As many people know, Japanese culture is one of the most distinct and unique in the entire world. This is due in large part to lengthy periods of Japanese isolation due both to their island origin and intentional measures taken by Japanese leaders over the centuries. As a result, most things in Japan are uniquely Japanese in some way, This includes their martial arts weapons.
Without further ado, below is a list of the most interesting types of Japanese martial arts weapons.
Samurai Swords: Katana & Wakizashi
While Japanese history is vast, much of the iconography that has reached the West surrounds samurai, who were at the height of their power during the Edo period in feudal medieval Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries. Samurai carried legendary curved swords called katana. A katana is a curved single-edged sword with a long grip to accommodate two hands and are at least two feet long. These swords are characterized by an incredible strength that makes them effective at defense but also powerful enough to sunder armor and sever limbs.
The wakizashi is basically just a shorter version of the katana, but with a great degree of social significance. In medieval Japan, the nation was ruled by a group of military governors known as the shogunate, who had decreed that normal citizens were only allowed to carry a single sword. However, samurai were members of an elite warrior class who were extended the right to carry an additional, second sword called the wakizashi. Wearing both of these swords at once was called a samurai’s daishō and was an immediately recognizable sign of his social status.
The supremacy of these Japanese samurai swords is due to the high level of craftsmanship that went into their design. Japanese smiths would repeatedly reheat, fold, and hammer the steel over the course of several days using techniques that had been passed down and perfected over the course of centuries. Even today, samurai swords from the Edo period represent some the greatest swords ever created and are difficult to recreate, even for modern craftsmen. These swords have become such a source of national identity and pride for the Japanese that they carried them into battle as recently as World War II.
Blunt Swords: Tekkan & Kabutowari
Due to the previously mentioned restriction on sword ownership and other limitations surrounding the use of edged weapons, several weapons were designed to get around these rules. One was called the tekkan, which was a sword roughly the length of a wakizashi that has never been sharpened to an edge. While this did not constitute a sword under Japanese law, it was still made with the same impeccable steel and made for an effective weapon. Tekkan were used in Japan well beyond medieval times.
Another example of a blunted sword is the kabutowari. This is a small, dagger like weapon with a short hook on the underside that can be used to catch or deflect an opposing weapon. Again, these were not sharpened so that they could be legally used by Japanese citizens. However, there was a less common sharpened version that was sometimes carried as a sidearm by samurai.
Japanese Bow: Yumi
While samurai are almost always associated with their swords in the modern day, they used their longbows, called yumi, much earlier and far more often. Due to their isolation from other cultures, Japanese archery evolved completely independently from the rest of the world. The yumi bow they developed is a towering six and a half foot construction of laminated bamboo that dates back to the third century C.E. Unlike bows in other parts of the world, yumi have an asymmetrical design with the grip positioned about one-third of the way from the bottom. The bamboo they are made from tended to warp, so they required frequent maintenance to remain operable.
In a battle between samurai, each side would frequently fire arrows at each other from horseback, only resorting to the use of their swords when they absolutely had to. It has been speculated that the yumi‘s unusual asymmetrical shape was designed to allow easier use from horseback. This fighting style also led to the development of the horo, a cloak of cloth attached to the back of a samurai’s armor that is surprisingly effective at slowing or stopping arrows when it is billowing behind a galloping rider.
Humble Farm Tools: Kama, Manriki-Gusari, & Kusarigama
Japan was dominated by a hierarchy of social classes for much of its history, so there have been no shortage of peasant uprisings over the centuries. These simple working men developed a unique group of weapons repurposed from the tools they used every day. The first is the kama, which is a small sickle with a wooden handle. Since it was a tool, it was not considered an edged weapon under Japanese law.
Next is the manriki-gusari, which is just a chain with a small weight attached to one end of it. While this may not seem like a weapon at first, a skilled wielder of the manriki-gusari can whirl it around them to fend off attackers use the weighted and as a projectile that will always return due to its weight and momentum. The chain can also be used to bind people and be easily rolled up and hidden.
As some point, someone decided to combine the kama and manriki-gusari into the kusarigama. This weapon possesses the defensive capabilities of the manriki-gusari with the lethality of a blade. The kusarigama would become a favorite of law enforcement in Japan until relatively recent times.
Gunpowder Weapons: Horokubiya, Tanegashima, & Hiya Taihou
While it may come as a surprise, Japan developed gunpowder weapons not long after the rest of the world. This is mainly because of their close ties to China, where gunpowder originated. As early as the 14th century A.D., Japanese soldiers were using a primitive grenade called a horokubiya. Composed of gunpowder wrapped in ceramic or paper with a fuse sticking out of it, these were about as simple as explosives can be and were launched from handheld slings.
When the Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543, the Japanese saw firearms for the very first time and immediately began using them in battle. They would go on to develop their own distinct type of matchlock rifle called the tanegashima that had a short barrel and sleeker design than European firearms and were frequently used by samurai. The Japanese would continue to innovate and advance the matchlock design long after the rest of the world abandoned it for newer technology. Perhaps the most extreme Japanese firearm is the Hiya Taihou, which was developed by applying European firearm technology to pre-existing Japanese fire arrow launchers that samurai and Japanese soldiers were already using. The result was a weapon that fired wooden rockets and could devastate enemy fortifications much like a modern rocket powered grenade launcher (RPG).
Ninja Weapons: Shuriken & Tekko-Kagi
Shuriken, sometimes called ninja stars or throwing stars, are small metal stars or triangles that have sharp points on many sides. Their seemingly ornamental design actually serves a real purpose because they take less skill to use effectively than a throwing knife that is only sharp on one end. While shuriken are most commonly associated with ninja, they were used by samurai and other Japanese soldiers as well.
One of the most unique Japanese weapons of all is the tekko-kagi. These are a pair of metal claws that can be strapped around the palm of the hand and extend beyond the length of the fingers. This allows the wielder of the tekko-kagi to defend against sword strikes and slash with sharp claws all using natural hand motions. A skilled user of this weapon could defend, ensnare, or even disarm a samurai attacking with a katana.