Follow TV Tropes


Every Japanese Sword Is a Katana

Go To
They all look the same to me...

Frank Washington: What does "katana" mean?
Joe Marshal: It means "Japanese sword".

Japanese swords have evolved throughout Japanese history. That fact is entirely lost in popular culture, however, in which Japanese swords, regardless of design, are referred to as "katanas," because Katanas Are Just Better. In reality, the katana is a fairly recent weapon, relatively speaking, and hadn't been introduced yet during the classical period portrayed in many Jidaigeki films. That people in Japan sometimes use "katana" as a generic term for "sword", regardless of type, does not help to alleviate the confusion.

Types of Japanese swords include:

  • Tsurugi (剣): The oldest type of Japanese sword, this was essentially a copy of the Chinese jian. Straight-bladed and double-edged, it resembles more of a European medieval sword than a katana.
  • Chokutō (直刀): A straight, single-edged sword that existed prior to the 10th century. While they're also called Tachi but written differently (大刀), it's very different in design and, while it resembles a katana more than the Tsurugi, it's still not a proper one (resembles more of spadroons, without the crossguard).
  • Advertisement:
  • Tachi (太刀): A large, curved sword similar to a katana, but longer and more deeply curved, and worn suspended by cords from the waist with the edge facing down. This was the katana-equivalent that was in use throughout most of the medieval period in Japan. Tachi are usually longer and more curved than katana, and also tempered harder than katana. This was somewhat an Achilles heel against the Mongols - the samurai complained their blades tended to chip against the Mongol armour.
  • Katana (刀): Shorter and not as curved as the tachi, the katana was introduced in the Muromachi period (mostly analogous to the Sengoku-jidai) in response to weapons control regulations that restricted the length of swords that could be carried. Most tachi were shortened into katana in response to the new laws (rather unfortunately, since there were a lot of very famous tachi that got modified), and new swords produced during the period were made with less and different curvature to reflect their wearer's greater likelihood of drawing and using them on foot in a duel than from a horse on a battlefield. Worn thrust through the waist sash with the cutting edge facing up. The uchigatana is the most common type of katana.
  • Advertisement:
  • Wakizashi (脇差): A Muromachi-period short sword, worn thrust sideways through the belt. (The name literally means "thrust sideways.") Sometimes worn together with a katana (this combination is called daishō, 大小) - this pair became the samurai's standard set of weapons during the Edo period, and was something of a status symbol. Their usage as such is actually much older, but only in Edo period it was strictly codified and actually enforced. Most samurai homes had a sword-rack near the door, so that visitors could leave their katana there but keep their wakizashi in case anything happened inside.
  • Chiisagatana (小さ刀): A sword of intermediate length halfway between a katana and a wakizashi.
  • Tantō (短刀): Basically a large dagger - generally mostly straight, and often rather wide. Was commonly worn with tachi as a part of an earlier form of the daishō, but diminished in popularity with the adoption of katana. In later eras they got stuck with the unfortunate name of harakirigatana, i.e. "the blade you use to cut your stomach open when committing seppuku".
  • Ō-dachi (大太刀‎)‎ and Nodachi (野太刀): Big honking swords larger than the norm. These swords were often so large that wielders had to wear them on their backs. They fell out of use with the field armies after proving themselves to be very expensive, uncomfortably heavy, and really difficult to make.
  • Zanbato (斬馬刀): A BFS; essentially a humongous ō-dachi, roughly the size of a claymore. Like some of the more insane Zweihander designs, may never have been used in actual combat and made as more of a demonstration of iron forging prowess. Probably derived from the Chinese zhanmadao (as they both use the exact same characters), a sword that reputedly could cut through rider and horse at the same time; the name literally means "horse-executing sword".
  • Nagamaki (長巻): Sword with a particularly long handle, roughly halfway between a sword and a polearm. Got their name (literally, "long winding") after the fact that their handles were usually simply wound with the cloth band, instead of the more elaborate woven patterns common for other Japanese swords.
  • Daitō (大刀): A catchall word for the larger sword in a daishō pair. The word refers to the length of the blade, which was usually 70-90 cm.
  • Shōtō (小刀) or Kodachi (小太刀): A catchall word for the shorter sword in a daishō pair. ("Kodachi" can also be used to refer to a blade that was similar to a wakizashi, but designed to be used by itself rather than in combination with a katana.)
  • Ninjatō (忍者刀)/Ninjaken (忍者剣)/Shinobigatana (忍び刀): A fictional sword similar to the katana, depicted as being a Ninja's version of the weapon. It is usually straight-bladed, has a square guard, and is shorter than katana. Often it can hold small weapons in the hilt. Sometimes it is explained that the blade is of lower quality than a samurai's swords and cheaper to make, so it was used by ninja. Again, it's fictional, and there's no physical evidence they actually existed. In reality, if a ninja used a sword (given that they were spies and assassins, knives were naturally more common), it would simply be whatever he could get his hands on.
  • Bokken (木剣) or bokutō (木刀): A wooden sword used for training. It is typically modeled on the katana but can also be based on other swords, such as the wakizashi or the tantō. With the right training, it too was a deadly weapon (the legendary Miyamoto Musashi won his most famous duel with a bokken). A bokken is often designed to match the length and balance of the real sword, but to be heavier. The added weight helps build up muscle tone in the arms while training. Modern martial artists often use bokken made of even denser wood than was available to real samurai.
  • Shinai (竹刀): Not really a sword, but a flexible shaft of tightly tied bamboo splints that represents one in kendo to avoid injury. Still can be extremely painful and can give a serious injury if used wrong, since the flexible splints can transfer energy better than a solid object under some conditions. Which is why kendo also involves wearing padded "armor".
  • Dosu (ドス): A very short sword that looks more like a long knife. Easy to conceal, and traditionally carried by the Yakuza.
  • Kyū Guntō: The old military sword, adopted by the Japanese military after the Meiji Restoration. Roughly resembles a Western-style sabre, but has a longer grip and balance closer to that of the katana, in order to make it easier to use for those officers familiar with Japanese weapons. Was later phased out in favor of the...
  • Shin-guntō (新軍刀): Mass-produced officers' and NCOs' blades used from 1934 to the end of WWII. However, nationalists demanded that a more "native" sword be carried, so a design closely patterned on the katana was adopted. While some Type 94 shin-guntō used traditionally made blades (particularly those carried by officers from the old samurai families, who would often place their ancestral blade into a Type 94 hilt), the Type 95 and 98 versions all used a blade that was essentially a piece of machined steel with an edge ground onto it. While they weren't exactly bad swords any stretch of the imagination—in fact earlier shin-guntō were fairly functionable—they lacked the characteristics of traditionally-created Japanese blades. The quality of later productions worsened as Japan's resources dwindled near the end of the war. When possession of swords was banned post-WWII, the only exceptions were for those of "artistic merit" (meaning traditional handmade swords). As a result most of the machine-made shin-guntō were melted down, with the exception of quite a large number that had been taken back as souvenirs by American soldiers.

See the UsefulNotes.Swords page for more about, well, swords. Please note that because of the nature of this trope's description, all examples below will be subversions and aversions

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Bleach most of the Soul Reapers' zanpakuto take the form of a katana when they're sealed (when released they can end up in almost any form, including ceasing to be swords at all in some cases), but Tetsuzaemon Iba, who is designed to look like a traditional Yakuza enforcer, keeps his tucked away in the form of a dosu, a popular weapon for old Yakuza. And Shunsui Kyōraku's zanpakuto is unique in that its sealed form is a daishō pair instead of a single sword. The Arrancar meanwhile get more nuance to their sealed swords.
  • Drifters has several Japanese characters, and the two swordsmen avert the trope completely. Protagonist Toyohisa wields an excessively large blade akin to a nodachi or even a zanbato. Minamoto no Yoshitsune, having lived at the tail end of the Heian era a few centuries before the creation of katana, carries an ornate tachi.
  • In the manga adaptation of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Impa prominently uses a kodachi in battle, as does Sheik. No full-sized katanas appear in the setting.
  • Katanas appear from time to time in Naruto, but there are many, many different kinds of swords. Sasuke has a chokuto, the Samurai of the Land of Iron carry wakizashi, and Kakashi used a tanto in his youth. In the anime, the design of Orochimaru's Kusanagi is changed to a tsurugi.
  • The prominent Japanese swords in One Piece are katanas, but Trafalgar Law and Shiryu both carry nodachi. Issho wields a shikomizue on account of his being an Expy of Zatoichi.
  • Rurouni Kenshin: Aoshi, Sanosuke, and Enishi wield a kodachi, zanbato, and tachi. Aoshi later upgrades to Dual Wielding a pair of kodachi with a scabbard that makes them look like a single nodachi when sheathed. Saito briefly used a shikomizue. Many katanas that do appear in the series have custom features; Kenshin's sword has a blunt edge, Shishio has a serrated blade, and Cho has a Whip Sword fitted with a tsuka.
  • In Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Kamina's sword is a nodachi.

    Comic Books 
  • Most samurai in Usagi Yojimbo carry a daisho, although the art style makes each sword look like a wakizashi. Zato-Ino carries a shikomizue, and one story is based on the retrieval of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.

    Fan Works 

    Live-action Film 
  • In the film version of Battle Royale, Kiriyama uses a kodachi to kill Oda.
  • The Japanese officers in Letters from Iwo Jima carry Shin-guntō.
  • The villain Torrez in Machete brings a katana and wakizashi to his fight with the titular hero.
  • Most of the samurai in Seven Samurai carry a daisho, and a few of the bandits have katana. The peasant-turned-fighter Kikuchiyo carries a nodachi and a tanto.
  • The Twilight Samurai: In contrast to his katana-wielding peers, the titular character has been taught to use a short kodachi. The defensive nature of his style allows him to hold his own against those with longer blades, such as Koda and Yogo Zenemon.
  • The Japanese officer shown in the flashbacks of The Wolverine carry Shin-guntō as part of their uniforms. In the present, the two incarnations of the Silver Samurai (Shingen and Ichiro) use both katana and wakizashi in battle.
  • In Yojimbo, almost every fighter shown has a katana. However, Sanjuro carries a daisho set for most of the film, and Kannuki has a nodachi for when he doesn't have his mallet on him.
  • In the Edo-period setting of Zatoichi, Ichi wields a shikomizue almost exclusively.

    Live-action TV 
  • Arrow: Deathstroke has a katana, as does his son Joe, but Prometheus wields a chokuto.
  • Deadliest Warrior: One of the samurai's tested weapons is a katana, but he also wears a wakizashi in the fight simulation. The ninja is given a ninjato, which is described on the show as a Japanese sword slightly shorter than typical katanas to make faster quick-draws.

    Video Games 
  • In BlazBlue, Jin Kisaragi uses a katana, while the armored hero Hakumen carries a nodachi with a square tip. Takehaya-Susano’o-no-Mikoto can also summon a Laser Blade in the shape of a tsurugi.
  • Cloud Strife can equip a couple of katanas in Final Fantasy VII, and the Big Bad Sephiroth wields a nodachi named Masamune.
  • Link can use several Japanese-style swords in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They include the wakizashi-length Eightfold Blade, the katana-sized Eightfold Longblade, and the zanbato-sized Windcleaver.
  • In the final case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Trials and Tribulations, the Big Bad wields a tanto while the culprit who killed her host used a shikomizue.
  • In Red Steel, the player character has a katana for most attacks and carries a tanto for defensive and complementary moves.

Alternative Title(s): All Japanese Swords Are Katanas


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: