COMMON LENGTH OF TSUKA ON NIHON-TO FROM A SOCIO-HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE*
S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
University of North Alabama
"What were were the popular/common tsuka lengths of Nihon-to determined historically?"
This is one of the questions that people who are relatively new to Nihon-to often ask. If one is to determine appropriate tsuka length for his/her katana solely for the purpose of martial art training, the answer may be simpler. Each school of traditional sword art usually has a describable parameter developed in the course of the school's evolution. Depending on philosophical or technical emphasis in their tradition, some schools of sword arts may favor relatively longer tsuka, while others may prefer more conventionally sized tsuka relatively to the blade length.
However, if one is to determine "historically common/popular tsuka length," the answer can as complex as the history of Japan... Much like the factors facilitated the evolutions of different types of Nihon-to (e.g., tachi, uchigatana, wakizashi, etc.) factors that had significant influence over common lengths of tsuka varied in different periods of Japanese history and interacted with one another in different political and (regionally based) sub-cultural contexts. To identify the factors that influenced popular/common tsuka lengths of Nihon-to, therefore, it is necessary to roughly break the historical periods into pre-Edo period, Edo period, and the end of Edo (or Bakumatsu) period, similar to the divisions of ko-to, shin-to and shin-shin-to periods. While this paper is not intended to offer the complete answer to the original question, several major social and cultural forces that influenced historically more common parameters of tsuka lengths in each of these periods can be discussed.At minimum, several factors must be taken into consideration when discussing historically "common" or "typical" tsuka lengths of Nihon-to worn/carried by old samurai. They include 1) average physical size of adult male in Japan in the old days, 2) use of Nihon-to in military applications and bureaucratic rituals during specific eras, 3) national weapons laws issued by the ruling Shogunate, 4) political atmosphere of the specific eras, and 5) regional sub-cultures of daimyo's ruling territories (i.e, han).
II. Pre-Edo Period.
Prior to Edo period, there was virtually no officially/legally established military specifications of Nihon-to to be carried by samurai at least at the national level. Therefore, the most relevant factors during this old period would be abovementioned 1) average physical size of adult male in Japan in the old days and 2) use of Nihon-to in military applications and bureaucratic rituals... Though it was very plausible that many samurai warriors used katana with varying blade and tsuka lengths as they suited their specific tactical and ritualistic needs, it is also important to keep in mind that the average physical size of adult male in Japan over 400 years ago was much smaller than the average physical size of Westerners today... Naturally, typical blade and tsuka lengths of katana and tachi (not oo-dachi, no-dachi, etc.) that were actually carried/worn could not have been too long...
In short, prior to the establishment of the national legal
standard of katana's specifications, other than the obvious
physical limitations, sizes of katana and tachi varied depending
on specific military applications. Because of the way war was
fought, main swords of this period were relatively long, but
tachi had relatively shorter tsuka in proportion to their long
III. Edo Period.
A. The effect of the national weapons law.
After Tokugawa Iyeyasu finally restored peace and order to Japan, there was a long peaceful period in Japan that had lasted for over 250 years. During this period, legal specifications of samurai's duty weapon (e.g., uchigatana) at the national level came to appear in historical records. The most notable of those laws regulating weapons at the national level was an executive order entitled "Dai-sho katana no Sunpo oyobi tohats futsumoh no Sei" [The Order Regarding Dai-sho Paired Swords and Hair Style] issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1645 (i.e., 45 years after the Battle of Sekigahara) (Iiyama, 1995; Kukubo, 1993; Ogasawara,1994). This executive order from Tokugawa Shogunate very much established the official/legal specs of high ranking samurai's "duty weapons" (i.e., katana and wakizashi) when daimyo lords and high ranking hatamoto were to report to the Shogunate castle in the capital city (Ogasawara, 1993; Also see Takeuchi 2004). It was also this particular executive order by which the Shogunate also legalized the official blade and tsuka lengths of "duty" katana to be 2 shaku 3 sun (69.69cm) and 8 sun (= 24.24cm) respectively.
Katana and wakizashi during this peaceful period were
more of symbolic representations of samurai's social class and
status rather than actual weapons of war. In fact, many samurai (who had
simply become an advantaged class of bureaucrats rather than active
warriors) favored the standard 2 shaku 3 sun blade and relatively
short 8 sun tsuka in so called "tojoj-zashi" profile. That is
also why many ko-to blades that had survived till the peaceful
era were eventually shortened (via suriage) during this time to
make them easier to carry/wear daily as in the standard duty
specifications set by the Shogunate.
Newly implemented official/legal specification of katana by the Tokugawa
Shogunate not only affected the size of katana worn by high ranking samurai but also katana carried/used by many lower
ranking samurai as well. As a matter of fact, after the 1645 executive order
the majority of the samurai serving the Shogun in the capital
city as well as many other samurai serving daimyo lords in their
respective territories also followed the Shogunate's legal specs
of 2 shaku 3 sun blade with 8 sun tsuka. Therefore, antique
koshirae made after this time tend to have relatively short tsuka
(around 10") for more or less standard length blade. (See Kokubo,
1993; Ide, 2000).
B. Provincial/Territorial military regulations.
Nonetheless, provincial governments and territories ruled by daimyo
lords were, within limits, allowed to have their own military
regulations (though very similar to those of the national
government) (Takemitsu, 1999; Ujiie, 1998). Therefore, katana
carried/used by samurai serving those daimyo lords in their
territories, may have had tsuka much longer than standard 8 sun.
For instance, Satsuma province ruled by Lord Shimazu adopted
"Jigen Ryu" as their official sword art for military personnel, and many existing uchigatana koshirae in
so-called "Satsuma koshirae" do have fairly long tsuka
relative to the blade length because of the specific tactical
emphasis of Jigen Ryu (Zusho, 2003)...
One thing needs to be mentioned is that generally speaking
even within their own ruling territories, personal desires or
preference of daimyo lords did *not* have much influence on the
size of swords carried by their retainers. Unlike common misconception, the political system of
feudal Japan was not really that primitive, but rather similar to
modern political system. The daimyo lords who, in the light of
the laws, were "commissioned" by the Shogunate (which was commissioned by the Imperial
Court) to govern their territories, were in fact the "rulers" of
their territories: However, much like today's kings or
governors, they were *not* dictators, and the internal policies
of daimyo's ruling territories were developed, adopted, and
implemented by committees of high ranking bureaucratic officials rather than the daimyo lords themselves.
In a way, the political system of feudal era Japan (from the end
of Warring State period to the end of Edo period) was similar to
today's US system. The Shogunate can be seen in terms of the
federal government, and "han" or provincial territories governed
by daimyo lords were much like individual states. Although each
daimyo lord who ruled his territory was the king of his own
kingdom, legal recognition and legitimization of his throne was
always within the authority of the central Shogunate throughout Edo period (Takemitsu, 1999).
By the mid Edo
period, where Tokugawa Shogunate's political authority had been
clearly established throughout Japan, each daimyo load had to be
officially/legally "appointed" by the Shogunate to his own
territory as the governor/ruler whenever he succeeded to the position at the
death or retirement of his father or a new Shogun succeeded to the throne. In
other words, without the legal blessing by the central government, no daimyo
could legally claim his throne as the ruler of his own state.
Once again, while provincial governments and territories ruled by
daimyo lords were within limits allowed to have their own
military regulations (Takemitsu, 1999; Ujiie, 1998), those
territorial/regional military regulations were still very similar
to those of the national government (i.e., Shogunate). Using the
same analogy, the relationship between the Shogunate's military
and each han's military can be understood in terms of the
relationship between US Armed Forces and the National Guards of
each state. The internal military regulations of each provincial
government were never "dictated" by the ruling daimyo's personal
desire or preferences. Rather, their foundations were first and
foremost strongly influenced by the military regulations of the
Shogunate, and then by unique geographical, demographic,
economic, and sub-cultural characteristics of each state.
Those military regulations were also influenced each state's
political relationships with the Shogunate and other neighboring
states. Naturally official duty specs of katana carried by
samurai in each state were similar to those of the Shogunate's,
yet still retained *some* regional characteristics because of the
unique needs that each state had. In that sense, Satsuma's
adoption of Jigen-ryu, for example, was not based on the ruler's
personal interest, but more to do with other factors such as the
regional sub-culture of Satsuma province and its unique political
relationship with the Shogunate...
IV. Late Edo (Bakumatsu) Period.
A. Political atmosphere.
Towards the very end of Edo period, when foreign military power
started threatening the Shogunate's isolation policy, an extreme
right-wing nationalist movement (i.e., "Son-noh joh-i" ["Respect
the Emperor and exclude foreigners"]) emerged among conservative
samurai. Those nationalist/racist samurai favored large size
katana (with also longer than standard length tsuka), not
necessarily because of their martial arts backgrounds, but more
as their political/ideological expression of nationalism. To a
certain extent, those large size katana with longer than standard
length tsuka that were more common during this time were wearers'
fashion statement, as well... Of course, those large size katana
were favored more by younger samurai but older samurai tended to
wear more or less standard size katana (Kokubo, 1993).
Political atmosphere of the country was only one of those factors
that strongly operated during the late Edo period particularly.
The reason that we see many large size late shin-shin-to with
"mighty look" is to a large extent because of this political
atmosphere and the rise of extreme nationalism during this
B. Introduction of photography.
Incidentally, it was during this time when photography was introduced to and became commonly available in Japan. Because the time coincided with the time of rising nationalism, those old samurai portraits taken during this time tend to show samurai wearing relatively large size katana with longer than standard length tsuka... It must also be noted, however, that commercial photographers during that time also made rental kimono available to their customers and used some props such as fancier looking non-functional koshirae-only katana, fan, and etc. when taking portraits of samurai. Therefore, some of those large size katana that samurai were holding/wearing in the old photos might not be their own personal swords, but mere props (non-functional koshirae only) specifically made available for portraits to emphasize "masculine look" in the photos...
Iiyama, Yoshiaki. (1995). "Edo jidai no tousou to fuzoku." ["The
customs and sword furnishings in the Edo period."] In Shibata,
Mitsuo. Shibata Mitsuo no Touken Handbook. [The
Handbook of Japanese Swords by Mitsuo Shibata.] Pp. 120-125.
Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan.
Kokubo, Kenichi. (1993). Zukan Tousou no Subete. [The
Complete Illustrated Book of the Japanese Sword Furnishings.]
Tokyo, Japan: Kogei Shuppan.
Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1993). Token. Osaka, Japan: Hoiku-sha.
Ogasawara, Nobuo. (1994). Nippon no Bijutsu 1, No. 332:
Nihon-to no Koshirae. [The Art of Japan 1, No. 332: The
Koshirae of Japanese Swords.] Tokyo, Japan: Shibun Do.
Takemitsu, Makoto. (1999). Han to Nippon-jin: Gendai ni
ikiru "okuni-gara." [Feudal Hans system and the Japanese:
The provincial characteristics that are still alive today.]
Tokyo, Japan: PHP Kenkyu sho.
Takeuchi, S. Alexander. (2004).
"Historical origin of the
popularity of gloss black saya and the availability of metal
kojiri." In Dr. T's Nihon-to Random Thoughts Page.
University of North Alabama, Florence Alabama, USA.
Ujiie, Mikito. (1998). Edo hantei monogatari: Senjo kara
machikado he. [Provincial government offices in Edo:
Transition from the battle fields to the street.] Tokyo,
Japan: Chuoh Kohron sha.
Zusho, Ichiro. (2003). Satsuma koshirae. Tokyo, Japan: Ribun Shuppan.
* Edited and reprinted from the author's original posts on Bugei Sword Forums.
Copyright © by S. Alexander Takeuchi, Ph.D.