During the medieval period in Japan, the equipment that bushi1 (warriors) possessed while heading to the battlefield were both specific and strategic. Along with bearing the weight of armor, they carried many items on their person, for they were trained to be resourceful. Along with the more larger, primarily used weapons, such as the yari (spear) and yumiya (bow & arrow), smaller weapons and tools were kept close for quick deployment in the right situation. A particular weapon that is a good representation of this methodology I’d like to touch upon today is one called metezashi2.
A metezashi is a short bladed weapon liken to a tantō, which nowadays is translated meaning “knife”. It is believed to have been derived from an older weapon called the sasuga3 (dagger). The metezashi came about sometime around the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), after the Ashikaga clan claimed the shogunate. During this period, the warrior class claimed more power than other social classes, placing more emphasis on controlling territory and their neighbors through military strength. Changes in how large battles were approached were taking place as well, where tactics relying heavily on long range assault were being adjusted to incorporate more upclose melee assaults. Bushi engaged more in skirmishes with medium to close range polearms and swords, with a thirst to test their combative skills. This is where the metezashi comes into play.
By design, the metezashi is a one-handed, single edged weapon, with it’s blade length said to measure under 1 foot. The blade has little to no curve to it, due to its use as a stabbing implement. It is categorized as a koshigatana4, meaning a small bladed weapon carried around the waist. Unlike the tachi5 (battlefield sword) and the wakizashi6 (short sword), the metezashi was worn on the right side of the waist usually inserted into the obi, as it was meant to be used in the right hand. Like its bigger counterparts such as the tachi, it is generally designed with the same koshirae7 (fittings), from an itomaki8 (handle wrap) to a tsuba9 (handguard), although in most cases the tsuka was a smaller, rounder design. The saya10 (sheath) may even have a kurikata11 (small mount with a hole for the sageo12, or cord in English, to pass through), although placed on the right side due to being carried on the right side of the body.
Having such a short reach, the metezashi was primarily used in close quarter combat, as a tool for stabbing. The common scenario to illustrate its use is in the case where 2 armor-cladded warriors have no weapon in hand and are locked in a clinch with each other, struggling to topple one another13. When one of these 2 warriors can get the upper hand and either flank the other off balance, or perform a takedown, he can pull out his metezashi and thrust it into one of the gaps in the opponent’s armor14 for the kill. In other cases, the metezashi could also be used for assisting fellow warriors subduing enemy troops down to the ground to finish them off, such as for claiming an enemy’s head as trophy of battle15.
2 examples of koshigatana from museums in Japan. Click on each of the pictures above for descriptions.
In the case where getting into a clinch with the enemy takes place as mentioned above, one has to be careful not to have their weapon in range for the opponent to seize and used against you when carrying it on the waist. For the metezashi, since it was a right-handed weapon, it had to be easy to draw one-handed by the owner, yet not in reach for the opposition to do the same. While it can be worn at one’s back with the tsuka16 (sword hilt) to the right, or on the right hip with the hilt pointing downwards, many sources state that the metezashi was worn handle up directed towards the back of the wielder. This meant that a warrior carrying the metezashi could reach behind his back and easily grab the handle to draw, whereas if the opponent attempted to do the same from that warrior’s front he could be easily stopped.
There are a lot of comparisons between the metezashi and another type of koshigatana called yoroi dōshi17. Some sources even state that they are the same, or their names are interchangeable. It may very well be the case, for descriptions in historical sources state that they were both worn on the right side of the body, share similar dimensions, and were primarily for stabbing. It is possible that, based on the time period and/or warrior groups and the region they came from, either name was used for what could be the same type of weapon based on how this type of weapon was used. Case in point, some other names noted to be used for koshigatana of like design includes (but not limited to) the following: kubi kaki18, kubi tori19, and ebirasashi20.
In ending, the metezashi was a vital tool to the bushi. It is a piece of history that gives insight to the creativity and resourcefulness of the Japanese warrior. I hope this post was informative to all as the research was for me.
1) 武士. Bushi is the common word for warrior in Japan. It is a more universal term, more so than the word samurai.
2) 馬手差し. Loosely translates as “(a sword) worn on the side of the horse hand”. This “horse hand” (馬手) is coded as referring to the reins used to control a horse while riding, which is held in the right hand. So the “horse hand” (馬手) is another way of saying the “right hand” (右手). Thus, metezashi can also be translated as “(a sword) worn on the side of the right hand”. The use of “horse hand” is also used in kyudo (archery), referring to the right hand drawing the bowstring.
Note that some English sources, such as Wikipedia, that state that metezashi stands for use with the left hand are incorrect.
13) This close combat while wearing armor is generally called “kumiuchi” (組打). Some older traditional martial schools still teach this.
14) There are gaps in and around Japanese armor that are vulnerable. This means that bushi were more in danger to weapons that are strong at stabbing and piercing, as opposed to slashes.
15) This practice of taking the head of an enemy warrior is proof of their bravery in battle. The more heads collected the better the rewards.
17) 鎧通し. These are especially renown for having a thicker blade (or in some cases, a thicker spine), which allows it to handle more wear & tear when thrust into the vulnerable areas in armor.
18) 首掻き. This name means “a blade for beheading”.
19) 首取り. Has a similar meaning as kubi kaki (首掻き).
20) 妻手指し. Another coded name having the same meaning for “(a sword) worn on the side of the right hand”, just like metezashi. The characters “妻手” refer to an old measuring tool called “kanejaku”, which is shaped like an “L”. The shorter end of this measuring tool is called “tsumade”, which is identified with the characters “妻手”, and is designed to be used on the right side of the measuring tool pointing downwards.