Tantō with signature (Mei) of Kunimitsu. Complete aikuchi style koshirae (mountings) and bare blade.
Type Japanese sword
Blade length avg. 15–30 cm (5.9–11.8 in)

Blade type Double or single edged, straight bladed

A tantō (短刀, "short blade")[1][2] is one of the traditionally made Japanese swords[3] (nihonto)[4][5] that were worn by the samurai class of feudal Japan. The tantō dates to the Heian period, when it was mainly used as a weapon but evolved in design over the years to become more ornate. Tantō were used in traditional martial arts (tantojutsu) and saw a resurgence of use in the West in the 1980s as the design made its way to the US and is a common blade pattern found in modern tactical knives.


The tantō is a dagger. The blade is single or double edged with a length between 15 and 30 cm (6–12 inches, in Japanese 1 shaku). The tantō was designed primarily as a stabbing weapon, but the edge can be used for slashing as well. Tantō are generally forged in hira-zukuri style (without ridgeline),[1][6] meaning that their sides have no ridge line and are nearly flat, unlike the shinogi-zukuri structure of a katana. Some tantō have particularly thick cross-sections for armor-piercing duty, and are called yoroi toshi. Tantō were mostly carried by samurai, as commoners did not generally wear them. Women sometimes carried a small tantō called a kaiken[7] in their obi primarily for self-defense. Tantō were sometimes worn as the shōtō in place of a wakizashi in a daishō,[8][9] especially on the battlefield. Before the advent of the wakizashi/tantō combination, it was common for a samurai to carry a tachi and a tantō as opposed to a katana and a wakizashi.[8]

It has been noted that the tachi would be paired with a tantō and later the uchigatana would be paired with another shorter uchigatana. With the advent of the katana, the wakizashi eventually was chosen by samurai as the short sword over the tantō. Kanzan Satō in his book The Japanese sword notes that there did not seem to be any particular need for the wakizashi and suggests that the wakizashi may have become more popular than the tantō due to the wakizashi being more suited for indoor fighting. He mentions the custom of leaving the katana at the door of a castle or palace when entering while continuing to wear the wakizashi inside.[10]

History of Tantō in Japan

The production of swords in Japan is divided into specific time periods:

Heian to Muromachi

Tantō by Hyūga Masamune, 24.8cm, Unsigned Masamune, Formerly in the possession of Ishida Mitsunari, who gave it to his brother-in-law; the tantō was stolen during the Battle of Sekigahara by Mizuno Katsushige, governor of Hyūga Province, Kamakura period, Mitsui Memorial Museum, Tokyo.

The tantō was invented partway through the Heian period. With the beginning of the Kamakura period, tantō were forged to be more aesthetically pleasing, and hira and uchi-sori tantō becoming the most popular styles. Near the middle of the Kamakura period, more tantō artisans were seen, increasing the abundance of the weapon, and the kanmuri-otoshi style became prevalent in the cities of Kyoto and Yamato. Because of the style introduced by the tachi in the late Kamakura period, tantō began to be forged longer and wider. The introduction of the Hachiman faith became visible in the carvings in the hilts around this time. The hamon (line of temper) is similar to that of the tachi, except for the absence of choji-midare, which is nioi and utsuri. Gunomi-midare and suguha are found to have taken its place.

During the era of the Northern and Southern Courts, the tantō were forged to be up to forty centimeters as opposed to the normal one shaku (about thirty centimeters) length. The blades became thinner between the uri and the omote, and wider between the ha and mune. At this point in time, two styles of hamon were prevalent: the older style, which was subtle and artistic, and the newer, more popular style. With the beginning of the Muromachi period, constant fighting caused the mass production of blades, meaning that with higher demand, lower-quality blades were manufactured. Blades that were custom-forged still were of exceptional quality, but the average blade suffered greatly. As the end of the period neared, the average blade narrowed and the curvature shallowed.[13]

Momoyama to the Early Edo Period

Antique Japanese tantō shown dis-assembled, British Museum.

Approximately two hundred fifty years of peace accompanied the unification of Japan, in which there was little need for blades. In this period, both the katana and wakizashi were invented, taking the place of the tantō and tachi as the most-used pair of weapons, and the number of tantō forged was severely decreased. The only tantō produced during this period of peace were copies of others from earlier eras.[14]

Late Edo Period

There were still few tantō being forged during this period, and the ones that were forged reflected the work of the Kamakura, Nambokucho, or Muromachi eras. Suishinshi Masahide was a main contributor towards the forging of tantō during this age.[14] There are now only prehistoric tantō being used in combat.

Meiji to present

Many tantō were forged before World War II, due to the restoration of the Emperor to power. Members of the Imperial Court began wearing the set of tachi and tantō once more, and the number of tantō in existence increased dramatically. After World War II, a restriction on sword forging caused tantō manufacture to fall very low.[15] American and European interest in Japanese martial arts since the war created a demand for the tantō outside Japan from the 1960s through the present time.[16]

Types of Tantō

Blade types

The general blade shape is approximately 25 cm long, 17 mm wide (near the tang), 8.0 mm thick (near the tang) and approximately straight. Actual historical examples would vary in length, width, thickness and curvature. (The hira and kiriha sides of the katakiriha blade have been swapped to allow the tip to point consistently to the left while still showing the chisel-like side.)

Mountings (koshirae)

Other tantō

Use in martial arts

Tantō with blunt wooden or blunt plastic blades are used to practice martial arts. Versions with a blunt metal blade are used in more advanced training and in demonstrations. Martial arts that employ the tantō include:

See also


  1. 1 2 The samurai sword: a handbook, John M. Yumoto, Tuttle Publishing, 1989 P.47
  2. Tanto
  3. Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan, William E. Deal, Oxford University Press US, 2007 P.161
  4. The Development of Controversies: From the Early Modern Period to Online Discussion Forums, Volume 91 of Linguistic Insights. Studies in Language and Communication, Author Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani, Publisher Peter Lang, 2008, ISBN 3-03911-711-4, ISBN 978-3-03911-711-6 P.150
  5. The Complete Idiot's Guide to World Mythology, Complete Idiot's Guides, Authors Evans Lansing Smith, Nathan Robert Brown, Publisher Penguin, 2008, ISBN 1-59257-764-4, ISBN 978-1-59257-764-4 P.144
  6. Styles in the Shape of Blades
  7. Kaiken
  8. 1 2 The Japanese sword, Kanzan Satō, Kodansha International, 1983 P.68
  9. Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins, Bruce D. Clayton, Black Belt Communications, 2004 P106
  10. The Japanese sword, Kanzan Satō, Kodansha International, 1983 P.68
  11. Clive Sinclaire (1 November 2004). Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior. Lyons Press. pp. 40–58. ISBN 978-1-59228-720-8.
  12. トム岸田 (24 September 2004). 靖国刀. Kodansha International. p. 42. ISBN 978-4-7700-2754-2.
  13. Satō, Kanzan (1983). Joe Earle, ed. The Japanese sword; Volume 12 of Japanese arts library. Kodansha International. pp. 62–64. ISBN 978-0-87011-562-2.
  14. 1 2 Satō (1983) p. 68
  15. Sinclaire, Clive (2004). Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior. Globe Pequot. p. 59. ISBN 978-1-59228-720-8.
  16. 1 2 Steele, David (1981). "Japanese Daggers". Black Belt. Black Belt, Inc. 19 (2): 55–60.
  17. Unusual tantō
  18. Pacella, Gerard (2002). 100 Legendary Knives. Krause Publications. pp. 124–126. ISBN 0-87349-417-2.
  19. "American Tanto - Blade Geometry Knife FAQ". faq.customtacticals.com. Retrieved 2014-05-27.
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