During the Heian period (794-1185), the first samurai began serving their lords. They were peasants and archers, who later on embraced Buddhism as a way of life. As their role in warfare took hold, so was their political and social status. By 12th century, samurai was an elite warrior class and the new feudal lords.
The samurai in 13th century, owing to the several hundred years of war before them, have many weapons to choose from. The first of such weapons was the naginata (a weapon consisting of a pole and sharp blade or spike on either end) and nagamaki (a combination of the sword and naginata).
At first, warring landowners kept their military training secrets to each other. But external threats from China and Mongolia and the rise of samurai as noble class standardized the swords and other weapons. The changing war tactics reflected the variety of the samurai swords.
Japanese long swords
Part of the standards on swords was the shaku. A shaku is a unit of measurement that corresponds to about 30.3 centimeters in metric system. The Japanese swords are classified according to their lengths in shaku, namely:
Daito or Japanese long swords are more than two shaku (or 60.6 centimeters). The nodachi, odachi, tachi, and katana sword are examples of daito. They were commonly worn by samurai.
Wakizashi or Japanese short swords are between one and two shaku in length. Samurai wore and used them as auxiliary weapons. People of non-samurai classes, like farmers and cobblers, were allowed to carry only one sword that should not exceed two shaku.
Tanto or Japanese daggers are swords below one shaku in length. Women and tradesmen carry them as protective swords. They often have no fullers. They are also called hara kiri knives since they were used to commit suicide through disembowelment.
Nodachi, the Japanese long sword for foot soldier
The nodachi was used in Nanbokucho period (1336-1392) as a weapon of the foot soldier against the cavalry. It was more than a meter in length, so this samurai sword was more useful in open battlefield than in indoor or close quarter fightings.
The nodachi was quite heavy that it was not commonly used. When it was, the nodachi is thrown at mounted enemy or to wound the horse to bleeding. It required a bit intense training to be used effectively.
Odachi, the Japanese ceremonial daito sword
The odachi is a great big sword, with a length that can reach up to 3 shaku. A sword as long as this was quite impossible to be uniformly heat treated and quenched in those times of crude metal-working tools. Because of this trait, the odachi was forged by talented smith to earn some big-time bragging rights among his peers.
The odachi is impractical to be used as a weapon. Although quite effective in dispensing foot soldiers because of its long reach, it was heavy and reduced the speed of the swordsman. Most of the odachi are therefore dedicated as ceremonial objects. They were offered to gods and shrines with prayers for a war victory.
Tachi, the Japanese long sword for cavalry
The tachi was introduced in Heian era (794-1184) as a single-edged curved sword with a fuller for the service of military class. It is about two shaku in length, more curved and longer than the katana sword. It revolutionized Japanese warfare as it made the cavalry more vicious and a stronger force in battle.
The tachi is hung from an obi (the sash or belt of a formal Japanese dress) with the edge down. It is usually paired with a shorter sword and few daggers for close combat and personal protection.
Katana sword, the most popular Japanese daito sword
The Mongol invasion in 16th century prompted the demise of tachi and the rise of katana sword. The tachi were found to be too long for good use, and so a large number of them were cut down at the tang and refitted to produce the katana.
The katana sword was the standard Edo period long sword. It is less curved than tachi, slender, single-edged, and has circular or square handle guard. The grip is two-handed, the better to hold and vamp up the force of the strike.
Japanese long sword for daisho
The samurai used to wear different types of swords. For instance, they were using the tanto together with the tachi in 12th century. The very long nodachi was also used with yari (a spear) in 1330s.
The tanto was altered in Muromachi period (1336-1573), becoming longer to become uchigatana. The uchigatana was a straight blade with lengths from one to two shaku. Later on it was made even longer and more curved, producing the daito now better known as katana.
In later half of 16th century, katana became so popular that it replaced tachi, and the tanto was replaced with wakizashi. It was the same period that saw the emergence of samurai fashion that combined the Japanese long sword (daito) with a short sword (shoto). This practice was called daisho. It marked the exalted status of samurai soldiers in society after the Muromachi period and well into Edo period (1603-1868).
Tips on how to collect Japanese daito swords
Before World War II, there were over a million swords that are known to exist in Japan. When the America occupied the country on the aftermath of the war, many of them were either destroyed or sent out of Japan. About 70% of Japanese long swords today are believed to be in the US.
Bearing this in mind, the USA is actually good market for antique Japanese swords. Here are some few tips on how you can take advantage of this market and collect daito swords the most convenient and lucrative way:
The NBTHK (an organization of all smiths licensed by Japanese government) has a branch in America. It is a good place to start your research and at the same time, a touch-off point for collecting rare swords.
If you happen to travel to either Japan or America, don’t forget to drop by museums, antique dealers, and reenactment activities.
Keep abreast of any rolling sword shows and artifact exhibits of your local museum. It may feature Japanese swords in general, or the daito swords in particular, that you could not afford to miss.
The tachi, odachi, and nodachi are very rare Japanese long swords. They are considered even rarer than katana swords. If you can find any museum-worth pieces, then don’t lose the chance to acquire any single one of them.
Take good care of your collection. Follow our simple steps on keeping the perfect condition of your swords by reading our article ‘Sword care and maintenance.’
Learn more about Japanese swords:
Japanese sword history – Find out how the Japanese sword shaped the military and national history of Japan.
Japanese sword making – Learn how the samurai sword is considered the perfect melding of art and steelwork.
Japanese sword markings – Start your skill in identifying and appraising samurai sword by reading here.
Japanese iaido swords – Want to try out your swordplay skills? Don’t use the museum-worth collection, but instead use the beaters known as Japanese iaido sword.
Japanese shoguns swords – Shoguns, the generals of the ancient Japanese army, used to named their samurai swords to create an otherworldly bonding between the human and steel.
Japanese sword fighting techniques – Wishing to be your favorite movie martial arts action superstar? Read here on our guide to basic swordplay and footwork using the katana.
Japanese sword cutting technique – A lot of collectors risk their swords by using them in improper and undisciplined slashing. Take the time to read our article on how to properly test your sword’s sharpness.
Japanese sword sharpening – Not all katana are meant to be polished by your own hands! Check this article to find out what swords should be taken cared by experts and not by anyone else.