I am not sure when or where it was that I first heard the word “Samurai”. Like most people, I have an image which comes to mind when I read the word or hear the name. Yet, up until recently, my image had been based upon western films, television shows, and popular novels; all of which tended to romanticize the Samurai and the Shogun era. It was difficult to anchor those bits and pieces of information presented about the feudal period of Japan into any larger, global, historical context. I had no reliable base from which to critically evaluate the historicity of the image which I had formed within me. Oddly enough, it was an interest in Traditional Chinese Martial Arts which would introduce me to a more complex knowledge base from which to assess Japan and its martial history. The Samurai have been taking their rightful place as subject material within the budding libraries of research articles in Martial Arts Studies. The weapons, practices, and legacies of these Samurai have been briefly explored in the years past and are now being re-explored from more modern, interdisciplinary perspectives.
This is all well and good that I have stumbled into the intricate world of the Samurai. However, initial disorientation is inherent to the nature of stumbling. When I began investigating the Tantō knife, I became acutely aware of not having the bearings I needed to fully understand or appreciate what I was reading. I found myself seriously lacking in information about Japanese history in general and about Japanese sword-making practices in particular. I realized that I would first have to take several steps backward before I could begin to move forward; beginning with the basics and then slowly building upon a firmly laid foundation. So, today is about laying the ground floor for myself, and for those readers who wish to do the same; layer by layer. * “Historians do not agree on exactly when various periods started and ended, so the dates listed are approximate. Japanese writing often refers as well to nengo, or shorter periods named after each reigning emperor.” – Masaaki Hatsumi
LAYER ONE: THE SAMURAI
Asuka and Nara Periods
Most accountings of the Samurai tend to begin with the Heian Period (794-1192 CE). However, Wikipedia begins with the pre-cursor to the Samurai during the Asuka (538-710 CE) and Nara (710-784 CE) Periods. At the end of the Asuka Period in 645 CE, Japan had become united and had acquired a new Emperor. Crown Prince Naka no Ōe and Emperor Kōtoku worked together on a set doctrines to reform Japan. The “Taika Reforms” were put into implementation a year later by the now Emperor Tenji (former Crown Prince Naka no Ōe) in 646 CE. These reforms set the conditions from which the Samurai would eventually emerge and dominate affairs in the later Heian Period.
“This edict allowed the Japanese aristocracy to adopt the Tang dynasty political structure, bureaucracy, culture, religion, and philosophy. As part of the Taihō Code of 702 CE, and the later Yōrō Code, the population was required to report regularly for the census, a precursor for national conscription. With an understanding of how the population was distributed, Emperor Monmu introduced a law whereby 1 in 3-4 adult males were drafted into the national military. These soldiers were required to supply their own weapons, and in return were exempted from duties and taxes. This was one of the first attempts by the Imperial government to form an organized army modeled after the Chinese system. It was called “Gundam-Sei” by later historians and is believed to have been short-lived. The Taihō Code classified most of the Imperial bureaucrats into 12 ranks, each divided into two sub-ranks, 1st rank being the highest advisor to the Emperor. Those of the 6th rank and below were referred to as “samurai” and dealt with day-to-day affairs. Although these “samurai” were civilian public servants, the modern word is believed to have derived from this term. Military men, however, would not be referred to as “samurai” for many more centuries.” – Wikipedia
During the early Heian Period (late 8th and early 9th centuries), Emperor Kanmu carried out military campaigns to expand and unify northern Honshū with Japan. During this time he introduced the title “Shogun”. During his campaigns, the regional clans were relied upon to conquer the Emishi of Honshū. “Skilled in mounted combat and archery, these clan warriors became the Emperor’s preferred tool for putting down rebellions; the most well-known of which was Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. Though this is the first known use of the title “Shogun”, it was a temporary title and was not imbued with political power until the 13th century. At this time (the 7th to 9th centuries), the Imperial Court officials considered them to be merely a military section under control of the Imperial Court.” – Wikipedia
Emperor Kanmu disbanded his great army once his primary goal had been achieved. His decision caused a sharp decrease in his effective power. The power he lost was picked up in turn by influential clans from the Kyoto region. These clans filled the minister positions and these ministers appointed their relatives as magistrates. The clans accumulated wealth from taxing the farmers under their jurisdiction. From wealth comes power and the degree of power came to over-ride the power of the traditional aristocracy. In response to the exploitation of the farmers, the farmer clans armed themselves and provided their own protection against the Imperial magistrates who controlled their lands and collected their taxes. Then clans formed allies to protect themselves from more powerful clans. “By the mid-Heian period, they had adopted characteristic Japanese armor and weapons.” – Wikipedia
The Rise of the Samurai occurred in the late Heian Period. The word “samurai” basically means “those who serve in close attendance to nobility”. The original Samurai were in service to the Emperor and non-warrior nobility. The Samurai were, in turn, the Warrior Nobles. These warriors gained power by accruing manpower, resources, and political backing. When they had enough influence, they established a “samurai-dominated” government. “Because of their rising military and economic power, the warriors ultimately became a new force in the politics of the Imperial court. Their involvement in the Hōge Rebellion in the late Heian period consolidated their power, which later pitted the rivalry of Minamoto and Taira clans against each other in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160.” – [Wikipedia]. This all happened when Taira no Kiyomori became the first warrior to be an Imperial advisor. From that position he was able to seize control over the central government and the emperor became a mere figurehead. Once in power, the Taira clan did not expand nor strengthen their military to stay in power. Instead, they exerted their influence through marrying their women to Emperors; creating intermarriage lineages and loyalties. In the years following, Shoguns (the heads of the clans) gained the right to make appointments: organizing soldiers and police, collecting certain taxes. “Initially, their responsibility was restricted to arresting rebels and collecting needed army provisions and they were forbidden from interfering with Kokushi officials, but their responsibility gradually expanded. Thus, the samurai class appeared as the political ruling power in Japan.”- Wikipedia
Ashikaga Shogunate / Muromachi Shogunate (1336-1573 CE)
Now we get to a very interesting point in time. Under the Ashikaga Shogunate, much of what we recognize about the Samurai becomes developed. One of the most influential determinations for the development of our concept of Samurai was that of the spread of Zen Buddhism among the samurai of the 13th century. The accepted standards of conduct were developed and supported by the philosophical principles of Zen; more specifically, by the Pure Land Buddhism version of Zen. The Samurai needed to overcome their fears of death and of killing. They did this by internalizing certain core concepts from Zen Buddhism. This is the period which would later be re-invented and promoted as the origin of “The Warrior Way”; the honor code of Bushido, which is actually highly contested amongst modern day historians. Evidently, Bushido is a more recent invention which is but projected into the history of the Samurai. Be that what it is, the Samurai are seen to have had an Honor code of discipline and morality, to protect and obey their master’s orders. What is certain is that the Samurai was backed by the authority of the Shogun and the Shogun had power over the emperor. The Samurai would dominate the Japanese government and society until 1868. During those influential years, the Samurai were highly trained individuals who were well-equipped and elite warriors. They were experts in and with: hand-to-hand combat, ground fighting, sword, bows, spears and fighting from horseback.
Because martial arts were the life and livelihood of the Samurai, it is not surprising that they created their own customs and attitudes concerning their weapons. The weapons most dear to the Samurai’s heart were his swords. “Samurai believed that their warrior spirit was contained within their swords.” – ravencresttactical.com. They personified their swords and gave them names as a sign of respect and dedication. Others identified the samurai with their swords, as well; so much so, that the next layer of foundation is a layer of knowledge about Samurai weapons. The history of development and use of the Samurai blades is interwoven with the history of Japan and the history of its master swordsmiths. The blades began as straight swords and evolved into curved blades. There was a shift from the Tachi to the Katana and there was a pairing of long swords with short swords / knives; called “daisho”, meaning simply “big and small”. The daisho which this essay is concerned with is the Tachi-Tantō combination, which appeared long before the more well-known Katana-Wakizashi daisho. The second layer of information, to be presented next, is a continuation of historical investigation; but, now concentrating on why the Samurai needed the Tantō.
LAYER TWO: THE SAMURAI AND THE TANTŌ
The Tantō was invented halfway through the Heian Period (794-1192 CE). This was a time of great violence in Japan. “The Heian period was dominated by the rise of the Fujiwara family and its control over Japan. But the Fujiwara needed to be protected from the rebels and dissidents who threatened their power and so they increasingly relied upon professional combatants and soldiers. These men who served the Fujiwara and other noble families would soon define themselves by that service, they would become known at the end of this period as those who serve – the samurai.” – [Paul O’Brien]. With this increased threat, came an increase of violence; resulting in an increased need for more effective weapons. The Tachi had long been the primary weapon for warriors in Japan. It was a long sword which hung blade edge down. It was used for outdoor fighting where there was enough room to wield its length. It was ineffective for indoor fighting and fighting in narrow spaces. The Samurai needed a shorter weapon, no longer than 1 shaku (1 ft). It needed to have a strong design, as it was primarily intended for stabbing and secondarily for slashing.
“For the most part, the samurai chose the tanto style blade as their blade of choice for their weapons. This was not a coincidence; this was a well thought out strategic choice. Japanese samurai armour was typically made up of many small parts and a wide variety of materials. Steel, leather, and wood typically form the protective plating, which may be composed of many small sections laced together using leather or silk cord. Samurai armour was designed to be strong, protective, flexible, and terrifying. Being that the body armour being worn was very heavy duty, the samurai needed a weapon that would excel at piercing through tough materials. The tanto blade was the desired choice for Japanese long and short swords.” – ravencresttactical.com.
During the Kamakura Shogunate (1185  – 1333 CE), the Fujiwara family was overthrown. Samurai placed the first true Shogun of Japan, Minamoto no Yoritomo, in power. The new historical period which this move created is called the Kamakura Period. With the military power of the Samurai, a moment of peace fell over the land; the quiet before the storm of relentless combat of the feudal era. “With this momentary pose before the renewed civil war and Mongol invasions the History of the Tanto would take a dramatic turn. The tanto took on less of [a] combative function and became far more ornamental in appearance and function. Different blade styles and lengths were developed, including the Nanboku-chō, significant for its longer blade, nearly 40cm (10 cm longer than the standard 1 shaku/ 30 cm) length. Artisans experimented with different widths, styles of hamon (temper-line) and blade types. This refinement of the tanto sadly would not last as battle loomed once more. Dispensed with were the ostentatious and artistic flairs of the tanto – replaced with the cruel simplicity of functional lethality.” – Paul O’Brien. This illustrates what is often noted in the world of weapons-history; that in times of peace, weapons become less martial and more artistic. The other extreme is also seen; that of lower quality weapons being massed produced in times of great need. The challenge for the warrior is always finding a balance between quality and expediency.
During the violent feudal period of Japan, the Ashikaga Shogunate would prove to be the most violent and volatile years in Japanese Military History. These years are also referred to as the Sengoku Period: Age of the Country at War. This was followed by a period of unification; at the hands of three successive unifiers. Paul O’Brien presents these three leaders in his article, “History of the Tantō: Part Two”. The first unifier was Oda Nobunaga (1573). “Throughout this period of unification Tanto knives were badly needed with the increase in civil strife but badly made due to mass production. With the finite resources of steel and metal available the tanto became shorter and thinner, thus leaving more raw material for further blades. Some smiths still produced excellent quality and beautiful pieces but for the majority the concern was less on quality and more on the fast turnover that was required by the unprecedented demand.” Nobunaga was ruthless in his iron-will to bring the country under his control. As a warlord, he amassed the largest amount of land up to that period. For his efforts and means, he would be assassinated by his own lieutenants; leaving his commander, Toyotomi Hideyoshi to avenge his death.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi is Japan’s second great unifier (1537-1598 CE). He is remembered for his land acquisitions, military expeditions into Korea and his ambitions to attack China. Through this unification, an end was brought to the Warring Staes Period of Japan. Without an appropriate heir, Tokugawa Ieyasu stepped into the position of power; becoming the third great unifier by securing an unrivaled lineage which lead to 200 years of relative peace. One of the most important changes he made was to legally regulate the possession of weapons; making the Samurai the only persons allowed to bear arms. The Samurai will forever be imaged with their arms at hand.
“Throughout the unification of Japan and the struggles of these 3 men to shape the nation, tanto knives would take their penultimate shape also. Major advancements in weaponry would take place, chiefly the development of katana – the most well known style of Japanese sword, and its shorter companion blade wakizashi. Suddenly the tanto was rendered obsolete, unneeded and as such its manufacture fell into decline. The only blades made during this period were artistic imitations of the great blades of years gone by.” – [Paul O’Brien]. The Tantō would see a short revival right before the dawn of WWII. With the re-ascension of the emperor, a wave of nostalgia flooded over Japan. A reverence for the Samurai warriors of the past led to the renewed trend of wearing daisho and the Tantō once again became popular. Unfortunately, this would “lead to the greatest reduction of tanto to date. After the loss of Japan to allied forces, the production of weapons, particularly those associated with extreme militaristic wings of Japan were banned. The history of the Tanto knives would have effectively ended at this point were it not for the efforts of American and European enthusiasts of the Japanese martial arts. With their interests in the Koryū (old schools of martial arts) and Gendai budō (modern martial arts) the tanto has seen a resurgence since the 1960’s. This trend is continuing to increase with many modern Americans and European knife companies, such as Cold Steel, looking to the tanto as inspiration for their modern blades and it looks like the history of the Tanto will continue.” – Paul O’Brien
LAYER THREE: THE TANTŌ KNIFE
The third layer added to our foundation of knowledge is of a categorizing and technical nature. Rather than focusing on the social-economical conditions surrounding the development of the Tantō, this information explains the actual knives; forging, statistics, qualities and uses. These descriptions bring a mental image of what exactly the Tantō is, in physical terms. For those well familiar with blades, the images are quickly formed. For those less familiar, it takes a bit more effort to connect the dots to form the image. Let me walk the reader through Wikipedia’s description of the characteristics of the Tanto Blade. “The tanto blade has a high point with a flat grind, leading to an extremely strong point that is perfect for stabbing into hard materials. The thick point of the tanto blade contains a lot of metal near the tip, so it is able to absorb the impact from repeated piercing that would cause most other knives to break. The front edge of the tanto blade meets the back edge at an angle, rather than a curve. As a result, the tanto blade does not have a belly, which is sacrificed in exchange for a stronger tip. However, it’s extremely strong point allows it to be used in tough situations where piercing hard materials is required. The Japanese tanto is a Japanese dagger carried by samurai. Specifically, the Japanese tanto is one with a guard that has all of the fittings used in swords. The Japanese tanto was designed primarily as a stabbing instrument, but the edge can be used to slash as well.”
It is my understanding that the forging of Tantō is rather tedious and very labor intensive. I have read that they are made with a specialized steel named, Tama hagane. “Through this smelting process, a steel is produced that consists of a carbon count that is balanced throughout the steel making it the optimal steel for fashioning a sword. Master Swordsmiths then begin the process of folding, the steel begins and can be folded up to 16 times. This process helps to remove any remaining impurities, while also creating alternating layers that greatly increase the toughness and durability of the blade.” – ravencresttacticals.com.
The basic structure of the Tantō blade was different than the usual blades which the Samurai had been using. This has everything to do with its intended goal. However, it is evident that many variations in Tantō existed. These variations, even within the Tantō class, had to do with functionality in their specific intended usage. “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 the katana. Some tanto have particularly thick cross-sections for armor-piercing duty, and are called ‘yoroidoshi’. 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“. – sleepingsamurai.com.
The two most common types of the Tantō blades have been the Hira Tantō (mentioned above) and the Shobu Tantō. The Hira Tantō is a very simple and functional knife. It has an edged bevel which runs all the way from the edge to the spine; producing a triangular cross-section. The Shobu Tantō is similar to the Shinogi, but lacks the yokote (transition line which separates the blade from the tip). Its edges curve smoothly and are uninterrupted from the point of the blade. These are merely two very popular Tantō styles. The Shinogi was a very popular form of blade for long swords; but, was rarely been seen in a Tantō. A short list of other Tantō types include: Kanmuri-otoshi, Unokubi, Kissaki-moroha, Osoraku, Hochogata, Katakiriha, Moroha, and Yoroi toshi / Yoroidoshi. The Japanese Sword Index website lists seven Unusual Styles of Tantō: 1.) Kubikiri Tantō, has an inside curve to its cutting edge, 2.) Fan Tantō, a knife and sheath disguised to look like a folded fan, often of low quality, 3.) Ken Tantō, very rare, double edged, 4.) Yari Tantō, made from spearheads, 5.) Pistol Tantō, single shot pistol, 6.) Hachiwara Tantō, this is not a true Tantō, it is a forged iron bar used as a sword breaker, 7.) Saw Blade Tantō, very unusual, a saw blade is mounted in handachi style koshirae, the purpose is unknown.
The Kaiken Tantō / Kuaiken needs to be added to these lists. This is a short Tantō often mounted in Aikuchi or Hamidashi styles. They were used for in-door self-defense; in places where longer blades would be too inconvenient. What is especially remarkable is that women were known to carry them, hiding in the obi of their kimonos. Married women had at least one Kaiken Tantō; given as a wedding gift from their family. The mounting style Aikuchi has no hand guard and Hamidashi has but a small hand guard; making them both suitable for tucking away into an obi. These knives could be very ornate (koshirae) or of plain undecorated wood (shirasaya). “A tanto would most often be worn by Samurai and it was fairly uncommon to come across a commoner with a tanto. It was not only men who carried these daggers, women would on occasion carry a small tanto called a kaiken in their obi, and would be used for self-defence.” – bladespro.co.uk.
From this quote, I assume that the women using the Kaiken Tantō were of a higher than average socio-economic class. For a large portion of the Tantō history, only Samurai were given the right to own weapons. The women within the Samurai classes are the women I would expect to be receiving Kaiken Tantō in their wedding trousseau. What the quote above does not mention is that there were also female Samurai who actually trained in martial arts and used their skills in combat. These were certainly fewer in number than their male counterparts; composing a relatively small group within the total Samurai population. Yet, I find it noteworthy to mention these women, because they did exist, just as the more rare Tantō also existed and are also worth mentioning. They both belong in the laying of our foundation of understanding of the Tantō, the Samuari, and the history of Japan. Hopefully, I have provided an adequate base for readers who had no earlier foundation; for those who wish to build their own collected knowledge of the these subjects. And, hopefully, I have provided a re-enforcement to the foundations of those readers who have already laid their own foundation. Naturally, there is much more to be said about the Tantō. But, I think I have reached my own limit of the telling for the moment. Time to let the foundation rest and strengthen with time.