Traditoinal weapons of Japan used by samurai warriors


Japanese sword or katana

• Brief history of katana

The basic design of katana, which was said to have reached perfection as a weapon in the Muromachi and Sengoku periods, dates back to the curved sword called tachi used in the middle Heian period. Tachi was stringed beside the left waist with the cutting edge facing downward.

In Sengoku, the technical advance, booming demand, and change of fighting style helped to upgrade Japanese swords, and uchi-katana or uchi-gatana replaced tachi completely. Uchi-gatana, about 64 cm in cutting edge length, were worn at the waist with the edge facing upward, and became the indispensable weapon for all samurai soldiers. Take a look at the figure below for the part names.


• Katana as a symbol and artifact

Since ancient times katana had been made an object of veneration as a weapon to expel evil spirits. And one of the three sacred imperial treasures which proved the legitimacy of the imperial throne was katana. Within the context of history like this, katana became the symbol of the samurai class in charge of waging military action.

One could identify the maker of katana by the inscriptions engraved in the tang part. Katana made by famous swordsmith had brand value, and were used as a reward along with tea-making utensils to be given to those that won fame in the battlefield.
In the Edo period when most samurai became administrative officers serving shogun or local lords, katana served as a symbol showing a ruling status rather than as a weapon. There were collectors who saw katana as artifact and found aesthetic values in the sword design like tempered line and curvature.

Interestingly enough, katana made their come back at the very end of the samurai age lasting almost a millennium. When the western powers began to frequent the coastal seas demanding the opening of Japan and the public opinion was split in two, many promising samurai (shishi) perished in the fight against the old-guard rulers of Japan. The weapon used in the crackdown was katana which had rarely been drawn to kill people for the past three hundred peaceful years.

• Making of katana

In ancient times iron sand was used as raw material. Afterwards metallurgical iron or high-quality imported iron were also used. The sharpness of katana seems to owe a good deal to the forging technique rather than to raw material. After the blade was complete and polished, it passed into the hands of many craftsmen in charge of making fittings and furniture like hilt, guard, and scabbard. The following video titled Samurai Swordmaking demonstrates the process excellently.
Samurai Swordmaking

• Mechanics of katana

Katana has unique curvature or sori. The curvature reduces the impact of cutting by the mechanism shown below, and it also makes the cutting better by lessening the actual angle of the edge through the influence of the curved blade.


• Katana vs Longsword

Katana was supposed to be swung in such a way that the tip describes a large circular arc at first and ends with a smaller arc. This changing arc of cutting and the effects of curvature described above helped to realize 'pull-cut', making katana a formidable weapon. The video below compares the performance of European longswords with that of katana.
Japanese Katana VS European Longsword

• Katana as a weapon in the battlefield

Katana was so precious to samurai that they were called the soul of samurai. However, contrary to expectations, they do not seem to be used often in actual fighting.

Traditionally in Japan, soldiers preferred a long-range combat using bows, and, if they had to engage in a close combat, they used spears and long-handled swords like naginata rather than katana having shorter reach.
Whereas katana was widely known as a weapon that cut well without breaking or bending easily, the reality was that they broke easily even in the fight with wooden swords, and it did not cut well however wildly untrained soldiers swung it around.
A researcher who bothered to check 201 cases of wound records in Sengoku found that the sword wounds accounted for only 4 percent and the greatest cause having more than 40 percent ratio was the arrows and gunshot wounds.

According to the report by a katana expert who took care the repair work of two thousand Japanese swords used in Sino-Japan War in 1937, 60 percent of the failure source was attributable to hilt. Hilts themselves were broken, hilt strings and rivets broken, and sword guards got shaky, etc. We might say the katana's weakness in hilt was a major fault as a weapon when compared with a Chinese sword which had a single-piece hilt. The weak hilt may be one of the major reasons that katana was not used so widely in the battle.

• Katana for swordsmen

Among many martial arts that samurai should learn, swordplay was the most basic and indispensable art. Many samurai chose a career as swordsman to master the secret of swordplay, giving birth to several tens of new major schools.
Katana, when used properly, could cut the opponent in two in literal terms. Japanese people were good at getting great performance out of a simple tool by ingeniously managing it. Katana was a good example.

For master swordsmen katana was not only a tool. Its form, weight, and capability was incorporated in the swordplay as a whole to become an integral part of each school of swordplay. Katana seems to have a profound facet that turns away easy comments made by an inexpert like the webmaster.

Spear or yari

• Features

Spears were brought to the battlefield on a full scale in the middle Kamakura period. Their features of being long on reach and having high striking power rapidly made the spear a major weapon in the close combat. A variety of spearheads called ho were designed and used actually, but basic types as shown below prevailed. Stabbing, hitting, sweeping, cutting, hooking in. Spear-wielding art on horseback, along with swordplay, was one of the musts that high-ranking samurai should learn.


In Sengoku when mass fighting by draftees and mercenary soldiers became mainstream, single-function forces equipped with spears were deployed at the forefront. The spear unit or yari-gumi soldiers were trained to hit the enemy single-mindedly from above or form lines of spears held ready to attack. Their spears became longer and those as long as 6.5 meters were on record. The spear unit consisting of untrained soldiers with long spears continued to play a major role in the battle even after matchlock guns became widely used.

Toward the end of Sengoku, spears having metal hooks in the shaft called kagi-yari were used extensively. The hook, edgeless and removable, could hook in the opponent's body part or receive his attack. Some say 90 percent of all spears used in the battle of Sekigahara were kagi-yari. Kagi-yari was plain and ill-shaped in design, but still they seemed to have such prominent features as mass-productivity and utility.


Bow or yumi

• Features


Japanese bows or yumi, developed independently from the world trend, were long in total length and had an asymmetric form. The hard part of using yumi was to accommodate the different tensional forces of the bowstring as could been seen from the figure below. Archers had to develop matured techniques to get the most out of yumi as in the case with other Japanese weapons. In the traditional preference to long range combat, proficiency in the art of archery had been regarded as the exclusive feature of samurai along with the art of horse riding.

There were two kinds of shooting methods: shooting on horseback, and shooting while walking. And for samurai, the shooting on horseback was regarded as the most important skill. The rule was to reduce rapidly the distance to the enemy and shoot arrows at close range in the gaps under armor to make them out of action. The special technique required was the accuracy of shooting arrows from the horse running at full speed in quick succession. The shrine ritual called Yabusame was also meant to train the samurai archers shooting from the running horse.

The body of yumi evolved from a wood stick of an early date to composite yumi to yuge-yumi shown below in pursuit of higher repulsive force. Yuge-yumi is an ingenious mix of bamboo and wood sticks, and the current Japanese art of archery uses this type of yumi. The maximum shooting range of yuge-yumi was said to be 400 to 450 meters, and an effective range, 200 to 250 meters.


Matchlock or teppo

• Brief history of teppo

It is generally believed that matchlock guns were first introduced to Japan in the middle of 16th century by a Portuguese ship which drifted ashore on Tanegasima island, one of the southernmost islands of Japan. At first they were imported at high prices, but, buoyed by booming demand, blacksmiths and other craftsmen in the areas surrounding Kyoto began to make teppo themselves. Before long, teppo spread rapidly throughout the country. Some say there were 500 thousand guns in Japan at the end of Sengoku: the number equaling nearly half of all matchlock guns in the world.

Gunpowder was made from sulfur, charcoal, and niter. Since niter was very scarce in Japan, it had to be imported. As use of teppo became widespread, securing niter was one of the overriding issues for Sengoku warlords. It is said that some warlords offered fifty abducted Japanese women in exchange for a barrel of niter, or they converted to Christianity only to make a good bargain over niter.


• Innovative power of teppo

It was Oda Nobunaga who took notice of the significant potential of teppo and put it in the battle in a big way. He used three thousand teppo in the decisive battle with the Takeda family, and won a one-sided victory which was a rarity in large-scale battles. His victory using a large number of teppo led to the creation of gun units or teppo-gumi as a main force, making an epoch in fighting style. After the introduction of teppo, Sengoku moved rapidly to its end. Iron tubes or teppo marked the turning point in the war-torn Sengoku period.

• Making of teppo

Teppo consisted of a forged gun barrel, a wood stock, and metal mechanisms called karakuri. Among them, the method of producing the gun barrel is of special interest.

First, a thin iron rod the size of the bore caliber was made, which was called shingane. An iron plate was heated and hammered to make a tubular shape. The heated tube was then made into a barrel using the shingane. A heated iron strip was wrapped around the barrel two times to enhance strength. After the part near muzzle was made thicker to withstand high impact upon shot, the shingane was drawn out. Finally the breech was closed by screwing in the tapped plug. The craftsmen were said to have a very hard time making screws.

This method of making a gun barrel was similar to that of Damascus Barrel, but it was different in some respects. It would be reasonable to think that Japanese craftsmen made gun barrels by incorporating the traditional forging process with that of Damascus Barrel.

Armor or yoroi

• Features

Japanese armor was marked by the use of small steel or cowhide scales called kozane about the size of a lighter. Several thousands of kozane were laced overlapped each other by about half their width to provide both firmness and flexibility. In addition to numerous kozane, making a suit of armor needed a wide variety of materials like deerskin, lacquer, silk cord, cloth, dye, brass, copper, and gold for plating. It took about two years to complete.

O-yoroi or great armor in the periods before Sengoku weighed about 25 kg, and was used by the high-ranking samurai on horseback. The cowhide used for yoroi had to be taken from the back of cows and of high quality to prevent arrows to penetrate, requiring a quantity of eight cows. The cost of making a suit of O-yoroi, which consisted of eight cows, eight big deer, precious materials, and two years labor charge, was said to be equal to the cost of building a big residence. It was rather an art work than armor. For details of yoroi, please visit the website The Evolution of Japanese Armour

• Modern armor

In Sengoku modern armor called tose-gusoku was widely used to cope with mass fighting, sped up combat, and the menace of teppo. Its main features included the use of an one-piece steel cuirass, face plate or menpo, cuisse or haidate, and lighter weight. The figure below illustrates the appearance and main parts.


Military and literary arts

Strong armor and a sharp weapon were not enough to survive in Sengoku. Heirs to samurai families learned the martial arts and classics day and night to develop their fighting skills and build up a knowledge about human affairs.

Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, the founder of the Shinkage-ryu school of swordplay, underwent hard training for three years in Kashima of Hitachi Province. His inspired swordplay and noble character owed a great deal to the sincere efforts in his youth at the place with 600 years of military tradition and glory. The following is part of the curriculum that he went through, and it is a kind of curriculum that it was not unusual for ordinary young samurai to undergo in those days.

• Martial arts

1.Swordplay: several tens of positions (kata) of swordplay handed down to Kashima-shinto-ryu

2. Iai-jutsu:Art of drawing one's sword, cutting down one's opponent and sheathing the sword, all in one motion.

3. So-jutsu: Spearmanship on horseback and on the ground

4. Kyu-jutsu: Art of shooting an arrow on horseback and on the ground

5. Bo-jutsu: Art of fighting with a cudgel

6. Tai-jutsu & ju-jutsu: Art of fighting with bare hands wearing heavy armor

7. Shuriken-jutsu & Inji-uchi: Art of hitting one's opponent with shuriken or gravel stones

8. Sui-jutsu: Art of swimming and fighting in the water wearing heavy armor

• Classical knowledge

1. Chinese military classics: Seven Military Classics including Sun Tzu and others

2. Arts of forming forces, designing castles, and strategy

3. Art of geomancy

4. Zen sitting meditation

• General culture

1. Analects of Confucius or rongo

2. The Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism or shisho-gokyo

3. 31-syllable Japanese poem or waka

4. Japanese dancing or mai

5.Art of social intercourse, etc