History of The Swords

The Wakizashi: A Short Sword with a Long History

The Wakizashi: A Short Sword with a Long History

The wakizashi, a short sword, was a samurai's useful ally in addition to the katana during the feudal era in Japan. Traditionally, it was worn indoors when the katana was left at the entrance, proving invaluable against adversaries with longer weapons. The Wakizashi was a short sword that was perfect for fighting up close because it was small and easy to draw quickly. It was used alongside the longer katana. This sword showed how ready and flexible samurai were, making them strong in any fight. As a symbol of the samurai's commitment to duty and skill with a sword, the wakizashi was significant in Japanese history. It was a symbol of honor and the ways of fighting in Japan.

Embark on a journey to uncover the wakizashi's unique attributes and its pivotal role in combat, delving into its rich martial arts history.

Characteristics of the Wakizashi Sword

The wakizashi sword has all the characteristics of the lengthier Japanese sword, but its blade is shorter than that of the katana.

Characteristics of the Japanese short sword:

Characteristics of the Japanese short sword by Swordskingdom

Wakisashi by Sanpin Masatoshi, early 1600s: Image from Wikipedia

Metal and Construction

Japanese samurai swords were high-quality weapons, made by skilled swordsmiths using tamahagane steel. This special steel, made from iron sands in Japan's traditional tatara furnace, underwent a complex process to ensure durability without brittleness. However, strict regulations govern the production of traditional swords like wakizashi, leading non-traditional swordsmiths abroad to craft replicas using materials like Damascus steel or high-carbon steel. This allows them to mimic the quality and appearance of authentic Japanese swords while adhering to modern manufacturing methods outside Japan.

Blade Appearance

The wakizashi boasts a single edge and a gentle curve, reflecting the distinctive shape of Japanese swords. These blades hold esteem for their beauty, especially due to the Hamon, a unique temperline pattern created by applying clay of varying thickness to the blade before quenching it in water. Additionally, many wakizashi blades feature horimono, decorative carvings spanning from floral motifs to Buddhist symbols and Sanskrit characters, enhancing their cultural and artistic significance.

Size and Length

Wakizashi, which are Japanese short swords ranging from 12 to 24 inches long, are classified by their size and type. The two main wakizashi types are ko-wakizashi (shorter) and o-wakizashi (longer). The measurement starts from the base to the tip, excluding the tang. Ko-wakizashi blades can reach up to 17.7 inches (45.45 centimeters), while o-wakizashi blades approach 24 inches (60.6 centimeters). These distinctions aid in understanding the role and significance of wakizashi in Japanese swordsmanship, as they serve as versatile secondary weapons complementing the katana, suitable for close-quarters combat and indoor use when the longer sword is set aside.

Sword Mounting 

In Japanese, the term "koshirae" describes the entire set of sword mounts, including the scabbard, guard, and hilt. Though shorter, the wakizashi koshirae is similar to the katana. Typically, a single wakizashi blade had multiple koshirae sets, often swapped for different occasions.

Hilt (Tsuka)

Traditionally made wakizashi swords had hilts made of magnolia wood. The hilt has a ray skin covering enhanced by the lozenge-shaped openings of the silk braid wrapping called ito. On the other hand, the menuki ornament on the hilt was not just decorative but also enhanced the wielder’s grip on the weapon.

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Sword Guard (Tsuba):

The tsuba, or sword guard, varied in shape and size, serving to protect the hand and showcasing Japanese artisans' craftsmanship through ornate designs. Over time, tsuba became intricate, with some adorned with colorful stones by the 18th and 19th centuries. Wakizashi often featured tsuba with openings for the kozuka, a small knife's handle, and the kogai, a hairpin. The kogatana, a multipurpose blade, doubled as a letter opener, while the kogai arranged a samurai's hair. Their matching decorations and placement in the wakizashi scabbard's pocket exemplified the attention to detail and practicality in samurai swordsmanship and everyday life.

Scabbard (Saya)

Traditionally, wakizashi swords had scabbards crafted from magnolia wood, mirroring the hilt's material. They could house them in a simple shirasaya, a plain wooden scabbard, or in koshirae, featuring lacquered scabbards adorned with intricate metal embellishments, offering both functional protection and aesthetic appeal.


History of the Wakizashi Sword:

The Japanese term wakizashi literally means worn at the side. It served as the samurai's short companion sword, worn from waking until sleeping, and typically kept nearby at night.

Wakizashi in a Daisho Pair of Swords

Daisho means big and small, referring to the katana and wakizashi worn by samurai. They began being used from 1338 to 1573. During the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, daisho pairs became common, often featuring matching mounts called daisho koshirae. These mounts could be fancy, showing off the wearer's status and wealth during ceremonies. Only samurai could wear daisho, symbolizing their authority. But wakizashi wasn't just for samurai; merchants and town folks wore it too.

Ko-Wakizashi and O-Wakizashi

The Tokugawa government had strict rules about swords, like how long they could be and who could use them. A wakizashi blade could only be 54.54 centimeters long, and a katana could be up to 84.84 centimeters long. In 1668, a law called Muto-rei was made, saying only samurai could carry swords longer than a small wakizashi, which could be up to 45.45 centimeters long. Later, travelers on the dangerous Tokaido road were allowed to carry a large wakizashi, which could be up to 54.54 centimeters long, for protection.

The Wakizashi Sword in Combat:

Samurai swords weren't the main weapons in battles; they mainly used bows, spears, and other weapons. Swords like the wakizashi were for close combat, especially against longer weapons like spears. They were shorter and lighter than long swords, making them faster. The wakizashi was good for close fights, while the katana was useful overall. Sometimes, samurai used both wakizashi and katana together, as seen in Miyamoto Musashi's two-blade technique. Initially, samurai used the wakizashi for seppuku, a ritual suicide, but later preferred the tanto dagger. Seppuku was viewed as honorable, as it prevented capture by enemies after defeat and was sometimes employed as punishment for samurai.

Uses of Wakizashi in Martial Arts:

Just like the Japanese katana, the wakizashi could also be used in kenjutsu, which includes stabbing, cutting, and parrying. However, not many martial artists focus on the wakizashi because it's usually for advanced iaijutsu levels. The Yagyu Shinkage Ryu is one of the oldest schools teaching wakizashi techniques, but there are few trained in double-sword techniques, called nito-waza.

Facts About the Wakizashi Sword:

The wakizashi, a traditional Japanese sword, shares characteristics with the katana, featuring a single edge and a curved blade, originating around the feudal era. Samurai primarily wielded it as a weapon. While familiar to sword collectors and practitioners, lesser-known facts include its two primary types: ko-wakizashi with a longer blade akin to the katana and o-wakizashi with a shorter blade resembling the tantoThis sword has been crafted for more than 600 years, changing from low to high-carbon steel over time. Samurai often paired the wakizashi with a smaller sword, forming the daisho. Government regulations later standardized blade length. Today, it retains cultural significance, utilized in swordsmanship like iaido, kendo, and kenjutsu.

The Wakizashi: Samurai's Backup Weapon

In a daisho set, the wakizashi was the shorter sword that matched the katana.  But, samurai had to leave their long swords outside when visiting. So, the wakizashi was their protection inside, along with hidden weapons and daggers.

The samurai carried the wakizashi and other blades in the battle:

The Wakizashi: A Short Sword with a Long History by Swordskingdom

The Wakizashi: Image from Wikipedia

The term "jin-wakizashi" means a wakizashi sword used in battles, worn with armor, not regular clothes. At times, it may also refer to a small dagger known as koshigatana, worn with armor and paired with an older sword called tachi. Samurai also had another weapon called tanto, a shorter dagger. In pictures, Tadakatsu, a renowned samurai, was depicted carrying both a wakizashi and a tanto. Nowadays, people might call any smaller sword a companion side-arm, whether it's a wakizashi or a tanto.

Short Swords Preceded the Development of Wakizashi:

The kodachi, meaning small tachi, emerged due to the necessity of the aristocrats to have a self-defense weapon longer than a dagger-length blade. During the Kamakura and Nanbokucho periods, some kodachi had blades measuring about 60 centimeters long. Hence, they were shorter than a tachi, a precursor to the katana. Kodachi was commonly worn and carried like a tachi, hanging from the belt with the edge facing downwards. However, its exact purpose remains unknown.

The so-called sunnobi tanto could also be considered a wakizashi:

Today, according to the Japanese Firearms and Sword Law, a tanto is considered a dagger if it's less than 30 centimeters long, not a short sword. Before this law, many blades longer than 30 centimeters were referred to as tanto. Sunnobi tanto, big daggers from the Nanbokucho and Muromachi periods, were usually 33 to 36 centimeters long. In modern times, Japanese blades are classified by their length. Thus, sunnobi tanto may also be called wakizashi.

Miyamoto Musashi's Skill in Dual-Wielding Wakizashi and Katana:

Swordsman extraordinaire Miyamoto Musashi won almost sixty battles and was a master at holding two swords at once. Using a wooden practice sword made from a boat oar, known as a bokken, he famously vanquished competitor Sasaki Kojiro in a fabled duel. This legend, which highlights Musashi's martial prowess and inventiveness, is still revered in Japanese culture.

Conclusion of the wakizashi:

The wakizashi was the short sword of the samurai, always paired with the katana. Wearing both, known as daisho, indicated someone's status as a samurai. The samurai also used the wakizashi for ritual suicide, known as seppuku. Even now, short swords are important in martial arts and for people who collect swords.

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