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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Handheld Weapons of Japan - Historical

Despite Japan not having guns as weapons for most of the general population, including its police force, when it comes to the country's list of weapons, hand-held firearms are quite prominent. (Image above is from:

Here's an alphabetical listing of Japan's hand-held weaponry through its history. Please note that I am not discussing rifles or pistols that were made elsewhere and used in Japan, I am talking about weapons strictly made by the Japanese to be used by the Japanese, pretty much against other Japanese.


Bajōzutsu (馬上筒), which translates into riding gun, was a tanegashima (Japanese matchlock) 24.5-inch long firearm that is essentially a pistol…and not a rifle or shotgun. It's similar to an arquebus, but with shirker barrel. It was used by mounted samurai in the 1500s… it could also be reloaded while riding, which was why it has a short barrel. Like any matchlock type of gun, the powder could get wet and then you are screwed. Also… a Japanese archers (Kyudo-ka) could fire some 15 arrows in the time it would take a user of the bajōzutsu to load, charge and shoot it.

Hiya zitsu with bō hiya missile. From
Bō hiya (棒火矢) - the fire arrow. This is a missile, and not the actual hand-held weapon that launches it. Back in the 6th Century, a bow was used to launch fire arrows. In the 10th Century, gunpowder was used (though this was China). In the 16th century, the Japanese used the matchlock technology from their Portuguese traders, and had a new way of firing the fire arrows.
The Bō hiya was a thick arrow with large fins. The arrow was ignited via a fuse made of incendiary waterproof rope wrapped around the arrow shaft… it was launched (and aimed) from a handheld weapon that was similar to a cannon, called a hiya zitsu… a mortar-like weapon/container.

Fukiya (吹き矢), a Japanese blowgun. 1.2 meters 45-inches) long, with 20-centimeters (7.9-inch) long darts (fukibari). There's no separate mouthpiece, so one can't open their mouth and take a deep breath while their lips are on the tube… so the blower had to turn the head, inhale and then blow, or learn to inhale with their mouth closed. If not, I am sure it was battlefield comedy gold.
Yes, ninja did use the blowgun… but used one that was only 50-centimeters long… and as long as there was no poison dart contained within, in a pinch a ninja could use it as a breathing tube in some murky pond.

Kabutowari (兜割 helmet breaker)… could also be called the hachiwari. This baby is anywhere from 35-to 45-centimeters long and as it was used as a sidearm by samurai, let's call it a dagger. Two types: Dirk-type has a sharp point like a can opener near the sword's hilt. It could parry a blade, or hook thinks or even to open up armor like a can of Japanese sardines. Truncheon-type has a same shape as the other, but in this case the main blade's tip was blunt - ergo, no stabbing.

Kama (鎌 or かま)… this is a sickle…a reaping tool, or, in a pinch, a weapon. For however long people have been reaping, the kama has also been used as a weapon.

Kunai (苦無), is a dagger that looks like a mason's trowel. It could be used to smash (gouge) through walls, or a gardening tool. It is anywhere from 20- to 60-centimeters in length, and it is only the tip of the leaf-shaped blade that is sharpened. There is a ring at the end of the dagger's handle… but that is to attach a rope. Hmm, now you are think that while holding the end of the rope, the kumai could be tossed like a throwing weapon… but that's not what it was used for. It could be tied to a pole to make a spear, wrapped around an arm to provide a better grip… but really, why wouldn't you throw it? That was the first thing that entered my mind. I suppose a pair of these (one in each hand) could be used to help climb a wall.

Kyoketsu-shoge (距跋渉毛) is a double-edged, double bladed weapon that was originally a farming tool, but used by the ninja-class… perhaps not surprising considered most ninja were of the farmer-class. An interesting weapon, it looks like improper use could result in one's thumb being sliced off from the rest of the hand. The dagger would also (at the base) have a small, strong rope attached to it of varying length (some say up to 18-feet, and it would have a large metal ring tied to the other end… it's a pulling and slashing weapon, with the rope used for climbing, the dagger being thrown (and then retrieved by pulling the rope), binding… it's a cool little distance-weapon… where the user can do plenty of damage without having to get up-close and personal. Heck, if gripped properly, the metal ring could be held in the hand to deflect or apply blows upon an enemy.

Nagamaki (長巻) is a Japanese sword with an extra-long handle. This is a polearm similar to a naginata (see below), but with a straighter blade, more like that of a tachi or katana (see section below Nihonto - Japanese swords), and mounted with a wrapped handle similar to a highly exaggerated katana handle.

Naginata (なぎなた, 薙刀): A polearm with a curved single-edged blade. Naginata mounts consist of a long wooden pole, different from a nagamaki (see above) mount, which is shorter and wrapped.

Nihonto - traditional-style Japanese swords such as the well-known katana, but there are any more (and I'll get more in-depth in a future article):
  • Chokutō (直刀, "straight sword"): A straight single edged sword that was produced prior to the 10th century, and without differential hardening for folding;
  • Katana (刀, "sword"): A general term for the traditional sword with a curved blade longer than 60-centimeters (there is no upper length limit but generally they are shorter than 80-centimeters), worn with the edge upwards in the sash. Developed from the uchigatana and the sword of the samurai class of the Edo period (1600s to late 19th century);
  • Katate-uchi (片手打ち, "one handed"): A short type of uchigatana developed in the 16th century, with short tang, intended for one handed use. One of the forerunners of the wakizashi;
  • Kodachi (小太刀, "small big sword"): A shorter version of the tachi, but with similar mounts and intended use, mostly found in the 13th century or earlier; 
  • Ōdachi (大太刀, "big big sword")/Nodachi (野太刀, "big field sword"): Very large tachi, some in excess of 100 centimeters, and usually a blade of the late 14th century;
  • Tachi (太刀, "big sword"): A sword that is generally longer and more curved than the later katana, with curvature centered from the middle or towards the tang, and often including the tang. Tachi were worn suspended, with the edge downward. The tachi was in vogue before the 15th century;
  • Tsurugi/Ken (剣, "sword"): A straight two-edged sword that was produced prior to the 10th century, and may be without differential hardening or folding;
  • Uchigatana (打刀): A development from the tachi in the 15th century. Worn with the edge upwards in the obi;
  • Wakizashi (脇差 "companion sword"): A general term for a sword between one and two shaku long (30-centimeters and 60-centimeters in modern measurement), predominantly made after 1600 AD. Generally it is the short blade that accompanies a katana in the traditional samurai daisho pairing of swords, but may be worn by classes other than the samurai as a single blade, also worn edge up as the katana.

Ono (斧, or masa-kari) is an axe/hatchet or any other tool that looks like this. Obviously used for chopping, ask Mister and Mrs. Borden if the ax could be used as a weapon. Measuring from tip to tail at around 1.83 meters (6-feet), this is a huge weapon. It was supposedly used rarely by samurai, but according to pictures, it was used by fighting monks (sōhei or yamabushi).

Otsuchi (大槌, large hammer/mallet)… forget about some giant sumo-like dude wielding this thing by spinning it around his head and then slamming it through some stupid armor-clad samurai. No… this was a large (1.83meter/6-feet) in length weapon, that was also heavy. It was used primarily to beat down doors and gates.
Not that it matters, but I can't tell if the Otsuchi-wielder in the image to the right is a guy, girl, or some sort of cat-creature with a lot of time on its hands. Then again... that hammer is beautiful, but the tail's placement is off... emerging from above the waistband.

Suntetsu (寸鉄) is a metal rod/spike about 15.24-centimeters (6-inches) long with a metal ring attached to it so the middle finger can be placed through it for a full hand grip. It' small, and excluding metal detection and pat-downs was easy to conceal. You see it… stabbing, poking, pinching, striking, smashing, scraping and throwing.

Tanegashima (種子島), also hinawajū (火縄銃?), was a type of matchlock configured arquebus firearm introduced to Japan through the Portuguese in 1543 AD. Tanegashima were used by the samurai class and their foot soldiers (ashigaru) and within a few years the introduction of the tanegashima in battle changed the way war was fought in Japan forever.

Tantō (短刀, "short blade"): A knife or dagger. Usually one-edged, but some were double-edged, though asymmetrical.

Yari (槍) is a spear, or a spear-like polearm, with the chief difference being the blade: double edged and flat blade; triangular cross section double-edged blade; a symmetric cross-piece (jumonji-yari); or an asymmetric cross piece. The main blade is symmetric and straight.
The martial art of wielding the yari is called sōjutsu.

Yawara (柔, also called pasak or dulodulo in Filipino martial arts) is a Japanese weapon used in various martial arts. The Yawara originated from the use of Kongou, a Buddhist symbolic object, by monks in Feudal Japan. The yawara takes the form of one or two small, thick sticks that protrude about an inch from each side of the hand. They are usually used in pairs to initiate throws, bone breaks, and pressure point strikes.

Look… I'm not stupid, regardless of what that T-shirt says. I know anything can be used to kill someone else. I know about 150 coins in sock has a chance to crush a man's skull. I know two bowls of natto will give one a breath that could decimate an entire village if the wind is right. The same for eating too much hachi-no-ko (baby bees, aka bee larvae) will give a certain gaijin nasty gas that could make a volcano pucker its cone.

All this and more I know, young padawan. But these are for legitimate artifacts of weaponry.

If you feel I have omitted some pertinent Japanese hand-held weapons (you'll note I'm not including anything from 1868 or later), please let me know.

Andrew Joseph

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