When Did the First Tanto Show up in History?

The Tanto first appeared midway through the Heian Era in 794-1185 and was primarily a weapon for killing. It was a tool utilized by warriors who protected the leaders of that time.

During the Heian period, it was dominated by the rise of the Fujiwara clan. It was also the time when they took control of Japan.

During their reign, the Fujiwara needed protection against rebels who went against them and threatened their power. With that, they relied greatly on professional warriors and soldiers.

The men who served under the Fujiwara, as well as other noble families, eventually became great warriors. At the end of this period, they became the famous Samurai warriors who wielded blades like the Japanese Tanto.

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The Tanto – A Weapon for Limited Space

With the increase of fighting and violence, the need for personal weapons became vital. Prior to the Tanto, the main weapon of choice was the long Tachi. Users often wore it with the blade’s edge hanging downwards.

This weapon was ideal for outdoor battles but unsuitable for defense and attacks in narrow, confined spaces of a compound.

For convenience, swordsmiths designed a shorter weapon that’s no longer than a foot or one Shaku.

Then, the Tanto appeared. It was thin yet strong, designed to penetrate the enemy’s flesh. It was also useful for stabbing an opponent.

A Dramatic Turn for the Tanto

When the Samurai established military might, and when the Fujiwara were overthrown, the first Shogun created a new historical period.

Minamoto no Yoritomo, the Shogun of that time, established the Kamakura Shogunate. During his reign, the Samurai experienced a time of stillness before the bloody wars and battles. These occurrences were the hallmark of Japan’s feudal period.

With the pause before the renewed civil war and Mongol attacks, the Tanto blade’s history took a huge turn. Here, the blade became more ornamental than functional, and different blade lengths and styles were created.


During the Nanbokucho period, the Tanto became significant for its longer blade, measuring almost 40cm. It was 10cm longer compared to the standard Tanto which measured 1 Shaku or about 30cm.

Artisans also experimented with various styles and widths for the Hamon (temper line). They even tried different elements with the blade types.

Despite the beauty and charm of these refined Tanto, the blades eventually lost their function. Since battle and bloodshed loomed once more, the aesthetic Tanto had no further use on the battlefield.

Kamakura Shogunate

In 1333, the Kamakura Shogunate fell, and the Emperor, once again, became the head of Japan.

This plunged Japan into constant war, so the need for weapons dramatically increased. With that, the artistic and aesthetic flair of the Tanto was once again replaced with lethal functions for battle.

With the style introduced by the Tachi during the late Kamakura, the Tanto was forged to be wider and longer.

Did the Samurai Use the Tanto or Wakizashi for Seppuku?

Most of the time, the Samurai used the sword Wakizashi for Seppuku. However, there were instances when some warriors utilized the Tanto. Women usually carried the Kaiken, a small Tanto, to commit ritual suicide.

What is Seppuku?

Seppuku is a Japanese ritual where a Samurai warrior takes his life by cutting into his belly. They did this for various reasons like following their master’s death or preventing the loss of honor in their family.

Back in feudal Japan, committing Seppuku was an honorable way to die. It’s because the people from these periods preferred suicide over surrender. At times, a Samurai would receive an order from his master where he’s asked to commit Seppuku.

Seppuku was a part of the Bushido or the code of honor. The Samurai warriors followed this code to avoid dishonor if the enemies defeated them.

In some instances, a Samurai had the chance to choose from protecting his honor and being executed by an enemy. Choosing Seppuku allowed them to protect their honor.


Wakizashi – the Sword Used for Seppuku

As mentioned earlier, the main weapon utilized by Samurai warriors when committing Seppuku was the Wakizashi. This was the auxiliary sword that they carried together with the Katana sword.

The Wakizashi was the Shoto or shorter sword in the Daisho. It featured a blade that measures between 30 and 60cm.

When committing Seppuku, a Samurai would take the Wakizashi and open his Kimono before stabbing his belly with the blade. To complete the ritual, he was required to make a deep cut from right to left.

The Kaishakunin or assistant will then finish the process by beheading the Samurai.

Kaiken – the Tanto for Females’ Ritual Suicide

The ritual suicide of females in feudal Japan is known as Jigai. Wives of Samurai warriors who brought dishonor were those who performed this ritual.

When performing JIgai, women used the Kaiken, a smaller version of the Tanto. This was a weapon that they received as gifts on their weddings and carried for self-defense.

To perform the Jigai, women would cut the arteries of their necks by slashing their throat. This was for a quick and sure death before the enemies captured them. Before committing suicide, women would tie their knees together to maintain a dignified pose even after death.

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