Japanese weapons – 28+ intriguing traditional combat items you never knew existed

KAZUMASA OGAWA – Military Costumes in Old Japan, Photographed by K. Ogawa, Under the Direction of Chitora Kawasaki of Ko-yu-kai (Tokyo Fine Art School), Tokyo, K. Ogawa, 1895 (Meiji 28)

Japan has a long history of finding novel ways to inflict harm on one and other. Whether it is the Japanese war fans that could be used to either cool oneself or remove an opponent’s eye. Or spiked metal balls that could be left in the leaves to make you wish you’d worn a more robust pair of shoes. Or any number of the large selections of swords of every conceivable length, thickness, and shape that there are to choose from, there is something ingenious, in a sadistic kind of way, about Japanese weapons.

Types of Japanese Weapons

  • Within the realm of traditional, ancient & medieval weapons you have the main categories of 
  • Japanese swords & bladed implements
  • Sticks, Poles, and Spears
  • Small & Ninja Japanese weapons
  • Japanese Guns & Firearms
  • Japanese Bows, Arrows & Projectiles

Japanese Swords (日本刀 Nihonto) & Bladed Implements

Japanese sword

Swords play an important role in Japanese History. They were commonly worn by the warrior classes and were both a symbol of status and visceral, ever-present physical reminder of the holder’s authority. 

As such, a large vernacular has sprung up around the naming of these Japanese weapons. As always, things change over time, new technology and techniques sprang up, leading to a plethora of variations within the makeup of Japanese swords. We will attempt to give an easy-to-understand overview of these below. 

The most overarching term for a Japanese sword in Japan is a “日本刀 Nihonto“, with Nihon meaning sword and to meaning sword.

The History of the Japanese sword

The history of sword making in Japan goes back at least to the Yayoi period in Japan in 1000 B.C. when blades were usually forged in Bronze.

The Japanese swords that people generally think of with a curved blade didn’t appear until the Heian period in 794

How are Japanese Swords categorized?

There are several ways that Japanese swords tend to be categorized in. These include:

  • Size
  • Shape
  • How the sword is used
  • How the sword is made
  • Time Period of sword manufacture
  • The “School” of sword making that sword comes from

Time Period of Sword Manufacture

Jōkotō 上古刀 – (Before 938 AD) 

“Jokoto” literally means “pre-antiquity swords”. This period is the ancient, formative period of Japanese sword design. A strong influence can be seen from sword production techniques from China in swords of this time.

Kotō 古刀 – (938-1596) 

“koto”  means “swords of the antiquities” and the period is commonly further divided into three sub-periods:

  • early Koto 初古刀 938 ~ 1319,
  • middle Koto 中古刀 1319 ~ 1460,
  • late Koto 末古刀 1460 ~ 1596,

This was the period in which Japan gradually began developing its own style of sword-making that was more distinct from foreign, mostly Chinese mainland, influence. Swords began to evolve into the curved-blade shape that is most synonymous with Japanese swords to this day. Many consider this period to be a “golden era” of Japanese sword making and many modern sword makers use these swords as their template for their current creations.

Shintō 新刀 – (1596-1780)

Shinto 新刀 literally means “The new swords” and it can be split up into the following sub-periods:

  • Keigen-Shinto 慶元新刀 1596 ~ 1624,
  • Kanei-Shinto 寛永新刀 1624 ~ 1658,
  • Kambun-Shinto 寛文新刀 1658 ~ 1684,
  • Genroku-Shinto 元禄新刀 1684 ~ 1764,

The changes to that brought about the “new sword” techniques were partly enviro-societal. This corresponds with the end of the Japan’s “Sengoku jidai” or “warring period”. With Japan being brought under centralized control, a period of relative peace and stability ensued. 

This meant that swords were less commonly used in real-life combat situations. This meant that their designs were free to become more ornamental or decorative in nature. Swords from this period became more elaborate.

Shinshintō – (1781 – 1876) Some of the criticism for shintō swords was the lack of durability and strength. There was a new movement to revive the sword-making craft of the Kotō during this time. 

The problem with naming something as “the new xxxx” is that pretty soon whatever was “new” has now become old! Think about all the apple computing products over the years that have been called “the new iPad or iBook” etc.

Shinshinto 新々刀 literally means “the new-new swords” and is divided into the following sub-periods:

  • early Shinshinto 初新々刀 1764 ~ 1818,
  • middle Shinshinto 中新々刀 1818 ~ 1854,
  • late Shinshinto 末新々刀 1854 ~ 1868,

These swords represent a reaction against the ostentatious, highly decorated swords that had come before. These swords had started to become criticized for being too much about form over function, and that they were not strong or durable enough to properly deal with real combat situations.

There was subsequent rediscovery or movement to move back towards the sword-making techniques of the ancient “Koto” period – a kind of Japanese sword renaissance period.

Gendaito 現代刀 1868 – today.

Gendaito 現代刀 means “modern swords”.  This term is used to refer to any sword produced after the Meiji restoration – the period after Japan opened up to international trade and travel after a two and a half-century period of self-imposed isolation. 

This was a time of rapid Westernization and modernization influenced by Western technology and production techniques. Many cultural mores were also imported, including the expectation that samurai would no longer routinely carry swords.

The sword-making industry was correspondingly massively depleted, and many of the greatest sword makers found themselves without a raison d’etre. 

Although those involved in police or military work continued to carry swords until WWII, the culture of sword-craft and production became more or less a niche operation.

Types of Japanese swords:

Given the long and extensive history of swords in Japanese culture, there are a plethora of types, genres and subtypes of Japanese swords. Here are a few of the main ones:

Tachi 太刀

Tachi Sword - Kanenaga
Kakidai, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The tachi is the blade that preceded its more famous “katana” of later generations. It was first produced in the “koto” period from around 900 A.D.  Longer and more curved than later weapons, it was a single-blade sword well suited to combat on horseback.

Katana 刀

Katana - Motoshige
Kakidai, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The “katana” is very much the poster boy of the Japanese sword world. Anyone that has watched a few jidai-geki Japanese period-drama films or is into combat-orientated manga will be aware of the word and the sword itself.

It evolved from the longer tachi of earlier periods into a shorter, and subsequently more agile, weapon. It could be drawn quickly, often a crucial advantage in hand-to-hand combat. It was worn, unusually for swords around the world, with the cutting blade facing upwards, which was once more about giving the wearer a quicker, more “natural” way of drawing the sword.

The Katana became the standard blade that the samurai class would wear during the middle ages in Japanese history.

What is the difference between a Katana and a Tachi?

The key differences between the two Japanese swords are:

  • The Tachi is more curved than the Katana 
  • The Tachi is longer (aprox. 27 9/16 to 31 1/2 inches) than the katana (approx. 23 1/2 inches)
  • Tachi is more suited to horseback combat
  • Katana is more versatile & agile
  • Katana is quicker and easier to draw
  • Tachi was worn cutting edge down, katana cutting edge up
    • The placement of the signature on the sword’s tang is opposite between tachi & katana Ōdachi 大太刀 Artanisen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons This is the sword you really don’t want to meet someone down a dark alley with!  The Odachi 大太刀 is a traditional Japanese long, or broad sword.  The “O” part of Odachi literally means “big” and Dachi is the same word as the “Tachi” which was mentioned earlier to refer to the earlier forms of large Japanese swords that predated the katana. It is also known as “2-hand sword” or “greatsword”, and were so big that they were sometimes carried by servants rather than on a samurai’s person. If they were carried by the warrior himself, they would have to be worn on the back.  These swords appeared around the 14th century as a result of advances in sword-making techniques associated with the greater strength and sharpness being achieved by the Soshu school of sword making.

Tsurugi 剣

Ken double edge straight sword Kofun period 5th century.jpg

An ancient (5th century) Japanese Tsurugi

A tsurugi is a straight, double-edged sword with little to no curvature.

Tsurugi are amongst the oldest known Japanese swords and were produced mainly from the Kofun (5th century) to Heian (9th century) periods in Japan.

These blades exhibit a Chinese influence and a similar to the Chinese Jian (or Chugokuken 中国剣 “Chinese sword” in Japanese). The Japanese blades tended to have a thinner shape than their Chinese counterparts. developed the Tsurugi between the 5th to 9th centuries. 

Because of their ancient origins within Japanese culture, these blades are sometimes used for symbolic or ritual purposes in Japanese shrines and temples.

The most famous example of a Tsurugi in Japan is the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which is one of the items of regalia, or treasure, associated with the Japanese imperial lineage.

Wakizashi 脇差

Wakizashi sword - Ishida Sadamune
Kakidai, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

脇差 wakizashi literally means “underarm divider” and was is the name given to a traditional Japanese sword that was designed to be worn with the katana. The length of these swords can vary but they are typically shorter than the katana. 

The Wakizashi has a curved blade, similar to its katana big brother, and were often worn by warriors of the samurai class. They were often paired with a katana and used for close hand-to-hand combat when a longer sword was not called for.

They are not as old as some of the swords on this list, coming into common use from around the 15th century onwards.

These are also the swords that are associated with the famed Japanese custom of ritual suicide seppuku or harakiri.

Tantō 短刀

Tanto sword, by Sadamune, Kamakura period, 1300s AD - Tokyo National Museum - Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan - DSC08808

Literally meaning “short sword”, the tanto is a short dagger, primarily designed for stabbing as opposed to slashing as you would with a longer sword.

Before the advent of the katana-worn-with-wakizashi combination, it was common for warriors to carry a tachi and a tanto.

Probably the most distinctive feature of the tanto in the larger context of Japanese swords is that it is a straight blade, although not double-edged like the longer tsurugi of old.

Women sometimes also sometimes carried a version of these short knife-sword tanto, called a kaiken,  in their obi belts for protection.

Other Sword-Like Weapons

Tekkan 鉄管

A Tekkan is like a short blunt sword, somewhere between a handled baton and a blade that is not sharp enough to cut. Tekkan 鉄管 literally means “metal tube” and the same weapon is also called a tetto 鉄刀 meaning “metal sword).

The wearing of swords in public was banned by the Meiji government in 1876. This lead to many people seeking alternatives to wearing a sword. They were looking for something that could give them a level of protection and prestige, but which they could still get away with carrying legally!

Kabutowari  兜割 Hachiwari 鉢割

Kabutowari or hachiwari were short daggers with a hook on the bottom that could be used for catching or prying. The word Kabutowari  兜割 literally means “helmet cracker” and Hachiwari 鉢割 means “bowl breaker” – a reference, once again, to breaking the bowl-shaped crown of the helmet.

These Japanese weapons could either be sharp blades, or dull pieces of metal that were used for blocking or prying.

You could see these implements being something like a massively elongated and weaponized version of a can opener that could be used to provide leverage to prize open whatever the item was applied to. 

Sticks, Poles and Spears

Bō 棒

Bojutsu demo01.jpg
A Bojutsu demonstration By Blmurch –  CC BY 2.0,

A Japanese bō (棒) is a wooden staff typically around six feet long. It is believed that they started out as walking sticks and weapons by Buddhist monks to beat away animals, but they are now used in martial arts.

Bōjutsu also known as ōyō-jutsu, ikkaku jutsu or bōgamae is the art of using the bō. It is strongly associated with Southern Japanese Okinawan culture, as the people of this region were not allowed to carry other more sophisticated weapons in the past.

Bo are typically made from a long piece of wood, shaped into a hollow tube. The word bō is translated as “staff” or “stick”.

The Bō is typically made from a hardwood tree native to the country such as Japanese Katsura or Hinoki. However, depending on the style of martial art being practiced, some train with weapons that are not made of wood at all.

Yari 槍

Antique Japanese (samurai) omi yari
jason-b, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese yari is a traditional Japanese spear. It is a weapon for close combat and for use in ceremonies. The Japanese yari is an iconic symbol of Japan’s feudal period. It was used by samurai during the Muromachi and Sengoku periods and was used by Japanese soldiers against Russian troops during the Russo-Japanese War.

Yari are classically two-handed weapons, but they can be wielded with one hand. They are mid to long range weapons so they are often used for thrusting attacks.

Tsukubō 突棒

File:Torimono sandogu (tools for capturing criminals).jpg
Three Tsukubo. img: Public Domain

The Japanese tsukubo, literally meaning “pushing pole ” or “striking pole” is a traditional weapon, powerful and powerful in the hands of a skilled user. It is a polearm with a curved blade on its end, several feet long that aids in defending against enemies with swords or other blades. It also has a hook that can grip onto an enemy’s blade or shield and then be pulled towards the user.

It is also a weapon that was used in feudal Japan to scare those who would go against it’s master. Its design was not very common and it consisted of a wooden staff with metal spikes metal chains attached at the top.

Naginata 薙刀

Naginata. Image by Samuraiantiqueworld

Formidable on the battlefield, yet beautiful in its construction, the Japanese naginata 薙刀is a weapon that has been popular for centuries. In fact, it is believed that it developed out of a 1st century weapon called the hoko yari. The naginata can be classified as a polearm and was designed to fight in close quarters. It has a blade at one end and a pointed butt-spike on the other. This design would give it a long reach while keeping enemies from getting too close.

Many people who are unfamiliar with the Japanese naginata will mistake this weapon for a simple spear or pole arm. The difference is that the naginata is created with a long, sword-like blade on the end. The blade is often curved.

Nagamaki 長巻

By Samuraiantiqueworld – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Japanese nagamaki, means “long sword” in English, is a weapon that has its origins dating back to the 12th century. They are characterized by their long handles and blades which can reach up to six feet in length. The blade on the nagamaki is traditionally slightly curved.

The Japanese nagamaki is a very unique weapon that can be classified as a polearm.

The blade was usually between 30 and 60 inches long, making it too long for practical use in close combat–which meant it was typically fighting at a distance. It was mainly used to cut down enemies before they reached the samurai.

Kanabo 金棒

A kanabo is a type of club, characterized by its square-shaped head made of specially forged iron. They are heavy, bludgeoning weapons that can be swung or thrust to inflict blunt force trauma on their target. The kanabo usually resembles a log and is often used in martial arts training.

Kanabos are a type of club with a square-shaped head, which is usually constructed out of a specially-forged piece of iron. Read more about the kanabo weapon.

Small & Ninja Japanese weapons

Tessen Japanese war fan (Japanese: 鉄扇)

A metal Tessen war fan. By Samuraiantiqueworld – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Japanese tessen war fan is a weapon that was used by samurai warriors in feudal Japan. It could be carried with the closed side of the fan facing outwards and used as a shield from arrows or blows from swords or other weapons. A samurai warrior could also use the tessen to slash and strike an individual at close range. The tessen was not only a weapon but also a status symbol for those who were able to afford one.

Shuriken 手裏剣 (ninja star)

5 types of shuriken. Img: by Chatsam

The Japanese shuriken is a traditional Japanese weapon consisting of a sharpened metal or stone blade that can be thrown at an enemy. The shuriken was used by the ninja as a throwing weapon and for close-range engagements. Although they were designed primarily to be used as weapons, shuriken are now mostly associated with the hobby of collecting and making them.

In feudal Japan, the Japanese shuriken was a staple weapon for ninjas. In modern times, these small blades have become a favorite of martial arts practitioners and even the occasional ninja warrior. These blades are notable for their unique shape and ability to be thrown quickly, often with deadly accuracy.

Also called “Ninja Stars” been used in Japan for hundreds of years. There are many different shapes and sizes of the shuriken, but they all share the same sharp points and edges.

Kunai 苦無

japanese weapon
Essaregee at English Wikipedia, GPL <https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html>, via Wikimedia Commons 

Japanese kunai were originally designed to be used as a masonry or farming tool. The weapon is typically between 30 and 36 inches long, but in some cases can be over 4 feet in length.

Over time, the Japanese Kunai came to be thought of as the weapon of choice for Ninjas, who used it not just as a weapon, but as a tool to dig holes in walls. It is a more ancient version of what we know today as a trench knife.

The kunai is a versatile multipurpose weapon. The word Kunai comes from the Japanese word meaning “to pierce”. This small, sharp blade has been used by the Japanese for centuries and is still today a favorite among hikers and hikers alike.

Kusarigama 鎖鎌


The Japanese kusarigama is a weapon that consists of a sickle-blade on one end and a weighted chain at the other. It was originally used for cutting crops, but because it could be used to kill people, samurai and ninjya came to use them as weapons because they can be concealed easily. Kusarigamas are also sometimes called “sickle-and-chain” or “chain-and-sickle”.

The blade, typically curved and sometimes serrated, is typically on one end of the weapon while the weight hangs from the other end. Kusarigama are often used to quickly disarm one’s opponent(s) by trapping their weapons in between both ends of the weapon.

This weapon has been depicted in countless anime including Naruto, Sword Art Online, and Bleach, but it is also an actual weapon that was used by samurai.

Nunchaku ヌンチャク

Various nunchaku. Img  Jimmijon~commonswiki

The Japanese nanchaku is a weapon used in Japanese martial arts including karate and kendo. The nanchaku is typically made from wood or metal and can be used to attack opponents with strikes, thrusts, slashes, and blocks.

The weapon was incredibly versatile, consisting of two sticks connected by a chain or leather cord that the user could swing at their opponent with either hand.

A nanchaku is not just used for use in hand-to-hand combat, but also to distract an enemy while using other weapons.

It is said that the Japanese nanchaku originated either in Okinawa (the region that the weapon is most closely associated with today), in the Philippines or in China where it was used for fleshing rice.

Tonfa (トンファー)

A set of Tonfa By Yo – Foto propia y hecha por mi, CC BY-SA 2.5

The Japanese tonfa is a traditional weapon that was used by people of several ethnicities. They are a multifunctional self-defense tool and can be used as a club, a shield, or a sword. Originally, it served as a farming implement in Japan where it was styled as an agricultural tool for harvesting rice because of its wedge shape.

The Japanese Tonfa looks like a wooden baton with a handle at one end. The weapon can be used to strike or block an opponent’s blade, or to strike the opponent by pushing the handle against their neck.

Makibishi 撒菱

Samuraiantiqueworld, CC BY-SA 3.0 

The Japanese makibishi is a small spike of metal that was thrown on the ground to create a hazard for an enemy. It is very similar to the caltrops and the tetrapods, which were used in wars of old.

When it comes to weapons, the Japanese makibishi is one of the more unconventional. These spikes are usually attached to an object with nails or screws to make sure they stay in place and can be thrown at an enemy’s feet to cause them some pain.

For centuries, the Japanese have been using sharpened pieces of bamboo to create traps to protect their homes. This weapon is most often used in an outdoor setting.

Sai 釵

Japanese Sai By Samuraiantiqueworld – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Japanese sai is a curved blade weapon similar to a trident. It is used in martial arts or for weapons training, and it has been part of the traditional Japanese martial arts and kenjutsu since the Edo period. The sai is typically between 18 and 24 inches long and was originally designed to function as both a close-range stabbing weapon and a “parrying” tool for defense against swords.

It has come to be considered a standard part of the costume for ninjas throughout Asia and Japan – not least because of their prominent use by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters.

The Japanese sai is a weapon of both offense and defense.

Japanese Guns & Firearms

Tanegashima  種ヶ島

Antique Tanegashima By Rama – Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

The Japanese tanegashima is a type of matchlock rifle that was brought to Japan from Europe in the 16th century.

The tanegashima is said to be one of the first firearms that could penetrate traditional samurai armor because its black powder gave it much more power than other guns at the time.

It has been suggested that this new weapon was easier for non-bow specialists to use because of the large rifle size.

Murata Rifle 村田銃

japanese weapon
By PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at Yasukuni Shrine, Public Domain

The first indigenously Japanese-produced service rifle.

Arisaka rifle 有坂銃

The Arisaka replaced the Murata in 1897 as the weapon of choice for the Japanese service-men. They continued to be used into WWII.

Japanese Bows, Arrows & Projectiles


A Japanese Yumi. Img Rama

The yumi is a longbow that that has been referenced in Chinese and Japanese literature as far back is the 3rd century.  The bow itself can be up to 3.7 meters (12 feet) long and it’s made of laminated bamboo with either silk or horsehair serving as the string. The arrows called ya, are typically made of bamboo and wide feathers that provide more accurate shots.

The Japanese yumi is also used in various modern and traditional events, such as the summer archery competition at Asakusa Shrine during the Obon Festival. The archers shoot arrows from a long distance at a target which measures 10 meters high and 15 meters wide.

In the sport of archery, the Japanese yumi is considered one of the most accurate and beautiful bows to shoot. They’re also very challenging. The yumi has a long and graceful shape and is made of bamboo that has been shaped into a curve by steam and then dried out.

Ukiyo-e by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicting Minamoto no Tsunemoto hunting a sika deer with a yumi. Yoshitoshi

Bō-hiya fire arrow 棒火矢

An Edo period woodblock print showing samurai gunners firing bo-hiya with hiya-zutsu (fire arrow guns). By Unknown Japanese Edo period artist – Public Domain 

Japanese fire arrows, or Bō-hiya, date back as far as the 6th century. They are a type of incendiary weapon that was initially used by samurai to start fires from a long distance away from enemy troops. Soldiers would carry boxes filled with alcohol-soaked materials and set them on fire before attaching them to Bō-hiya. These arrows were very dangerous as they could easily start fires in forests or buildings.

They were used to combat enemies from a distance. The arrows would be lit on fire and shot from a bow towards an enemy stronghold. At night, they could be seen burning from afar as they fall to the ground.

Fukiya 吹き矢

A fukiya. Img: ErakkoPapu

Fukiya blowdarts are a type of ninja weapon used in feudal Japan. The weapon typically consists of a large dart propelled by air. They were used as long-range projectiles and for venom extraction because the tip was soaked in poison. The darts usually had a range of up to 60 meters and were made from bamboo poles and paper wrapped around the tip.

The Fukiya could also be used as a breathing pipe to breathe underwater.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, that has provided a good overview of the different types of traditional Japanese weapons.