What makes a katana a katana and just why is it called a katana anyway?

Discussion in 'Japanese Swords and Sword Arts' started by Daniel Sullivan, Dec 12, 2011.

  1. Daniel Sullivan

    Daniel Sullivan Grandmaster

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    This was broken off from another thread, http://www.martialtalk.com/forum/sh...ption-of-Sword-fighting&p=1447275#post1447275:
    As requested, here is the new thread. I suppose the greater question is this: What makes a katana a katana? And while we're at it, what is the actual etymology of 'katana?'

    Domo arigato gozaimashita,
     
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2011
  2. pgsmith

    pgsmith Master of Arts

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    Hey Daniel,
    Katana is defined as the long sword when worn edge up through the obi. This is as opposed to a tachi, which is the long sword hung edge downward. The word katana is the Japanese Kun reading of the kanji [​IMG] This is the same kanji that has an On reading of tou (as in daito or big sword) The Mandarin reading of this kanji is Dao.

    Tachi uses the the same kanji, [​IMG] with the addition of the kanji for 'big' [​IMG] Incidentally, these are the same two kanji that are used in the word daito. All I have is dojo Japanese, so I've no idea how they manage to change the sound of those two kanji into tachi, or why it is sometimes tachi, and other times daito, but they manage it somehow. (Japanese is incredibly frustrating to try and learn for this reason!)

    The only way to tell if a bare blade was originally made to be a tachi or a katana blade is by which side the smith signed it on. The signature was always done on the side of the sword that faced toward the wearer when it was being carried. Thus, tachi and katana were signed on opposite sides of the tang, since one was carried edge up, and one was carried edge down.
     
  3. Sanke

    Sanke Green Belt

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    Actually, if I'm not mistaken, the kanji for Tachi is slightly different: 太刀(Tachi), as opposed to 大刀(Daito). The difference being 大 meaning big and 太 meaning thick. I remembered that from a thread I started a while ago on the difference between the Katana and the Tachi. :)
     
  4. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Ah, man, Daniel, I'm terribly sorry about this, but I remembered last night that we went through this recently (I thought it was on another forum, which is why I didn't bring it up earlier), so I was going to just link that thread today....

    To begin with, though, a few things about Paul's post. As Sanke said, the kanji for Daito and Tachi are slightly different, with Daito (大刀) literally meaning "large blade/sword", and used to refer to the longer of two swords in a pairing, or a long sword in a schools syllabus includes both long and short, but not to a sword by itself, and Tachi (太刀) referring to a "wide, or thick blade/sword". Paul is right in that there isn't really any formal reading of those characters individually that would lead to the reading/pronunciation as "tachi", it is considered a "special reading" used only when those characters are combined.

    Next, the mei (signature) would actually be on the outside of the body when the sword is worn, rather than facing towards the wearer, so a Tachi blade (when held, edge away from yourself) would have the mei on the right, and a katana on the left... of course, there is no guarantee that there would be a mei in the first place...

    That said, here's the other thread. I think you'll find pretty much everything you're asking is covered there, as well as a few other details: http://www.martialtalk.com/forum/showthread.php?98102-Tachi-Katana-distinction
     
  5. pgsmith

    pgsmith Master of Arts

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    Oops, you're absolutely right. That will teach me to write things without thinking about them first. Signature on the outside (omote) and date inscription on the inside (ura).

    That is not strictly true. I've seen both daito and tachi written using either [​IMG] or [​IMG] along with the kanji for katana. If you look up the word tachi or daitou in most Japanese dictionaries, they'll list both kanji, as both are considered correct.
     
  6. Daniel Sullivan

    Daniel Sullivan Grandmaster

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    Firstly, many thanks for the replies, all of which are helpful!

    Secondly, I will say what my understanding is after reading the responses in this tread and the thread posted by Chris.

    1. 刀: Kun'yomi pronunciaiton is 'katana,' On'yomi reading is 'to.'
    2. 剣: Kun'yomi pronunciation is 'tsurugi,' On'yomi reading is 'ken.'

    Katana/to refer to any sword generically, while tsurugi/ken referred originally to straight, double edged swords, but later came to encompass swords with or without a curve and with one or two edges. Essentially, then, all four words mean 'sword,' some having greater association with, but no limited to, one particular type or subtype.

    So what is 'tachi' linguisticly? Chi appears to be third pronunciation of 刀. Where does this come from? Ta seems to be the same character as tai in taichi chuan. What is the distinction between the two similar characters?
     
  7. Sanke

    Sanke Green Belt

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    The rather odd pronunciation of 太 as 'ta' and 刀 as 'chi' is just one of those odd little exceptions in Japanese. They only make those specific sounds when put together.
    From what my Sensei (that's Chris, for the record :)) was telling me, the word tachi already existed, so when choosing characters to represent them, they chose the ones that most closely resembled it's meaning (wide/thick and sword/blade in this case), but kept the original pronunciation of the word, regardless of characters used. That's my understanding, and based on what I've learned about the language, it makes sense to me. :p
     
  8. Daniel Sullivan

    Daniel Sullivan Grandmaster

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    So what is the origin of the word, 'tachi'? Is is a Japanese word or was it borrowed from the Chinese?

    And here is another question: it seems that the word tachi is fairly generic for a long sword. Does it always refer to a sword hung from the belt and specify the type of curviture? In the Nihon kendo kata, the first seven are done with both uchidachi and shidachi using a katana and the last three are done with the uchidachi using a katana and the shidachi using a wakizashi. But the first seven are called 'tachi kata' and the last three are called 'kodachi kata.'
     
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2011
  9. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Tachi can be both a general term, just referring to a sword (as in Aikido's Tachidori ["sword capturing"] methods), or a reference to a specific type of sword, referring to older swords worn slung down from the hip. Of course, just to confuse matters, a tachi can be worn inserted in the obi with the edge facing upwards when worn by a gunner so that the sword doesn't drag on the ground when they kneel to fire their guns.

    In terms of the Kendo no Kata, "tachi" is the general form, with "kodachi" literally meaning "small tachi". By the by, it only becomes a wakizashi when worn with a katana, as that term refers to the position when worn in the obi (the term "wakizashi" literally refers to "inserted at the side", meaning worn in the obi on the side of the katana), so when it's the only sword being worn or used by that practitioner, it is more correctly Kodachi or Shoto (short sword/katana [same character for "to/katana"]).

    In terms of whether Tachi is a Japanese or Chinese word, it's Japanese. The characters used to write it are borrowed from the Chinese, as all kanji are.
     
  10. Daniel Sullivan

    Daniel Sullivan Grandmaster

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    So 刀 is katana without a prefix and chi with prefixes? Or is it more complicated than that? Or simpler?
     
  11. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Ha, no, that's not quite right either....

    刀 is "To", or "Katana", and only becomes "Tachi" (not quite "Chi") when combined with 太 as a special reading of it's own. Similarly it is read as "Shinai" when written as 竹刀 (combined with 竹), or "Kamisori" (razor) when written in the following combination: 剃刀. These are classed as "special readings" as they are not necessarily related to the readings of the characters in isolation themselves.

    I'll leave it to you if that's simpler or more complicated...
     
  12. Daniel Sullivan

    Daniel Sullivan Grandmaster

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    Not sure about more or less complex, but definitely informative! Domo arigato gozaimashita!!
     
  13. pgsmith

    pgsmith Master of Arts

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    Those are the sort of things that make Japanese so cursed hard to learn. Add to that the fact that how you speak changes depending on whether you're male or female and above or below (socially) who you're talking to as well as the large number of homophobes in the language. A good example that bears right along with the present conversation is tachi-waza. Everyone that has done Japanese martial arts knows that waza means techniques. Therefore, tachi-waza should mean sword techniques, but it really means standing techniques since it uses a different kanji.
     
  14. Chris Parker

    Chris Parker Grandmaster

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    Yep. One of my favourite examples is the term "kata". Occasionally I'll ask someone to translate it, and they'll typically go for the pre-arranged pattern definition (型)... at which point I'll say, "No, I meant as in Katamune dori", in which case "kata" means "single" (片)... they'll agree to that, so I'll say "actually, I really meant Kata Guruma Nage", in which case "kata" refers to the shoulder (shoulder wheel throw), and is written with this character 肩.

    One of my most common sayings these days applies to the Japanese language more than anything else, really, and that is that context is everything!
     
  15. Daniel Sullivan

    Daniel Sullivan Grandmaster

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    I just bought a Living Language Japanese complete course. Books and CDs, not the program (that was too expensive). I had tried an i-phone app, but really, I prefer an actual book or a program.
     
  16. pgsmith

    pgsmith Master of Arts

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    Very cool! Let me know how that works out for you.123
     

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