Tanto – Japanese Dagger


Tanto – Japanese Samurai Dagger

The Tanto is a weapon that has been used for centuries in Japan. The Tanto is a blade that is typically between six and twelve inches in length and is primarily used as a stabbing weapon. The Tanto has a rich history and has been used in various ways throughout Japanese history. In this article, we will explore the history of the Tanto, its design and its uses.

History of the Tanto

The Tanto is a traditionally crafted Japanese sword that was part of the Samurai’s weaponry during Japan’s feudal era. Originating from the Heian period, the Tanto initially served mainly as a weapon but over time it evolved to be more decorative in design. In traditional martial arts, particularly Tantojutsu, the Tanto played a significant role. Since the 1980s, the term has regained popularity in the West, being used to refer to a type of modern tactical knife designed for piercing or stabbing.

The Tanto originated in Japan in the Heian period (794-1185) and was used primarily as a weapon by the Samurai class. The Tanto was used as a backup weapon to the Katana and was used in close combat situations, such as indoor fighting or when the Katana was broken. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the Tanto became more popular as a weapon for personal defense, and the design of the Tanto began to change. The blade became shorter and thicker, and the handle became longer, making it easier to grip.

Tantojutsu – A Japanese Martial Art Centered on the Tanto

Tantojutsu is a martial art centered on the use of the Japanese Tanto, or knife. It’s traditionally incorporated into other martial arts such as Kenjutsu, Ninjutsu, Aikido and Budo/Bujutsu. Given the blade’s size, Tanto techniques are especially effective in close-quarters combat. Despite this, Tantojutsu practitioners also learn how to block attacks from longer weapons, particularly the Katana. In Ninjutsu, due to its small size, the Tanto is considered an ideal weapon for surprise attacks.

One significant advantage of the Tanto over longer weapons is its speed. The shorter blade allows for quicker attacks on an opponent’s target area once their attack has been dodged or deflected. Traditional Tantojutsu techniques emphasize attacking the most accessible targets on the body, especially parts of the arm. During training, students often use a simple one-handed grip on a concealed Tanto, coupled with empty-hand blocking techniques, to disable an opponent.

In the hands of an expert, Tanto can also be highly effective as throwing weapons. Like most Shinken, today’s beginners start with wooden or rubber Tanto and once proficient, they graduate to training with live blades.

It’s worth noting that in ancient Japan, Tantojutsu, like Naginatajutsu, was one of the martial arts traditionally taught to Samurai women.

Design of the Tanto

The Tanto is either single or double-edged, with a length ranging from 15–30 cm (5.9–11.8 in). Primarily designed as a stabbing instrument, the Tanto’s edge can also be used for slashing. Tanto are usually crafted in the Hira-Zukuri style, which means they have nearly flat sides without a ridge line, unlike the Shinogi-Zukuri structure of a Katana. Some Tanto, known as Yoroi Toshi, have notably thick cross-sections for piercing armor.

Primarily, Samurai carried Tanto, as commoners typically did not. Women sometimes kept a small Tanto, called a Kaiken, in their obi for self-defense. Tanto were occasionally used as the Shoto, replacing the Wakizashi in a Daisho, particularly on the battlefield. Before the Wakizashi/Tanto pairing became standard, it was common for a samurai to carry a Tachi and a Tanto rather than a Katana and a Wakizashi.

It’s been observed that initially the Tachi was paired with a Tanto, and later the Katana was paired with a shorter Katana. The Wakizashi eventually replaced the Tanto as the preferred short sword among samurais when the Katana came into existence

The Tanto’s blade is typically made from high-carbon steel and is single-edged. The blade is designed for stabbing rather than cutting, and as a result, the blade is typically thicker than a Katana or Wakizashi sword. The Tanto blade has a unique shape with a pointed tip that is designed to penetrate armor. The handle of the Tanto is typically made from wood, and the blade is attached using a bamboo peg. The Tanto has a very simple design, but it is also very effective.

Components of a Tanto

  1. Blade (Ha): This is the sharp, cutting edge of the Tanto. It’s usually single-edged and crafted from superior steel.

  2. Tang (Nakago): This part of the blade, which isn’t sharp, extends into the hilt. It offers structural support and helps balance the sword.

  3. Point (Kissaki): This is the blade’s tip. Its shape can vary depending on the type of Tanto.

  4. Spine (Mune): This is the unsharpened back part of the blade. It often features a ridge or groove to enhance strength and aesthetics.

  5. Hilt (Tsuka): This is the handle of the Tanto. Traditionally, it’s wrapped in rayskin and silk or cotton cord to ensure a firm grip.

  6. Guard (Tsuba): This disc, made of metal or wood, prevents the hand from sliding onto the blade during use.

  7. Scabbard (Saya): This is a wooden sheath that protects the blade. It’s often coated with lacquer and decorated with intricate patterns or artwork.

Tanto Types And Blade Styles

  1. Hira: A prevalent form of tantō that lacks Shinogi, with edge bevels extending from the edge (Ha) to the back (Mune) without separate flats in between. This almost triangular cross-section is extremely common due to its straightforward design.

  2. Hochogata: A Tanto form often described as a short, wide, Hira. Favored by legendary swordsmith Masamune, the Hochogata (‘kitchen knife-shaped’) is a common blade type.
  3. Kanmuri-Otoshi: Crafted in the Hira or Shobu style, the back edge of these Tanto sharpens from about half way to the tip. They feature a groove running up half the blade and resemble the Unokubi-style Tanto.
  4. Katakiriha: An asymmetric Tanto form, sharpened only on one side to create a chisel-shaped cross-section.
  5. Kissaki-Moroha: A rare double-edged point blade type. Unlike other Tanto, the back edge curves slightly downwards so that the point is lower than the blade’s back. Often, they have a wide groove in the base half. The most famous historical blade of this type is the Tachi Kogarasu Maru, a National Treasure of Japan.
  6. Kubikiri: A very rare type; the sharpened blade is on the inside curve. It has no sharpened point, making its use in battle challenging and its purpose mysterious. Kubikiri means ‘head cutter’. They were supposedly used by Samurai attendants to decapitate fallen enemies, used for cutting charcoal or incense, pruning bonsai trees, or worn by high-ranking officials as a badge.
  7. Moroha: A rare double-edged Tanto type with a diamond-shaped cross-section. The blade tapers to a point and contains a Shinogi that runs to the point.
  8. Osoraku: Characterized by an extremely long O-Kissaki type point, accounting for over half the blade’s length.
  9. Shinogi: Predominantly found in long swords, Tanto in this form are rare, often crafted from cut-down blades when a longer sword has been broken. Shinogi refers to the central ridge running along the blade length, between the edge bevels and the body of the blade.

  10. Shobu: Similar to shinogi zukuri, but lacks a Yokote, the distinct angle between the long cutting edge and the point section. The edge smoothly and continuously curves into the point.

  11. Unokubi: An uncommon Tanto style similar to Kanmuri-Otoshi, with a back that abruptly thins around the blade’s middle. It regains its thickness just before the point. Typically, there’s a short, wide groove extending to the blade’s midway point.

  12. Yoroi Toshi: These Tanto have thick cross-sections for armor-piercing purposes.

Tanto Construction

The Tanto is a traditional Japanese dagger that has been used for centuries by the Samurai class. The Tanto is a highly respected weapon due to its unique design and construction, which have been carefully refined over time. In this section, we will explore the construction of the Tanto and how it has evolved over the centuries.

Blade Construction

The Tanto blade is typically made from high-carbon steel, which is known for its durability and sharpness. The blade is usually between six and twelve inches in length and is single-edged. The blade is designed to be used primarily as a stabbing weapon rather than a cutting weapon. This design makes the blade thicker and more durable than a Katana or Wakizashi sword.

The Tanto blade has a unique shape that is designed to penetrate armor. The blade is wider at the base and gradually narrows towards the tip. The tip of the blade is pointed, and it is this point that is used for stabbing. The Tanto blade also has a distinctive Hamon, which is the pattern that appears on the blade after it has been tempered.

Handle Construction

The handle of the Tanto is typically made from wood, such as rosewood or ebony. The handle is designed to be comfortable to hold and to provide a secure grip. The handle is attached to the blade using a bamboo peg, which is known as a Mekugi. The Mekugi is inserted through a hole in the blade and is held in place by a small piece of bamboo that is pounded into the end of the Mekugi.

The handle of the Tanto is also wrapped in silk or cotton cord, which is known as Tsuka-ito. The Tsuka-ito provides additional grip and also serves as a decorative element. The colour and pattern of the Tsuka-ito can vary depending on the preferences of the owner.


The fittings on the Tanto are typically made from metal and serve both a decorative and functional purpose. The fittings include the Tsuba, which is the handguard, and the Fuchi and Kashira, which are the collar and pommel of the handle. The fittings are usually made from brass or iron and are often decorated with intricate designs.

The Tanto is a unique and highly respected weapon due to its construction and design. The Tanto blade is designed for stabbing rather than cutting, which makes it thicker and more durable than other Japanese swords. The handle of the Tanto is designed to be comfortable to hold and provide a secure grip. The Tanto is a testament to the craftsmanship of the Japanese sword makers and its construction has been carefully refined over the centuries.

Uses of the Tanto

The Tanto was originally used as a backup weapon to the Katana, but it also had other uses. The Tanto was used for personal defense and was often carried by women for protection. The Tanto was also used for Seppuku, which is a form of Japanese ritual suicide. The Tanto was used to make a small incision in the abdomen, which was believed to release the soul from the body. The Tanto is still used today in modern martial arts, such as Aikido and Kendo.

Present Day Applications And Training

The Tanto sword today isn’t merely a historical artifact; it’s also a coveted item among collectors and martial arts practitioners. Traditional Japanese martial arts, such as Iaido and Kenjutsu, incorporate the use of Tanto into their training regimes, thereby preserving the age-old techniques and forms.

Tanto Collectors

For collectors, owning a Tanto sword offers a distinctive opportunity to possess a piece of Japanese history and craftsmanship. Genuine antique Tanto swords can be quite valuable, with their prices influenced by various factors like age, condition, and the reputation of the swordsmith who forged the blade. Contemporary swordsmiths also produce top-notch, handmade Tanto swords using traditional techniques, providing enthusiasts an opportunity to own an attractive, functional work of art.

Maintaining Your Tanto

If you’re lucky enough to own a Tanto sword, it’s crucial to provide proper care and maintenance to conserve its aesthetic appeal and functionality. Routine cleaning and lubrication of the blade can prevent rust and corrosion, while cautious handling and storage in an appropriate environment can shield the sword from damage. When displaying a Tanto , the tradition is to position it horizontally with the cutting edge facing upwards, honoring its historical and cultural importance.

Final Thoughts

The Tanto is a fascinating weapon that has a rich history and is still used today in modern martial arts. The Tanto is a simple yet effective weapon that was designed for close combat situations. The Tanto is a unique weapon that has a very distinct design and is a testament to the craftsmanship of the Japanese sword makers.

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Updated: February 12, 2024 — 10:00 am