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Wakizashi Sword – The Samurai Backup Sword
Name: Wakizashi Sword
Blade Length: 30 to 60 cm long, standard length of 50 cm
Handle Length: 15-22 cm long
Weight: 0.64 Kg – 0.89 Kg (1.4 lbs – 1.9 lbs)
Used By: Samurai Warriors
Function: Backup or Auxiliary sword
Place of Origin: Japan
Date Produced: 15th to 16th century
Everything you need to know about Wakizashi
The Wakizashi sword is one of the most popular and beloved Japanese swords. Not only because it is the companion of the katana par excellence, but also because it was a weapon closely linked to samurai rituals, such as seppuku.
Throughout history, the Wakizashi has played as central a role as the Katana in Japanese conflicts. Both those that were resolved on the battlefield and those that were resolved behind closed doors.
The Wakizashi is a weapon that even used to spend more time with the Samurai than the Katana itself. It was a central piece in the life of the samurai – especially during the more advanced periods of feudal Japan.
Very little is known, however, about its great importance to samurai. Many take it simply as a back-up weapon; a sword in case the Katana was lost.
But the truth is that it was an elegant and swift sword, intended for other purposes. For, while the katana could be used as a weapon of battle, the Wakizashi was reserved for small isolated conflicts; struggles in cities and towns, inside houses and palaces.
In this page we will take a look at the history of Wakizashi, its characteristics, and its importance in samurai life, both as a weapon of self-defense and as a weapon of honor.
Creation of the Wakizashi
The Wakizashi has a long and rich history dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
Japanese blacksmiths began producing these swords with the same techniques as the Katana, including the use of differential heat treatments, multiple blade folds, and tamahagane steel. With the main advantage, however, that it cost a bit less to produce a Wakizashi than a Katana, because its blade is smaller.
Its objective was to be a backup weapon that would accompany the samurai in case he lost his katana in an eventual combat. Until then this place had been occupied by the Tanto, which was the backup weapon par excellence.
At first there seemed to be no special need to use the Wakizashi sword. In fact, when it came to rivaling the Tanto, it did not seem to have so many advantages. However, it would end up replacing this as a backup weapon because of its effectiveness for indoor combat. That’s where its strength resided.
It would be a matter of time before the Tanto was almost completely replaced, relegating its use to ritualistic or exhibitory issues rather than to a viable combat weapon for the samurai.
Wakizashi in Feudal Japan
In feudal Japan, the Katana was not only the weapon of choice, but also a sign of status. Only samurai could carry a Katana in public. Any other kind of person simply could not.
In the case of Wakizashi, however, this did not happen.
The Wakizashi sword in ancient Japan could be carried by any member of the chonin class. These were known as “men of the village”. They were mostly merchants, but there were also some artisans among them.
This benefit of being able to carry Wakizashis was especially important for this social class, which, due to its need to travel continuously to negotiate its goods, was continually exposed to a possible attack by bandits.
It was not so simple, however. To make it legal, a chonin could only carry a Wakizashi that was within the allowed measure for this type of weapon. In other words, it must be a ko Wakizashi.
What is a ko Wakizashi? Don’t worry, we’ll see about that later.
The Wakizashi and the Samurai
Samurai were a warrior class that was accustomed to the use of two blades at once. First had been the Tachi and the tanto. Then the katana and the tanto. Now the Wakizashi, with its growing popularity, began to replace the tanto and became a vital weapon for these warriors.
This custom of carrying two weapons at once is known as daisho, which can be translated as “big and small”. Unlike popular belief, however, both were rarely used together in battle. The Wakizashi, in the daisho, was relegated to support weapon.
However, the true importance of Wakizashi was different.
Back then, there were two things that prevented a samurai from carrying his Katana inside buildings.
The first was that in many places it was forbidden to enter with Katanas. That meant that the samurai had to leave his most valuable weapon at the entrance, which would naturally leave him helpless in these environments. However, he was allowed to enter with a smaller weapon. And in this sense, the Wakizashi was the best option.
In these interiors, the samurai interacted with other unarmored people. This meant that, in the event of combat, the ideal was a weapon with a particularly sharp blade. Therefore, the Wakizashi sword were treated with a super sharp, which left the blade extremely thin, ready to pass through human flesh (unlike the Katana, which could not have an edge so sharp, as this should be prepared to fight armor).
The second thing that prevented a samurai from using his Katana indoors is that it was simply too big. It is an excellent sword for street or battlefield combat, but indoors? It was useless to use a katana there, as it would most likely constantly collide with the furniture, walls, ceiling, and other obstacles that could be found inside a house.
No, indoors it was best to have a sword big enough to have an advantage over someone with a tanto, small enough to avoid bumping into things in the house, and sharp enough to pierce a human body with the same ease with which a butter at room temperature is cut.
In addition to this, being immersed in a context of constant conflict, samurai had adopted the custom of carrying their Wakizashis everywhere, and even sleeping with them at hand’s reach.
Some experts have compared the Wakizashi to a policeman’s use of a gun today. Both are allowed to carry their guns everywhere, and are so accustomed to this that they will hardly be separated from them sometime during the day – or at night.
Wakizashi as a blade of honor
In addition to its practical applications, the Wakizashi also found another area in which it would become the weapon of choice for samurai.
Seppuku, also called “hara-kiri,” is a type of suicidal ritual performed in feudal Japan. This originated in the 12th century as a way for samurai to achieve an honorable death. These swordsmen sometimes carried out this practice to avoid being captured by enemy troops after a defeat on the battlefield. But seppuku could also be used as a means of protest or as a way of expressing respect for a revered leader who had died.
This practice was initially performed with the well-known tanto. However, in this area also the Tanto would lose to the Wakizashi sword, as this sword was much more suitable for this practice. Having the ideal length and an extreme sharp edge, the samurai could use it “comfortably” to perform the ritual in a more efficient manner.
In addition, once the samurai performed the suicidal ritual and pierced himself with his own sword, who beheaded him to avoid suffering also used to do so with a Wakizashi, due to the ease of this weapon to cut directly the body.
For these reasons, the Wakizashi became the weapon of choice used to carry out the Seppuku. Going into history, as well as an efficient sword for interiors, as a sword of honor.
Fights with Wakizashi
The Wakizashi sword, being a smaller and more agile weapon than the Katana, is a real threat to any unarmored opponent. That is, for any opponent found in the context in which a samurai would normally carry a Wakizashi; inside a house or building.
In the event that the tea party, say, went badly, the one in front of the samurai with the Wakizashi ran the grave risk of dying within the next minute. For this reason, many fighting styles focused on finding a way to deal with the Wakizashi before it became a threat; when it was still in the samurai’s belt.
Several combat schools in ancient Japan consolidated defense techniques focused on acting before the opponent managed to draw his Wakizashi, hindering him or disabling his arm.
Characteristics of a Wakizashi Sword
The Wakizashi is a blade composed of exactly the same materials as the Katana. It has a blade of high carbon steel or similar, a tsuba with the design that its carrier prefers, and a handle that provides the same comfort as any other katana.
The main feature of a Wakizashi is its size. One of these swords can measure from 12 inches (30 cm) to 24 inches (60 cm).
Due to how diverse the length of one of these swords can be, within the category of “Wakizashi” we can find two subcategories.
The first is that of the Ko Wakizashi, which includes swords whose size is too similar to that of a tanto. More than swords, these are like very big knives.
The second category is that of O Wakizashi, which includes swords whose size is too similar to that of a Katana. In these cases, at first sight it is very difficult to distinguish what is a katana and what is a Wakizashi.
Another characteristic of Wakizashi, as mentioned above, is the edge. This was a much more marked difference in feudal Japan, where it was important for these swords to be as sharp as possible, so that they could cut through the flesh without problem —for they were not meant to fight men in armor—.
Today this is no longer a requirement. However, many practitioners prefer to maintain the distinction between the edge of the Katana and the Wakizashi, choosing to order ultra-sharp for their short swords, which makes them more than ideal for cutting tatami, among other objects commonly used in tameshigiri.
The Power of Wakizashi in Daisho
The most common thing in daisho was to use the katana as the main weapon and to have the Wakizashi as a backup weapon. So, if the Katana was damaged or lost in the middle of combat, the samurai could always count on his trusty Wakizashi on the belt.
But what happens when the samurai faces more than one enemy? How can he harness the full potential of the daisho in his favor?
Well, in these cases, the most skilled samurai could always draw the Wakizashi and fight with both swords at once.
In these cases, the optimum for the samurai was to use the Katana as an offensive weapon and the Wakizashi as a defensive weapon – holding it with an inverse grip -, turning in semicircles to be aware of those around him all the time. In addition, at all times the warrior would try to keep his swords in front of him, but with enough space between them so that they would not collide with each other – about 120 degrees apart.
Why hold the Wakizashi with an inverted grip? This posture, in addition to looking incredibly rude, gives the samurai a better structure for blocking hits and allows for better handling at short range.
Of course, this is not the only way to use both swords in a fight. For example, the Niten Ichi-ryu specializes in using both swords at the same time offensively against the same attacker in a very effective way, allowing to deliver fast, uninterrupted blows.
But with the disadvantages that the samurai would tire faster, so he would be able to end the fight quickly. And even in the Suisha Ryu there are cases in which the Wakizashi is used holding it in a common way (especially against attackers who have weapons with a much greater range, so the samurai needs every apex that range can take advantage).
There are many styles of using a Wakizashi sword. Whether it is used individually, together with a Katana, or reserved for rituals or exhibition, this is a weapon of great prestige that you can always rely on.
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History and Use of Wakizashi
Only official samurai or swordsman in feudal Japan could wear the Wakizashi and Katana together. .
Samurai Wakizashi sword forms the second pair referred to as Daisho. Literally, these swords are known as big-little.
Japanese Wakizashi has been used as early as the 15th or 16th century. Aside from being used as a backup sword it is also used at times in committing ritual suicide or better known as honorable seppuku.
Wakizashi sword is just one of the short swords used by samurai. It was only until the Edo period in 1638 when the rulers of Japan regulated and clear up which among the short swords should each social class wore.
Officially they team up Katana with Samurai Wakizashi.
The Wakizashi sword is used mostly for indoor fighting. This sword is worn on the left side secured to the waist sash. While it was the privilege of the Samurai class to wear this sword, merchants and similar class were given the freedom to wear legal length Wakizashi or Ko-Wakizashi. This was a practical way of protecting those who travel to ward off attack from bandits.
Wakizashi – More Than a Side Arm
For the samurai wearing his Wakizashi sword is not just a weapon because it is an extension of his soul.
The Wakizashi sword was always with him even when he sleeps. This short sword is placed under his pillow as a form of protection.
Other forms of weapons are left outside of the home when a samurai enters someone else home but, he is allowed to keep this side arm for protection.
It was during the Edo period when the role of the samurai has evolve. Samurais were force to make a hard choice between relinquishing their weapons and becoming peasants or being allowed to keep these but, they must move into the city. It is in the city where their feudal lord lives. Instead of being a peasant moving into the city means they could be given these positions:
- Military Leaders
Being the legitimate owner of these Daisho swords became a symbol of power because of the positions acquired because of it. These were worn during the Tokugawa period which started in 1603 to 1868.
There were other treat anduses for the Wakizashi sword like a tool to decapitate defeated enemies. Some foreigners who are familiar with the use of Wakizashi during seppuku refer to this as the Honor Blade.
Significance of the Wakizashi Sword
Wakizashi was an important and honored weapon. When a samurai is born this sword is with him. The same thing can be said when he dies. It lays beside him on the coffin. In between birth and death, this sword stays with him as he sleeps by his pillow.
It is a symbol of his physical strength, loyalty and discipline as a warrior. Because of its razor sharp edge this allows the warrior to do quick precise cuts and thrusts when it is time to fight for battle. The warrior uses this sword when he mounts his horse just like the use of a bow and arrow.
Suffice to say, that the Katana bearing samurai will not leave behind his small sword. This may be small in size but, it comes handy at times especially when it is a disadvantage to use the longer Katana. During the peacetime years of the Edo period, the daisho became a status symbol. Only members of high society were allowed to wear both the Katana and Wakizashi.
Sword owners were allowed to use different set of fittings depending on the occasion or season. It was during the Edo period when elegant fittings were introduce. There were designs that show rich inlaid, precious metals, new alloy and sculpted scenes were incorporated in producing these swords.
Process of Sword Making
In Japan, the process of producing Wakizashi is a refine and well-respected art. It takes a ritual process and the swordsmith must undergo decades of training to be able to execute this to perfection.
To make a sword, the swordsmith heats blocks of steel. He hammers, folds, cuts and forges this. For good measure he re-forges it again to drive out impurities so that a finely layered blade without brittleness is produce. After the forging process he uses a grinder and finally a polisher. The result: Wakizashi with a unique structure and razor sharp edge.
Modern Wakizashi Swords
Designs for this sword has change and evolve. From its traditional form the emphasis was given to create a sword for a functional purpose. Collectors value certain attributes found on these modern Wakizashi which includes authentic ornamentation and superior blade strength.
This comes with decorative embellishments and ornamentation to match the tsuka. Our Wakizashi swords can be customized and you can choose any part of the sword, including the steel type, fitting, coloring, engraving, polishing and a lot more.
Most Sought after pieces are those that are hand forged with clay tempered blade. There are cases when the old is mixed with the new. Modern models merges the elegance of old world swords with a fresh modern steel to it.