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What is a Tanto Knife and When Would You Need One?


Tanto refers to a kind of Japanese sword. It started seeing use in the Heian period, which ran from 794 to 1185. However, the tanto is still being made in the present time. As such, it should come as no surprise to learn that these weapons have seen a wide range of uses under a wide range of circumstances. Often-times, the tanto has a length of one shaku, which is a Japanese unit of measurement based on the distance from the tip of a human thumb to the tip of a human forefinger. Historically speaking, the shaku saw considerable variation based on use as well as on location. However, it has been standardized as approximately 30.3 cm. Still, there are numerous examples of the tanto that are either shorter than this length or longer than this length. Something that complicates efforts to classify it as either just a knife or just a sword. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to distinguish the tanto from the wakizashi, which is another kind of Japanese sword that was sometimes used for similar purposes. This is because the tanto comes with a straight blade that can be either single-edged or double-edged. In contrast, the wakizashi has a curved blade that is always single-edged.

What Was the Tanto Used For?

When people think of Japanese weapons, they often think of the samurai. As such, it should come as no surprise to learn that the tanto has a strong connection to said individuals. However, it is important to note that the tanto saw use by other people as well, with self-defense being the most common motivation. For context, the samurai were the military class of Japanese society for a considerable portion of Japanese history. There was a time when the imperial court had a military conscription system that was run from the center. However, said system broke down in the early Heian period, with the result that the imperial court became more reliant on provincial nobles. These provincial nobles concentrated power in the hands of their families. In turn, this convinced others to do the same. Together, these created the samurai, who would become more and more powerful until they could exercise control over the imperial court itself.

This can be seen in how the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan came to blows towards the end of the Heian period. In the end, it was Minamoto Yoritomo who won, thus enabling him to establish the samurai-dominated government called the Kamakura shogunate. His lineage remained in power for just a couple of generations. However, the continuing dominance of the samurai can be seen in how subsequent Kamakura shoguns were often imperial princes handed over to samurai controllers for the purpose of serving as a combination of puppet and hostage. Similarly, the Muromachi shogunate that followed the Kamakura shogunate was also samurai-dominated. Something that was confirmed by the South and North Courts period that featured both an independent Southern Court and a shogunate-controlled Northern Court. A period that ended with the Southern Court capitulating to their northern counterparts. As for the Edo shogunate, that was the strongest of the three shogunates, so much so that its successes have colored popular perception of the three shogunates as a whole.

After all, its shoguns dominated Japan for more than two centuries. In contrast, the Kamakura shoguns were puppets with the single exception of Yoritomo while the Muromachi shoguns always struggled to control their over-mighty vassals. As such, the Edo shogunate held the upper hand over the imperial court until the Bakumatsu when not so friendly contact with the European powers brought about sweeping changes in a matter of approximately one-and-a-half decades. In any case, samurai are often associated with their swords in the popular imagination. However, it is important to note that they were every bit as practical as their counterparts from other parts of the world, meaning that they used the weapons that enabled them to keep up with the competition. In the earlier part of their existence, the samurai made extensive use of bows as well as polearms. Similarly, the samurai were eager adopters of firearms during the Sengoku period that separated the Muromachi shogunate and the Edo shogunate because the harsh conditions of those times meant that those who refused to keep up wouldn't be able to maintain their positions. Swords saw frequent use in these centuries, but swords were the side arms rather than the primary arms of the samurai.

It wasn't until the Edo shogunate that the samurai became synonymous with their swords. After all, there was a hardening of the line of separation between the classes towards the end of the Sengoku period, with the result that there was an increase in the importance of the symbols of the samurai. It would've been very impractical for said individuals to go around with their primary arms all the time, particularly since they were living in peace-time under a government that continued to keep a watchful eye out for potential challengers. As such, their side arms were the natural choice for symbolic purposes. Having said that, the tanto didn't actually see much use for this purpose in this period. This is because it had been replaced by the wakizashi for the most part, much as how the tachi had been replaced by the katana for the most part. Still, the tanto has never stopped being made. There were still people who liked the look of the tanto throughout the Edo period. Before World War II, there was a massive increase in the number of Japanese officials who wore swords. After World War II, the production of the tanto declined because of restrictions on the forging of swords. However, foreign interest in Japanese weapons in the 1960s and subsequent decades have fueled a resurgence in their production.

Why Would Anyone Need a Tanto in the Present?

Nowadays, people use the tanto for a number of things. For example, some of them are practitioners of tantojutsu, which refers to a number of traditional Japanese martial arts focused on the use of said weapon. Similarly, some of them like the look of the tanto, with the result that they will buy showpieces for display purposes much like their predecessors from earlier centuries. On top of this, the tanto has become associated with modern tactical knives as well, though the latter are meant more for utility than for combat.

Lily Wordsmith

Written by Lily Wordsmith

Lily Wordsmith is a freelance writer who has had a love affair with the written word for decades. You can find her writing blog posts and articles while sitting under a tree at the local park watching her kids play, or typing away on her tablet in line at the DMV. In addition to her freelance career, she is pursuing ebook writing with an ever-growing repertoire of witty ebooks to her name. Her diversity is boundless, and she has written about everything from astrobotany to zookeepers. Her real passions are her family, baking desserts and all things luxe.

Read more posts by Lily Wordsmith

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