Japanese swords

The following is an excerpt from the Chudokai Express Newsletter, Volume 21, Issue 1 (July 2014).

Ask Sensei

Why are different Japanese words used for sword (ex. “TO” and “KEN” as in SETSUNINTO AND KATSUNINKEN)?

Are these words for different types of swords?

Indeed there are different names for different styles of swords. For example,a TACHI is a long sword (blade over 30 inches),  KATANA is a regular length sword (blade from 22-30 inches) and a WAKIZASHI is a shorter sword (blade length under 22 inches).

But even with these names there can be variations – DAI TO (big blade) for KATANA and SHOTO (short blade) for the WAKIZASHI especially when you are referring to the set of the two (called DAISHO as a set referring to both). The WAKIZASHI is sometimes called TANKEN (small sword). It certainly can be confusing.

The main difference that people might encounter, is the interchanging use of “TO” and “KEN”. “TO” is an older word and although it is used to refer to the sword, it more accurately translates as “blade”. “KEN” is a more modern word and more specifically refers to and translates as “sword”. So in a phrase like SETSUNINTO (the blade that makes death) using the word “TO” implies a more old concept of the blade/sword as a killing thing.

KATSUNINKEN (the sword that makes life) implies a more modern concept of using force / power for good or to make life better. A sharp blade can be used to hurt another (SETSUNINTO) or as a scalpel in a doctor’s hand, save and improve a life (KATSUNINKEN). A police officer carries a gun not to hurt but to help society in general.

This is KATSUNINKEN philosophy. As you become more powerful, how will you use this power- SETSUNINTO or KATSUNINKEN?

For the improvement of all life we hope!