Japanese civilization has been marked by a series of complex historical events, with quite distinct eras that seethed with wars between the various clans. Soldiers thus constituted a major sector of the population, which was why their weapons received special attention, undergoing constant improvements as the years went by. The first weapon usually mentioned is undoubtedly the sabre. Two thousand years ago this sabre had a straight blade with a single cutting edge, as well as an oval guard and a large hollow pommel, the Kabutsuchi No Tachi. Six hundred years later Chinese influence made it felt with the appearance of the Chokuto, from which four variants would be developed.
During the Asuka and Nara periods, that is to say until 793B.C., there was a movement toward great diversity and rich decoration, but it was above all between 794 and 1185 (Heian period) that the most significant development occurred, with the blade becoming progressively curved.
Epochs succeeded each other, with each one standing out due to particular modifications made to the various bladed weapons. In 1876 an edict forbade the carrying of sabres by civilians. Bladesmiths were thus obliged to reconvert, most of the time into tool production. Without the efforts of certain individuals, the ancestral knowledge of these “living national treasures” might well have disappeared forever.
The grading of Sabres depends on a multitude of factors, including the type of mounting (jindachi, zukuri, buke sukuri and shiri zayal), the period of manufacture (koto, shinto, and shin shinto) or even the shape of the blade, as well as its length. If longer than 60 centimeters then it is a daito (tachi and katana); between 30 and 60 centimeters it is a shoto (essentially the short sabre called a wakisashi); shorter than 30 centimeters is a Tanto. There is thus no one Tanto, but a wide variety, since it is a generic term roughly translated by “dagger.” Tantos include the kwaiden, which is a little dagger without a guard that is usually slipped into the folds of a kimono, as well as the aikuchi, more finely worked than the former, or the hamidachi, which has a small tsuba (guard). There is a veritable multitude of other knives in Japanese ancestral tradition, like those slipped into the side of sword sheaths, notably wari bashi, kogai, umabari and kogatana.
Although it is undoubtedly a knife, the tanto belongs to the sabre family, in that it is designed, assembled and placed in a sheath like other swords. It has also undergone the same modifications over the centuries in terms of forging techniques, the shape and design of the blade, and the shape of the point. Initially straight, then curved according to intended use, a tanto blade has always been a fearsome thing, as can be seen from the yoroi doshi, which was an armor piercer, and the “left hand,” employed by those who practiced two-sabre combat.
The received idea is that the kissaki, the point of the tanto, must always have that unique beveled profile. In fact, there are ten-odd different profiles, each one corresponding to a particular use, requirement, and epoch or forging tradition. Needless to say they are all listed, graded and coded.
Although it is far from being the everyday knife of all Japanese, the tanto is changed with history and tradition, becoming as legendary as those valiant samurai who carried it with them always.
The Modern Tanto
In the knife world, it is essential to search continuously for new shapes to please a demanding clientele. Since imagination sometimes runs dry, many have sought their inspiration elsewhere. A traditional knife is often an excellent source from which to work. Various epochs are regularly trawled, as well as foreign countries both near and far. While Japan is a country reputed for its cutlery tradition, it is quite surprising that the original shapes of its blades were totally ignored by Western craftsmen.
This is what led Lynn C. Thompson, an American bladesmith and serious martial arts practitioner, to commence an adventure that led to an explosion of planetary “tantomania” in 1981. For the range of modern tantos that he launched on to the market under the “Cold Steel” brand which was an instant success. With a slightly curved blade, beveled handle, metal pommel and leather or heat-molded Kydex sheath, the resemblance was perfect.
A good example of a Cold Steel Knife
Publicity material related that the quality of the steel and its tempering made this blade indestructible, just like the tantos and katanas of the samurai.
In the United State, Europe and even Japan, retailers were constantly running out of stock for two years running. This tanto vogue did not go unnoticed by other knifemakers, who all set to making their own modern tanto. The most talented were Bob Lunn, Timberline, Doyal Nolen, Bill Pease, Warren Osborne, Phil Hartsfield, Don Fogg, Michael Bell, and Don Polizien. The tanto fashion has somewhat eased off now, but he genre is far from being abandoned and some even make it their specialty.