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:
- Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu
- Genbukan Ninpo Taijutsu
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.