Defensive weapons of the Japanese samurai
by Don Cunningham
The Japanese sword, admired for its artistic value as well as for its
practical merits, is often considered an emblem of the samurai's power
and skill. It was venerated by the bushi, or warrior class, and
was worn as a badge of a samurai's status. The sword was the "the
soul of a samurai," and no self-respecting bushi would be
seen outside his home without his daisho 1
During wartime, swordsmanship was essential for survival on the battlefield.
However, the possession of suitable side arms was considered a samurai's
responsibility even after the relative peace established by the Tokugawa
Despite popular literature and the images portrayed in samurai films,
bushido--the warrior's code of ethics and the samurai's moral
precepts--did not allow for indiscriminate use of the sword. As bushido
stressed the proper use of the sword, it also detested its misuse. The
samurai who drew his sword for unjustifiable reasons or at improper
occasions was regarded as ill-mannered and crude.
In 1701, Lord Asano Nagamori, the brash young daimyo or leader
from Ako, was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) and his
clan abolished, thus setting the stage for the bloodiest vendetta in
Japan's history known as the forty-seven ronin incident. Asano's offense
was drawing his short sword and attacking the shogun's chief of
protocol, Kira Yoshinaka, during preparations for an official reception
of an imperial envoy from Kyoto. 3
to their lord, many of his former retainers sought revenge and
eventually killed Yoshinaka. Although their loyalty has become
legendary, the fact remains that the Asano family and their clan were
destroyed by Lord Asano's one moment of rage and his inopportune use of
his sword. personal defense. 4
Because the sword was often unsuitable for use, samurai frequently
had to rely on alternatives for personal defense. This often included the creative use of whatever common, everyday
objects which could be found at hand. There were also a number of
specialized weapons used when otherwise unarmed or, in some cases, when
it was preferable not to kill or seriously maim the attacker.
A wide range of short arms (mi-jikai-mono) were available for
self-defense. These could either be easily concealed within everyday
clothing or readily carried in addition to the daisho.
The fan was an accessory customarily carried in the hands or tucked
in the obi (belt), especially in ceremonial dress. The folding
fan also played a significant role in Japanese etiquette, especially on
formal occasions, and was rarely ever out of a samurai's possession. The
tessen, literally "iron fan," was either a folding fan
with metal ribs or a non-folding solid bar shaped like a folded fan.
forerunner of the tessen, the gunbei-uchiwa was a solid,
roundish fan used by officers to signal their troops on the battlefield.
Later, the gunsen, or folding war fan, was frequently carried by bushi
in armor and used as a weapon of both attack and defense. Later
generations were more likely to carry a tessen, which like the
folding fan, usually had eight to ten metal ribs and could be worn with
everyday attire. The solid tessen, forged to look like a closed
fan, was more durable and became the more popular type among the
The samurai was often disarmed, such as when performing domestic
chores, at leisure, or meeting with superiors. If visiting another's
home, for example, a warrior was generally required to leave one or both
swords with an attendant. Armed with a tessen in his obi,
though, the samurai was never completely unarmed. He could easily defend
himself in an emergency with what appeared to be a common,everyday
There are many legends regarding combat involving the use of an iron
fan. The hero of many Japanese sagas, Yoshitsune allegedly learned
swordsmanship and tessen-jutsu secrets from the tengu,
mythical beings who were supposed to be expert martial artists.
As kendo instructors to the Tokugawa shoguns, the Yagyu ryu were also
famous for their iron fan defensive techniques. There are many recorded
examples of duels won using iron fans against naked swords and even
deaths caused by blows from a tessen. A famous 16th century swordsman,
Ganryu, armed only with his tessen, defeated several armed
opponents in one incident.
It was considered unseemly to use a sword against a lower ranking
rival. On the other hand, tessen-jutsu was considered
sophisticated, especially among the higher ranking samurai, and many
actually preferred to defend themselves with a tessen.
When entering a house or room of a senior ranking person, Japanese
convention was to kneel and place the folding fan a short distance in
front of and horizontal to the knees. Then placing both hands flat on
the tatami, with the fingertips just short of the fan, a bow was
performed, the depth relative to the rank of the visitor and the host.
This common practice is the source for one infamous account of tessen-jutsu.
Summoned to appear before his lord for some fault, an official 5
knew his life was on the line. In fact, the lord's retainers planned to
crush his neck between the heavy wooden sliding doors when he performed
the ritual bow of greeting. By chance or by instinct, though, the
official placed his tessen in the sliding door's groove. When the
retainers slammed the doors together, they bounced harmlessly off the
metal ribs caught in the groove, saving the official's neck. When he
acted as if nothing had happened, the lord became bewildered and spared
the official from further penalty.
The jutte was an iron truncheon carried by feudal era police
officers called doshin, as well as by their non-samurai
assistants. The jutte evolved from a very strange battlefield
weapon commonly believed to have been designed by Goro Nyudo Masamune, a
Hachiwari, literally "helmet
splitters," were curved, pointed metal bars with a hook near the
base of the handle. Worn by the bushi like a dirk, hachiwari
were probably used as a parrying weapon, held in the left hand while
wielding a sword in the right, or used to pierce through body armor.
Much like the hachiwari, a single hook or fork on the side
near the handle allowed the jutte to be used for trapping or even
breaking the blades of edged weapons, as well as for jabbing or
striking. Thus, the jutte was used to disarm and arrest suspects
without bloodshed. Eventually, the jutte became a symbol of a doshin's
official status. Munisai Hirata, the father of Japan's most famous
swordsman, Musashi Miyamoto, was considered a master of the iron
truncheon and jutte-jutsu.
Edo-period police officers and their assistants developed many
weapons and techniques against criminal violators, who were usually
armed and frequently desperate. The jutte was popular in feudal
Japan because it could parry the slash of a razor-sharp sword and
immobilize an assailant without injury. The jutte also probably
influenced the development of the sai, a dual-forked metal weapon
employed in Okinawan karate.
Essentially a defensive or restraining weapon, the length of the jutte
required the user to get very close to those being apprehended. Like the
tessen, a jutte could be used in blocking (uke) and
parrying (nagashi) techniques, as well as in striking (uchi),
thrusting (tsuki), and holding (osae) techniques.
The manrikigusari 6
consisted of a short length of metal chain, about two to three feet
long, with weights on each end. The chain could be used to parry a
strike from sticks, swords, or other weapons. The weights were also
swung to strike an opponent or to entangle a weapon. Once a weapon was
trapped by the chain and weights, the samurai could easily disarm their
opponent. Finally, the length of chain could also be used to temporarily
restrain an attacker once he was subdued.
The manrikigusari was allegedly developed by Dannoshin
Toshimitsu Masaki, then head sentry at Edo Castle, sometime during the
early 1700s. According to legend, Masaki was inspired to create this
unique weapon to prevent unnecessary bloodshed while his guards defended
the castle from intruders. The manrikigusari was later adopted by
other constables and their assistants to disarm and capture criminals.
The strangest and most unlikely defensive weapon has to be the bamboo
flute, known in Japan as the shakuhachi. The shakuhachi is
a end-blown flute made from bamboo root. Used in traditional Japanese
music, the soulful and deeply moving music played on the shakuhachi
is often associated with the practice of Zen Buddhism and meditation.
The shakuhachi was popularized by the Fuke sect of Buddhism sometime
in the thirteenth century. This sect sought to replace sutra chanting
with sui zen (blowing zen) through the use of the shakuhachi.
During the Edo Period, marked by disintegration of feudal Japan, the shakuhachi
was often favored by swelling numbers of uprooted and masterless samurai
warriors, or ronin. Large numbers of ronin joined the
ranks of itinerant preachers known as komuso (priests of
emptiness and nothingness). The komuso were identified by the
large baskets (tengai) 7,
which they wore over their heads to symbolize their detachment from the
world. In this way, they roamed from village to village, playing the shakuhachi
and accepting alms.
Violent clan struggles during the late sixteenth century forced many
of the komuso to organize themselves into a society for
self-protection. Members of the Fukeshu sought to deceive Japan's
military ruler, the shogun, with forged documents giving them exclusive
rights to play the shakuhachi and to solicit alms with it. In
return for this privilege, the komuso agreed to spy on the
activities of other ronin, watching for any signs of a potential
In any case, no longer part of the samurai class, the komuso
were forbidden to wear their swords. According to legend, then these komuso
redesigned the shakuhachi from the root of bamboo. By making it
longer and stouter, the shakuhachi flute could also be used like
Women from samurai families were often trained to defend themselves
with a rather extraordinary concealed weapon peculiar to their gender.
When dressed formally, Japanese women usually wore one or more long
pins, called kansashi, hidden in their hair. Kansashi were
approximately six-inches long and served primarily to keep a woman's
long hair up and in place. The pins were also quite capable of piercing
an attacker's chest or throat in an emergency.
Sword Abolishment Act
In 1876, the Meiji government passed the Haitorei or Sword
Abolishment Act. The new law prohibited the Japanese people, including
the former members of the samurai class, from bearing arms in public.
The only exceptions allowed were authorized members of the armed forces
or police on official duty.
Forbidden to wear their daisho in public, samurai sometimes
disguised their blades as inoffensive items, such as cleverly made
walking sticks or other common objects. Their ancestors, the classical
warriors, overlooked nothing which could be used as a weapon. Deprived
of their sword now by law, modern samurai had to rely even more on their
own ingenuity and resourcefulness for protection against thieves,
hoodlums, and bandits.
1 Diasho literally translates as
"big-little," and refers to a pair of swords, consisting of one long
sword (daito) and a shorter sword (shoto) Either sword was referred to as
katana, although the short sword was sometimes called wakazashi. [Return
2 For nearly three centuries (approximately 1600
to 1868), Japan existed as a feudal society under a relatively tranquil rule of
the Tokugawa Shogunate. [Return to text]
3 Various reasons are given for the Tokugawa
shogun's harsh sentencing of Lord Asano. Most historians agree that it was for
drawing his short sword and wounding Yoshinaka. In one account, though, after
the initial attack failed, Lord Asano threw his wakazashi at the chief of
protocol, damaging a lacquered screen. Ultimately, though, it was Lord Asano's
obvious disregard for prohibitions against drawing one's sword within the palace
grounds that sealed his fate. [Return to text]
4 There is another reason the samurai might be
reluctant to use his sword. Many of the Japanese swords were family heirlooms,
passed down from generation to generation. Even a basic katana
represented a major investment for samurai of any class. As such, it would have
been unwise to draw and risk damaging an expensive blade for a minor
altercation. [Return to text]
5 The actual participants in the tessen
episode are difficult to identify. In one version, the official was Akira
Murashige, who is summoned by Oda Nobunaga. Another attributes the incident to
Araki Mataemon, a fencing master, and an unidentified daimyo. [Return
6 The manrikigusari was also referred to as
kusari (chain), sode-kusari (sleeve-chain), and kusari-jutte,
as well as many other names. [Return to text]
7 This may be the source of many stories of ninja,
or feudal Japanese spies, with near mystical powers and unusual weapons. Popular
fiction often portrays ninja disguised as komuso, wearing their basket
helmets during the day and their black suits and masks at night. [Return