The wakizashi (“side inserted [sword]”) is one of the traditionally made Japanese swords (nihontō) worn by the samurai in feudal Japan.
The wakizashi has a blade between 30 and 60 cm (12 and 24 in), with wakizashi close to the length of a katana being called ō-wakizashi and wakizashi closer to tantō length being called kō-wakizashi. The wakizashi being worn together with the katana was the official sign that the wearer was a samurai or swordsman. When worn together the pair of swords were called daishō, which translates literally as “big-little”. The katana was the big or long sword and the wakizashi the “little” or companion sword. Wakizashi are not necessarily just a smaller version of the katana; they could be forged differently and have a different cross section.
History and Use
The production of swords in Japan is divided into specific time periods:
Jokotō (ancient swords, until around 900 A.D.)
Kotō (old swords from around 900–1596)
Shintō (new swords 1596–1780)
Shinshintō (newer swords 1781–1876)
Gendaitō (modern swords 1876–1945)
Shinsakutō (newly made swords 1953–present)
Wakizashi have been in use as far back as the 15th or 16th century. The wakizashi was used as a backup or auxiliary sword; it was also used for close quarters fighting, to behead a defeated opponent and sometimes to commit seppuku, a ritual suicide. The wakizashi was one of several short swords available for use by samurai including the yoroi tōshi, and the chisa-katana. The term wakizashi did not originally specify swords of any official blade length and was an abbreviation of wakizashi no katana (“sword thrust at one’s side”); the term was applied to companion swords of all sizes. It was not until the Edo period in 1638 when the rulers of Japan tried to regulate the types of swords and the social groups which were allowed to wear them that the lengths of katana and wakizashi were officially set.
Kanzan Satō, in his book titled The Japanese Sword, notes that there did not seem to be any particular need for the wakizashi and suggests that the wakizashi may have become more popular than the tantō due to it being more suited for indoor fighting. He mentions the custom of leaving the katana at the door of a castle or palace when entering while continuing to wear the wakizashi inside. While the wearing of katana was limited to the samurai class, wakizashi of legal length (kō-wakizashi) could be carried by the chonin class which included merchants. This was common when traveling due to the risk of encountering bandits. Wakizashi were worn on the left side, secured to the waist sash (Uwa-obi or himo).