In casual conversation, most people will refer to a Japanese style sword as a "Samurai Sword", this is fair enough, but to anyone who knows a bit about Japanese swords, it is an extremely generalised comment. Just as western swords come in many different sizes and styles, such as short sword, long sword, broad sword, bastard sword etc. Japanese blades also show massive variation in terms of style, and the purpose of this section is to inform you of the myriad array of Japanese sword styles that are available. Please note that the term 'genuine' or 'real' means a sword that has been traditionally forged in the Japanese style and could theoretically be used in battle (although this is unlikely to happen today!). The term 'replica' refers to a sword which has not been made in the traditional fashion, and has not been sharpened. These blades are still often as sharp as most pocket knives however, and due to their size and weight can still inflict serious injuries if misused. It is important to remember at all times that any sword is a lethal weapon, and should be respected as such. If you are interested in learning to wield a sword, please refer to the links page, which gives information on how to find a proper instructor . Replica swords vary greatly in quality from high quality Iaito used for practicing kata training forms, to 'wallhangers', which (usually) look nothing like a proper sword under close inspection, and are not recommended for use as practice weapons, as they can break simply due to the momentum of a swing.
The Daito (Long swords)
The Ken (Literally "Sword" in Japanese) is the most basic and undeveloped example of a Japanese blade. The blade is straight and double-edged like a western broad sword, and features none of the characteristics of other Japanese swords. The blades were often fluted or shaped unusually at the point, making for an interesting design. Ken were the first swords to be used in Japan, and quickly became obsolete with the rise of the new sword making techniques which led to the development of the Katana. Today, examples of Ken are rarely seen, whether they be real or replicas. There is little demand for them, but real Ken can still be worth large amounts simply due to their scarcity.
The tachi is a older though still very effective version of the katana. The blade is much the same as a katana blade, and is a massive improvement over the archaic ken. The fundamental difference between the tachi and katana is in the mountings (the handle and scabbard of the sword), which are distinctly different. The main differences are the the tachi is intended to be hung from the samurai's obi (belt-like sash), whilst the katana is thrust through it. The tachi saya (sheath) also features a ito (wrap) similar to that used on the handle of a katana. This is to aid in drawing the sword, and also allows the saya to be used as a weapon in extreme circumstances. The style of these fittings meant that the tachi was designed to be used exclusively in one hand. Because of this, even after the development of the katana, a few samurai actually favoured the tachi over the katana, particularly if they fought from horseback, as one free hand was required to control the horse. After katanas became the principle weapon of the samurai, tachi were fitted with the newer blades to make them more effective in battle. However, the katana was considered a central part of a samurai's honour, making it much more popular than the older tachi. Also, the martial arts mastered by the samurai focussed on wielding a sword two-handed, and the tachi was simply not designed with this in mind. However, tachi were still occasionally used in battle, and were kept for ceremonial use by many of the samurai clans. Whilst not as common as katanas and wakizashi, tachi can still be found today with relative ease. There are many historical examples available, and newly made tachi can be purchased in both replica and genuine forms.
The Katana is the king of all Japanese swords. When a person refers to a 'samurai sword', 99% of the time, this is what they mean. The katana represents the pinnacle of sword making, and was the culmination of hundreds of years of sword making in Japan. It is an almost perfect sword. Most people have heard stories about the sharpness of the blade, and it is true that amazing feats can be accomplished with a katana. It is possible for an experienced person to cut a small tree (about 4" trunk diameter) down in one stroke with a well-made katana. They are also extremely durable, and are very, very difficult to break. The katana and samurai became so closely associated, that it was forbidden for anyone else (except lords and emperors) to wear one. In more practical terms, the katana is a very flexible weapon, as it can be wielded just as easily with one or two hands, although most samurai preferred two hands, as this is how sword-fighting was generally taught in Japan. Also, the sword was so good at parrying enemy sword strokes without being damaged, that shields were never used in Japan, since they were just not needed. Today, both historical and modern examples of katanas are easily found.
The Shoto (short swords)
The wakizashi ("companion sword") is identical to a katana in every respect, except for it's size. A wakizashi is approximately 2/3 the length of a katana, making it only suitable for one handed use. Traditionally, it was worn with a katana, forming the pair of swords which was the mark of a Samurai in medieval Japan. Unlike the katana, anyone of a class higher than the peasants (such as merchants, artisans and those with a profession) could wear a wakizashi. Samurai rarely used their wakizashi in battle, unless they were fighting in confined spaces where a katana was simply too large to use effectively. It also provided an effective sidearm in case the Samurai was disarmed or his katana was broken in battle. Because they were not strictly confined to the samurai class, far more wakizashi were made than katanas. Thus, there are more historical examples of wakizashi to be found than katanas. However, since anyone can buy a katana today, and due to their popularity, it is easier to find both replica and genuine versions of modern katanas than it is to find modern wakizashi.
The tanto is a long dagger half the size of a wakizashi (1/3 the size of a katana). It is similar to these two swords in most other respects, except it always has a straight blade. It was only ever used as an absolute last resort in battle, because it was simply too small to make an effective weapon. In other cultures, warriors often used knives to despatch wounded opponents or kill them stealthily. However, a Samurai's code of honour, the Bushido (way of the warrior), meant that such tactics were seen as dishonourable and cowardly, so very few samurai would be prepared to use a tanto in this fashion. The most common use of the Tanto was to take the life of the owner, rather than his enemies. It was used in Hara-kiri, the ritual suicide practiced by samurai who felt that they had become dishonoured. Today, both replica and genuine tanto are commonplace and easy to find.
The No-Dachi was a relatively common weapon carried by samurai who preferred power over speed. It was basically a huge katana, with a larger blade and proportionately larger handle. It was so huge it could only be wielded two-handed, and even then with difficulty. Because of their immense weight, only the strongest samurai could use a No-Dachi in battle, and it required intense training to learn to wield one efficiently. The large size of the sword also meant that it could only be carried slung across a warriors back. Today, it is extremely difficult to find historical examples of these weapons, and I have never seen a modern example, although it would probably be possible to find a company or swordsmith who would be prepared to make one for you, although the price would inevitably be through the roof.
Although not technically a sword, these pole-arm weapons were very common amongst both samurai and the sohei (buddhist warrior monks), who were renowned for their skill with them. The naginata is comprised of a shaft about 4 to 6 feet in length, topped with a short sword-like blade about 11/2 to 2 feet long. The blade sometimes came with a sheath to protect it while not in use. Because of their length, they could be used as short spears to attack foes from outside their reach, and were also good against enemy horsemen. They ends were usually shod with iron to make an effective bludgeoning weapon, allowing the warrior to strike with both ends. Historical examples are difficult to find today, but modern naginata can be found relatively easily, although don't expect the same degree of choice that you would find with swords such as katana and wakizashi.
A Bokken is a wooden katana used for kata training in Iaido and also sometimes in other martial arts. It is basically a blunt katana blade carved out of strong wood. More expensive bokken can include other features such as a plastic or wooden tsuba (hand guard), rubber grip, and even a simple wooden or plastic saya. Bokken can easily be purchased from most martial arts stores, and are generally quite cheap. Bargains can also be picked up by buying second hand from a more senior member of your club.
More common than the bokken, the shinai is a bamboo sword designed for sparring in Kendo. The 'blade' is circular in shape, and is made from several long pieces of bamboo lashed together tightly. When the shinai is struck, these pieces clash together, making a loud sound. The shinai also has a coloured string (usually yellow) running down the length of the blade. This represents the cutting edge of the blade, so attacks not made with this part of the sword cannot score. The shinai has a plastic cap on the point to avoid injuries when thrusting, and a plastic or wooden tsuba for realism. The grip is usually a foam-like substance, although other materials are sometimes encountered. Shinai are resilient because they are designed for sparring, but obviously, they do sometimes break. Most of the time, broken shinai cannot be repaired or it is cheaper just to buy a new one. Fortunately, they can be easily and cheaply bought from martial arts shops, and your sensei probably keeps a small stock of them so you can buy directly from him.