarely will a geisha color in both lips fully in the Western style, as white creates optical illusions. The lower lip is colored in partially and the upper lip left white for maiko, and newly full-fledged geisha will color in only the top lip fully. Most geisha wear the top lip colored in fully or stylized, and the bottom lip in a curved stripe that does not follow the shape of the lip.

Maiko who are in their first stage of training will sometimes color their teeth black for a short period of time. This practice used to be common among many different classes of women in Japan, but survives only in some districts, or even families.

For the first three years, a maiko wears this heavy makeup almost constantly. During her initiation the maiko is helped with her makeup by either her onee-san or “older sister” (an experienced geisha who is her mentor) or by the okaa-san or “mother” of her geisha house. After this she applies the makeup herself.

After a maiko has been working for three years, she changes her make-up to a more subdued style. The reason for this is that she has now become mature, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty. For formal occasions, the mature geisha will still apply white make-up. For geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during special dances which require her to wear make up for her part.


Geisha always wear kimono. Apprentice geisha wear highly colorful kimono with extravagant obi. Always, the obi is brighter than the kimono she is wearing to give a certain exotic balance. Maiko wear the obi tied in a style called “darari”. Older geisha wear more subdued patterns and styles. The sign of a prosperous okiya is having geisha not wearing a kimono more than once, meaning that those okiyas with higher economic status will have “storehouses” of sorts where kimono are stored and interchanged between geisha.

The color, pattern, and style of kimono is also dependent on the season and the event the geisha is attending. In winter, geisha can be seen wearing a three-quarter length haori lined with hand painted silk over their kimono. Lined kimono are worn during colder seasons, and unlined kimono during the summer. A kimono can take from 2–3 years to complete, due to painting and embroidering.

Geiko wear red or pink nagajuban, or under-kimono. A maiko wears red with white printed patterns. The junior maiko’s collar is predominantly red with white, silver, or gold embroidery. Two to three years into her apprenticeship, the red collar will be entirely embroidered in white (when viewed from the front) to show her seniority. Around age 20, her collar will turn from red to white.

Geisha wear a flat-soled sandal, zori, outdoors, and wear only tabi (white split-toed socks) indoors. In inclement weather geisha wear raised wooden clogs, called geta. Maiko wear a special wooden clog known as okobo.


The hairstyles of geisha have varied through history. In the past, it has been common for women to wear their hair down in some periods, but up in others. During the 17th century, women began putting all their hair up again, and it is during this time that the traditional shimada hairstyle, a type of traditional chignon worn by most established geisha, developed.

There are four major types of the shimada: the taka shimada, a high chignon usually worn by young, single women; the tsubushi shimada, a more flattened chignon generally worn by older women; the uiwata, a chignon that is usually bound up with a piece of colored cotton crepe; and a style that resembles a divided peach, which is worn only by maiko. This is sometimes called “Momoware,” or “Split Peach.” Additional hairstyles: Ofuku, Katsuyama, Yakko-shimada, and sakko. Maiko of Miyagawa-cho and Pontocho will wear an additional 6 hairstyle leading up to the sakko. Some include: Umemodoki, Osidori no Hina, Kikugasane, and Osafune.

These hairstyles are decorated with elaborate haircombs and hairpins (kanzashi). In the seventeenth century and after the Meiji Restoration period, hair-combs were large and conspicuous, generally more ornate for higher-class women. Following the Meiji Restoration and into the modern era, smaller and less conspicuous hair-combs became more popular.

Geisha were trained to sleep with their necks on small supports (takamakura), instead of pillows, so they could keep their hairstyle perfect. To reinforce this habit, their mentors would pour rice around the base of the support. If the geisha’s head rolled off the support while she slept, rice would stick to the pomade in her hair. The geisha would thus have to repeat the tiresome process of having her hair elaborately styled. Without this happening, a geisha will have her hair styled every week or so.

Many modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives, while maiko use their natural hair. However, either one must be regularly tended by highly skilled artisans. Traditional hairstyling is a slowly dying art. One reason for this is that the hairstyle over time, can cause balding on the top of the head.


Katana: in use after the 1400s, the Katana is a curved, single-edged sword traditionally used by the samurai. Pronounced [kah-tah-nah], the word has been adopted as a loan word by the English language; as Japanese does not have separate plural and singular forms, both “katanas” and “katana” are considered acceptable plural forms in English.

The katana was typically paired with the wakizashi or shoto, a similarly made but tiny sword, both worn by the members of the warrior class. It could also be worn with the tanto, an even smaller similarly shaped blade. The two weapons together were called the daisho, and represented the social power and personal honor of the samurai. The long blade was used for open combat, while the shorter blade was considered a side arm, more suited for stabbing, close quarters combat, decapitating beaten opponents when taking heads on the battlefield, and seppuku, a form of ritual suicide.

Japanese swords are fairly common today, antique and even modern forged swords can still be found and purchased. Modern nihont? or Japanese-made swords are only made by a few hundred smiths in Japan today at contests hosted by the All Japan Swordsmiths Association.


The word katana was used in ancient Japan and is still used today, whereas the word nihont? originated in China, in the poem ????(“The Song of Nihonto”) by the Song Dynasty poet Ouyang Xiu. The word nihonto became more common in Japan in the late Tokugawa shogunate. Due to importation of Western swords and culture, the word nihonto (literally “the sword of Japan”) was adopted as an act of nationalism.

History of the Japanese sword

Early history

Before 987, examples of Japanese swords are straight chokuto or j?kot? and others with unusual shapes. In the Heian period (8th to 11th centuries) sword-making developed through techniques brought over from China through trade in the early 10th century during the Tang Dynasty and through Siberia and Hokkaido, territory of the Ainu people. The Ainu used and these influenced the katana, which was held with two hands and designed for cutting, rather than stabbing. According to legend, the Japanese sword was invented by a smith named Amakuni (??, c.700 AD), along with the folded steel process. In reality the folded steel process and single edge swords had been brought over from China through trade in the early 10th century during the Tang Dynasty. Swords forged between 987 and 1597 are called (lit., “old swords”); these are considered the pinnacle of Japanese swordcraft. Early models had uneven curves with the deepest part of the curve at the hilt. As eras changed the center of the curve tended to move up the blade.

The katana as we know it today with its deep, graceful curve has its origin in shinogi-zukuri (single-edged blade with ridgeline) tachi which were developed sometime around the middle of the Heian period to service the need of the growing military class. Its shape reflects the changing form of warfare in Japan. Cavalry were now the predominant fighting unit and the older straight chokuto were particularly unsuitable for fighting from horseback. The curved sword is a far more efficient weapon when wielded by a warrior on horseback where the curve of the blade adds considerably to the downward force of a cutting action.

The Chokuto is a sword which is generally larger than a katana, and is worn suspended with the cutting edge down. This was the standard form of carrying the sword for centuries, and would eventually be displaced by the katana style where the blade was worn thrust through the belt, edge up. The tachi was worn slung across the left hip. The signature on the nakago of the blade was inscribed in such a way that it would always be on the outside of the sword when worn. This characteristic is important in recognizing the development, function and different styles of wearing swords from this time onwards.

When worn with full armor, the tachi would be accompanied by a shorter blade in the form known as koshigatana (“waist sword”); a type of short sword with no hand-guard (tsuba) and where the hilt and scabbard meet to form the style of mounting called an aikuchi (“meeting mouth”). Daggers (tanto), were also carried for close combat fighting as well as carried generally for personal protection.

The Mongol invasions of Japan in the thirteenth century spurred further evolution of the Japanese sword. Often forced to abandon traditional mounted archery for hand-to-hand combat, many samurai found that their swords were too delicate and prone to damage when used against the thick leather armor of the invaders. In response, Japanese swordsmiths started to adopt thinner and simpler temper lines. Certain Japanese swordsmiths of this period began to make blades with thicker backs and bigger points as a response to the Mongol threat.

By the fifteenth century (the Sengoku Jidai) civil war erupted, and the vast need for swords together with the ferocity of the fighting caused the highly artistic techniques of the Kamakura period (known as the “Golden Age of Swordmaking”) to be abandoned in favor of more utilitarian and disposable weapons. The export of katana reached its height during the Muromachi period when at least 200,000 katana were shipped to Ming Dynasty China in official trade in an attempt to soak up the production of Japanese weapons and make it harder for pirates in the area to arm.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, samurai who increasingly found a need for a sword for use in closer quarters along with increasing use of foot-soldiers armed with spears lead to the creation of the uchigatana, in both one-handed and two-handed forms. As the Sengoku civil wars progressed, the uchigatana evolved into the modern katana, and replaced the tachi as the primary weapon of the samurai, especially when not wearing armor. Many longer tachi were shortened in the 15th-17th centuries to meet the demand for katana.

The craft decayed as time progressed and firearms were introduced as a decisive force on the battlefield. At the end of the Muromachi era, the Tokugawa shoguns issued regulations controlling who could own and carry swords, and effectively standardized the description of a katana.

New swords

In times of peace, swordsmiths returned to the making of refined and artistic blades, and the beginning of the Momoyama period saw the return of high quality creations. As the techniques of the ancient smiths had been lost during the previous period of war, these swords were called , literally “new swords.” These are considered inferior to most koto, and generally coincide with degradation in manufacturing skills. As the Edo period progressed, blade quality declined, though ornamentation was refined. The addition of engravings known as horimono was originally for religious reasons, and these were simple and tasteful. In the more complex work found on many shinto, form no longer strictly followed function.

Under the isolationist Tokugawa shogunate, swordmaking declined along with the use of firearms. The master swordsmith Suishinshi Masahide (c.1750–1825); published opinions that the arts and techniques of the shinto swords were inferior to the koto blades, and that research should be made by all swordsmiths to rediscover the lost techniques. Masahide traveled the land teaching what he knew to all who would listen, and swordsmiths rallied to his cause and ushered in a second renaissance in Japanese sword smithing. With the discarding of the shinto style, and the re-introduction of old and rediscovered techniques, swords made in the koto style between 1761 and 1876 are , “new revival swords” or literally “new-new swords.” These are considered superior to most shinto, but inferior to true koto.

The arrival of Matthew Perry in 1853 and the subsequent Convention of Kanagawa forcibly reintroduced Japan to the outside world; the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration soon followed. The Haitorei edict in 1876 all but banned carrying swords and guns on streets. Overnight, the market for swords died, many swordsmiths were left without a trade to pursue, and valuable skills were lost. The katana remained in use in some occupations such as the police force. At the same time, kendo was incorporated into police training so that police officers would have at least the training necessary to properly use one.

In time, the need to arm soldiers with swords was perceived again and over the decades at the beginning of the 20th century swordsmiths again found work. These swords, derisively called gunto, were often oil tempered or simply stamped out of steel and given a serial number rather than a chiseled signature. These often look like Western cavalry sabers rather than katana, although most are just like katana, with many mass-produced and in general slightly shorter than blades of the shinto and shinshinto periods.

Military swords hand made in the traditional way are often termed as gendaito. The craft of making swords was kept alive through the efforts of a few individuals, notably Gassan Sadakazu (????, 1836–1918) and Gassan Sadakatsu (????, 1869–1943), who were employed as Imperial artisans. These smiths produced fine works that stand with the best of the older blades for the Emperor and other high ranking officials. The students of Sadakatsu went on to be designated Intangible Cultural Assets, “Living National Treasures,” as they embodied knowledge that was considered to be fundamentally important to the Japanese identity. In 1934 the Japanese government issued a military specification for the shin gunto (new army sword), the first version of which was the Type 94 Katana, and many machine- and handcrafted swords used in World War II conformed to this and later shin gunto specifications.

Recent history and modern use

Under the United States occupation at the end of World War II all armed forces in occupied Japan were disbanded and production of katana with edges was banned except under police or government permit. The ban was overturned through a personal appeal by Dr. Junji Honma. During a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur, Dr. Honma produced blades from the various periods of Japanese history and MacArthur was able to identify very quickly what blades held artistic merit and which could be considered purely weapons. As a result of this meeting, the ban was amended so that gunto weapons would be destroyed while swords of artistic merit could be owned and preserved. Even so, many katana were sold to American soldiers at a bargain price; as of 1958 there were more Japanese swords in America than in Japan. The vast majority of these one million or more swords were gunto, but there were still a sizable number of older swords.

Swordsmiths had been increasingly turning to producing civilian goods after the Edo period but this disarmament and subsequent regulations almost put an end to the production of katana. A few smiths did continue their trade, and Dr. Honma went on to be a founding figure of the , who made it their mission to preserve the old techniques and blades. With the efforts of other like-minded individuals, the katana avoided disappearing and many swordsmiths have continued the work begun by Masahide, re-discovering old swordmaking techniques in the process.

Due to their popularity in modern media, display-only “katana” (and Japanese blades in general) have become widespread in the sword marketplace. Ranging from small letter openers to scale replica “wall hangers”, these items are commonly made from stainless steel (which makes them either brittle or lousy at holding an edge). There are accounts of good quality stainless steel katana, however, these are rare at best and have either a blunt or very crude edge. Some replica katana have been used in modern-day armed robberies. As a part of marketing, modern a-historic blade styles and material properties are often stated as traditional and genuine, promulgating disinformation.

In Japan, genuine edged hand-made Japanese swords, whether antique or modern, are classified as art objects (and not weapons) and must have accompanying certification in order to be legally owned.

As a final note, it should be noted that some companies and independent smiths outside of Japan produce katana as well, with varying levels of quality.

Classification of Japanese swords

What generally differentiates the different swords is their length. Japanese swords are measured in units of shaku (one shaku is approximately equivalent to 30 cm or one foot). A blade shorter than one shaku is considered a tanto (knife). A blade longer than one shaku but less than two is considered a shoto (short sword). The wakizashi and kodachi are in this category.

A blade longer than two shaku is considered a daito, or long sword. Before 1500 most swords were usually worn suspended from cords on a belt, edge-down. This style is called jindachi-zukuri, and daito worn in this fashion are called tachi (average blade length of 75-80 cm). From 1600 to 1867, more swords were worn through an obi (sash), paired with a smaller blade; both worn edge-up. This style is called buke-zukuri, and all daito worn in this fashion are katana, averaging 70-74 cm (2 shaku 3 sun to 2 shaku 4 sun 5 bu) in blade length. However, katana of longer lengths also existed, including lengths up to 78 cm (2 shaku 5 sun 5 bu). The weight of a Katana rarely exceed 1 kg without the saya.

A chiisakatana is simply a shorter katana. It is longer than the wakizashi, lying between one and two shaku in length. The most common reference to a chiisakatana is a shorter katana that does not have a companion blade. They were most commonly made in the buke-zukuri mounting.

Abnormally long blades (longer than 3 shaku), usually carried across the back, are called odachi or nodachi. The word odachi is also sometimes used as a synonym for katana.

Here is a list of length for different types of sword:

  • Jin taichi: 84 cm and over
  • Katana, Tachi: 71 to 76 cm
  • Chisa katana: 60 to 66 cm
  • Wakizashi: 55 to 58 cm
  • Tanto, Aikuchi: 28 to 41 cm
  • Yoroi toshi: 23 to 30 cm
  • Kwaiken: 8 to 15 cm
  • Daikatana: 80 to 90 cm

Since 1867, restrictions and/or the deconstruction of the samurai class meant that most blades have been worn jindachi-zukuri style, like Western navy officers. Recently (since 1953) there has been a resurgence in the buke-zukuri style, permitted only for demonstration purposes. Swords designed specifically to be tachi are generally koto rather than shinto, so they are generally better manufactured and more elaborately decorated. However, these are still katana if worn in modern buke-zukuri style.

Most old Japanese swords can be traced back to one of five provinces, each of which had its own school, traditions and “trademarks” (e.g., the swords from Mino province were “from the start famous for their sharpness”). These schools are known as Gokaden (The Five Traditions). These traditions and provinces are as follows:

  • Sosho School, known for itame hada and midareba hamon in nie deki.
  • Yamato School, known for masame hada and suguha hamon in nie deki.
  • Bizen School, known for mokume hada and midareba hamon in nioi deki.
  • Yamashiro School, known for mokume hada and suguha hamon in nei deki.
  • Mino School, known for hard mokume hada and midareba mixed with togari-ba.

In the Koto era there were several other schools that did not fit within the Gokaden or were known to mix elements of each Gokaden, and they were called wakimono (small school). There were 19 commonly referenced wakimono.


Katana and wakizashi were often forged with different profiles, different blade thicknesses, and varying amounts of grind. Wakizashi were not simply scaled-down katana; they were often forged in hira-zukuri or other such forms which were very rare on katana.

The daisho was not always forged together. If a samurai was able to afford a daisho, it was often composed of whichever two swords could be conveniently acquired, sometimes by different smiths and in different styles. Even when a daisho contained a pair of blades by the same smith, they were not always forged as a pair or mounted as one. Daisho made as a pair, mounted as a pair, and owned/worn as a pair, are therefore uncommon and considered highly valuable, especially if they still retain their original mountings (as opposed to later mountings, even if the later mounts are made as a pair).


The forging of a Japanese blade typically took hours, days, or even weeks and was considered a sacred art. As with many complex endeavors, rather than a single craftsman, several artists were involved. There was a smith to forge the rough shape, often a second smith (apprentice) to fold the metal, a specialist polisher (called a togi) as well as the various artisans that made the koshirae (the various fittings used to decorate the finished blade and saya (sheath) including the tsuka (hilt), fuchi (collar), kashira (pommel), and tsuba (hand guard).

The Japanese sword blade is formed from a combination of three different steels: a harder outer jacket steel wrapped around a relatively softer, inner core of steel. This creates a blade which has a unique hard, highly razor sharp cutting edge with an inner core which is resilient and able to absorb shocks in a way which reduces the possibility of the blade breaking or bending when used in combat. The hadagane, for the outer skin of the blade, is produced by heating a block of high quality raw steel, which is then hammered out into a bar, and the flexible back portion. This is then cooled and broken up into smaller blocks which are checked for further impurities and then reassembled and re-forged. During this process the billet of steel is heated and hammered, split and folded back upon itself many times and re-welded to create a complex structure of many thousands of layers. Each different steel is folded a differing number of times to provide the necessary strength and flexibility to the different steels. The precise way in which the steel is folded, hammered and re-welded determines the distinctive grain pattern of the blade, the jihada, (also called jigane when referring to the actual surface of the steel blade) a feature which is indicative of the period, place of manufacture and actual maker of the blade. The shingane (for the inner core of the blade) is of a relatively softer steel with a lower carbon content than the hadagane. For this, the block is again hammered, folded and welded in a similar fashion to the hadagane, but with fewer folds. At this point, the hadagane block is once again heated, hammered out and folded into a ‘U’ shape, into which the shingane is inserted to a point just short of the tip. The new composite steel billet is then heated and hammered out ensuring that no air or dirt is trapped between the two layers of steel. The bar increases in length during this process until it approximates the final size and shape of the finished sword blade. A triangular section is cut off from the tip of the bar and shaped to create what will be the kissaki. At this point in the process, the blank for the blade is of rectangular section. This rough shape is referred to as a sunobe.

The sunobe is again heated, section by section and hammered to create a shape which has many of the recognizable characteristics of the finished blade. These are a thick back (mune), a thinner edge (ha), a curved tip (kissaki), notches on the edge (hamachi) and back (munemachi) which separate the blade from the tang (nakago). Details such as the ridge line (shinogi) another distinctive characteristic of the Japanese sword are added at this stage of the process. The smith’s skill at this point comes in to play as the hammering process causes the blade to naturally curve in an erratic way, the thicker back tending to curve towards the thinner edge, and he must skillfully control the shape to give it the required upward curvature. The sunobe is finished by a process of filing and scraping which leaves all the physical characteristics and shapes of the blade recognizable. The surface of the blade is left in a relatively rough state, ready for the hardening processes. The sunobe is then covered all over with a clay mixture which is applied more thickly along the back and sides of the blade than along the edge. The blade is left to dry while the smith prepares the forge for the final heat treatment of the blade, the yaki-ire, the hardening of the cutting edge. This process takes place in a darkened smithy, traditionally at night, in order that the smith can judge by eye the color and therefore the temperature of the sword as it is repeatedly passed through the glowing charcoal. When the time is deemed right (traditionally the blade should be the color of the moon in February and August which are the two months that appear most commonly on dated inscriptions on the nakago of the Japanese sword), the blade is plunged edge down and point forward into a tank of water. The precise time taken to heat the sword, the temperature of the blade and of the water into which it is plunged are all individual to each smith and they have generally been closely guarded secrets. Legend tells of a particular smith who cut off his apprentice’s hand for testing the temperature of the water he used for the hardening process. In the different schools of swordmakers there are many subtle variations in the materials used in the various processes and techniques outlined above, specifically in the form of clay applied to the blade prior to the yaki-ire, but all follow the same general procedures. The application of the clay in different thicknesses to the blade allows the steel to cool more quickly along the thinner coated edge when plunged into the tank of water and thereby develop into the harder form of steel called martensite, which can be ground to razor-like sharpness. The thickly coated back cools more slowly retaining the pearlite steel characteristics of relative softness and flexibility. The precise way in which the clay is applied, and partially scraped off at the edge, is a determining factor in the formation of the shape and features of the crystalline structure known as the hamon. This distinctive tempering line found near the edge of the Japanese blade is one of the main characteristics to be assessed when examining a blade.

The martensitic steel which forms from the edge of the blade to the hamon is in effect the transition line between these two different forms of steel, and is where most of the shapes, colors and beauty in the steel of the Japanese sword are to be found. The variations in the form and structure of the hamon are all indicative of the period, smith, school or place of manufacture of the sword. As well as the aesthetic qualities of the hamon, there are, perhaps not unsurprisingly, real practical functions. The hardened edge is where most of any potential damage to the blade will occur in battle. This hardened edge is capable of being reground and sharpened many times, although the process will alter the shape of the blade. Altering the shape will allow more resistance when fighting in hand to hand combat.


Almost all blades are decorated, although not all blades are decorated on the visible part of the blade. Once the blade is cool, and the mud is scraped off, the blade may have designs or grooves (hi or bo-hi) cut into it. One of the most important markings on the sword is performed here: the file markings. These are cut into the nakago or the hilt-section of the blade, where they will be covered by the tsuka later. The nakago is never supposed to be cleaned: doing this can reduce the value of the sword in half or more. The purpose is to show how well the blade steel ages.

Some other marks on the blade are aesthetic: dedications written in kanji as well as engravings called horimono depicting gods, dragons, or other acceptable beings. Some are more practical. The presence of a groove (the most basic type is called a hi) reduces the weight of the sword yet keeps its structural integrity and strength using the engineering principles of the I-beam.

In Japanese, the scabbard for a katana is referred to as a saya, and the hand guard piece, often intricately designed as an individual work of art especially in later years of the Edo period was called the tsuba. Other aspects of the mountings (koshirae), such as the menuki (decorative grip swells), habaki (blade collar and scabbard wedge), fuchi and kashira (handle collar and cap), kozuka (small utility knife handle), kogai (decorative skewer-like implement), saya lacquer, and tsuka-ito (professional handle wrap, also named emaki), received similar levels of artistry.


The tachi became the primary weapon on the battlefield during the Kamakura period, used by cavalry mounted samurai. The sword was mostly considered as a secondary weapon until then, used in the battlefield only after the bow and spear were no longer feasible. During the Edo period samurai went about on foot unarmored, and with much less combat being fought on horseback in open battlefields the need for an effective close quarter weapon resulted in samurai being armed with daisho.

Testing of swords, called tameshigiri, was practiced on a variety of materials (often the bodies of executed criminals) to test the sword’s sharpness and practice cutting technique.

Kenjutsu is the Japanese martial art of using the katana in combat. The katana was primarily a cutting weapon, or more specifically, a slicing one. However, the katana’s moderate curve allows for effective thrusting as well. The hilt of the katana was held with two hands, though a fair amount of one-handed techniques exist. The placement of the right hand was dictated by both the length of the tsuka and the length of the wielder’s arm. Two other martial arts were developed specifically for training to draw the sword and attack in one motion. They are battojutsu and iaijutsu, which are superficially similar, but do generally differ in training theory and methods.

For cutting, there was a specific technique called “ten-uchi.” Ten-uchi refers to an organized motion made by arms and wrist, during a descending strike. As the sword is swung downwards, the elbow joint drastically extends at the last instant, popping the sword into place. This motion causes the swordsman’s grip to twist slightly and if done correctly, is said to feel like wringing a towel (Thomas Hooper-sensei reference). This motion itself caused the katana’s blade to impact its target with sharp force, and is used to break initial resistance. From there, fluidly continuing along the motion wrought by ten-uchi, the arms would follow through with the stroke, dragging the sword through its target. Because the katana slices rather than chops, it is this “dragging” which allows it to do maximum damage, and is thusly incorporated into the cutting technique. At full speed, the swing will appear to be full stroke, the katana passing through the targeted object. The segments of the swing are hardly visible, if at all. Assuming that the target is, for example, a human torso, ten-uchi will break the initial resistance supplied by shoulder muscles and the clavicle. The follow through would continue the slicing motion, through whatever else it would encounter, until the blade inherently exited the body, due a combination of the motion and its curved shape.

Nearly all styles of kenjutsu share the same five basic guard postures. They are as follows; chudan-no-kamae (middle posture), jodan-no-kamae (high posture), gedan-no-kamae (low posture), hasso-no-kamae (eight-sided posture), and waki-gamae (side posture).

The katana’s razor-edge was so hard that upon hitting an equally hard or harder object, such as another sword’s edge, chipping became a definite risk. As such, blocking an oncoming blow blade-to-blade was generally avoided. In fact, evasive body maneuvers were preferred over blade contact by most, but, if such was not possible, the flat or the back of the blade was used for defense in many styles, rather than the precious edge. A popular method for defeating descending slashes was to simply beat the sword aside. In some instances, an “umbrella block”, positioning the blade overhead, diagonally (point towards the ground, pommel towards the sky), would create an effective shield against a descending strike. If the angle of the block was drastic enough, the curve of the katana’s spine would cause the attacker’s blade to slide along its counter and off to the side.


Katana were carried in several different ways, varying throughout Japanese history. The style most commonly seen in “samurai” movies is called buke-zukuri, with the katana (and wakizashi, if also present) carried edge up, with the saya (sheath) thrust through the obi (sash).

The katana would be carried in a saya (sheath) and tucked into the samurai’s belt. Originally, they would carry the sword with the blade turned down. This was a more comfortable way for the armored samurai to carry his very long sword. The bulk of the samurai armor made it difficult to draw the sword from any other place on his body. When unarmored, samurai would carry their sword with the blade facing up. This made it possible to draw the sword and strike in one quick motion. In order to draw the sword, the samurai would turn the saya (sheath) downward ninety degrees and pull it out of his obi (sash) just a bit with his left hand, then gripping the tsuka (hilt) with his right hand he would slide it out while sliding the saya (sheath) back to its original position.


Kodachi: literally translating into “small or short tachi (sword)”, is a Japanese sword that is too short to be considered a long sword but too long to be a dagger. Because of its size, it could be drawn and swung extremely quickly. Thus, it could be used as something of a shield, while using a form of hand to hand combat to attack. Since this sword was shorter than two shaku (about two feet) in length, it did not exceed the blade length limits of non-samurai during the Edo period and could be worn by merchants.

A kodachi’s length is similar to that of the wakizashi, and though the blades differ greatly in construction, the kodachi and the wakizashi are similar enough in size and technique that the terms are sometimes misused interchangeably. While the kodachi was a set length, the wakizashi was forged to complement the height of its wielder or the length of the katana it was paired with, and thus varied. The kodachi also features greater curvature than a wakizashi, and typically has a longer handle.

The prefix “ko-” means “short,” and can be attached to any of the names of specific types of swords to indicate something shorter than “normal.” As the prefix “O-” can mean “great” or “long,” it follows that the opposite end of this length spectrum of the tachi is the odachi.



The ninjato, also known as or , is the most common name for the reputed sword a ninja would have carried. According to the book “Ninjutsu History and Tradition” by Masaaki Hatsumi, Soke (Headmaster) of the Bujinkan Dojo system, these swords came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Often, however, they were much shorter than the traditional daito katana used by the samurai of feudal Japan.

The typical ninjato carried by a ninja would most likely have been a wakizashi or cut-down katana, perhaps even an aikuchi or most likely a chokuto fitted with a katana-length handle and placed in a katana-length saya (scabbard). This may have been used to deceive one’s opponents into miscalculating how quickly it could be drawn, allowing one to use a battoujutsu strike faster than expected. It also disguises the weapon (that would easily identify them as a ninja) as a common sword. The extra space in the saya may also be used to store or hide other equipment or goods. Of course, a shorter blade forces the fighter to get closer to his opponent, which may be a disadvantage or an advantage when facing an opponent armed with full length swords, or in an iai duel when, to enhance chances of striking first, you’d draw as soon as your blade’s length allowed, and make full use of its slashing ability, while a shorter blade tends to be used in more of a stabbing style. However, most authorities believe the shorter blade to be an advantage in terms of concealment- the Ninja would have avoided conflict to begin with, and spend a lot of time hiding in small places- and more importantly better suited to indoor combat; If the spy was revealed, the assassin discovered, and it came to a fight, then a shorter, straighter blade would serve the Ninja better in close quarters. Corridors, for example, would seriously hamper a Samurai using a Katana, or several using wakizashi, to say nothing of ceiling clearance on a down stroke/slash.

Modern ninjato are often straight with a square tsuba (hand guard), but this is not historically accurate. According to the same book by Masaaki Hatsumi, the ninja ken was straight, but only in contrast to the average sword of the period which were much more curved. The ninja ken still had a slight curve to the sword. Hatsumi says that they were often straight bars of low-quality steel with an edge ground on to them. According to other sources, some of the swords being forged during the Tokugawa era also had blades with less curvature than others. This was also the period during which the mythology of the ninja grew as they were employed by the Shogun as secret police.

The Bujinkan dojo currently contains one school, the Togakure ryu, which teaches the use of the ninja ken. Typically, this is a wakizashi-length sword (or slightly longer) that has been outfitted with katana sized koshirae (fittings). The idea behind a shorter sword is that it is much easier to fight in close quarters with a shorter sword, as would be necessary for a ninja acting as an intelligence-gatherer.





Odachi, meaning “Great/Sacred sword”, was a type of long Japanese sword. The term nodachi, or “field sword”, which refers to a different type of sword, is often mistakenly used in place of odachi. It is historically known as otachi.

The character for o (大) means “big” or “great”. The characters for da (太) and chi (刀) are the same as tachi (太刀), the older style of sword/mounts that predate the katana. The chi is also the same character as katana (刀) and the ta in nihontō (日本刀 “Japanese sword”), originally from the Chinese character for a knife, dao.

To qualify as an odachi, the sword in question must have a blade length over 3 feet (91.44 cm). Regardless of size, most odachi have religious inscriptions on the tang. However, as with most terms in Japanese sword arts, there is no exact definition of the size of an odachi.


The purpose of the odachi can be categorized as follows:

  • As an offering to a shrine or gods. Some odachi were dedicated with prayer to win a war, others were placed in shrines as legendary swords from mythology.
  • As a weapon. From explanations in old texts, such as Heike-monogatari, Taihei-ki tell us that odachi were used by soldiers during battles.
  • As a symbol for an army. Some odachi are too long for practical use. They cannot be used in a battle but it is said that they could have been used as a symbol of an army, such as flags and spears.
  • As a trend during a certain period. Some swords were also used for ceremonies.
  • To show the swordsmith’s skill.

Most odachi were used for the first two reasons.


odachi are difficult to produce because their length makes heat treatment in a traditional way more complicated: The longer a blade is, the more difficult (or expensive) it is to heat the whole blade to a homogenous temperature, both for annealing and to reach the hardening temperature. The quenching process then needs a bigger quenching medium because uneven quenching might lead to warping the blade.

The method of polishing is also different. Because of their size, odachi are usually hung from the ceiling or placed in a stationary position to be polished, unlike normal swords which are moved over polishing stones.

Acquiring an odachi would be hard as they would almost certainly have to be custom-made. As such, a local government or religious organization would have to fund odachi production, as there is no reason for its creation otherwise.

They are still made on occasion. One such sword, made in 1971, (now in a private collection in Texas) was made at the request of a dying man. Its purpose was to please the gods and enlist their protection of his family after his impending death.

Method of use

Odachi that were used as weapons were too long for samurai to carry on their waists like normal swords. There were two methods in which they could be carried.

  • One method was to carry it on one’s back. However, this was seen impractical as it was impossible for the wielder to draw it quickly.
  • The other method was simply to carry the odachi by hand. The trend during the Muromachi era was for the samurai carrying the odachi to have a follower to help him draw it.

odachi swordplay styles focused on downward cuts and different wields than those of normal swords.

The odachi’s importance died off after the Osaka-Natsuno-Jin war of 1615 (the final battle between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyori). Since then it has been used more as a ceremonial piece.

Reasons for loss of popularity

  • Battles in fields did not occur after 1615.
  • The Bakufu government set a law which prohibited holding swords above a set length (in Genna 3 (1617), Kan’ei 3 (1626) and Shoho 2 (1645)).

After the law was put into practice, odachi were cut down to the shorter legal size. This is one of the reasons why odachi are so rare. odachi were no longer of practical use, but were still made as offerings to Shinto shrines. This became their main purpose. Due to the amount of skill required to make one it was considered that their awesome appearance was suitable for praying to the gods.


Samurai; knights of feudal Japan; retainers of the daimyo. This aristocratic warrior class arose during the 12th-century wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans and was consolidated in the Tokugawa period. Samurai were privileged to wear two swords, and at one time had the right to cut down any commoner who offended them. They cultivated the martial virtues, indifference to pain or death, and unfailing loyalty to their overlords (see bushido). Samurai were the dominant group in Japan, and the masterless samurai, the ronin, were a serious social problem. Under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), the samurai were removed from direct control of the villages, moved into the domain castle towns, and given government stipends. They were encouraged to take up bureaucratic posts. As a result, they lost a measure of their earlier martial skill. Dissatisfied samurai from the Choshu and Satsuma domains of W Japan were largely responsible for overthrowing the shogun in 1867. When feudalism was abolished after the Meiji restoration, some former samurai also took part in the Satsuma revolt under Takamori Saigo in 1877. As statesmen, soldiers, and businessmen, former samurai took the lead in building modern Japan.



It is believed warriors and foot-soldiers in the sixth century may have formed a proto-samurai. Following a disastrous military engagement with Tang China and Silla, Japan underwent widespread reforms. One of the most important was that of the Taika Reform, issued by Prince Naka no ?e (Emperor Tenji) in 646 AD. This edict introduced Chinese cultural practices and administrative techniques throughout the Japanese aristocracy and bureaucracy. As part of the Y?r? Code, and the later Taih? Code, of 702 AD, the population was required to report regularly for census, which was used as a precursor for national conscription. With an understanding of how the population was distributed, Emperor Mommu introduced the law whereby 1 in 3–4 adult males were drafted into the national military. These soldiers were required to supply their own weapons, and in return were exempted from duties and taxes. This was one of the first attempts by the Imperial government to form an organized army modelled after the Chinese system. It was called gundan-sei(???) by later historians and is believed to have been short lived.

The Taih? Code classified Imperial bureaucrats into 12 ranks, each divided into two sub-ranks, 1st rank being the highest adviser to the emperor. Those of 6th rank and below were referred to as “samurai” and dealt with day-to-day affairs. Although these “samurai” were civilian public servants, the name is believed to have derived from this term. Military men, however, would not be referred to as “samurai” for many more centuries.

In the early Heian period, the late 8th and early 9th centuries, Emperor Kammu (????) sought to consolidate and expand his rule in northern Honsh?, but the armies he sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi people lacked motivation and discipline, and were unable to prevail. Emperor Kammu introduced the title of Seiitaishogun (?????) or shogun, and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery (ky?d?, ??), these clan warriors became the emperor’s preferred tool for putting down rebellions. Although these warriors may have been educated, at this time (7th to 9th century) the Imperial court officials considered them to be little more than barbarians.

Ultimately, Emperor Kammu disbanded his army, and from this time, the emperor’s power gradually declined . While the emperor was still the ruler, powerful clans around Kyoto (??) assumed positions as ministers, and their relatives bought positions as magistrates. To amass wealth and repay their debts, magistrates often imposed heavy taxes, resulting in many farmers becoming landless.

As the threat of robbery rose, the clans began recruiting these exiles in the Kanto plains. Because of their intense training in the martial arts, they proved to be effective guards. Small numbers would accompany tax collectors and, merely by their presence, deter thieves and bandits from attacking. They were saburai, armed retainers, yet their advantage of being the sole armed party quickly became apparent.

Through protective agreements and political marriages, they accumulated political power, eventually surpassing the traditional aristocracy.

Some clans were originally formed by farmers who had taken up arms to protect themselves from the imperial magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes. These clans formed alliances to protect themselves against more powerful clans, and by the mid-Heian period they had adopted characteristic Japanese armour and weapons, and laid the foundations of Bushido, their ethical code. However, Bushido was never a code of ethics per se, and only in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century did the term gain popular currency.

For most of samurai history, warriors described themselves as followers of “kyuba no michi,” or the “way of the bow and horse,” and had no overlying code of ethics to which they were beholden. To be sure, samurai were expected to comport themselves in a certain manner, but any specific points of behavior would have been limited to family or clan teachings.

Before the 14th century, samurai were generally illiterate, rusticated brutes; they did, however, aspire to the more cultured abilities of the nobility. Few achieved this until later periods, however. Examples such as Taira Tadanori (a samurai who appears in the Heike Monogatari or “Tale of the Heike”) demonstrate that some warriors did respect the arts and aspire to become skilled in them; Tadanori is famous for his skill with the pen, indicating that it was rare for a samurai to possess such skill as to be recognized for it.

Beginning around the fourteenth century, samurai were expected to be cultured and literate, and the ancient saying “Bun Bu Ryo Do” (lit. literary arts, military arts, both ways) or “The pen and the sword in accord,” was an ideal to which many aspired. However, the number of men who actually achieved the ideal and lived their lives by it was low. Few warriors had the time or inclination to dedicate their already difficult lives to such pursuits.

An early term for warrior, “uruwashii”, was written with a kanji that combined the characters for literary study (“bun” ?) and military arts (“bu” ?), and is mentioned in the Heike Monogatari (late 12th century). The Heike Monogatari makes reference to the educated poet-swordsman ideal in its mention of Taira no Tadanori’s death:

“Friends and foes alike wet their sleeves with tears and said, ‘What a pity! Tadanori was a great general, pre-eminent in the arts of both sword and poetry.’ ”

According to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai: “The warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. With the Heike Monogatari, the image of the Japanese warrior in literature came to its full maturity.” Wilson then translates the writings of several warriors who mention the Heike Monogatari as an example for their men to follow.

It is necessary to remember, however, that the Heike warriors are men fictionalized by a fourteenth century dramatist, and the tales about such warriors had been modified for centuries before the Tale of the Heike was actually written down.

Thus, while we can, if careful, see some of how warriors behaved in literary sources, the actual behavior of early samurai is difficult to glean from literature alone.


Kamakura Bakufu and the rise of Samurai

Originally the emperor and nobility employed these warriors. In time, they amassed enough manpower, resources and political backing in the form of alliances with one another, to establish the first samurai-dominated government.

As the power of these regional clans grew, their chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor, and a lesser member of either the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or Taira clans.

Though originally sent to provincial areas for a fixed four-year term as a magistrate, the toryo declined to return to the capital when their terms ended, and their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian period.

Samurai fought at the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185. Because of their rising military and economic power, the warriors ultimately became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the H?gen in the late Heian period consolidated their power, and finally pitted the rival Minamoto and Taira clans against each other in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160.

The winner, Taira no Kiyomori, became an imperial advisor, and was the first warrior to attain such a position. He eventually seized control of the central government, establishing the first samurai-dominated government and relegating the emperor to figurehead status.

However, the Taira clan was still very conservative when compared to its eventual successor, the Minamoto, and instead of expanding or strengthening its military might, the Taira clan had its women marry emperors and exercise control through the emperor.

The Taira and the Minamoto clashed again in 1180, beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy. In 1190, he visited Kyoto and in 1192, became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate, or Kamakura Bakufu. Instead of ruling from Kyoto, he set up the Shogunate in Kamakura, near his base of power. “Bakufu” means “tent government,” taken from the encampments the soldiers would live in, in accordance with the Bakufu’s status as a military government.

Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility, or “buke”, who were only nominally under the court aristocracy. When the samurai began to adopt aristocratic pastimes like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats in turn began to adopt samurai customs. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the Shogun and the samurai.


Ashikaga Shogunate and the Feudal Period

Various samurai clans struggled for power during the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates.

Zen Buddhism spread among the samurai in the 13th century and helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and killing, but among the general populace, Pure Land Buddhism was favored.

In 1274, the Yuan Dynasty of the Mongol Empire sent a force of some 40,000 men and 900 ships to invade Japan in northern Ky?sh?. Japan mustered a mere 10,000 samurai to meet this threat. The invading army was harassed by major thunderstorms throughout the invasion, which aided the defenders by inflicting heavy casualties. The Yuan army was eventually recalled and the invasion called off. The Mongol invaders used small bombs, which was likely the first appearance of bombs and gunpowder in Japan.

The Japanese defenders recognized the possibility of a renewed invasion, and began construction of a great, stone barrier around Hakata Bay in 1276. Completed in 1277, this wall stretched for 20 kilometers around the border of the bay. This would later serve as a strong defensive point against the Mongols. The Mongols attempted to settle matters in a diplomatic way from 1275 to 1279, but every envoy sent to Japan was executed. This set the stage for one of the most famous engagements in Japanese history.

In 1281, a Yuan army of 140,000 men with 4,400 ships was mustered for another invasion of Japan. Northern Ky?sh? was defended by a Japanese army of 40,000 men. The Mongol army was still on its ships preparing for the landing operation when a typhoon hit north Ky?sh? island. The casualties and damage inflicted by the typhoon, followed by the Japanese defense of the Hakata Bay barrier, resulted in the Mongols again recalling their armies.

The thunderstorms of 1274 and the typhoon of 1281 helped the samurai defenders of Japan repel the Mongol invaders despite being vastly outnumbered. These winds became known as kami-no-kaze, which literally translates as “wind of the gods.” This is often given a simplified translation as “divine wind.” The kami-no-kaze lent credence to the Japanese belief that their lands were indeed divine and under supernatural protection.

In the 14th century, a blacksmith called Masamune developed a two-layer structure of soft and hard steel for use in swords. This structure gave much improved cutting power and endurance, and the production technique led to Japanese swords (katana) being recognized as some of the most potent hand weapons of pre-industrial East Asia. Many swords made using this technique were exported across the East China Sea, a few making their way as far as India.

Issues of inheritance caused family strife as primogeniture became common, in contrast to the division of succession designated by law before the 14th century. To avoid infighting, invasions of neighboring samurai territories became common and bickering among samurai was a constant problem for the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates.

The Sengoku jidai (“warring-states period”) was marked by the loosening of samurai culture with people born into other social strata sometimes making names for themselves as warriors and thus becoming de facto samurai. In this turbulent period, bushido ethics became important factors in controlling and maintaining public order.

Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly in the 15th and 16th century. Use of large numbers of infantry called ashigaru (“light-foot,” due to their light armour), formed of humble warriors or ordinary people with Nagayari (a long lance) or (Naginata), was introduced and combined with cavalry in maneuvers. The number of people mobilized in warfare ranged from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

The arquebus, a matchlock gun, was introduced by the Portuguese via a Chinese pirate ship in 1543 and the Japanese succeeded in assimilating it within a decade. Groups of mercenaries with mass-produced arquebuses began playing a critical role.

By the end of feudal period, several hundred thousand firearms existed in Japan and massive armies numbering over 100,000 clashed in battles. By comparison, the largest and most powerful army in Europe, the Spanish, had only several thousand firearms and could only assemble 30,000 troops.

In 1592, and again in 1598, Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to invade China (???) and sent to Korea an army of 160,000 samurai (Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea, ????). Taking advantage of its mastery of the arquebus, Japanese samurai almost led the war to victory, but were unable to do so, due to the entry of Ming Chinese troops. A few of the more famous samurai generals of this war were Kat? Kiyomasa, Konishi Yukinaga, and Shimazu Yoshihiro.

Social mobility was high, as the ancient regime collapsed and emerging samurai needed to maintain large military and administrative organizations in their areas of influence. Most of the samurai families that survived to the 19th century originated in this era, declaring themselves to be the blood of one of the four ancient noble clans, Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara and Tachibana. In most cases, however, it is hard to prove these claims.


Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa

Oda Nobunaga was the well-known lord of the Nagoya area (once called Owari Province) and an exceptional example of a samurai of the Sengoku Period. He came within a few years of, and laid down the path for his successors to follow, the reunification of Japan under a new Bakufu (Shogunate).

Oda Nobunaga made innovations in the fields of organization and war tactics, heavily used arquebuses, developed commerce and industry and treasured innovation. Consecutive victories enabled him to realize the termination of the Ashikaga Bakufu and the disarmament of the military powers of the Buddhist monks, which had inflamed futile struggles among the populace for centuries. Attacking from the “sanctuary” of Buddhist temples, they were constant headaches to any warlord and even the emperor who tried to control their actions. He died in 1582 when one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, turned upon him with his army.

Importantly, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (see below) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, were loyal followers of Nobunaga. Hideyoshi was brought up from a nameless peasant to be one of Nobunaga’s top generals and Ieyasu had shared his childhood with Nobunaga. Hideyoshi defeated Mitsuhide within a month and was regarded as the rightful successor of Nobunaga by avenging the treachery of Mitsuhide.

These two were gifted with Nobunaga’s previous achievements on which build a unified Japan and there was a saying: “The reunification is a rice cake; Oda made it. Hashiba shaped it. At last, only Ieyasu tastes it.” (Hashiba is the family name that Toyotomi Hideyoshi used while he was a follower of Nobunaga.)

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister in 1586, himself the son of a poor peasant family, created a law that the samurai caste became codified as permanent and hereditary, and that non-samurai were forbidden to carry weapons, thereby ending the social mobility of Japan up until that point, which lasted until the dissolution of the Edo Shogunate by the Meiji revolutionaries.

It is important to note that the distinction between samurai and non-samurai was so obscure that during the 16th century, most male adults in any social class (even small farmers) belonged to at least one military organization of their own and served in wars before and during Hideyoshi’s rule. It can be said that an “all against all” situation continued for a century.

The authorized samurai families after the 17th century were those that chose to follow Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu Large battles occurred during the change between regimes, and a number of defeated samurai were destroyed, went ronin or were absorbed into the general populace.


Tokugawa Shogunate

During the Tokugawa era, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. With no warfare since the early 17th century, samurai gradually lost their military function during the Tokugawa era (also called the Edo period).

By the end of the Tokugawa era, samurai were aristocratic bureaucrats for the daimyo, with their daisho, the paired long and short swords of the samurai (cf. katana and wakizashi) becoming more of a symbolic emblem of power rather than a weapon used in daily life.

They still had the legal right to cut down any commoner who did not show proper respect (kiri sute gomen (??????)), but to what extent this right was used is unknown. When the central government forced daimyos to cut the size of their armies, unemployed ronin became a social problem.

Theoretical obligations between a samurai and his lord (usually a daimyo) increased from the Genpei era to the Edo era. They were strongly emphasized by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius (ca 550 B.C.) which were required reading for the educated samurai class. During the Edo period, after the general end of hostilities, the code of Bushido was formalized. It is important to note that bushido was an ideal, but that it remained uniform from the 13th century to the 19th century. the ideals of Bushido transcended social class, time and geographic location of the warrior class.

Bushido was formalized by many samurai in this time of peace in much the same fashion as chivalry was formalized after knights as a warrior class became obsolete in Europe. The conduct of samurai became a favorable model of a citizen in Edo, with formalities being emphasized. With time on their hands, samurai spent more time in pursuit of other interests such as becoming scholars.

Bushido still survives in present-day Japanese society, as do many other aspects of the samurai’s way of life.


Tanto, is a common Japanese single or, occasionally, double edged knife or dagger with a blade length between 15 and 30 cm (6-12 inches). The tanto differs from the others as it was designed primarily as a stabbing instrument, but the edge can be used to slash as well. Tanto first began to appear in the Heian period, however these blades lacked any artistic quality and were purely weapons. In the early Kamakura period high-quality artful tanto began to appear, and the famous Yoshimitsu (the greatest tanto maker in Japanese history) began his forging. Tanto production increased greatly around the Muromachi period and then dropped off in the Shinto period (“new sword” period), consequently Shinto period tanto are quite rare. They regained popularity in the Shin-Shinto Period (“new-new sword” period) and production increased.

Tanto are generally forged in hira-zukuri, meaning that their sides have no ridge line and are nearly flat, unlike the shinogi-zukuri structure of a katana. Some tanto have particularly thick cross-sections for armor-piercing duty, and are called ‘yoroidoshi’.

Tanto were mostly carried by samurai; commoners did not generally carry them. Women sometimes carried a small tanto called a kaiken in their obi for self defense.

It was sometimes worn as the shoto in place of a wakizashi in a daisho, especially on the battlefield. Before the 16th century it was common for a samurai to carry a tachi and a tanto as opposed to a katana and a wakizashi.

Tanto with a blunt wooden or blunt plastic blade exist and are used to practice safely. Also, versions with a blunt metal blade exist and are used in more advanced training or demonstrations. Martial arts practicing techniques with tanto include:

  • Aikido
  • Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu
  • Genbukan Ninpo Taijutsu
  • Jujutsu
  • Koryu Bujutsu
  • Shorinji Kempo
  • Modern Arnis (taking place of dagger)


History of Tantos in Japan

Heian to Muromachi

The tanto was invented partway through the Heian period, when it was rarely used as a weapon. With the beginning of the Kamakura period, tanto were forged to be more aesthetically pleasing, and hira and uchi-sori tanto were the most popular styles. Near the middle of the Kamakura period, more tanto artisans were seen, increasing the abundance of the weapon, and the kanmuri-otoshi style became prevalent in the cities of Kyoto and Yamato. Because of the style introduced by the tachi in the late Kamakura period, tanto began to be forged longer and wider. The introduction of the Hachiman faith became visible in the carvings in the tanto hilts around this time. The hamon (swordsmithing) is similar to that of the tachi, except for the absence of choji-midare, which is nioi and utsuri. Gunomi-midare and suguha are found to have taken its place. In Nambokucho, the tanto were forged to be up to forty centimeters as opposed to the normal one shaku (about thirty centimeters) length. The tanto blades became thinner between the uri and the omote, and widen between the ha and mune. At this point in time, there were two styles of hamon that were prevalent: the older style, which was subtle and artistic, and the newer, more ostentatious style. With the beginning of the Muromachi period, constant fighting caused the mass production of blades, meaning that with higher demand, lower-quality blades were manufactured. Blades that were custom-forged still were of exceptional quality, but the average blade suffered greatly. As the end of the period neared, the average blade narrowed and the sori became shallow.


Momoyama to Early Edo Age

Approximately two hundred fifty years of peace accompanied the unification of Japan, in which there was little need for blades. With weapon smiths given this time, both the katana and wakizashi were invented, taking the place of the tanto and tachi as the most-used pair of weapons, and the number of tanto forged was severely decreased. The only tanto produced during this period of peace were copies of others from earlier eras.


Late Edo Age

There were still few tanto being forged during this period, and the ones that were forged reflected the work of the Kamakura, Nambokucho, or Muromachi eras. Suishinshi Masahide was a main contributor towards the forging of tanto during this age.


Meiji to present

Many tanto were forged before World War II, due to the restoration of the Emperor to power. Members of the Imperial Court began wearing the set of tachi and tanto once more, and the number of tanto in existence increased dramatically. However, later on, a restriction on sword forging caused the number of tanto being produced to plummet very low. Presently, in America, it is not difficult to obtain a tanto.


Types of Tanto

Tanto occupy two main categories:


Suguta Tanto

  • Shinogi: This is not a true tanto, for it is usually created when a longer sword has been broken or cut. Tanto are seldom made in this form.
  • Ken: This is also not truly a tanto, though it is often used and thought of as one. Ken were often used for Buddhist rituals, and could be made from yari (Japanese spearheads) that were broken or cut shorter. They were often given as offerings from sword smiths when they visited a temple. The hilt of the ken tanto may be found made with a vajra (double thunderbolt related to Buddhism).
  • Kanmuri-otoshi: These tanto had a single edge and a flat back. They had a shingoni that extended to the tip of the blade and a groove running halfway up the blade. It was very similar to the unokubi style tanto.
  • Kubikiri: Kubikiri were rare tanto with the sharpened blade on the inside curve rather than the outside. One interesting fact about kubikiri is that they have no point, making them difficult to use in battle and enshrouding the weapon in mystery. Kubikiri can be roughly translated to “head cutter”, for one myth relating to the blade centralizes around the idea that they were carried by assistants into battle in order to remove the heads of the fallen enemies as trophies to show off during the triumphant return from battle. There are other speculations existing about the kubikiri’s possible uses. Perhaps they were used by doctors or carried by high-ranking officials as a badge is worn today. They could also have been used for cutting charcoal or incense, or used as an artistic tool for pruning bonsai trees.
  • Shobu: The shobu is a commonly found blade type that is very similar to the shinogi. It is sometimes found with a groove running halfway up the blade.
  • Kogarasamaru: The kogarasamaru is a very rare blade type that appears to be a branch of the shinogi blade type. The front third of the blade is double-edged.
  • Kissaki-moroha: The kissaki-moroha is an extremely long o-kissaki. This means that it is much longer than the one shaku length of the average tanto.
  • Unokubi: The unokubi is a semi-rare tanto that contains a single sharpened edge and a flat back. There is normally a short, wide groove extending to the midway point on the blade.
  • Hira: The hira is a tanto form with no shinogi and a mune. It is extremely common due to the simplicity of its design.
  • Hochogata: The hochogata is a tanto form that is commonly described as a short, wide, hira. The hochogata was one of the tanto forms that Masamune (an ancient sword smith whose name has become legend) favored.
  • Katakiriha: The katakiriha is a tanto form that has one side that is completely flat, while the other side is flat for a time, but turns at an angle to create a chisel-shaped blade with the first side.
  • Moroha: The moroha is a rare, double bladed tanto type that has a diamond-shaped cross-section. The blade tapers to a point and contains a shinogi that runs to the point.


Koshirae Tanto

  • Aikuchi: The aikuchi is a tanto form where the fuchi is on level with the mouth of the saya. There is no tsuba on this form of tanto. Aikuchi normally have unwrapped tsuka, and many forms of aikuchi have kashira that are made from animal horns.
  • Hamidashi: The hamidashi is an average tanto style that contains a small tsuba.
  • Kwaiken: The kwaiken is a generally short tanto that is commonly carried in aikuchi or shirasaya mounts. More women carry kwaiken than men do.
  • Kamikaze” tanto: The “kamikaze” tanto is no more than a shirasaya tanto that is normally carried in horn mountings.



  • Fan Tanto: The fan tanto is a common tanto, normally with a low-quality blade that could be concealed within a fan-shaped mounting. Many people used them so that they could be armed with a weapon while appearing harmless. Many fan tanto were forged during the 19th and 20th centuries to rip off tourists.
  • Yari Tanto: Japanese spearheads were often altered so that it became possible to mount them as tanto. Yari tanto were carried by women for self-defense, and by samurai to pierce armor. Unlike most blades, yari tanto had triangular cross-sections.

Hachiwara: Hachiwara are not truly tanto, because rather than being blades, they are iron bars, normally twelve to fifteen inches long, with a sharp hook protruding out of the end. They have been called “helmet breakers” and “sword breakers”. Their mounts were typically made of carved wood or carved cinnabar lacquer.

The 47 Ronin

In 1701 (by the Western calendar), two daimyo, Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of Ako (a small fiefdom or han in western Honshu), and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain, were ordered to arrange a fitting reception for the envoys of the Emperor in Edo, during their sankin kotai service to the Shogun.

These daimyo names are not fiction, nor is there any question that something actually happened in . What is commonly called the Ako incident was an actual event.

For many years, the version of events retold by in Tales of Old Japan was considered authoritative. The sequence of events and the characters in this narrative were presented to a wide, popular readership in the West.

Mitford himself invited his readers to construe his story of the forty-seven ronin as historically accurate; and while Mitford’s tale has long been considered a standard work, some of its precise details are now questioned. Nevertheless, even with plausible defects, Mitford’s work remains a conventional starting point for further study.

Whether as a mere literary device or as a claim for ethnographic veracity, Mitford explains:

“In the midst of a nest of venerable trees in Takanawa, a suburb of Yedo, is hidden Sengakuji, or the Spring-hill Temple, renowned throughout the length and breadth of the land for its cemetery, which contains the graves of the Forty-seven Ronins, famous in Japanese history, heroes of Japanese drama, the tale of whose deed I am about to transcribe.” [emphasis added]
– Mitford, A. L.

Mitford appended what he explained were translations of Sengakuji documents the author had examined personally. These were proffered as “proofs” authenticating the factual basis of his story. These documents were:

  • (1) “the receipt given by the retainers of Kotsuke no Suke’s son in return for the head of their lord’s father, which the priests restored to the family”.
  • (2) “a document explanatory of their conduct, a copy of which was found on the person of each of the forty-seven men,” dated in the 15th year of Genrolku, 12th month.
  • (3) “a paper which the Forty-seven R?nins laid upon the tomb of their master, together with the head of Kira Kotsuke no Suke”.


See Tales of Old Japan for widely-known, yet significantly fictional narrative.


Genesis of a tragedy

Asano and Kamei were to be given instruction in the necessary court etiquette by Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a powerful Edo official in the hierarchy of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s shogunate. He became upset at them, allegedly because of either the small presents they offered him (in the time-honored compensation for such an instructor), or because they would not offer bribes as he wanted. Other sources say that he was a naturally rude and arrogant individual, or that he was corrupt, which offended Asano, a rigidly moral Confucian. Regardless of whether and how Kira treated them poorly, insulted them or failed to prepare them for fulfilling specific bakufu duties, offense was taken.

While Asano bore all this stoically, Kamei Sama became enraged, and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, the quick thinking counsellors of Kamei Sama averted disaster for their lord and clan (for all would have been punished if Kamei Sama killed Kira) by quietly giving Kira a large bribe; Kira thereupon began to treat Kamei Sama very nicely, which calmed Kamei’s anger.

However, Kira continued to treat Asano harshly, because he was upset that the latter had not emulated his companion; Kira taunted and humiliated him in public. Finally, Kira insulted Asano as a country boor with no manners, and Asano could restrain himself no longer. He lost his temper, and attacked Kira with a dagger, but only wounded him in the face with his first strike; his second missed and hit a pillar. Guards then quickly separated them.

Kira’s wound was hardly serious, but the attack on a shogunate official within the boundaries of the Shogun’s residence, was considered to be a grave offense. Any kind of violence, even drawing a sword, was completely forbidden in Edo castle. (Some sources say that Asano’s crime was that he damaged a celebrated golden sliding door when he threw his wakizashi at Kira.) Therefore Asano was ordered to commit seppuku. Asano’s goods and lands were to be confiscated after his death, his family was to be ruined, and his retainers were to be made ronin. The daimyo of Ako had removed his sword from its scabbard within Edo Castle, and for that offense, the daimyo was ordered to kill himself.

This news was carried to Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Asano’s principal counsellor, who took command and moved the Asano family away, before complying with bakufu orders to surrender the castle to the agents of the government.


The ronin plot revenge

Of Asano’s over three hundred men, forty-seven (some sources say there were more than fifty, originally)—and especially their leader Oishi refused to allow their lord to go un-avenged, even though revenge had been prohibited in the case. They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for doing so. However, Kira was well guarded, and his residence had been fortified, to prevent just such an event. They saw that they would have to put him off his guard before they could succeed. To quell the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, they dispersed and became tradesmen or monks.

Oishi himself took up residence in Kyoto, and begun to frequent brothels and taverns, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kira still feared a trap, and sent spies to watch the former retainers of Asano.

One day, as Oishi returned drunk from some haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed at him. A Satsuma man, passing by, was infuriated by this behavior on the part of a samurai—both by his lack of courage to avenge his master, as well as his current debauched behavior. The Satsuma man abused and insulted him, and kicked him in the face (to even touch the face of a samurai was a great insult, let alone strike it), and spat on him.

Not too long after, Oishi’s loyal wife of twenty years went to him and complained that he seemed to be taking his act too far. He divorced her on the spot, and sent her away with their two younger children; the oldest, a boy, Chikara, remained with his father. In his wife’s place, the father bought a young pretty concubine.

Kira’s agents reported all this to Kira, who became convinced that he was safe from the retainers of Asano, who must all be bad samurai indeed, without the courage to avenge their master, and were harmless; he then relaxed his guard.

The rest of the faithful retainers now gathered in Edo, and in their roles as workmen and merchants, gained access to Kira’s house, becoming familiar with the layout of the house, and the character of all within. One of the retainers (Kinemon Kanehide Okano) went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house, to obtain plans. All of this was reported to Oishi. Others gathered arms and secretly transported them to Edo, another offense.


The attack

Two years later, when Oishi was convinced that Kira was thoroughly off his guard, and everything was ready, he fled from Kyoto, avoiding the spies who were watching him, and the entire band gathered at a secret meeting-place in Edo, and renewed their oaths.

In, early in the morning in a driving wind during a heavy fall of snow, Oishi and the ronin attacked Kira Yoshinaka’s mansion in Edo. According to a carefully laid-out plan, they split up into two groups and attacked, armed with swords and bows. One group, led by Oishi, was to attack the front gate; the other, led by his son, Oishi Chikara, was to attack the house via the back gate. A drum would sound the simultaneous attack, and a whistle would signal that Kira was dead.

Once Kira was dead, they planned to cut off his head, and lay it as an offering on their master’s tomb. They would then turn themselves in, and wait for their expected sentence of death.. All this had been confirmed at a final dinner, where Oishi had asked them to be careful, and spare women, children, and other helpless people. The code of bushido does not require mercy to noncombatants, although it doesn’t forbid it.

Oishi had four men scale the fence and enter the porter’s lodge, capturing and tying up the guard there. He then sent messengers to all the neighbouring houses, to explain that they were not robbers, but retainers out to avenge the death of their master, and that no harm would come to anyone else: they were all perfectly safe. The neighbours, who all hated Kira, were relieved and did nothing to hinder the raiders.

After posting archers (some on the roof), to prevent those in the house (who had not yet woken up) from sending for help, Oishi sounded the drum to start the attack. Ten of Kira’s retainers held off the party attacking the house from the front, but Oishi Chikara’s party broke into the back of the house.

Kira, in terror, took refuge in a closet in the veranda, along with his wife and female servants. The rest of his retainers, who slept in a barracks outside, attempted to come into the house to his rescue. After overcoming the defenders at the front of the house, the two parties of father and son joined up, and fought with the retainers who came in. The latter, perceiving that they were losing, tried to send for help, but their messengers were killed by the archers posted to prevent that.

Eventually, after a fierce struggle, the last of Kira’s retainers was subdued; in the process they killed sixteen of Kira’s men and wounded twenty-two, including his grandson. Of Kira, however, there was no sign. They searched the house, but all they found were crying women and children. They began to despair, but Oishi checked Kira’s bed, and it was still warm, so he knew he could not be far.


The death of Kira

A renewed search disclosed an entrance to a secret courtyard hidden behind a large scroll; the courtyard held a small building for storing charcoal and firewood, where two more hidden armed retainers were overcome and killed. A search of the building disclosed a man hiding; he attacked the searcher with a dagger, but the man was easily disarmed.

He refused to say who he was, but the searchers felt sure it was Kira, and sounded the whistle. The ronin gathered, and Oishi, with a lantern, saw that it was indeed Kira as a final proof, his head bore the scar from Asano’s attack.

At that, Oishi went on his knees, and in consideration of Kira’s high rank, respectfully addressed him, telling him they were retainers of Asano, come to avenge him as true samurai should, and inviting Kira to die as a true samurai should, by killing himself. Oishi indicated he personally would act as a second, and offered him the same dagger that Asano had used to kill himself.

However, no matter how much they entreated him, Kira crouched, speechless and trembling. At last, seeing it was useless to ask, Oishi ordered the ronin to pin him down, and killed him by cutting off his head with the dagger. Kira was killed on the night of the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of Genroku.

They then extinguished all the lamps and fires in the house (lest any cause the house to catch fire, and start a general fire that would harm the neighbours), and left, taking the head.

One of the ronin, the ashigaru Terasaka Kichiemon, was ordered to travel to Ako and inform them that their revenge had been completed. (Though Kichiemon’s role as a messenger is the most widely-accepted version of the story, other accounts have him running away before or after the battle, or being ordered to leave before the ronin turn themselves in.)


The aftermath

As day was now breaking, they quickly carried Kira’s head to their lord’s grave in Sengaku-ji, causing a great stir on the way. The story quickly went around as to what had happened, and everyone on their path praised them, and offered them refreshment.

On arriving at the temple, the remaining forty-six ronin washed and cleaned Kira’s head in a well, and laid it, and the fateful dagger, before Asano’s tomb. They then offered prayers at the temple, and gave the abbot of the temple all the money they had left, asking him to bury them decently, and offer prayers for them. They then turned themselves in; the group was broken into four parts and put under guard of four different daimyo.

During this time, two friends of Kira came to collect his head for burial; the temple still has the original receipt for the head, which the friends and the priests who dealt with them all signed.

The shogunate officials were in a quandary. The samurai had followed the precepts of bushido by avenging the death of their lord; but they also defied shogunate authority by exacting revenge, which had been prohibited. In addition, the Shogun received a number of petitions from the admiring populace on behalf of the ronin. As expected, the ronin were sentenced to death; but the Shogun had finally resolved the quandary by ordering them to honorably commit seppuku, instead of having them executed as criminals. It is known that each of the assailants ended his life in a ritualistic fashion.

Each of the forty-six ronin did kill himself in . This has caused a considerable amount of confusion ever since, with some people referring to the “forty-six ronin”; this refers to the group put to death by the Shogun, the actual attack party numbered forty-seven. They were also buried in Sengaku-ji, as they had requested, in front of the tomb of their master. The forty-seventh ronin eventually returned from his mission, and was pardoned by the Shogun (some say on account of his youth). He lived until the age of seventy-eight, and was then buried with his comrades. The assailants who died by seppuku were subsequently interred on the grounds of Sengaku-ji.

The clothes and arms they wore are still preserved in the temple to this day, along with the drum and whistle; the armor was all home-made, as they had not wanted to possibly arouse suspicion by purchasing any.

The tombs became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray. The graves at this temple have been visited by a great many people throughout the years since the Genroku era. One of those who came was a Satsuma man, the same one who had mocked and spat on Oishi as he lay drunk in the street. Addressing the grave, he begged for forgiveness for his actions, and for thinking that Oishi was not a true samurai. He then committed suicide, and is buried next to the graves of the ronin.


Re-establishment of the Asano clan’s lordship

Though this act is often viewed as an act of loyalty, there had been a second goal, to re-establish the Asanos’ lordship and finding a place to serve for fellow samurai. Hundreds of samurai who had served under Asano had been left jobless and many were unable to find employment, as they had served under a disgraced family. Many lived as farmers or did simple handicrafts to make ends meet. The 47 ronin’s act cleared their names and many of the unemployed samurai found jobs soon after the ronin had been sentenced to an honorable end.

Asano Daigaku Nagahiro, Takuminokami’s younger brother and heir, was allowed by the Tokugawa Shogunate to re-establish his name, though his territory was reduced to a tenth of the original.


The Forty-Seven Ronin in the Arts

In Japan

The tragedy of the Forty-seven Ronin has been one of the most popular themes in Japanese art, and has lately even begun to make its way into Western art.

Immediately following the event, there were mixed feelings among the intelligentsia about whether such vengeance had been appropriate—many agreed that, given their master’s last wishes, the forty-seven had done the right thing, but were undecided about whether such a vengeful wish was proper. One contemporary author, Yamamoto Tsunetomo in Hagakure, or The Way of the Samurai, claimed that the Ronin were at fault because they should have attacked sooner, in case Kira had died by some other means before revenge could be enacted. In his version of Bushido, which was slightly archaic by the time of these events, the act of retaliating immediately was more important than actually achieving one’s goal. Over time, however, the story became a positive symbol of loyalty to one’s master and later, of loyalty to the emperor. Once this happened, it flourished as a subject of drama, storytelling, and visual art.



The incident immediately inspired a succession of kabuki and bunraku plays; the first, The Night Attack at Dawn by the Soga appeared only two weeks after they died. It was shut down by the authorities, but many others soon followed, initially especially in Osaka and Kyoto, further away from the capital. Some even took it as far as Manila, to spread the story to the rest of Asia.

The most successful of them was a bunraku puppet play called Kanadehon Chushingura (now simply called Chushingura, or “Treasury of Loyal Retainers”), written in 1748 by Takeda Izumo and two associates; it was later adapted into a kabuki play, which is still one of Japan’s most popular.

In the play, to avoid the attention of the censors, the events are transferred into the distant past, to the 14th century reign of shogun Ashikaga Takauji. Asano became Enya Hangan Takasada, Kira became Ko no Moronao and Oishi rather transparently became Oboshi Yuranosuke Yoshio; the names of the rest of the ronin were disguised to varying degrees. The play contains a number of plot twists that do not reflect the real story: Moronao tries to seduce Enya’s wife, and one of the ronin dies before the attack because of a conflict between family and warrior loyalty (another possible cause of the confusion between forty-six and forty-seven).


The (meaning “side arm”) is a traditional Japanese sword with a shoto blade between 30 and 60 cm (12 and 24 inches), with an average of 50 cm (20 inches). It is similar to but shorter than a katana, and mostly shorter than the kodachi (“small sword”). The wakizashi was usually worn together with the katana by the samurai or swordsmen of feudal Japan. When worn together the pair of swords were called daisho, which translates literally as “large and small”. The katana was often called the sword or the long sword and the wakizashi the companion sword.


Brief history

The use of the wakizashi is first written about from the sixteenth century onwards. Originally, the term “wakizashi” was used to mean any sword worn on the side of the main sword. Later, the term was used to denote the group of swords which were shorter than the main sword of the samurai, and as a result, “wakizashi” acquired the meaning of the side sword, because a side sword was shorter than the main sword by its nature.

The samurai used to wear different types of side swords or daggers; for example, chiisa-gatana or yoroi-doshi, and the term “wakizashi” didn’t mean any official blade length. The first usage of a wakizashi dates back to the period between 1332 and 1369. For example, Oda Nobunaga?(?? ??, 1534–1582) wore a daisho pair of uchigatana: a Katana with a Wakizashi. This reflects the common practice of wearing a wakizashi as the side sword of a katana.

After the Muromachi period the rulers of Japan tried to regulate the types of swords and the social groups which were allowed to wear them. This was to enhance the reputation, power and the class of the samurai class, who were the only social class permitted to carry the daisho. In the late Momoyama period the government passed laws which categorized the swords in accordance to their blade length. Nevertheless, there were people who openly disobeyed the laws and carried long wakizashi (owakizashi), which had approximately the same length as the katana. This was caused by the confusing definition of katana, wakizashi, and tanto of those times, and some townsmen and members of yakuza gangs carried such swords.



The wakizashi were used as backup weapons and as tools to decapitate defeated enemies, and sometimes to commit ritual suicide. This led to it being referred to as the “Honor Blade” among foreigners. The master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (?? ??, 1584–1645) was known to have wielded a katana and a wakizashi in each hand in order to fight with two weapons simultaneously for maximum combat advantage.

When taking enemy samurai heads on the battlefield, victorious duelists may have preferred to decapitate beaten fighters with the wakizashi instead of the katana. The executioner (alone or with the help of comrades) would seize the struggling or immobilized victim, remove the victim’s helmet, hold the victim’s head in place with one hand and cut off the trophy with the wakizashi in the other hand. Slicing off heads single-handedly would have been easier with the shorter wakizashi than with the longer katana. Using a katana to hack off the head of a victim who was wearing armor or lying on the ground would mean to risk damaging the katana blade.

When entering a building, a samurai would leave his katana with a servant or page who would then let it rest on a rack called a katana-kake, with the hilt pointing left so that it had to be removed with the left hand, passed to the right, then placed at the samurai’s right, making it difficult to draw quickly, and reducing suspicion. However, the wakizashi would be worn at all times, and therefore, it constituted a side arm for the samurai (similar to a modern soldier’s use of a pistol). A samurai would have worn it from the time he awoke to the time he went to sleep, and slept with it under his pillow.

In earlier periods, and especially during times of civil war, a tanto (dagger) was worn in place of a wakizashi. Contrary to popular belief, the wakizashi was not the sole tool used in the ritual suicide known as seppuku; this usage was also commonly assigned to the tanto.


The word Yakuza means 8-9-3. Ya = 8, ku = 9, za = 3. It comes from the Japanese counterpart to Black Jack, Oicho-Kabu. The main difference between the card games is that in Oicho-Kabu the goal is to reach 19 instead of 21. As you see, the sum of 8, 9 and 3, is 20, which is good for nothing in Oicho-Kabu. It’s from here the name, Yakuza, comes from: those who are “good for nothing”. This doesn’t mean that they have no use in the society. It only means that the members are people that somehow don’t fit in to society (society’s misfits).


Despite their notoriety in modern Japan, the precise origin of the Yakuza is still somewhat the subject of debate. The first historical interpretation of their derivation is from the hatamoto-yakko or Kabuki-mono of the 17th century Genroku Era, who were derivative classes of the low-rank hatamoto, which resembled a quarter of the shogun.

Other theories, suggested by the Yakuza members themselves claim their origins are from the machi-yokko, who policed villages by protecting them from the hatamoto-yakko that tried to steal from them, despite their being outmatched by the Hatamoto-yakko in training and strength. Despite their shortcomings, the machi-yakko were regarded as folk heroes similar to those in the stories of Robin Hood, with some groups being made the feature of plays and dramas. The derivation from the hatamoto-yakko or Kabuki-mono known for their adoption of strange hair styles and outrageous dress manner refers to a relevant era of the Genroku Period in which kabuki plays, and onnagata were prominent.

Despite the different groups, the majority of the events which led to their inception occurred during the Edo period. As peacetime brought about by the destruction of the Toyotomi Clan ensured the Tokugawa shogunate’s role of maintaining peace, shogun retainers were no longer required in their role as soldiers and moved from their own catchment areas to live in feudal castles where their income was determined by their daimy?.

Due to the isolation of Japan and restriction of foreign trade, Japan’s agricultural production and domestic trade greatly improved which resulted in the increase of power in the merchant class and the financial dependency of the samurai upon them — samurai retainers were paid with rice by their daimy?, and then sold in markets as a means of generating their salary.

As natural disasters, famine and tax increases led to the destabilization of the social hierarchy and the decline of morals due to public dissatisfaction with the government, factions of wayward, leaderless samurai known as ronin began to focus their attention from community service towards generating money through theft and violence towards smaller mercantile villages with disparate policing and little feudal control as they presented less-dangerous means of achieving iniquitous money. However, Yakuza that claim origin from the machi-yakko refute their origins from the hatamoto-yakko due to its association with thievery, which is supposedly unpracticed amongst modern Yakuza.

In larger towns, several of these groups often existed simultaneously, and they often fought for territory, money and influence much like modern gangs, disregarding any civilians caught in the crossfire. Again, this is the origin of a popular theme of Japanese film and television, made famous in the West by an Akira Kurosawa film called Yojimbo in which a wandering ronin sets two such gangs against each other and eventually destroys them. Yakuza derived some practices from both machi-yakko and kabukimono. Their protection rackets can be seen as originating from machi-yakko, but their more colorful fashion and language are derived from the kabukimono tradition.



About Sleeping Samurai