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The wakizashi (Kanji: ?? Hiragana: ?????) (meaning “side arm”) is a traditional Japanese sword with a shoto blade between 30 and 60 cm (12 and 24 inches), with an average of 50 cm (20 inches). It is similar to but shorter than a katana, and usually shorter than the kodachi (“small sword”). The wakizashi was usually worn together with the katana by the samurai or swordsmen of feudal Japan. When worn together the pair of swords were called daisho, which translates literally as “large and small”. The katana was often called the sword or the long sword and the wakizashi the companion sword.
References to wakizashi use date at least back to the sixteenth century. Originally, the term “wakizashi” was used to mean any sword worn on the side of the main sword. Later, the term was used to denote the group of swords which were shorter than the main sword of the samurai, and as a result, “wakizashi” acquired the meaning of the side sword, because a side sword was shorter than the main sword by its nature.
The samurai used to wear different types of side swords or daggers; for example, chiisa-gatana or yoroi-doshi, and the term “wakizashi” didn’t mean any official blade length. The first usage of a wakizashi dates back to the period between 1332 and 1369. For example, Oda Nobunaga (?? ??, 1534–1582) wore a daisho pair of uchigatana: a Katana with a Wakizashi. This reflects the common practice of wearing a wakizashi as the side sword of a katana.
After the Muromachi period the rulers of Japan tried to regulate the types of swords and the social groups which were allowed to wear them. This was to enhance the reputation, power and the class of the samurai class, who were the only social class permitted to carry the daisho. In the late Momoyama period the government passed laws which categorized the swords in accordance to their blade length. Nevertheless, there were people who openly disobeyed the laws and carried long wakizashi (owakizashi), which had approximately the same length as the katana. This was caused by the confusing definition of katana, wakizashi, and tanto of those times, and some townsmen and members of yakuza gangs carried such swords.
The wakizashi were used as backup weapons and as tools to decapitate defeated enemies, and sometimes to commit ritual suicide. This led to it being referred to as the “Honor Blade” among foreigners. The master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (?? ??, 1584–1645) was known to have wielded a katana and a wakizashi in respective hands in order to fight with two weapons simultaneously for maximum combat advantage.
When taking enemy samurai heads on the battlefield, victorious duellists may have preferred to decapitate beaten fighters with the wakizashi instead of the katana. The executioner (alone or with the help of comrades) would seize the struggling or immobilized victim, remove the victim’s helmet, hold the victim’s head in place with one hand and cut off the trophy with the wakizashi in the other hand. Slicing off heads single-handedly would have been easier with the shorter wakizashi than with the longer katana. Using a katana to hack off the head of a victim who was wearing armor or lying on the ground would mean to risk damaging the katana blade.
When entering a building, a samurai would leave his katana with a servant or page who would then let it rest on a rack called a katana-kake, with the hilt pointing left so that it had to be removed with the left hand, passed to the right, then placed at the samurai’s right, making it difficult to draw quickly, and reducing suspicion. However, the wakizashi would be worn at all times, and therefore, it constituted a side arm for the samurai (similar to a modern soldier’s use of a pistol). A samurai would have worn it from the time he awoke to the time he went to sleep, and slept with it under his pillow.
In earlier periods, and especially during times of civil war, a tanto (dagger) was worn in place of a wakizashi. Contrary to popular belief, the wakizashi was not the sole tool used in the ritual suicide known as seppuku; this usage was also commonly assigned to the tanto.