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Article - 'Culture of Japan – The Feudal Era Weapons' by KaosTenshi

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Aug 8, 2003


The second in a series of articles about Japan’s most bloody time, delving into the armor, weapons, and armies of the Sengoku Period.


Enjoy the first issue of Culture of Japan? Well, here’s the second! Hope it’s of use to you. This time it’s all about weapons, armor, and the people that used them.


When one thinks of Japanese weaponry, the katana is one of the first images to come to mind. Its curved blade was designed for maximum cutting power, but still being flexible enough and tough enough to withstand the shock of battle without bending breaking. To create the blade, the steel is folded, forged, and folded again many times over. It’s even said that some of the greatest blades in history were folded hundreds of times. It is then tempered, edge-down, in clay to create a very hard edge, but still won’t break with the shock of clashing with another sword. If the blade is removed from the hilt, one can find that the sword’s creator has left their seal and the number of times the blade was folded on the ‘hidden’ portion of the blade. The guard over the hand, between blade and the hilt, is called a tsuba, and could be very plain, or sometimes the tsuba itself was turned into a work of art.

The katana, while a well-known sword, was far from being a samurai’s only weapon. Samurai on horseback as part of the cavalry could fight efficiently with only a katana, but samurai on foot would almost never be sent into battle with only a katana; if they were ever sent into battle with just a sword, it would usually be the nodatchi. The nodatchi was a large two-handed sword with enormous cutting power, but still lacked distance necessary to deal with the threat of fast, deadly cavalry. The two greatest weapons to be used against the cavalry were the naginata and the yari. The naginata is a form of polearm; a long staff with a blade on the end. Unlike many European polearms, the naginata’s blade was curved like a katana to give it the same kind of cutting power, and also like the katana, its blade was capable of bending quite a bit before it would break. But the naginata became a mixed blessing when cavalry were trained to use the naginata on horseback!

The yari on the other hand was a spear. Rather than trying to slash someone with it, it was used to stab, making it easier to deal with cavalry; while he was drawing back to make a slash, yarimen on foot could stab him, thus knocking him off his horse or even killing him.

Due to the cavalry’s speed, long-distance weapons were unreliable at best; only the most skilled of archers could hit a cavalry soldier at full gallop, and the arquebus was notoriously unpredictable. Inaccuracy aside, it could misfire and kill its own user just as often as the enemy! Another drawback of the arquebus was that it was heavily dependant on weather. Rain and snow could get powder wet, and thus render the arquebus a piece of useless metal, not even much of a club.

There was however one weapon that no samurai went without. A man samurai would always carry a wakizashi with him. This weapon not to be used only to defend himself in close quarters, but perhaps more importantly for the ritual of seppuku: ritualistic suicide.

Seppuku was to be performed when a samurai faced capture by the enemy, or were ordered by their Daimyo to kill themselves to avoid disgrace. It was also a way out of personal conflicts when they had no other alternatives. The term means literally ‘cutting of the stomach’, which is an accurate description of the ritual. Using the wakizashi, a man would run the sword through his left side, and with both hands would slice across to his right side. He would then draw the blade up in an angle to make a somewhat ‘L’ shaped cut. While this was an incredibly painful, death was not quick; it could take minutes or even hours for him to even die. Eventually, it was decided that a second would aid the suicide, and behead the man with a katana immediately after the cut was made.

The weapons of the ninja were rarely the same as those used by samurai. Perhaps the weapons made the most famous by Hollywood are the shuriken. When someone thinks of such a name, they immediately think of metal throwing stars that could kill an enemy from across the room. This is a gross misconception.

The word ‘shuriken’ describes a small dagger that can be hidden completely in the palm of one’s hand. These daggers, or sometimes blades in the shape of stars and such, would be thrown at an enemy, and while they could wound someone, they couldn’t be thrown hard enough to kill someone unless they managed to hit a major vein or artery.

The ninjas had many tools of the trade, including carrying sand or metal flakes that could be thrown in the eyes of an enemy to blind them. Another weapon used by the ninja was called a kusari-gama. It was essentially a sickle blade at the end of a long, sturdy rope, and at the other end of the rope was a heavy metal weight, or a metal ring. A kusari-gama could be used not only as a weapon, but also as an instrument for climbing castle walls. The stone foundations of castle walls were one of two different types; disordered pilings made of large and small rocks carefully fitted together leaving no cracks for attackers to use to climb up, or burdock pilings made of large rocks placed together carefully over mounds of dirt, with pebbles used to fill the cracks. The blade of a kusari-gama could get between very tiny cracks in rocks where fingers couldn’t.


For a samurai, putting on a suit of armor was a much more drawn out task than simply dressing in the morning. After tying his hair up in the traditional style that all samurai wore to show their status, he would put on a loincloth, then a short kimono. He would put on a pair of baggy trousers over the short kimono and make sure they were tied around his waist with a cord. Next, he would put on ‘tabi’ socks and his sandals, and fasten armor over each of his shins, tucking the baggy trousers into the shin pads. Next came long thigh guards attached to the cord at his waist. These guards came down to at least the knee. Next came chain-mail sleeves, and a chest guard. The chest guard was then covered with a breastplate that covered his whole chest and stomach, and tied over his shoulders and on his sides to a back plate. Attached to this was an armored ‘skirt’ of sorts to shield his legs on all sides. All of these were tied with a sturdy silk cord. He would fix his wakizashi to his left side, and his katana if he carried one. He would then tie a scarf made of soft cloth over his hair to make sure it didn’t tangle in his helmet before he put it on. The last order of business was putting on his shoulder guards; these came last since they could’ve hampered his ability to reach his head to tie the scarf and helmet on. Often times, archers, naginata men, yarimen, and arquebusers wouldn’t even wear shoulder armor because it made it too difficult or even impossible to fight. As you can see, this was quite the chore. Some men, particularly generals (Taisho) would wear surcoats, which were loose sleeveless coats over their armor.

Armor plates were created when small curved metal panels were riveted together in layers. A helmet would usually have up to thirty-two curved panels on it, and be topped with a crest made of painted wood. Some samurai chose to wear iron facemasks as well, in the shape of fierce demons and painted red as a sign of anger, but these were hot, uncomfortable, and could make it difficult to see.


A Daimyo would rarely lead his own troops into battle. Instead, he sent his generals called Taisho to lead forces. A samurai camp was not made of just tents, but instead posts were stuck in the ground with cords running between them, and cloth ‘walls’ were hung to divide sleeping areas. Only in these sleeping areas would samurai pitch their tents.. More than just the samurai, many other kinds of people traveled with armies; men who carried a Daimyo’s banner into the battlefield with his crest displayed on it, men to repair damaged straw sandals, cooks, grooms for the cavalry’s horses, and porters who carried extra arrows and gunpowder. A Taisho would have his own personal staff of guards for his treasure chest in which he carried the spoils of war, as well as his doctors. Doctors were not allowed to treat anyone but the Taisho and his senior men, leaving ordinary soldiers to rely on folk remedies. There would also be signalers, whose only duties were to send messages using gongs and drums.

Most armies would carry portable Buddhist shrines with them to be able to pray before battle. Many samurai believed that this would help them fight better. A portable shrine was a small cost to a Daimyo if it would make his men fight harder. Buddhism would also work against them sometimes; if an enemy employed the use of fighting Buddhist monks in their forces, then any Buddhist attackers would be hesitant to go into battle. If a Daimyo converted to Roman Catholicism imported by the Portuguese, then it was expected that everyone under his command would convert as well. Catholic troops didn’t have the same kinds of qualms about fighting Buddhist Monks, but this left a Daimyo under the constant threat of Buddhist religious revolts amongst his own people.

The Sengoku Period is a time of a country stained with blood… an army could consist of as many as a hundred thousand men, leading to brutal and bloody slaughters.

Next Article: Women and Arts of Japan; an article about the cultural roles that women played in Japan, as people, as farmers, as geisha, as artists, and sometimes even as warriors.