Traditional Japanese Weapons
Today, katana, or Japanese sword, is the most well known of Japanese weapons. However, it was 17th century when samurai began to consider katana as the spirit of Bushido. Before then, bows and spears are the spirit of samurai.
Age of Bow
Until 16th century, bows and arrows, or Yumiya in Japanese, were the most potent weapon for bushi. There was the art of mounted archery, called Bakyu-jutsu, which consisted of archery and horseback riding. Many styles of Bakyu-justu existed, and among them, Ogasawara style was the most famous and respected. It was not just the skills of mounted archery, but also decorums and etiquettes for samurai.
The most famous legend about bow is perhaps that of Nasu-no-Yoichi, a soldier of Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune.
Age of Spear
In 17th century, a wrecked Portuguese ship drifted ashore at Tanegashima island, and musket brought into Japan. Musket was much far powerful than bow, of course. Oda Nobunaga saw it as the key for victory, and ordered to produce it with concerted efforts. He won numerous battles with his Ashigaru, light infantry battalions equipped with muskets. As a result, the importance of archers declined.
Instead of bow, yari (spear) took the place in the late Civil War Era. Spear was more powerful than sword usually. There were many legends about famous spears and spearmen.
Nihongo was arguably the most famous spear in those days. It was 2.3m length, with a blade of 80cm length. It was originally owned by a daimyo, Fukushima Masanori. But one day, he made a bit with Mori Tahe on drinking sake. The stake was Nihongo. And Tahe won. The next day, Masanori sobered up and asked Tahe to give back the spear. But Tahe rejected. There is a song about the story, Kurodabushi.
In the Civil War Era, samurai used spear not to impale but to beat enemies. All of them wore heavy yoroi (Japanese armor). They swung their spear and knocked enemy samurai down from horseback. So samurai's strength was equal to his muscle power in those days.
Age of Sword
After Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Edo shogunate in 1603, the shogunate had been so strong that no major battles occured until 19th century. It was peace days so armor were seldom worn by samurai in the Edo Era.
That was why spears were abondoned by samurai and sword took the place. Skills became more important than muscle strength, so kenjutsu, the art of sword fighting flourished. And samurai came to consider sword as the spirit of bushido. They equipped themselves with two swords, katana and wakizashi (sword slightly shorter than katana).
Weapons for Samurai
Yumi : Japanese Bow
A typical Japanese bow is 2.3m length, made of bamboo with a string of silk and pine resin. An arrow is made of bamboo and bird feather. Bamboo is the best material for bow in the plant kingdom. Though inferior to modern composite archery bow in penetration and accuracy, it was a deadly weapon, too. Until musket was brought from Europe in 17th century, bow was the most respected by bushi. Today, Japanese bow is enjoyed as a sport just like western archery, which is called Kyudo (the tao of bow).
Yari : Japanese Spear
Spear is a very simple form of weapon. So Japanese spear didn't differ largely from that of other countries. During the Civil War Era, spear was the most standard weapon of bushi.
Katana : Japanese Sword
A katana is not just a weapon, but the soul of bushi. It is the most sophisticated form of the beauty of killing. The more beautiful it is, the more deadly sharpness it has. Katana are distinguished from broadswords for the extremely sharp edge and the slightly curved blade. The beauty of a katana appears on its blade and edge. Its grace form and grim beauty has been fascinating many warriors. Katanakaji (swordsmiths) are the craftsmen who forge swords (not only katana but also wakizashi and other edged weapons). Forging katana is art rather than manufacture. They heat and hammer iron repeatedly with extreme keen sense. A finished katana has stratified structure which makes extreme beauty when it is wetted. Quality of a finished katana depends on various factors, such as a bit of impurities within raw iron, temperature of fire, water etc. Even a master swordsmith cannot keep good quality all the time. Today, Japanese law prohibited people to have edged weapon, including katana. All true katana must be registered by the government. However, yakuza members often have edged katana still now. There are also replicas of katana, which has no edge. Such replicas are popular as interiors.
Jitte was a branched iron bar, about 60cm length or more, something like the image below. It was used by Doshin, policemen in the Edo Era. Legends say that they used Jitte as a swordbreaker. But historical research shows it was a type of mace.
Weapons for Ninja
Ninja used swords that was shorter than normal katana . They were called Ninja-to (sword of ninja). Though its reach was shorter, it was much more convenient when a ninja was fighting in a small space. The sheath of a ninja sword could be used as a snorkel, which enabled ninja to hide in the water for a long time. Some ninja swords had another small blade in their grips to trick the enemy.
The word shuriken means "a dagger hidden in a palm," so all daggers small enough to hide in a palm were called by this name. They have many variety in their shape and usage. Some are starlike shaped, and thrown with spin. Some other are needlelike shaped, and thrown just like a throwing dagger. Though a shuriken can hardly penetrate armor protection, it was enough because ninja threw it at unarmed target mainly. Venom was used with shuriken normally.
Kunai was a very convenient tool and a weapon for ninja. It looks like a spearhead with a short grip, about 30cm length. It serves as a knife, a gimlet, a shovel, a small hammer, and a throwing dagger. It can be compared to an army knife today. As a thrown weapon, it was much more powerful than a shuriken. So most ninja prefered kunai when he could have it with himselves (a kunai is more conspicuous and heavier than a shuriken).
Ninja didn't like direct fight with the enemy. Their primary purpose was espionage, not killing enemy soldiers. So they were good at escaping. Makibishi was one of their escaping gear. A makibishi is a small spine to sting the sole of a foot. When a ninja was chased by enemy soldiers, he scattered numerous makibishi to the ground. Because Japanese shoes (zori) were made of grass in those days, makibishi's spine could easily penetrate the shoes (it was very effective because those days people wore zori, sandals made of straw). The spine of a makibishi was often hooked, so it would be terribily painful if someone step on a makibishi.
Some ninja had more flashy version of makibishi, which exploded when someone stepped on it. It was called Bakurai-bishi.
Kusari-Gama is a small sickle with a logn thin chain. A ninja, holding the other end of the chain, swings and brandishes it. It can cut enemy, or tangle enemy's limbs. It is also used to disarm by tangling emeny's weapon with the chain. Though it require some training, it has long reach. The word kusari means "chain," and gama means "sickle."
Manriki-Gusari, or sometime called Fundo-Gusari, is a close relative of Kusari-Gama. It has a weight instead of sickle, so it crash emeny's body instead of cutting. Though the weight is not so heavy, it can have a large amount of kinetic energy by swinging rapidly.
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Copyright © 1998-2006 Phillip Riley
Last Updated Sat Aug 11, 2007