David Rilley-Harris

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

May 2020

A wakizashi is a traditional Japanese short sword with a single edged slightly curved blade. It was designed to be used as a secondary weapon to the katana. Since the wakizashi was less likely to be used in combat it tended to be the more ornate of the two swords. While the wakizashi would usually be used to finish off the work of the katana, the two swords could also be used in combat simultaneously. Combined, the katana and wakizashi are called the daishō, literally meaning “large and small”. “Dai” means “big” and “sho” means “small”. Daishō tradition became popular in the Muromachi period (CE 1392-1477).  When used as a combination, the katana’s longer thicker blade was better suited to dealing with armour and controlling your opponent’s distance while the wakizashi’s thinner blade was designed to target the body’s softer weak points.

Both the katana and the wakizashi were expected to be kept with their owner at all times, but this was only absolutely true of the wakizashi as the katana would be handed to a servant when entering any building other than one’s own home. When used in its most formal manner, the wakizashi would be present at its owner’s birth and be carried constantly until death. The sword would be worn while eating meals and while sleeping. Less formal use of the wakizashi was widespread as more people were allowed to carry a wakizashi while katana use was strictly controlled.

Japanese Short Sword

Two basic types of wakizashi are made. The longer o-wakizashi is around 600mm long and the shorter ko-wakizashi could be as short as 300mm. The ko-wakizashi displayed at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History is 430mm long. It was donated to the museum in 1959 and is believed to have been used in the 1880s during Japan’s Meiji era. This was Japan’s first imperial era after coming out of feudal isolationism. The length of the sword suggests that the wakizashi is from the 19th Century when wakizashi lengths for commoners were legally restricted to a maximum of just under 450mm.  During much of this period, many of the samurai class were becoming impoverished by extended periods of peace, and merchants and artists who were prospering could be expected to afford the more ornate ko-wakizashi.

The most well-known use of the wakizashi is for the purpose of Seppuku, suicide by disembowelment. “Seppuku” or “harakiri” both literally mean “belly cutting”. The blade used for seppuku would usually be a tanto of ko-wakizashi. The ritual was carried out to avoid capture by an enemy force; to restore honour after a shameful act; to carry out a criminal sentence of death; to complete the ritual of killing one’s self after the death of their master (oibara); as a form of protest; or to remove one belligerent’s leader or reduce their forces so as to allow for the expedited ending of a war.

To commit seppuku, the subject would take part in a ceremony that involved them thrusting the weapon into and horizontally across their belly and then extending their neck for an assistant to behead them. If they are able to cut deep enough into their belly they will cut their descending aorta allowing for a quicker less painful death. Women would traditionally commit seppuku by cutting their throats. Seppuku was abolished as an obligatory legal act in 1873. Since then, all acts of seppuku have been voluntary. Many such acts of seppuku occurred around the end of the Second World War where soldiers and civilians died to avoid surrender.

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