The wakizashi

Inspired by an article that appeared in the Tôken Bijutsu about a year ago and on which I will elaborate in the second part of this post, I was once again reflecting on the entire topic of the wakizashi (脇指・脇差). Well, due to the nature of the article, I was first focusing on mere blade lengths and restrictions but as my thoughts were spreading wider and wider, I thought it might be a good idea to write all that down in order to provide a general overview of this sword type. I guess when the term wakizashi is dropped, most of us automatically think of the shorter twin brother of the katana that represents one half of the famous daishô (大小) sword pair. Also many know that the wakizashi emerged sometime during the Muromachi period and that later on, it was so to speak the “maximum” of a sword a civil person was allowed to carry. This is all correct, so nothing has to be set straight right away, but the matter is of course much more complex. First of all, some etymological explanations. In earlier times, especially before entering the mid to later Muromachi period, the term katana (刀) was not referring to the katana as we know it today but to a short, dagger-sized and single-edged blade, or to a dagger in general if you want, and was mostly used as suffix (also with the Sino-Japanese reading ) in a compound term. For example, in historic sources we find terms like koshigatana (腰刀), uchigatana (打刀), tsubagatana (鐔刀), futokorogatana (懐刀), chiisagatana (小サ刀), wakigatana (脇刀), kogatana (小刀), or shôtô (小刀). From the context we often get a pretty good idea about what kind of sword or dagger was meant but many entries are ambiguous, e.g. when a later edition of a work quotes the very same paragraph with a different term than the initial one. The matter is further complicated by the fact that some terms were just used interchangably and that there were no universal dictionaries that defined terms and made their use mandatory, at least not until rather recent times. The first real scientific approaches that tried to put all that together, i.e. doing etymoligical studies and comparative researches of the sources, do not date before the mid-Edo period. So we are entirely relying to context interpretations of the original sources on the one hand, and on the more or less accurate views and interpretations of Edo period experts on the other hand. And with experts I mean that the Edo period scholars who wrote down their definitions were usually not sword but military historians and experts on the warrior class. Also important to note is that when reading their texts, we learn that by the mid-Edo period, that means at a time when the country had seen no larger battle for at least over a century, a great deal of sword and armor knowledge of the past had already been lost as some of them openly admit that they are merely guessing on what certain elements and features were for or how and by whom certain sword forms were worn and used. But we are not entirely groping in the dark, that means due to many many studies we have today a quite decent overview of what was going on in terms of swords for each era.

Actually, it is all not that complicated if you leave aside the Japanese terms for the time being and think in general sword/weapon terms. The pre-Edo period warrior, i.e. we are talking about the times before the big regulations came into play with the Tokugawa-bakufu, had (when it comes to swords) basically the following options: Long sword, shorter side, companion or ersatz sword, and dagger. It was now up to the rank, wealth, social status, field of application of his military unit, occasion, and other factors for what sword or what combination of swords a warrior was going. Over time, different terms came into use to refer to different interpretations and to different fields of application but basically they were all just talking about the one or other of these basic three sword types or sword combinations. All that we have to do is to find out what time, what clientele or wearer (aristocracy, bushi, or civilan class), and what occasion (e.g. battle, ceremony, civil service, private life) we are facing to break down the different terms. So there were approaches to classify these three sword types according to length, or to blade length to be precise, what resulted in the umbrella terms daitô (大刀) for the long sword, shôtô (小刀) for the shorter side, companion or ersatz sword, and tantô (短刀) for the dagger. Others tackled this need for proper naming from the point of view of use and introduced the term honzashi (also pronounced honsashi) (本差) for the the main, the longer sword, and the terms wakizashi (脇指・脇差), wakigatana (脇刀), wakimono (脇物), or sashizoe (差添), for the companion or ersatz sword. Incidentally, it is assumed that the terms wakizashi and wakigatana were actually shorter forms of the term wakizashi no katana (脇差の刀), for example noted that way in the late 14th century epic Taiheiki (太平記) wherein we read that “[when the tip of Fuchibe’s sword broke,] he threw it away and drew his companion sword” (sono katana o nagesute, wakizashi no katana o nuite, その刀を投げ捨て、脇差の刀を抜いて). And as the text is referring to the person in question wearing the other sword in a pocket at his chest, we learn that the ersatz sword was in this case a dagger and not a wakizashi-length companion sword. So as mentioned, we are talking about (more or less neutral) umbrella terms and terms like honzashi or wakizashi do not make clear without context to what kind of sword they are referring to, only that it was either the main or the side/companion/ersatz sword.


Picture 1: Higher ranking samurai wearing an ô-yoroi.

Back to the sword form wakizashi. Companion swords were worn early on to the main sword when going into battle. The main sword had, as far as battles are concerned, always been the tachi (and later on to a certain extent also the uchigatana) and the companion sword was by default a dagger. Please note that I stick to the Japanese way of addressing and also refer to daggers as “swords” in the first place. Well, some bushi opted for longer companion/ersatz swords, occasionally even to go with rather than instead of the initial companion dagger, and it is assumed that the origins of this trend have to be found within the turmoils of the Sengoku era. With all that had happened after things were escalating in Kyôto during the Ônin War, warriors of all ranks were eager not to be caught off guard at any time and have an “as full as possible” ersatz sword in case something happened with the main sword. Let me demonstrate that on the basis of some illustrations as a picture is worth a thousand words. In picture 1 we see the so to speak default armament of a mid to higher ranking mounted warrior throughout all periods. The armor and armor parts changed of course over time so please don’t pay too much attention to details of the armor shown. As you can see, the warrior is wearing a tachi suspended from the belt via two hangers and a companion sword, in this case a koshigatana-style dagger, that is thrusted through the belt. The bow was the main weapon, the tachi was for for attacking and defending at closer ranges (and of course for possible duels), and the dagger was an allpurpose “tool” and used as last resort in hand-to-hand combat and when the tachi was, for whatever reason, not available or applicable.


Picture 2: Warriors wearing companion swords that are conspicuously longer than daggers.


Picture 3: Uchigatana in aikuchi-style mounting intended to be worn thrusted edge-up through the belt as companion sword to the tachi.

Picture 2 now shows about how the Muromachi-period trend of wearing longer side swords had looked like. These swords were pretty much what we understand today of early wakizashi but please note that back then, the term wakizashi was a more neutral one as for example also an uchigatana mounted with a 70 cm long blade could have come under the category of side/companion/ersatz sword. To avoid confusion, it has become custom to refer to these longer swords by their other term sashizoe instead of wakizashi but strictly speaking, something like seen in picture 2 would come, when worn with the tachi, under the category of a wakizashi as it was not the main sword. Well, it is unclear when the term wakizashi became synonymous for companion swords that were in terms of length somewhere in between the main, i.e. the long sword and the dagger but reading between the lines of historic documents and analyzing their context, it seems that this “shift” in meaning took place sometime between the Momoyama and the early Edo period. Probably this was connected to the development of the “civilian samurai uniform” consisting of a kataginu/hakama ensemble and a pair of swords thrusted edge-up through the belt that took place at that very time (please see here for additional information). It was namely then when a quasi more standardized side sword started to form, or in other words, with entering the Edo period and the establishment of the daishô, it was no longer ambiguous to what kind of sword the term “side/companion word” was referring to and so the neutral term wakizashi slowly became the synonym for the smaller companion sword of the sword pair. And with that we are right at where for the first time nationwide sophisticated sword laws were issued.

So with the establishment of the Tokugawa-bakufu, the Tokugawa government regulated now very strictly all swords, i.e. how long a sword had to be, who was allowed to wear what kind of sword, and when certain swords had to be worn by whom. The honzashi of the samurai, i.e. the katana, was limited to a blade length of 2 shaku 8 sun (~ 84.8 cm) and the wakizashi to 1 shaku 8 sun (~ 54.5 cm). However, these measurements were slightly adjusted later. In the eighth year of Kanbun (寛文, 1668), the Tokugawa-bakufu issued the so-called mutô-rei (無刀令) with which it prohibited all persons not belonging to the samurai class to wear swords with a blade length over that of a ko-wakizashi (小脇指). Therefore a ko-wakizashi blade was determined to measure maximally 1 shaku 5 sun (~ 45.5 cm). Later this law was relaxed and so travellers of the partial dangerous Tôkaidô – the then main road between Kyôto and Edo – were allowed to wear swords with a nagasa up to 1 shaku 8 sun (so to speak a wakizashi instead of a ko-wakizashi) for their self-defence. So basically the Tokugawa government was saying that as a civilian, you were legally maximally allowed to carry the side/companion sword of a samurai. Everything between a wakizashi and a honzashi, i.e. a sword with a blade length of 54.5 to 60.6 cm, was classified as ô-wakizashi (大脇指). Please note that these measurements varied over time. For example, we also find law texts wherein a ko-wakizashi is defined as measuring maximally 1 shaku 3 sun (~ 39.4 cm) instead of the aforementioned 1 shaku 5 sun (~ 45.5 cm). Also please note that for wakizashi that measured in between a ko-wakizashi and an ô-wakizashi, also the more specific term of chû-wakizashi (中脇指) existed.

But although these laws sound quite strict, the transition between ko-wakizashi, chû-wakizashi, and ô-wakizashi were fluid and even if the eyes were surely on the bushi who were walking through the streets of Edo during their sankin-kôtai stay, there was no official “sword police” going through the rural fiefs making all samurai unsheath their swords and measure the nagasa of their mounted blade. So basically it was like no plaintiff, no judge and when there was no sword incident caused by a civilian that had to be officially investigated, it can be assumed that no one would take notice if you wore a chû-wakizashi instead of a ko-wakizashi on one particular day. When I say “sword incident caused by a civilian,” I am also referring to the fact that civilians were not only allowed to arm themselves with wakizashi because of robbers and similar risks but also to defend themselves against members of the samurai class who were going to make (unjustified) use of their right of kirisute-gomen (切捨御免), their right to strike with sword anyone of a lower class who compromised their honor. Parallel to the rigid hierarchic social class structure that was eventually cemented in the Edo period, underground organizations and outlaws were emerging in not to be underestimated numbers. There were for example gamblers (bakuto, 博徒) and peddlers (tekiya, 的屋) whose partially strict internal codes made them the predecessors of the modern yakuza. “Heroic” members of these groups who defended the “poor” townsmen against unlawful and arbitrary acts of local samurai were romantized as kyôkaku (侠客), lit. “men of chivalry.” Of couse these kyôkaku did not follow the law and as they actually saw themselves as “Robin Hoods,” they were wearing longer than allowed (often handachi-style mounted) wakizashi (see picture 4), which were not named ô-wakizashi but naga-wakizashi (長脇指・長脇差) in this context. In addition and in order to restore local peace, the bakufu had sometimes no other choice than granting the heads of these “organizations” certain rights so that they were at least able to keep other underground groups in check, and one of these rights was actually the permission to carry a naga-wakizashi instead of a ko-wakizashi. As you can see, the bakufu sometimes rather preferred to turn a blind eye to certain things as long as they were no longer bothered with it. Incidentally, these kyôkaku were thus also referred to as naga-wakizashi, i.e. about “those with the long wakizashi.” As these naga-wakizashi were from their outward appearance pretty much identical to a katana, also terms like ipponzashi (一本差) and ippongatana (一本刀) came in use to refer to the kyôkaku. These terms have to be understood as allusion to the term nihonzashi (二本差), lit. “the two sworders” or “the two-sword-wearers,” which was another name for a member of the samurai class.


Picture 4: Tattooed kyôkaku with a handachi-style mounted naga-wakizashi.


But naga-wakizashi were not only worn by outlaws. They could also have been the choice for a samurai who preferred to wear, for whatever reason, a longer sword pair. And with this we arrive at part two of this post. Sometimes it is hard to tell if a shinogi-zukuri blade, or a shinogi-zukuri shintô or shinshintô blade in particular, that measures slightly less or slightly over 2 shaku was intended as katana or as wakizashi. As mentioned earlier, transitions were fluid and the historic sword order I am introducing next is an important reference as it does not leave any doubt about what we are facing. It is a sword order placed by the Saga fief to two of their smiths, the 2nd generation Kawachi no Kami Masahiro (正広, 1627-1699) and the 4th generation Tadayoshi (忠吉, 1669-1747), who are addressed as Hashimoto Kawachi (橋本河内) and Hashimoto Shinzaburô (橋本新三郎) respectively, and reads:


Picture 5: Extant sword order from the archives of the Masahiro lineage (preserved in the Saga Prefecture Library (佐賀県立図書館).

一 長サ 弐尺壱寸七分 弐腰
一 反  少しすくめニ
一 刃  得手次第
打立可被差上候 以上
霜月六日 牟田七郎左衛門
Namigitae naga-wakizashi chûmon
• nagasa 2 shaku 1 sun 7 bu – futakoshi
• sori sukoshi sukume ni
• ha ete shidai
Migi no tôri hitokoshi ate kitto deki 
uchitate sashiagarubeshi-sôrô, ijô.
inu no
shimotsuki muika Muta Shichirôzaemon
Hashimoto Kawachi dono
Hashimoto Shinzaburô dono 
Order for ordinary forging quality naga-wakizashi:
two blades with a nagasa of 65.7 cm
• sori rather on the shallow side
• ha(mon) dependent upon the forte of the smith
Please make each sword according to these points.
Year of the dog (Genroku seven, 1694)
Sixth day of the eleventh month, Muta Shichirôzaemon (probably an official of the Saga fief)
to Mr. Hashimoto Kawachi
to Mr. Hashimoto Shinzaburô


wakizashi6-NidaiMasahiroPicture 6: 2nd generation Hizen Masahiro.

Hizen mainline swords in particular are very good for distinguishing between short katana and oversized wakizashi as their tangs were strictly finished according to the intended use. This means, blades that were intended as long swords or honzashi, in short as katana, were signed in tachi-mei, i.e. on the side of the tang that faces towards the wearer when wearing the mounted sword thrusted edge-up through the belt. Apart from that, the tangs of honzashi were finished with a somewhat roundish nakago-mune. Wakizashi in turn were signed in katana-mei and finished with a flat nakago-mune. So if you find a Hizen- with a nagasa of about 2 shaku and you are not sure if it is a katana or a wakizashi, check for these two features and they tell you exactly what the sword initially was.

As for the wakizashi-sized blades in general, there are certain rules of the thumb that can be applied to find out what the sword initially was. If you have a shinogi-zukuri shôtô that is obviously longer than dagger (e.g. sunnobi-tantô) size and shorter than katana size and that dates from the early to the late Muromachi period, you can assume that it was worn as wakizashi or sashizoe just like shown in picture 2. And the longer the blade, the more likely it is that they were mounted with a tsuba. If the blade is shorter and in hira-zukuri, it was probably worn as koshigatana like shown in picture 1. Please note that there were also longer, for example 45~50 cm measuring shôtô in hira-zukuri worn as wakizashi/sashizoe. Now with the approaching the Momoyama era, chances are increasing that a shinogi-zukuri shôtô was worn as wakizashi to the civilian samurai uniform. If you have a later Muromachi blade but that predates the Momoyama era and that measures somewhere around or slighty lesser than 2 shaku and comes with a relative short nakago, you are most likely facing a katateuchi. Katateuchi were intended for single-handed use, thrusted edge-up through the belt, and often worn as wakizashi/sashizoe to the honzashi, the tachi. So these blades too were worn just like shown in picture 2, although with the difference that katateuchi were by default mounted with a tsuba. Entering the Edo period, it is, as indicated, sometimes hard or even impossible to tell if a blade that measures somewhere around 2 shaku was ordered by a member of the samurai class to be his hon or his wakizashi. Many factors like personal preferences, body height, fencing style and so on come into play that might have influenced his choice of wearing an over or an undersized daishô pair. Also it is very difficult to tell in concrete numbers how strong the “impact” of kyôkaku and other outlaws were on the output of around 2 shaku measuring blades but the fact that the term naga-wakizashi was synonymously in use to refer to these guys suggests that there must had been a considerable number of such blades made for them.


Picture 7: Wearing the kodachi.

And then there is another category of swords that must be addressed when talking about side swords, and that is the kodachi (小太刀), the lit. “small tachi.” A theory says that the kodachi was born from the necessity that aristocrats wanted longer blades than koshigatana to wear in coaches (kuruma, 車) for their self-defence, i.e. after having handed over the main sword, the tachi, to the sword bearer. Therefore also the terms kuruma-gatana (車刀) and kuruma-dachi (車太刀) were in existence for shorter swords which were no daggers. Kodachi blades measure somewhere between 1 shaku 7 sun (51.5 cm) and 2 shaku (60.6 cm) and what distinguished them from contemporary uchigatana was that they were interpreted in shinogi-zukuri and basically maintained the proportions of a tachi. Uchigatana in turn were made prior to Muromachi times in hira-zukuri and were usually rather wide. Well, some speculate that kodachi were smaller tachi of the younger sons of the aristocracy or higher-ranking bushi (or especially for their genpuku ceremony) whilst others even assume that they were worn by women. The former approach and the approach that kodachi were alternative swords of higher-ranking persons is supported by the fact that many of the extant and unaltered kodachi were made by great master smiths, although it is of course quite possible that all the others, i.e. the ones that were not cherished as treasures, were just lost over time. Interesting is that also the term hakizoe-kodachi (佩き添え小太刀) existed what means that some kodachi were worn – edge down suspended from the belt as the prefix haki (佩き) implies – worn as side/companion/ersatz sword to a honzashi. Problem again is here the very limited evidence base, and that is especially true for kodachi-koshirae. But it is most likely that the kodachi was worn as seen in picture 7, i.e. with a simple hanger-system to formal and semi-formal outfits. One of the major references in this respect is the signed kodachi by Rai Kunitoshi (来国俊) that was once offered with its koshirae to the Futarasan-jinja (二荒山神社, Tochigi Prefecture). As experts assume that the mounting is original to the blade, the sword as a whole, i.e. not only the blade, was designated as kokuhô. The koshirae is interpreted in hirumaki style (蛭巻), that means hilt and saya were spirally wrapped with leather which was lacquered black. The fittings are of yamagane and the fukurin of the tsuba, the seppa, and the kabutogane were gilded. The area between the two ashi hangers bears a red-lacquer inscription which reads: “Kishin-tatematsuru Kaneko Genchû + kaô” (奉寄進金子玄忠). So it is assumed that this Genchû was the one who offered the sword to the shrine and that he was one of the ancestors of the Kaneko Tôdayû (金子頭太夫) family which later held one of the shrine offices. Very interesting historical piece but way too unique to draw conclusions on the appearance of kodachi in general.


Picture 7: kokuhô, kodachi, mei: “Rai Kunitoshi” (来国俊), nagasa 54.4 cm, sori 1.67 cm, motohaba 2.3 cm, sakihaba 1.4 cm, shinogi-zukuri, iori-mune, very dense and fine ko-itame with ji-nie, suguha in ko-nie-deki with a rather tight nioiguchi, ko-ashi, sunagashi, and kinsuji.wakizashi9-kodachi

Picture 8: kokuhô, kuro-urushi hirumaki tachi-koshirae (黒漆蛭巻太刀拵), overall length 88.8 cm


I hope I was able to give you a decent insight into the vast world of the side sword, the wakizashi, and I should be back in a little with the next part of the Kantei series.


One thought on “The wakizashi

  1. I could’ve sworn i googled the Bakufu…whatever in Kanji/Hiragana and found sources that say the size was limited to 2 shaku 8, 9 sun…namely, eight, comma, nine, sun (the Japanese comma, not the comma on the keyboard)… It may mean the nagasa has to be between 8 to 9 sun if it goes beyond 8? Sorry, just wanted to clarify…the longer the better (Always!) – Caleb

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