Tanto- The Armor Piercing Sword

Tanto- The Armor Piercing Sword

A weapon was designed in the mid-Heian Period to protect the dominant Fujiwara family of Japan. It is a deceptively short blade but, an effective killing weapon. This is what the tanto is. Those who served the Fujiwara family and other noble families are defined by the service they provide: the samurai. With the rise in fighting and an increase in levels of violence there was a need for personal arms. Before the tanto, the primary personal weapon of protection was the tachi, a long sword. The tachi is ideal for outdoor engagement but, its length was not suitable for attack inside narrow halls of a home or compound. The solution was to develop a shorter weapon, not longer than a foot long or equivalent to one shaku. The result was tanto, it might be thin but, it is strong and designed specifically for stabbing. This small weapon can penetrate an opponent’s flesh and even his armor. The Samurai had established military control and the family they once serve has been overthrown. Thus, the first Shogun ruler of Japan named Minamoto no Yoritomo established his Kamakura shogunate. Under his rule, the samurai experienced a temporary period of calmness before the fight over power started in feudal Japan.

Tanto Evolution

During Minamoto no Yoritomo’s rule, the tanto took a less combative function thus it was used primarily as an ornament. Different blade types and lengths were developed which includes Nanboku-cho. The latter has a longer blade which is nearly 40 cm. in length. These refinement of the tanto did not last when battle loomed once again. After the fall of the Kamakura Shogunate, the Emperor was place into power as Japan’s figurehead. This resulted to countless war and the need for weapons dramatically rise. The once artistic flairs of the tanto was replaced with something simple in design but, deceptively lethal.

The Sengoku period takes place where the country was at war. Japan was at war for at least 200 years. The tanto was excessively used and needed during this violent period in Japanese history. From the time that it was developed, the tanto have evolved. Another dominant ruler was Oda Nobunaga, who came to power using ruthless strategies. He ruled Japan with a will of iron. The tanto developed during this period was thinner and shorter since the resources for steel and metal was in short stock. This is not surprising with the increase in civil strife, sword smiths were pressured for a fast turnover. There were just a few smiths that produce excellent quality and beautiful pieces due to the unprecedented demand.

Nobunaga died and was avenged by his commander, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He was considered as the second unifier of Japan. During his reign he even led expeditions to Korea and have plans of attacking China. He died without a strong heir. As a result, his generals fought between themselves. The outcome was a victorious Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was considered the third and last unifier of Japan. His lineage secured peace in Japan for 200 years. Throughout the struggle for Japan’s unification, the tanto underwent different changes. Major advances in weaponry also took place which resulted to the Katana and its shorter companion sword, the wakizashi. When these pair entered the picture, the tanto suddenly becomes outdated. This trend changed briefly prior to World War II. The Emperor ascended in power. He want his warriors to follow the example of the samurai where they wear the daisho.  Once again tanto made a comeback. However, this was just a temporary occurrence. It was short lived and resulted to the diminishing need for the tanto to this day.

After Japan loss to Allied forces, weapons associated with extreme militaristic activities were banned. Tanto’s colorful history would have ended at this point if not for the efforts by American and European martial arts enthusiast. These nations have developed an interest in Koryu and Gendai Budo. These modern martial arts place a resurgence for the tanto since the 1960s. This growing interest in tanto looked to it as inspiration for modern blades. Tantojustu or traditional martial arts has experienced a revival in the West during the 1980s. Tanto provides the practitioners with a point style tactical knife that they need to practice with. The Tanto was known during this period for its ability to stab and pierce.

Suguta and Koshirae Tanto

There were two styles of tanto. Under Suguta Style Tanto

  • Hira-tsukuri is one of the common tanto developed where it has a flat side and with mune
  • Katakiriha tsukuri has a chisel type edge (kissaki). Tanto like this is considered rare. Kissaki moroha tsukuri that has a long o kissaki is another rarity
  • Moroha is double edged tanto and has a diamond shape cross section. This kind of suguta tanto style is somewhat rare
  • Shobu tsukuri is similar to that of shinogi tsukuri but this tanto has no yokote. This is categorized as common blade

Under Koshirae Style Tanto

  • Kaikan. This was a short tanto carried by women
  • Kamikaze. This was basically shirasaya with horn mountings
  • Hamidashi. Small sized tsuba
  • Aikuchi. This has no tsuba. Generally, this comes with unwrapped tsuka. A lot of these has horn kashira

The tanto is a dagger with either single or double edged blade that range from six to twelve inches. This dagger was designed for stabbing however, its edge can still slash the opponent. With a thick point, the blades can withstand impacts and shocks. Some knives may break especially when frequently used for piercing however, the tanto is designed for this purpose. Although this dagger is shorter than the Katana this is still considered as a good weapon for attack and self-defense. Today, tanto is designed with blunt plastic or wooden blade to avoid accidents and injuries. The blades of today has a blunt version used for demonstrations and advanced martial arts training sessions. As a survival knife, tanto remains a versatile blade. From being just a practical blade born out of necessity; the tanto is now a source of influence; for present and future modern blades.