Historical classification of wakizashi


S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama

January 24, 2004

I. The Semantics of Wakizashi in Historical Context: The functionalist definition.

The word “wakizashi” actually consists of two words:

(a) “waki” – an adverb to modify verb and gerund; it means “side” or “peripheral;”

(b)”zashi (sahi)” – a gerund originated from the verb “sasu” which means ” to insert” (e.g., as in “sashikomi-togi“).” In this context, it means “to insert between obi,” thus means “to wear (a sword that is not a tachi because tachi takes another verb “haku” to mean wear).”

[Note. The verb “sasu” to mean “to wear a sword” became common only after the end of ko-to period, thus since the beginning of the shin-to period. That is because before uchigatana had become common and a preferred choice of every day sword amongst the samurai, samurai during the ko-to period used to “wear” tachi (but not uchigatana) by “hanging it edge down from the obi. During this time (and still today), the verb “haku” was (and still is) used to mean “to ‘wear’ a tachi.” This usage of the verb “haku” to mean “to wear” is the same, for example, as “to wear pants, trousers, skirt, hakama, etc. – anything to “wear” by hanging them from the waist line. However, since the popularization of uchigatana, samurai started “wearing” uchigatana (but not tachi) by “inserting it between obi mostly edge up (but sometimes edge-down in case of some early Momoyama period uchigatana). Thus, the verb “haku” to mean “to wear a sword” was and still is used only for tachi. On the other hand, the word “sasu” to mean to “to wear a sword” was and still is used only for swords other than tachi.]

Therefore, the word “wakizashi” *originally* meant “any swords that were to be worn (by inserting between obi) on the side of or peripherally to the main sword.” In this sense, the word “wakizashi” prior to the shin-to period, had only implied a) the swords’ usage/purpose (i.e., side/peripheral/back up) and b) the way they were in which they were worn (i.e., to be “inserted between obi“): It did imply not their length (Ogasawara, 1994a) nor the way they were made. In short, the fact that the term “wakizashi” came to refer to a category of swords that are shorter than the “main sword” was *only consequential* because the “main sword” of the samurai had almost always been a long sword (i.e., tachi or uchigatana) and “a side/peripheral sword” had naturally been a “shorter sword.”

Historically, the emergence of the usage of the term “wakizashi” to refer to “an established category of swords within a specific range of length (measured by the distance between the ha-machi and the kissaki)” that were commonly and officially (after the Tokugawa Shogunate had issued an executive order) worn by the samurai is relatively a new phenomenon. In fact, it was only after the beginning of the shin-to period, thus mainly post-Muromachi and especially Edo period. Prior to this, that is when the samurai’s “main sword” had been a tachi (i.e, ko-to, thus pre-Muromachi period), they most often used to “wear” different types of “side/peripheral swords such as “yoroi-doshi” (by inserting between obi), “chiisa-gatana” (by inserting between obi) and “koshi-gatana” (by mostly inserting between obi, but sometimes hanging it from obi) (Ogasawara, 1994b).

[Note. For the academic and historical classification of “chisa-gatana,” and its relations to “koshi-gatana” and “tanto,” see Ogasawara, 1994a and 1994b.]

During this old periods, the term “wakizashi” did not presuppose any officially set range of the blade length (measured by the distance from ha-machi to kissaki). Because there is a historical document that describes that Oda Nobunaga wore (by inserting between obi) a set of dai-sho, it was during Tenbun through Eiroku eras (circa 1532 through 1569) that wearing dai-sho pair of uchigatana – that is katana and wakizashi – became a common practice amongst the samurai class. Again, up until later periods, there had been no legally specified lengths for tachi, katana, wakizashi and tanto in Japan. (See Ogasawara, 1994a for more on this.)

Since after the end of Muromachi period, the rulers of Japan (e.g., Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Iyeyasu Tokugawa) began issuing a number of executive orders to regulate who were allowed to wear what type swords based mostly on ones ascription all in order to protect the power, status and prestige of the samurai class. Therefore, it was during the late Momoyama period when the specific ranges of blade lengths started becoming the official (=legal) criteria to designate different types of swords into specific categories such as katana, wakizashi, tanto, etc.

However, until many years after the end of the Japanese Civil War (circa 1600) those old laws regulating the bearers of swords were not always followed by the people in Japan. This was partially because many of those older laws had varying definitions of katana, wakizashi and tanto in terms of their lengths. As the result, in the beginning of Edo period (early 1600s), there were still some chonin (i.e., townsmen) class commoners and many yakuza gangs who openly carried long wakizashi (i.e., called “oo-wakizashi”) that were virtually equivalent in length to prohibited katana (Iiyama, 1995; Kokubo, 1993).

II. Civilian Control and Classifications of Nihon-to in Feudal Laws: The length based definition.

More than four decades after Tokugawa Iyeyasu had restored the peace and order in Japanese society, the Tokugawa Shogunate also issued several orders to prohibit chonin class from carrying long swords. One of such orders was Dai-sho katana no Sumpou oyobi tohats futsumoh no Sei [The Order Regarding Dai-sho Katana and Hair Style] issued in July, Shoho 2 (a.d.1645). This law also specified the maximum “blade length” (again, measured in terms of the distance from ha-machi to kissaki) of katana to be 2 shaku 8 to 9 sun (= 84.84cm – 87.87cm), and wakizashi to be 1 shaku 8 sun to 9 sun (= 54.54cm – 57.57cm) (Kokubo, 1993; Ogasawara, 1994b).

Then in March, Kanbun 8 (a.d 1668) the Tokugawa Shogunate once again issued Muto Rei, [No Sword Order], an executive order to firmly prohibit the commoner class carrying/wearing any swords longer than “ko–wakizashi” (i.e., small wakizashi) unless specifically permitted by the government (Iiyama, 1995). According Muto Rei, “ko-wakizashi” is defined as a sword whose blade length is shorter than 1 shaku 5 sun (= 45.54cm).

[For more information on what type of swords (in terms of their lengths) that the chonin (i.e., commoner) class was allowed to wear, see Takeuchi, 2003.]

III. Bureaucratic Specifications of Nihon-to Amongst Samurai.

As for the legal lengths of swords to be officially worn by high ranking samurai class such as daimyo lords and hatamoto with executive positions in the shogunate when they appear in Edo Castle on official duty, the Tokugawa Shogunate also issued an order to specify the legal lengths of katana and wakizashi as well as the specific details of kanagu to furnish their official pair of dai-sho. According to Bakugi Sanko [The referral to the official issues of the Shogunate] written by Matsudaira Shungaku, a late Edo period daimyo and the last Lord of Fukui prefecture (also a cousin to the then Shogun), the legal lengths of swords to be officially worn by high ranking samurai to appear in the Edo Castle were a) 2 shaku 3 sun (=69.69cm) for katana and b) 1 shaku 6 sun to 7 sun (=48.48cm to 51.51cm) as officially set forth by the Tokugawa Shogunate (Ogasawara, 1994a).

[Note. As most already know, even those high ranking samurai were not allowed to wear a katana inside the castle, but were required to wear a wakizashi.]

IV. The Emergence of Academic Classification of Nihon-to.

Because of those executive orders issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate, by the mid Edo period, the typology of Nihon-to based on their legal blade lengths had already been widely accepted amongst the then scholars of Nihon-to. For instance, Arami mei zukushi [A complete mei reference of newer blades], a comprehensive Nihon-to reference book published in Edo period, already listed “length-based” categorization of “chu-wakizashi (i.e., mid size wakizashi)” to be up to 1 shaku 8 sun 9 bu (=45.237cm) and “oo-wakizashi (i.e., large wakizashi)” to be up to up to 1 shaku 9 sun 9 bu (=60.297cm) and “katana” to be 2 shaku (=60.6cm) or longer (all in terms of the distance from ha-machi to kissaki). Hence, combined with the legal designation of “ko-wakizashi” in aforementioned Muto Rei, Japan’s official (i.e., both legal and academic) classifications of Nihon-to by blade length was very much established in Edo period as follows:

(a) tanto – to be shorter than 1 shaku (= 30.3cm);

(b) wakizashi – to be from 1 shaku (= 30.3cm) to 1 shaku 9 sun 9 bu (= 60.297cm); but more specifically,

(i) ko-wakizashi (i.e., small wakizashi) to be from 1 shaku (= 30.3cm) up to 1 shaku 4 sun 9 bu (= 45.147cm);

(ii) chu-wakizashi (i.e., mid size wakizashi) to be from 1 shaku 5 sun (= 45.45cm) to 1 shaku 7 sun 9 bu (= 54.237cm), and

(iii) oo-wakizashi (i.e., large size wakizashi) – to be from 1 shaku 8 sun up to 1 shaku 9 sun 9 bu (= 60.297cm);

(c) katana – to be 2 shaku (=60.6cm) and longer.

V. The Legal Classification of Nihon-to in Modern Japan.

Today the modern laws to regulate Nihon-to in Japan very much follow this Edo period tradition that had legally classified Nihon-to into specific categories of katana, wakizashi and tanto by their blade lengths (measured by the distance between ha-machi and kissaki). The only simplification of today’s legal classifications in Japan is that there are no finer distinctions within the category of “wakizashi” such as “ko-wakizashi,” “chu-wakizashi,” and “oo-wakizashi” as once specified. Also, since the official adoption of the metric system in 1891, the traditional length units of “shaku,” “sun” and “bu” are no longer used; thus the legal designations of tanto, wakizashi, and katana by their length under today’s Japanese laws are as follows (Ogasawara, 1994a):

(a) tanto – to be 30cm or shorter;

(b) wakizashi – to be longer than 30cm (including so called “sun-nobi tanto“) but shorter than 60cm;

(c) katana (including tachi, whether “ubu” or “suriage“) – to be 60cm or longer. [All in terms of the actual length of the distance from ha-machi to kissaki.]

VI. Legal vs. Academic: Coexistence of dual-classifications in Modern Japan.

On the side note, what is confusing to many Nihon-to collectors both in Japan elsewhere is the fact that the legal classifications of Nihon-to based on the blade length (measured in terms of the distance from ha-machi to kissaki) do not always correspond with the academic designations of Nihon-to that are often based on a) the way in which the swords were originally meant to be worn (e.g., tachi vs. uchigatana) and b) the purposes of the swords to be used (e.g., yoroi-doshi, ko-dachi, sun-nobi tanto, etc.). For instance, what collectors and scholars of Nihon-to *formally* call “sun-nobi tanto” based on the classification b) above is *legally* classified by the Ministry of Justice in Japan today as “wakizashi” based on their lengths and the classification a) above.

Now, even more confusing to many is that different Japanese government agencies today (e.g., Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Cultural Affairs) simultaneously use both types of “official designations” based on the blade length and based on the way the swords were meant to be worn (i.e., aforementioned classification a)) or the purposes of the swords to be used (i.e., aforementioned classification b)). For instance, the official designation by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Japan for a National Treasure Nihon-to, “Bizen Ichimonji Suke zane” of Kamakura period (reportedly owned and worn by Tokugawa Iyeyasu) is “Tachi, Suke zane” stated on its National Treasure certificate (because it has a “tachi mei“): However, this particular blade only has an “uchigatana koshirae” in which Tokugawa Iyeyasu himself actually wore this sword as uchigatana (by inserting it between obi as in “sasu“) (Ogasawara, 1994a).

In short, depending on the shape, length and purposes of the blades, both the “legal” (strictly based on the blade length) and “academic” (based both on the blade length and functions/purposes) classifications of Nihon-to are in use concurrently in modern Japan.  Its rather confusing taxonomy is very well exemplified in their official designation of Nihon-to by different government agencies…


Iiyama, Yoshiaki. (1995). “Edo jidai no tohsoh to fuzoku.” [“The customs and sword furnishings in the Edo period.”] In Shibata, Mitsuo, Shibata Mitsuo no Token Handbook. [The Handbook of Japanese Swords by Mitsuo Shibata.] Pp. 120-125. Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN 4-7694-0094-2.

Kokubo, Kenichi. (1993). Zukan Tohsoh no Subete. [The Complete Book of the Japanese Sword Furnishings, Illustrated.] Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan. ISBN 4-7694-0094-2.

Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1994a). Nihon_to no Kansho Kiso Chishiki. [The Fundamental Knowledge of Japanese Sword Appreciation.] Tokyo, Japan: Shibun Do. ISBN 4-7694-0053-5.

Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1994b). Nippon no Bijutsu 1, No. 332: Nihon_to no Koshirae. [The Art of Japan 1, No. 332: The Koshirae of Japanese Swords.] Tokyo, Japan: Shibun Do.

Takeuchi, S. Alexander. (2003). “Was chonin class in Edo period allowed to wear/carry swords?” In Dr. T’s Nihon-to Random Thoughts Page. University of North Alabama, Florence Alabama, USA.


* Edited and reprinted from the author’s original posts on old Bugei Sword Forums.

Copyright © 2004 by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.

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