The wakizashi is a Japanese short-sword and relative of the infamous katana. While not as well-known as the katana, the wakizashi is a blade rich in history and was only wielded alongside the katana by the samurai class back in feudal Japan.
The wakizashi is a sword equally renowned for its beauty, and craftsmanship as well as its terrifyingly sharp edge designed to cut straight through any enemies that dared face it, with a tip sharp enough to run armored enemies straight through.
The wakizashi was popular amongst the samurai as an indoor weapon, as longer swords such as katana and tachi are far too long and inconvenient for close up combat. Meanwhile, a dagger or tantō are far too small to be effective in a dual. Making the wakizashi ideal.
The wakizashi came into the samurai world as early as the 15th century in feudal Japan and was the most common secondary sword only able to be worn by the elite class of Japan’s society – the samurai.
While the blade itself at first glance appears to be nothing more than a smaller version of the renowned katana, they are in fact 2 different blades entirely. On top of their purpose and the status they brought by owning one, they could be forged differently as well.
Sword making has been a practice in Japan for centuries, and the classification of a sword is significant to the time it was created. The wakizashi is a member of the Kotō otherwise known as old swords. These were forged between 900–1596.
The wakizashi is a unique sword, though having many similar relatives when compared to other nihontō. Though a secondary sword a skilled samurai could be just as threatening with a wakizashi as he was with a katana. Interested in more about this amazing sword?
What is the Wakizashi Made of?
The strong material used to make a wakizashi swords is high carbon steel. Usually, 1045 steel, 1065 steel, or 1095 steel. The process of Japanese swordsmithing is a skill that has been passed down for centuries and is considered very sacred.
The Wakizashi is may look like simply a piece of metal, but there are many crucial steps that must be completed over the course of days or even weeks to create these flawless blades.
Wakizashi (and katana alike) are forged with high carbon steel known as Tamahagane, or jewel steel. A substance created through iron sand that is used specifically for the practice of Japanese swordsmithing and production of a few miscellaneous tools.
Japan has been renowned for centuries for it’s sword making skills, involving a process that melts down and folds the steel over itself over and over and constantly forging and re-forging in order to eliminate any impurities in the steel to ensure the end result is perfect.
This constant folding of steel not only helps thicken the layers to strengthen the sword’s edge and overall durability but adds to the beauty of the steel once the sword is allowed to cool in a faster way.
The blade is forged through this constant folding of soft steel and hard steel that can create over 1 million individual layers of steel in the blade. The blade is then clay-tempered in order to cool at a different rate than the rest of the sword.
This part of the hardening process is what creates the hamon of the blade. Hamon literally translates to blade pattern, which is visible and adds a remarkable beauty to the blade. This pattern is unique to each hand-made sword, thus making every sword unique.
Once the blade has been forged the sword needs to be properly assembled. The sword has a habaki which is a small piece of metal that has 2 main functions: locking in the blades guard, known as a tsuba, and helping the sword lock into its saya or scabbard.
The tsuba itself not only serves to add beauty to the sword and has artistic aesthetic features, but protects the user’s hand, crucial for a wakizashi which is a single-handed weapon.
The tsuba is placed in between two small plates meant to tighten or loosen the blades fitting. Usually made of bronze or iron known as the seppa. The seppa can also be silver or gold to add a more elegant look to the blade, increasing its beauty.
The tsuba is then connected to the tsuka, or the handle of the blade by the fuchi — a small metal plate that signifies the end of the starting point of the wrapping that is put around the handle. Usually matching with the kashira on the very end of the handle.
The handle is secured and kept tight with the help of the menuki which also helps to ensure that the blade will be fixed in its position and keeps it tight and secure in it’s place and is covered with Ito wrap to make wielding the sword more comfortable.
The wakizashi – like the katana, is an incredibly complicated sword to make and has countless components that need to all come together in perfect harmony in order to forge the perfect sword.
How Long is a Wakizashi Sword?
The range of length of the wakizashi sword can vary based upon whom the sword was forged. The range of the blade of the wakizashi is between 1 to 2 feet in length or 30-60 centimeters.
There are varying types of wakizashi, such as the ō-wakizashi which was similar in length to the katana. Alternatively, there was the kō-wakizashi which was similar in size to the tantō.
What is the Purpose of a Wakizashi?
The wakizashi goes back as far as the 15th century and was primarily used as a secondary weapon for the samurai. In the event, a samurai had been disarmed or his katana broke, the wakizashi was available to be used as a backup.
In addition, the wakizashi was utilized for close-quarters combat and in situations where a long sword would be less advantageous. It was also used to finish off a fallen enemy by beheading him.
On occasion, it was the weapon of choice to use in the practice of ceremonial suicide, also known as seppuku.
The wakizashi was also symbolic to a samurai. Wakizashi was never carried alone, as it was part of the Daishō, which literally translates to big-little, indicating the difference of the length of the katana and wakizashi – which was always carried as a pair.
As a part of the samurai class, one must show that they are truly part of the elite, and this was usually displayed with vast amounts of symbolism. Daishō being a large part of it. Such was the way of life for a samurai in feudal Japan.
Therefore, daishō was extremely important to samurai and they were required to carry 2 weapons on them at all times. One long sword, which were always the primary weapon, and one short sword that were to be used as a backup.
When it comes to daishō, the wakizashi was not the only option for a samurai to use as a secondary weapon. There was also the tantō blade, a smaller version of a wakizashi. The different pairings of swords were significant to the time period in Japan’s history.
What is the Difference Between Wakizashi & Kodachi?
To understand the differences between the wakizashi and the kodachi, one must first know what a kodachi even is in the first place. A kodachi is a smaller version of a tachi, another type of nihontō, or a traditional Japanese samurai sword.
The kodachi blade resembles that of its larger cousin, the tachi, which was a legendary blade known for its large curve.
Kodachi are handled in a similar fashion to that of a wakizashi but are mounted differently than the wakizashi. Moreover, the kodachi is a blade that must always be under 60 centimeters in length to be considered a kodachi, while a wakizashi can be 60 centimeters.
The wakizashi has a lot more freedom and room for variation in its length and design, meanwhile if the length of a kodachi deviates by more than a centimeter it will not be considered a true kodachi.
These historical blades differ in more than just appearance, as they are known for their usages in completely different time periods. The kodachi emerged as early as the 10th century and was used as a primary sword, rather than a secondary sword.
The reason for this being that 60 centimeters was considered too long to be a short sword, so it was able to be the shortest long-sword and was usually paired with a tantō dagger.
A samurai wielding a kodachi and tantō would be at a disadvantage facing an opponent wielding a katana and wakizashi, due to the larger length of both, the katana and wakizashi in comparison to the kodachi and tantō.
The kodachi were also made for any given samurai, while the wakizashi was specifically constructed for their individual wielder. Taking into account the wielder’s height, weight, and even if they were right or left-handed.
Needless to say, the wakizashi was a much more personalized weapon when it was in use back in feudal Japan.
What is the Difference Between the Wakizashi & Katana?
The katana and the wakizashi are both very similar blades in many ways, but also have several differences – especially regarding how they were viewed by the nobleman and samurai alike.
It is said that when a samurai was to be born, a katana was brought into the room to honor his welcome into the world. When the samurai died, his sword was put alongside with him. It was believed that even in death the katana could help a swordsman protect his nobleman.
These swords were so magnificent that they were viewed as being just as important as the samurai who wielded them. This however, was an unheard level of praise and glory for the wakizashi, mainly seen as nothing more than the katana’s shadow.
Like the kodachi and wakizashi, the katana and wakizashi have many similarities but also are quite different. The katana has several more obvious differences, such as length – the blade of a katana is generally over 60 centimeters in length.
It is important to note that the katana is a two-handed weapon, therefore further increasing the size of the overall sword. On average, a katana as a whole is about 100-110 centimeters. Meanwhile, wakizashi were shorter due to being single-handed.
On top of being the larger sword, the katana is also the older sword. There are reports dating back to the Kamakura period in feudal Japan, which was between 1185-1333 CE about the existence of the katana. The katana was designed in this period specifically to adapt to an ongoing threat to Japan at the time, which was enemies with stronger armor.
Unlike the tachi and kodachi, the katana and wakizashi model after one another with their modest curvature in the blade, while the tachi and kodachi had a significant amount of curvature.
The katana and the wakizashi were carried on the waist of the samurai, with the blade side facing up so that they could be used to strike an opponent with the same motion used to draw their blade.
However, the katana would always be on top, as it was the primary weapon and used in almost all combat situations, as opposed to the wakizashi, seen as a last resort for a samurai who was no longer able to use their katana.
The katana was a symbol of power, integrity, honor, and skill, and the wakizashi was seen almost as being used only by samurai who failed to finish their opponent with their main weapon.
What is the Difference Between Wakizashi & Tanto?
The tantō is the smallest level of nihontō, being about 7 inches in length or 20 centimeters. Technically speaking, a nihontō with a blade longer than 15 centimeters and under 30 centimeters could be considered a tantō.
Unlike the wakizashi, which is clearly a short sword, nowhere near small enough to be considered anything less — the tantō is more of a dagger. Though it functions much like a wakizashi, being that it is a secondary weapon used for close-quarter combat.
A huge difference between the tantō and the wakizashi is that not only the samurai class could wield them. While swords like katana, wakizashi, tachi, and other long swords and most short swords were strictly for samurai, tantō could be wielded by anyone.
While technically a sword, the tantō was used as a knife. In combat, it could be used for swift assassinations, or surprise attacks since it was easy to conceal due to its small size. An advantage that larger weapons like the wakizashi and katana don’t have.
Furthermore, being small and light in weight, one could slash and stab relentlessly at a great speed and inflict severe, if not fatal injuries with ease. As the katana and wakizashi are well known for their sharpness, the tantō – while small – is certainly no ordinary blade.
Another difference between the 2 blades would be their pairing. As mentioned before all samurai carried 2 blades with them at all times when they were in active duty. However, these were not fixed pairings.
Traditionally, wakizashi were placed together with katana, while tantō were placed with tachi.
This was to have a form of balance – as the art of being a samurai was not only based on physical strength and skills with a sword — but had a lot of spiritual and mental implications embedded in its philosophies.
The wakizashi and katana were similar in size and made an elegant pair, meanwhile the tachi — long and curved, and the tantō — small and much straighter, balanced each other out.
While the tantō may be the smaller blade, it’s the older blade when compared to the wakizashi. There is evidence that tantō have been used as far back as the Heian period which was between 794-1185 CE.
While uncommon, tantō could also be a literal double-edged sword. Mostly all nihontō were single edged, with a sharp blade for slicing, and a strong dull side for defense, but the tantō is an exception. Though rare, certain tantō have 2 asymmetrical bladed sides.
In conclusion, the wakizashi is often overshadowed by the katana and may not be as well known as other swords such as the tachi, tantō, uchigatana, etc. But this sword has been a part of Japanese culture and history for centuries and was a necessary weapon to the samurai.
What it lacks for in size is more than made up for by its striking beauty, razor-sharp edge, fascinating history, and the effort put forth to create such a weapon in the first place. A weapon that continues to be a beautiful part of Japanese culture, and a reminder of Japan’s rich history.