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A tanto (???, “short sword”) is a common Japanese single or, occasionally, double edged knife or dagger with a blade length between 15 and 30 cm (6-12 inches). The tanto was designed primarily as a stabbing weapon, but the edge can be used for slashing as well. Tanto first began to appear in the Heian period, however these blades lacked any artistic quality and were purely weapons. In the early Kamakura period high-quality artistic tanto began to appear, and the famous Yoshimitsu (the greatest tanto maker in Japanese history) began his forging. Tanto production increased greatly around the Muromachi period and then declined in the Shinto period (“new sword” period). Consequently, Shinto period tanto are quite rare. They regained popularity in the Shin-Shinto Period (“new-new sword” period) and production increased.
Tanto are generally forged in hira-zukuri, meaning that their sides have no ridge line and are nearly flat, unlike the shinogi-zukuri structure of a katana. Some tanto have particularly thick cross-sections for armor-piercing duty, and are called yoroidoshi.
Tanto were mostly carried by samurai as commoners did not generally carry them. Women sometimes carried a small tanto called a kaiken in their obi primarily for self defense.
It was sometimes worn as the shoto in place of a wakizashi in a daisho, especially on the battlefield. Before the 16th century, it was common for a samurai to carry a tachi and a tanto as opposed to a katana and a wakizashi.
Tanto with blunt wooden or blunt plastic blades exist and are used to practice martial arts involving the use of a tanto safely. Versions with a blunt metal blade are used in more advanced training or demonstrations. Martial arts that include techniques with tanto include:
The tanto was invented partway through the Heian period, when it was mainly used as a weapon. With the beginning of the Kamakura period, tanto were forged to be more aesthetically pleasing, and hira and uchi-sori tanto were the most popular styles. Near the middle of the Kamakura period, more tanto artisans were seen, increasing the abundance of the weapon, and the kanmuri-otoshi style became prevalent in the cities of Kyoto and Yamato. Because of the style introduced by the tachi in the late Kamakura period, tanto began to be forged longer and wider. The introduction of the Hachiman faith became visible in the carvings in the tanto hilts around this time. The hamon (line of temper) is similar to that of the tachi, except for the absence of choji-midare, which is nioi and utsuri. Gunomi-midare and suguha are found to have taken its place. In Nambokucho, the tanto were forged to be up to forty centimeters as opposed to the normal one shaku (about thirty centimeters) length. The tanto blades became thinner between the uri and the omote, and widen between the ha and mune. At this point in time, two styles of hamon were prevalent: the older style, which was subtle and artistic, and the newer, more ostentatious style. With the beginning of the Muromachi period, constant fighting caused the mass production of blades, meaning that with higher demand, lower-quality blades were manufactured. Blades that were custom-forged still were of exceptional quality, but the average blade suffered greatly. As the end of the period neared, the average blade narrowed and the sori became shallow.
Approximately two hundred fifty years of peace accompanied the unification of Japan, in which there was little need for blades. With weapon smiths given this time, both the katana and wakizashi were invented, taking the place of the tanto and tachi as the most-used pair of weapons, and the number of tanto forged was severely decreased. The only tanto produced during this period of peace were copies of others from earlier eras.
There were still few tanto being forged during this period, and the ones that were forged reflected the work of the Kamakura, Nambokucho, or Muromachi eras. Suishinshi Masahide was a main contributor towards the forging of tanto during this age.
Many tanto were forged before World War II, due to the restoration of the Emperor to power. Members of the Imperial Court began wearing the set of tachi and tanto once more, and the number of tanto in existence increased dramatically. However, later on, a restriction on sword forging caused the number of tanto being produced to fall very low.
Tanto occupy two main categories, Suguta Tanto and Koshirae Tanto: