Unusual & Different Styles of Tanto



The kubikiri (kubigiri) is an unusual form for a Japanese tanto. On a kubikiri, the cutting edge is on the inside curvature (extreme uchi-sori); most are of the kiri-ha shape and have no kissaki (point). There were several possible uses and many "tall tales" about kubikiri. The term "kubikiri" is traditionally translated as "head cutter". This style of tanto may have been carried by attendants to high ranking samurai whose job was to remove the heads of dead enemies as "trophies of battle". While this usage was possibly real in ancient times, in later eras it would have been largely a ceremonial sword used possibly as a badge of rank. These are also referred to as bokuwari tanto which means wood splitter. They may have been used to cut charcoal for sumi or incense for either the tea ceremony or incense game. Some people also call this style of tanto a "doctor's knife". As there is no point (kissaki), it supposedly could not be used offensively and was therefore carried by those persons of stature who were entitled to wear a sword, but who were "non-combatants". It is also possible that this style of tanto (hanakiri) was made for wealthy individuals as tools for trimming bonsai and doing garden work or ikebana, similar to the saw tanto below. Another possibility is that they were used by forestry officials for taking trimmings or cuttings for propagation. Tanto of this type date from the Meiji to early Showa eras, a period when most sword makers and koshirae artists had little work making traditional swords. Whatever the usage, this style of tanto is relatively rare in Western collections.


Tanto in koshirae simulating a folded Japanese fan are not particularly uncommon. Most have rather low grade blades, although some good quality blades are found mounted in this manner. Legend has it that this style of mounting was used by women and retired samurai as well as doctors, monks and others who did not wish to appear to be carrying a weapon. Fan style mounts were also widely produced in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as tourist items. The majority of these have poor quality blades. Also, most carved bone, dragon and fish tanto that are found have poor quality blades and are considered "tourist tanto" which are of no interest to Nihonto collectors.


Ken are one of the rarer styles of tanto. Ken have double edged blades and were mainly made as Buddhist ritual implements although it is not uncommon to find them mounted and used as tanto. Some ken style tanto were made from cut down yari. Ken style tanto were made in Koto, Shinshinto and Gendai eras; but few were made during the Shinto period (few tanto of any style were made during the Shinto era). Ken blades may have parallel edges or double concave shapes as above. Some of the top sword smiths in history made ken as offerings to various temples. It is not uncommon to find ken with a vajra (double thunderbolt) style hilt in keeping with their use as Buddhist ritual implements.


Yari (Japanese lance heads) are occasionally found mounted as tanto. The tang (nakago) is drastically shortened to fit into a tanto size tsuka (handle). This means that if the yari was originally signed by the swordsmith, that the signature (mei) is most likely lost. Small yari tanto were sometimes carried as dirks (kwaiken) by women or as armor piercing tanto by samurai. Yari tanto will normally have a triangular cross-section as distinct from ken tanto which have a diamond cross-section. Also yari tanto will have a reduced "shoulder area" where the blade enters the tsuka and normally have no habaki (blade collar). Yari tanto vary in quality. Some were made by swordsmiths and will have hada and hamon, others were mass produced for foot soldiers and have no hamon. The hi (groove) on the flat side of the yari will possibly be colored with red lacquer.


Hachiwara are not actually tanto as they are not a sword, but rather a forged iron bar designed as a defensive weapon against swords. They are sometimes called sword breakers or helmet breakers - Kabutowari. The blades are normally of square cross-section with a hook next to the grip, approximately 12 to 15 inches in length. The mounts are commonly of carved wood or carved cinnabar lacquer. Some hachiwara were made by noted swordsmiths and may be signed.


This item is most unusual - a saw blade mounted in handachi style koshirae. The forged blade is 9.75 inches long and the brass mounts appear to be original to the blade. The purpose of this item is unknown. Is is speculated that is a fire fighter's tanto from the late Edo period; but it could be a pruning saw for bonsai? a carpenter's or cabinet maker's saw? an arborist's saw for pruning trees? It is unusual to find tools in sword koshirae whatever its usage.

The tanto or dagger is defined as an edged weapon that is 1 shaku in length or less. However, some tantos are actually in excess of the length are often referred to as O-tanto or sunobi tanto.

Suguta Styles of Tanto:

1. Hira-tsukuri: flat sided (no shinogi), with mune.(common)
2. Katakiriha-tsukuri: totally flat on one side with chisel type edge on opposite. Commonly with chisel type kissaki.(rare)
3. Moroha: double edged, tapering to point, shinogi runs to point, diamond shaped cross section.(somewhat rare)
4. Hochogata-tsukuri: wide, "stubby" hira-tsukuri. Popular style of Masamune.
5. Unokubi-tsukuri: single edged, straight back with raised shinogi tapering to mune. Short, wide groove halfway up blade.
6. Kissaki-moroha-tsukuri: extremely long o-kissaki.(rare)
7. Kogarasumaru-tsukuri: shinogi to kissaki with front third of blade double edged. (rare)
8. Shobu-tsukuri: similar to shinogi-tsukuri but no yokote, may have groove half way up blade. (common)
9. Kubikiri-tsukuri: like katakiriha but with much more sori and edge is on INSIDE curvature. (rare)
10) Kanmuri-otoshi-tsukuri: Similar to unokubi-tsukuri but with the shinogi reaching the tip of the point instead of the mune.
11) Ken: double edged blade with central shinogi. Not actually a tanto but sometimes used like one. Often made from cut down yari.
12) Shinogi-tsukuri: don't generally see these unless a longer sword has been cut down greatly.

Koshirae Styles of Tanto:

Aikuchi: no tsuba: fuchi flush with mouth of saya. Commonly with unwrapped tsuka. Many with horn kashira.
Hamidashi: small size tsuba.
Kaikan: short tanto in aikuchi or shirasaya mounts(usually carried by women).
"Kamikaze" tanto: basically shirasaya, some with horn mountings.

Tanto through History

Koto: Heian through Muromachi

We see the tanto begin some time in the Heian Period but was much more of a functional weapon and as a result of use few survive from this period. In the Early Kamakura Period we begin to see more tantos and the tanto begins a trend to a much more artistic weapon. The most common style is hira-tsukuri, uchi-sori. In Middle Kamakura we begin to see an abundance of tanto craftsmen, kanmuri-otoshi style seen in Yamato and Kyoto. In keeping with the style of tachi, tantos become longer and wider in the Late Kamakura period. Horimono is less decorative than religious. The new faith of Hachiman enters into carvings. The hamon of tanto are like the tachi with the exception of no choji-midare. It is not seen here. Instead, you see gunome midare and suguha. In Nambokucho, the style becomes even grander. Tanto become longer than 40 cm (beyond the normal 1 shaku) becoming like miniature wakizashi.
Blades become thinner ura-to-omote but broader ha-to-mune. Two hamon styles prevail; 1) the old, fading, traditional, quiet, and 2) the new, ascending, bold and flashy such as in Soshu-den of Masamune.
The Muromachi Period is ushered in, and with it comes incessant fighting. Mass production of swords spells a low point. However, custom ordered blades maintain high quality.
Towards the end of this period the style of the sword shifts back to a narrower blade with shallow sori.
There is also a higher frequency of very short pieces, less than five sun used as concealed daggers in robes. Generally Bizen-den and Mino-den are the most numerous smiths.
Great smiths are rare in this period but include Bizen smiths Sukesada and Norimitsu. In Mino there is Kanemoto and Kanesada. In Ise we see Muramasa and Masashige.
In Bungo, the Takata group is well known, and in the Northern Provinces we see the Fujishima group gain fame.

Shinto: Momoyama through early Edo

The unification of Japan brought 250 years of relative peace. This together with the change is style of wearing tachi and tanto to the wearing of katana and uchikatana (wakizashi) meant there was little call for the forging of tanto. The few that were made during the Momoyama period were copies of Nambokucho and Kamakura era works. In the Edo period, hamon become more flamboyant with billowing notare and bead-like gunome. Shapes tend to be long and slender with slight sori.

Shin-shinto: Late Edo

Still few tanto made - but more than in Shinto. Many copies of classic Kamakura, Nambokucho and Koto blades led by the influence of Suishinshi Masahide.

Gendai: Meiji to date

Quite a few tanto made prior to WW II as restoration of the Emperor caused return to classic Kamakura styles. Imperial court wearing tachi and tanto. Tanto relatively numerous.
Many of unokubi and shobu style with short hi halfway up blade. Few modern era tanto made due to restrictions on sword production.

(The above material was abstracted in part from "TANTO" by Suzuki (JSS/US English translation)




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