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.
There is some Truth in Television as in Japanese, the word katana simply means sword, not any particular type of sword. Uchigatana, striking sword, is the Japanese sword used for the specific type of sword which is usually known just as katana.
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, it was written with different kanji (大刀) and was very different in design. While it resembles a katana more than the tsurugi, it's still not a proper one (resembles more of spadroons, without the crossguard).
- 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. In effect, this sword is equivalent to the European longsword, as it was used during the medieval period in Japan. Tachi are usually longer and more curved than the katana, tempered to a harder degree as well. Said design characteristics also proved to be somewhat of 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. Uchigatana, which literally means Striking Sword, is the official, more specific term for the katana.
- 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): Though the kanji literally means "Short Sword", the tantō was more like a large dagger. They were 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".
- Ōdachi (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. Incidentally, Ōdachi is a somewhat redundant term, as the kanji for it literally means "Great Big Sword".
- 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". More recent research indicates that it may be entirely fictional, like the ninjato.
- 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 wrapped in a manner similar to the katana, rather than having simple wooden shafts like the naginata.
- Daitō (大刀) and Shōtō (小刀): Refers to the larger and shorter swords of a daishō pair, respectively. While it typically refers to a katana and wakizashi, it can also refer to a combination of a tachi and a tantō, or a katana and a tantō, just as long as it consists of a main, larger sword with a smaller complementary one.
- Kodachi (小太刀): A short sword that, while similar to the wakizashi, is effectively a down-sized tachi, since the kanji literally (and oxymoronically) means "Small Big Sword". The main difference between the kodachi and wakizashi is that kodachi have a stricter blade length at around 60cm or less, while wakizashi were made to complement the katana paired with it, with the blade length varying depending on the user's height or the katana's blade length.
- 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. It's also why kendo uses 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. The blade also has a Japanese look to it. 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 functional—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. Compare All Swords Are the Same.
- The Blade of the Immortal villain Anotsu Kagehisa carries a tsurugi instead of a katana to distance himself from the kenjutsu schools he despises.
- 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 Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals, Prettz' main weapon, alongside his bombs, is a nodachi.
- In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1999), 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. The monk Anji carries a short, spearpoint tsurugi. Many katanas that do appear in the series have custom features: Kenshin's sword is blunt where the edge would be, and is sharpened on the back instead; 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.
- 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.
- Averted in The Good Hunter. The kunoichi Murasaki Natsume uses a kodachi rather than a katana. It makes sense for someone trained in infiltration work to carry a short sword rather than something long like a katana.
- In The Legend of Zelda: The Sage of Darkness, the White Sword is a katana, and Aaron carries a wakizashi. The guard "Lumpy" also carries a wakizashi, which Zelda impales him with via magic.
- In the film version of Battle Royale, Kiriyama uses a kodachi to kill Oda.
- Done oddly in Equilibrium, where some soldiers carry katana in a tachi fashion (edge-down and suspended from a belt).
- 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.
- In The Raid 2: Berandal, the Japanese gangsters Hammer Girl fights carry dosu.
- In Rashomon, Toshiro Mifune's character, a highwayman and thug, fights with a straight, cross-hilted sword that is clearly different to rather more typical one wielded by his samurai opponent. He even states he found the sword in an ancient grave, where a tsurugi would be more likely to be found than a katana.
- 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.
- In Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist has a katana and wakizashi that had been repurposed as shin-guntō in World War II and taken by his father as war trophies.
- 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.
- 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.
- Epic Battle Fantasy 5: The Honjo Masamune, a cat toy for NoLegs, is called a katana in its description, in spite of being closer in size to a kodachi. Lampshaded by its desceiption, which calls it "a bit shorter than expected" and somewhat justified by NoLegs being about half as tall as everyone else.
- Cloud Strife can equip a couple of katanas in Final Fantasy VII, and the Big Bad Sephiroth wields a nodachi named Masamune.
- Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade has the wodao, a Chinese dao modeled after the tachi that was often used by Japanese pirates.
- The Legend of Zelda
- In The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, each member of the Garo ninja clan dual-wields a pair of kodachi to contrast the cleaver-like swords used by the Ikana warriors. The Mountain Smithy shop also has a zanbato hanging on one wall, although it can never be used in-game.
- 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.