Traditional Weapons of Japan

By Bloodswan

Note that the following does not include gun powder weapons and similar firearms.

Yumi - Japanese longbow

Despite the romanticised image of the Samurai and his/her (there were a few lady Samurai and many kunoichi-lady ninjas) Katana, the Japanese warrior was first and foremost an archer. The early Japanese word for warrior can roughly be translated as "man of the bow". The primary qualification for an early Samurai was that they were a good archer. Japanese warrior monks were also skilled archers. The Japanese longbow was just that - long, as much as 250cm (averaging 7-9 feet in length). The bow was made as a laminate with a core of wood ad strips of bamboo. The whole was lacquered and wrapped with strips of rattan. To limit the stress on the bow when drawn, the weapon had to be long and it was fired from one-third the way up its length. It was primarily fired from a horse but foot archers were not uncommon. The ashigaru foot archers bows were actually quite shorter than a samurai's and were mass produced. For greater power composite bows were in use, perhaps after the Mongol invasions. Arrows also varied in length and style but were an average of 12 fists and went up to 23 fists in length. Various shapes of arrowheads reflected their purpose: to pierce armour, make a larger wound, break through shields and so on. Whistling arrows that were used in China were imported to Japan. Before a battle opposing Samurai generals would fire a whistling arrow into the air towards the enemy to announce the opening of the engagements. The bow was drawn using the thumb and forefinger (Mongolian release) rather than any of the European releases. The effective range of the bow was only 10 to 15 metres and a fully armoured Samurai could only be killed when shot in the face or exposed point of the torso. It was to protect themselves from arrows that the Japanese developed the oyoroi style of armour. Archery (kyudo) in Japan became a highly spiritual affair and master archers were held in high esteem. Kyudo is still practised today as is yabusame (Japanese horse archery).

The Japanese Bow


Swords of Japan: Tsurugi - Chinese thrusting sword

The tsurugi and tachi swords were the two main sword types used in Japan before the Heian period. Influenced by the Chinese the tsurugi gets its name from the word tsuranuku, which means thrust. It had a straight double-edged blade whilst the tachi had a single edge.


Swords of Japan: Tachi - Japanese longsword

The original and most typical Japanese sword is called a tachi, and was worn hanging by cords from the waist. A much older sword than the famous katana, the tachi continued to be used alongside the Katana. Its name probably comes from the word tatsu, which means cut. During the Heian period, the tachi was was given a slight curve. Not as curved as the Katana it was to become primarily a ceremonial weapon during the later Sengoku period.

Swords of Japan: Uchigatana - Pro-katana

The Uchigatana was a shorted sword and ideal for drawing and striking in one motion. This was the pro-katana and the blade looks similar but length shorter than the katana. When the katana emerged as the primary weapon of the Samurai, the Uchigatana was shortened again and became the Wakizashi or companion sword. When not in armour, the uchigatana was worn thrust edge up.


Swords of Japan: Katana - Japanese sword

From the Kamakura to the Muromachi period the sword began to curve equally down through the length of the blade. One reason for this was that the Japanese began to grip the sword with two hands. A two-handed blow gave a stronger cut and sometimes a skilful warrior could cut through his opponent's helmet which thus inspired a change in armour style. The Katana is famous the world over for their quality. No sharper blade has ever been known. The blade, a layer of strong, hard steel between more flexible layers, is perhaps the finest non-surgical cutting device ever known. Blades were made by a master smith working with several apprentices. It was a long process and involved folding and refolding a hot bar of metal time and time again. The shaped sword is then given to a sharpener and polisher before being returned to the master for finishing and for his signature. The blade was sharp but not brittle. The swordsmith's quality was greatly admired and held in great respect. There are swords in museums over 800 years old which still look as if they were made yesterday. The katana was a deadly weapon in the hands of a master and a great deal of time was spent training, not only with the sword itself but also studying the human body and designing moves to hit vital points in the body such as limb joints and under the arm where armour was impractical. Japanese duels were usually short and fatal, sometimes to both combatants. The sword, like the bow, also became a part of the warrior's spirit and soul and warfare often took up a very sacred role for an individual.

Major parts of Katana

Various Katana

Swords of Japan: Nodachi - Field sword

Introduced to the battlefield during the Nanbokucho period (1336-92), the nodachi was longer than a man's height. It gave the opportunity to deliver fatal blows in single combat but was most effective when used to sweep at the legs of charging horses when defending against cavalry. Such a large sword could not be carried in a scabbard but was carried by a retainer.

Spears and polearms: Yari The spear / lance

The yari was the primary weapon of the infantry and was in fact more important than the katana from a military point of view. There is a famous Japanese saying that goes "a sword worth 100 ryo can be defeated by 100 spears each costing 1 ryo". The actual length of spears and lances varied but most were over eight feet, some being up to 16 feet in length . The shape of the heads also varied greatly. When carried the head was enclosed within a protective sheath. The yari were never thrown. They were strictly in-hand weapons. If the yari was broken a warrior would then use his sword. The yari was designed to cut as well as stab. Some lancers were so skilled that even at close quarters they could hold of several sword wielding opponents at bay or kill them by picking them off one by one. The yari was also used on horseback as were katanas. It was also successful at keeping cavalry at bay. When a Samurai used the yari he thrust it with his right hand giving him a screwing motion which could pierce an enemy's armour. The left hand was used to support the pole. The yari was generally used with both hands. The longer yari was introduced as a defence against the cavalry charge. The longer yari was introduced as a defence against the cavalry charge. They were used as a pushing weapon by formed units of ashigaru, not unlike a Macedonian phalanx. The yari at the time of the Sengoku period in Japan were about 4 metres in length and many yaris had a hook at the base of the head which could possibly drag a man of his horse. Some heads were up to a metre in length.

Yari head

Spears and polearms: Naginata Japanese polesword

The naginata was the favoured weapon of the warrior monks of Japan as well as by female and lower-class warriors. They were quite intimidating weapons. The naginata blade was similar to a katana blade but varied greatly in size and length. Some blades were a lot wider than katana blades and resembled Chinese halberds. One magnificent example had a blade 1.8 metres long with a 3 metre shaft. Unlike the sword its hilt was made from a lacquered wooden pole. Its length meant the enemy could be kept at a distance and also allowed for extra leverage which allowed for more powerful blows. The naginata was a formidable weapon, easy to use and deadly. The blade was almost as sharp as the katana blade if not the same. The shobuzukuri naginata was a variant of the naginata that had a blade almost equal in length to the considerably shorter shaft. It was favoured in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the Edo period the naginata was regarded as a woman's weapon and the daughters of Samurai were encouraged to practise with it. Many of them actually fought on the battlefield in the final stages of the Samurai period against the overwhelming firepower of the Meiji imperial army. Even today women train with naginatas as a form of martial art in Japan. There are few more graceful weapons then a naginata in the hands of a trained user. The nagimaki is a similar weapon but with a longer and slimmer blade.


Man with Naginata


Ninja weapons

The ninja are too complex a subject to explain in brief so I will for this part include only weapons and tools of the ninja. Because the ninja were not a noble class but often from poorer rural areas many of their weapons and those of the Japanese peasants are derived from farming tools. Also worth mentioning is the fact that many ninja were women. A female ninja is known as a kunoichi.

Ninja weapons: Ninja swords

The most important weapon to the ninja was the sword. This was the standard katana fighting sword but often ninja katanas were smaller. The katana was a flexible weapon and could act as both a sword and a shield. For this purpose it became the ninja's most useful weapon. To make climbing easier, the katana was not thrust through the belt like a samurai but carried over the shoulder or tied to the back of the ninja. It also made it easier to attack suddenly and without warning.

Another important sword carrying strategy require special mention. It derived from the need to explore in the potentially dangerous dark corridors of a castle. The ninja would balance the sword's scabbard out in front on the tip of the sword blade, with the scabbard's suspensory cords gripped firmly in his or her teeth. This extended the ninja's feel by a good six feet and if the scabbard's end did encounter an enemy, the ninja would let it fall and lunge forward in the precise direction of the enemy. The enemy would be slain before they even knew what had happened.

Ninja Weapons: Tetsu bishi

The caltrop. These consisted of sharp iron spikes arranged in shape so that which ever way they fell a spike would always be pointing up. A ninja would throw them to cover their escape and to effectively slow down their pursuers.

Ninja Weapons: Kaginawa

This was a hooked rope that was an important climbing device. When not in use it would be carried on a ninja's belt.

Ninja Weapons: Hokode

These were hand claws that could be used for climbing. They were also deadly weapons and could allow a ninja to strike without warning from their climbing position.

Ninja Weapons: Tekagi

Iron claws or knuckle dusters. These were made of iron and were effective at parrying a blade. They were used for climbing but also for fighting.

Hokode on bottom and Tekagi on top

Ninja Weapons: Shuriken

The ninja stars of legend. They were traditional Japanese concealed weapons that were generally used for throwing, and sometimes stabbing or slashing an opponent's arteries. These were of various shapes and sizes and were projected with a spinning motion. They usually targeted the throat or hands of an attacker and were used either defensively or offensively. Shuriken were mainly a supplemental weapon to the more commonly used katana.


Ninja Weapons: Kunai

Developed from gardening tools the kunai also known as a gouger was a cross between a broad knife and a paint scraper. It's blade was leaf shaped and usually made of iron. They were not the throwing knives of modern anime cartoons such as Naruto which call them kunai. Because Japanese castle walls were made on a wattle and daub core and plastered over, a ninja could gouge a decent size hole fairly quickly at the base of a castle and sneak inside. The kunai could also be used for climbing or as a weapon but not a throwing one. Ninja could also thrust a kunai into a tree and use it as a handhold.


Other Japanese Weapons: Kusari-kama or Kusarigama

When a ball and chain are attached to the end of the Kama, it becomes a kusarikama, a formidable (if hard to master) weapon because its range makes it extremely difficult for opponents to approach the wielder. The sickle and chain combination could prove deadly on one on one encounters. There was a weight on the end of the chain which could be used to tie up an enemy's legs then fling then to the ground or tie up the weapon of the enemy and snatching it from their grasp, thus rendering them defenceless to the kama itself. A similar weapon called Lian, possibly existed in China since ancient times. The ninja version had a smaller version of the scythe.


Kusarigama in action

Other Japanese Weapons: Kama

Kama are Okinawan and Japanese weapons that resemble traditional farming devices similar to a scythe. It was originally a farming implement, used for reaping crops. During the annexation of Okinawa all traditional weapons were outlawed. This led to the development of the kama and other kobudo weapons. It is sometimes known as a 'Hand Scythe'. Not a specific ninja weapon but they were definatley used by ninja.