6 Weapons of the Japanese Samurai

Léonie Chao-Fong

4 mins

10 Feb 2020

The Samurai were the elite warriors of feudal Japan, who would later evolve to become the ruling military class of the Edo Period (1603-1837).

As the elite warrior class, the samurai treated their weapons and equipment as a display of their powerful status as well as for military necessity.

Here are 6 of the most important samurai weapons.

1. Katana

Samurai in Armour

Samurai in armour, holding from left to right: a yumi, a katana and a yari, 1880s (Credit: Kusakabe Kimbei / J. Paul Getty Museum).

The katana was a curved, slender, single-bladed longsword, with a circular or squared guard and long grip to accommodate two hands. The samurai wore the katana on their left hip, with the edge facing down.

The best katana were made by master craftsmen who would repeatedly heat and fold the steel to produce blades of extraordinary strength and sharpness,

Strong enough to be used defensively but sharp enough to slide through limbs, the katana rose in popularity due to the change in nature of close-combat warfare. The samurai could draw the sword and strike the enemy in one single motion.

The samurai was considered synonymous with his katana, as bushidō dictated that a samurai’s soul was in his katana.

The katana was often paired with a smaller companion sword, such as a wakizashi or tantō. The pairing of a katana with a smaller sword was called the daishō.

2. Wakizashi

Japanese samurai daisho

Antique Japanese (samurai) daishō, Kawagoe Japan (Credit: Cliff Cheng LF / CC).

A shorter sword than the katana, the wakizashi was worn together with the katana as daishō – literally translated as “big-little”.

Only the samurai were permitted to wear the daishō, as it symbolised their social power and personal honour.

Between 12 to 24 inches long, a wakizashi had a slightly curved blade with a square-shaped hilt. The hilt and scabbard would be richly decorated with traditional motifs.

The wakizashi was used as a backup or auxiliary sword, or sometimes to commit the ritual suicide of seppuku.

According to tradition, the samurai was required to leave his katana with a servant when entering a house or building, however he would be allowed to wear the wakizashi.

The wazikashi would be kept near the samurai’s bed. For this reason, the wakizashi was often called the samurai’s “left arm”.

3. Tantō

Tanto sword

Tantō sword (Credit: Kakidai / CC).

The tantō was a single or doubled edged knife, designed as a stabbing or slashing weapon. Most samurai would carry one of these short, sharp daggers.

Dating back to the Heian period (794-1185), the tantō was mainly used as weapon but later evolved to become more ornate and aesthetically pleasing.

The tantō had a ceremonial and decorative function: it would often be used by the samurai in seppuku – the ritual suicide by disembowelment.

During the relatively peaceful Edo period (1603-1868), there was little need for blades and the tantō was replaced by the katana and wakizashi.

Women would sometimes carry a small tantō, called a kaiken, to be used for self-defence.

4. Naginata

Onna-bugeisha

Onna-bugeisha holding a naginata (Credit: Utagawa Kuniyoshi / Tokyo Metropolitan Library).

The naginata was the iconic weapon of the onna-bugeisha, the female warriors of the Japanese nobility. It was also a common part of a dowry of noblewomen.

The naginata was a long-bladed pole weapon, heavier and slower than the Japanese sword.

The blade of the ko-naginata (used by women) was smaller than the male warrior’s o-naginata, to compensate for a woman’s shorter height and lesser upper body strength.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the naginata gained popularity among sword martial arts, especially with women.

5. Yumi

Japanese samurai with yumi

Japanese samurai with yumi, 16th century (Credit: Lepidlizard).

The yumi was an asymmetric Japanese longbow and an important weapon of the samurai during the feudal period of Japan. It would shoot Japanese arrows known as ya.

Traditionally made of laminated bamboo, wood and leather, the yumi was exceptionally tall at over two metres and exceeded the height of the archer.

The yumi had a long history in Japan, as the samurai were mounted warriors who used the bow and arrow as their primary weapon while on horseback.

Although the samurai were best known for their swordsmanship with the katana, kyūjutsu (“art of archery”) was actually considered a more vital skill.

During the majority of the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (c. 1185-1568), the yumi was almost exclusively the symbol of the professional warrior, and the way of life of the warrior was called kyūba no michi (“the way of the horse and bow”).

6. Kabutowari

Old Japanese military weapons

Japanese samurai weapons including armour, yumi, yari, katanas, tachis, etc (Credit: Nobukuni Enami / Flickr).

The kabutowari, also known as hachiwari, was a type of knife-shaped weapon and carried as a side-arm by the samurai.

Kabutowari means “helmet breaker” or “skull breaker” – kabuto being the helmet worn by the samurai.

A relatively small sword, the kabutowari came in two forms: a dirk-type and truncheon-type. The blade of the dirk-type was designed to split the helmet of the enemy.