Like most cultures, Japan has a long history of warfare and weaponry. Japan’s weapons and tactics evolved over a number of years of conflict, both internal and external. Not surprisingly, much of this history is reflected in anime. Anime often has a focus on combat, and many of Japan’s traditional weapons are spotlighted in these series, sometimes in unexpected ways. So let’s take some time to explore a few of Japan’s traditional weapons and where you’ll see them in anime. We’ll start with the best known Japanese weapon, the katana.
What we know as the katana is a long, curved sword with a single edge. Technically in Japanese, katana is a broader category of swords, while the one we know as katana is actually called the nihontou. It is, of course, associated heavily with the samurai since it was their staple weapon for many years. The nihontou (henceforth referred to as katana) is unique amongst swords for both its shape and make. The katana, unlike many swords of the time, is only sharp on one side. The blade is also curved as a result of the way it is forged. It is also accented with a guard (circular or rectangular) at the top of the grip, which is long enough to accommodate both hands.
The katana’s unique shape makes it an interesting weapon in close combat. The curved blade, along with a curved sheath, allows the sword to be drawn quickly and fluidly. In fact, samurai were often able to draw the katana and strike an enemy with a single motion. This made them able to respond quickly on the battlefield. The katana’s long grip also allows it to be wielded in either both hands for more strength, or dual-wield for more utility. The samurai katana was often paired with a similar, smaller sword. These swords were called wakizashi or tanto, depending on their size. These sword pairs were called a daisho. Daisho were exclusively worn by samurai, and were a mark of honor. The wakizashi themselves were usually made between 12 and 24 inches, and also have the distinctive curve of the katana. Thewakizashi was primarily used as a backup sword, and could be very useful in close combat or small spaces. Also, the wakizashi could continue to be worn in places where a katana would not be allowed.
A big part of what makes the katana unique is the way it is forged. Katanas were traditionally made from a Japanese type of steel called tamahagane. Tamahagane is a specific steel mixture that is created over several days. The most distinctive part of the creation of a katana is the folding of the steel. The swordsmith must heat, hammer, and fold the steel continually to further purify the steel by drawing out impurities. The blade is then coated with a clay slurry before being quenched in water. The blade then hardens and the sword begins to curve slightly because the differences in the density of the steel allows the sword to contract in some places more than others. After this, the blade is polished for multiple weeks, brightening the finish and honing the blade.
As you might expect, the katana shows up in a variety of anime in all manner of settings.
Examples in Anime
This show is the first example that comes to mind when I think of the katana. This is a series in which the katana is practically a character in its own right. The series focuses on a samurai who was a former assassin. The series features a wide variety of katana and wielders. While the series is not exactly realistic, it does showcase a lot of interesting katana techniques. The main character of the series, Himura Kenshin, wields a unique katana called a sakabato. This is a katana that has had the back edge sharpened instead of the forward edge. This allows him to use all of his traditional katana without killing anyone. At any rate, this is a great series for stories that revolve around the katana and its many traditions.
Samurai Champloo is another great series to see some more katana based action. Samurai Champloo is a series by the creator of Cowboy Bebop. The show focuses primarily on a pair of samurai and their exploits across feudal Japan. They’ve been enlisted by a young woman to locate a samurai “who smells of sunflowers.” Though the series plays fast and loose with a lot of Japanese history (including the introduction of a hip-hop style soundtrack), it focuses on relationships of the katana and the people who wield it.
Samurai 7 is a series set in the distant future about a group of samurai who are hired to protect a small village from bandits. The series is loosely based on the classic Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai). It’s an interesting take on samurai that is both classic and futuristic.
Another classic weapon of the samurai is the yumi, the traditional Japanese longbow. The yumi is very tall－ usually taller than the archer wielding it. The yumi has a grip positioned usually below the midsection of the bow, leaving more of the bow above the grip than below. It is traditionally made of primarily bamboo, and is still made in a very similar way today. Its size allows the bow to fire with enough power to make it a good long range weapon, or to penetrate armor when fired at closer range. Yumi can be fired from on horseback, as well as when kneeling, and was a staple of Japanese warfare for many years as it allowed armies to engage in combat at a distance long before gunpowder. Yumi would have been a part of any samurai training.
Examples in Anime
Kagome, the reincarnation of a shrine maiden from feudal Japan, wields a bow and arrow that purifies evil.
The protagonist of one of, if not the most popular Ghibli movies showcases his stunning skills with the yumi even on horse(elk)back.
Cardcaptor Sakura great example of traditional yumi use. Traditional archery is still alive and well in Japan in the form of Kyudo. This is a modern version of the classic use, and is practiced in many places. You may see it show up as a school activity in many anime, just like in Cardcaptor Sakura. This shot is a character named Yukito, who competes in an archery competition in the show.
This manga series includes a character named Kyo Wakamiya who also uses a traditional yumi. In the series, Kyo is a love interest of the main character, and a junior in high school. As you might expect, he also practices archery for a school team.
This popular series contains a less traditional example. Uryuu Ishida from the series is a Quincy who uses a spiritual weapon that takes the form of a bow. While it is not exactly a traditional yumi, the design is about the same size and it is used in a very similar fashion. Ishida uses this bow to battle hollows (restless spirits who seek to devour souls).
The naginata is a pole weapon that was commonly used by samurai. The naginata is a fairly simple weapon, but is useful in a variety of circumstances. It is composed of a long wooden pole with curved blade on the end. This curved blade is very similar to a katana blade in many ways and averages anywhere between 12 and 30 inches. The pole itself (not including the blade) typically ranges from 3 feet to almost 8 feet in length. The naginata has been in use in Japan since around 1100 AD, though the origins of the weapon are somewhat unclear. It became a very popular weapon because it is very effective against mounted cavalry. Because of its unique build, the naginata provides wielders with reach as well as the ability to stab, slash, or hook an opponent. The size of the weapon lets the wielder command a large space on the battlefield if used properly. Interestingly, the naginata has a history of being used by women of Japanese upper class, and many women were prepared to defend their home and lands with one. You can still find naginata in Japan today in modern martial arts. Not surprisingly, these schools tend to use ones without blades so that they can spar with a partner (though armor is still necessary).
Examples in Anime
This Gundam series features our first example: a nice futuristic take. The Rising Gundam uses what is called a heat naginata. It’s more or less a traditional naginata, but with a little bit of science-fiction modification to make it effective against giant mechs. The Rising Gundam actually only fights once in the series, and is piloted by Rain Mikamura
This series includes a character called Whitebeard (aka Edward Newgate), who also wields a naginata, though its blade does seem a little shorter and wider than would be traditional. Whitebeard is a pirate captain and is known as the strongest man in the world. He is also about three times as large as a normal man.
Gintama features a more traditional naginata user. Shimura Tae from the series often fights with a naginata (and her bare hands). She is quick-tempered and very dangerous when she's angry. Despite that, she is constantly looking out for others.
A basic metal chain is the base for several traditional Japanese weapons, the most basic of which is called the kusari-fundo. This version is in fact simply a metal chain (the kusari) with a weight (the fundo) attached to each end. The kusari-fundo was a popular back-up weapon since it could be carried at times and in places when swords were not allowed. These weapons varied wildly in terms of length, weight, and build. As you might expect, chain weapons were very difficult to wield. By those who were properly trained, however, chain weapons could be used in a wide variety of ways. It could be swung for distance, used for striking, snaring, and even strangling.
The most iconic chain weapon is probably the kusarigama. The kusarigama is a bit more complicated than a basic chain. This weapon is made of a kama (which is a small sickle type weapon) attached to a standard kusari-fundo. This setup maintains the general flexibility of the basic chain, but would also allow the use of the sickle at close range. The chain could be used to entangle opponents’ weapons or keep opponents at a longer range, and the sickle could be used for a lethal follow-up.
Examples in Anime
Naruto includes a young ninja named Tenten who uses a kusarigama briefly, along with a host of other weapons. Many of her powers revolve around the use of a wide variety of traditional weapons. She is able to summon and use weapons in such large number that she can easily overwhelm many opponents.
Unsurprisingly, this Sengoku-era anime showcases many traditional weapons! Kohaku, the younger brother of demon hunter Sango, is an expert with the kusarigama.
This series might be the most interesting example in the list. Soul Eater is a show that features weapons very prominently. The show features a character named Tsubaki Nakatsukasa who can actually transform herself into a chain weapon very similar to a kusarigama. You'll see her being wielded in the picture above by another of the show's characters.
This series gives us our last example in Kurapika, who uses a very non-traditional chain weapon. It's an interesting take on an old style. Kurapika is able to summon the chains out of thin air and has one extending from each finger of his right hand. He is able to control them with surprising skill.
The nunchaku is easily one of the most recognizable Japanese weapons, though it is known in the west as nunchucks. The nunchaku is a very simply built weapon; it is simply two sticks (usually wooden) connected by a very short chain or rope. They originated in Okinawa and have been widely used in Okinawan martial arts in particular (especially in karate). The specific origins of the weapon are somewhat unclear, though one common story is that it was a modification of a farmer’s tool. They have often been used for training purposes, since the proper use of nunchaku can help build dexterity and hand-eye coordination. It has, however, been used somewhat less in actual combat because of how difficult in can be to use properly. Because it has very short reach, it is a bad match for both traditional swords and spears. The main advantage of nunchaku is its flexibility. It can be used for striking and locking up an opponent's limbs.
Examples in Anime
Naruto again brings us Maito Gai who uses nunchaku, and trains his pupil Rock Lee in their use as well. Gai is an expert in taijutsu, or martial arts. You might notice that his appearance and dress somewhat resemble Bruce Lee, another famous nunchaku user.
This series brings us the strangest adaptation. In the show, Masayoshi Hazama actually wields a stapler than can transform into nunchaku. In fact, most of Masayoshi's weapons are based on office supplies.
This series features a lead character, Kenshiro, who has been known to wield nunchaku from time to time. Kenshiro has been trained in combat since a young age, and is often known by his famous catchphrase: "you are already dead." Interestingly, Kenshiro also bears a resemblance to the legendary Bruce Lee in both appearance and fighting style.
So that’s a whirlwind tour of some of Japan’s traditional weapons and the anime characters that use them. My guess is that once you start to notice these in some of the anime you watch, you’ll start to see their style and characteristics all over. Anime tends to draw very heavily from Japanese history, and even when character wield weapons that look different they’ll tend to use them in traditional Japanese styles. Hopefully this will give you another thing to appreciate in your favorite series.