How to see the hidden meanings of 16 Japanese weapons kanji

posted in: Kanji, Weapons | 1


The other day John Hanley reposted this intriguing image from Gorgeous Christ Japan on the Google Plus Martial Arts Forum. It made me realise I didn’t know the difference between these two kanji – and feel curious to put that right.

This article is therefore a look into the hidden meanings of the kanji for 16 traditional Japanese weapons. 

To explore these words, I’ve used the Shogakukan Elementary School Kanji Dictionary for Japanese kids, as this is a great way to go a bit deeper than just using an ordinary Japanese-English dictionary. It gives interesting, lively explanations of every kanji – often complete with cute little images to illustrate a point!

So here goes . . .



1. katana 

A katana is a sword, dagger or knife. The dictionary explains that a katana 刀 only has one blade 刄 while a kenhas a blade on both sides.


2. tantō 短刀

tan is made up of arrow 矢 (see below) and bean 豆 .The dictionary explains that if you line these two objects up side by side, the bean is much shorter. So this kanji means short.

is just another way of pronouncing the kanji 刀 katana.

A tantō is therefore a short blade. According to Wikipedia:

The tantō is a dagger. The blade is single or double edged with a length between 15 and 30 cm. The tantō was designed primarily as a stabbing weapon but the edge can be used for slashing as well.

The term is often used in martial arts now to describe modern tactical knives.

Source: Shogakukan Kanji Dictionary for Elementary School Students, 5th edition – page 745


3. shinai 竹刀

竹 means bamboo (see image), and as you know, 刀 is a sword. A shinai is a bamboo training weapon that represents a sword.

This is a special reading of 刀 – the usual readings are katana and tō.


4. ken 

剣 is made up of 㑒 to be complete; to be uniform; to assemble and刂 which is a version of 刀 katana.

The dictionary explains that this is a reference to the ken having a blade on each side. 剣 can mean either a straight sword with a blade on each side, or any bladed weapon.

Dave Lowry gives a far more imaginative and poetic suggestion for the origin of this kanji in Sword and Brush:

The kanji for ken has a simple radical, two strokes representing the long blade of the sword, and another component that means “a combining”. A combining of what? Perhaps of the fire and prayer and pounding of steel that produce the sword. A combination of its edge, hard and keen as a diamond razor, and its spine, sturdy and flexible to absorb the shock of cutting. 

[…Or…] the sword’s incarnation as an object of beauty and as a brutal tool for cleaving a human neatly at any angle.


MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – Sgt. Izaya Dunn practices with his wooden sword while teaching a class.

5. bokken 木剣

木 means wood (also pronounced ki) so a bokken 木剣 is a wooden training sword. A bokken is also sometimes called a 木刀 bokutō.


6. jūken 銃剣

Jū 銃 comprises 金 metal and 充 a lot / full. So it gives a sense of cramming bullets into a gap, and means gun; rifle; small arms

A jūken 銃剣 is therefore a bayonet – a knife, sword, or spike-shaped weapon designed to fit in, on, over or underneath the muzzle of a rifle, musket or similar weapon, effectively turning the gun into a spear. (Wikipedia)


7. bō 

Source: Shogakukan Kanji Dictionary for Elementary School Students, 5th edition – page 289

Bō 棒 is made up of  木 wood, and 奉 which means to lift something up with both hands (often with connotations of consecration). (See image).

棒 therefore gives a sense of lifting a wooden stick up with both your hands aligned, and means rod, stick, cane, pole.

In the martial arts it means a very tall and long staff weapon (around 1.8 metres long). This is wielded with both hands due to its size and weight. It’s sometimes called a roku shaku bō 六尺棒 (six shaku staff).


8. hanbō 半棒

The dictionary explains that 半is a simplified modern kanji – the ancient form of it showed a cow being cut in half (which you can still kind of see). 半 therefore means half, and 半棒 means half staff.

In the martial arts, a traditional hanbō is about three shaku or about 90 centimetres long, i.e. half the length of a usual bō.


9. tanbō 短棒

As you saw above, tan 短 means short. A tanbō is normally a short hardwood staff that is used in the same way as the hanbō.

Wikipedia explains that: Short staves smaller than 1 meter can be called tanbō. There is no official length for a tanbō as different ryū (martial arts schools) use tanbō of various lengths. Tanbō can be individually sized using variations of the “hand to elbow” method.


10. jō 

The left hand side of 杖 is 木 wood.

As for the right-hand side 丈, the kids’ dictionary explains that the width of one spread-out hand is one shaku (an old measurement, about 30.3cm). This kanji brings together the shape of this hand, and the kanji for 10 十 as you can see in the image.

丈 therefore means 10 shaku (about 3.03 metres).

More generally it means height or length.

木 plus 丈 means a cane, walking stick, staff. In a martial arts context it normally means a wooden staff around 1.27 metres long.



11. hō 

砲 means gun, rifle, firearm.

The children’s dictionary explains that this kanji brings together 包 wrap, pack up, cover, conceal and 石 stone. This gives a sense of gunpowder (literally fire chemical) made from minerals.

The kanji means: a weapon that fires bullets with explosives.


Various types of shuriken at the Iga-ryū Ninja Museum. By specialoperations [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

12. shuriken 手裏剣

A shuriken 手裏剣 is usually described in English as a Japanese concealed weapon, or more picturesquely as a ninja star or throwing star (although they can come in many shapes).

– 手 means hand (also pronounced te).
– 裏 means back, amidst, in, reverse, inside, palm, sole, rear, lining, wrong side.
– 剣 means sword or blade.

So 手裏剣 literally means hand hidden blade.


13. yari 槍,鎗 or 鑓

Yari means spear. It can be written in different ways, although 槍is the most common.

The first version 槍 brings together 木 wood and 創 storehouse, cellar, treasury. I haven’t been able to find out why it includes 創 storehouse, but blogger Bushinshugyo suggests the following:

The spear here can be seen as the wooden weapon in military storage, the place where bushi store their weapons at barracks.

The second version of this kanji 鎗 yari brings together metal 金 and storehouse 創.

The third version 鑓 yari is made up of 金 metal and 遣 dispatch / move something / manipulate / kill.


14. jutte or jitte 十手

As you saw above under , 十 means ten.

手 means hand. Jutte therefore literally means ten hands.

A matched pair of antique Edo period Japanese (samurai) jutte. By Samuraiantiqueworld (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
However the Seidoshop website explains that this more likely refers to the shape of the Kanji 10, ‘十’, representing a cross.

The website goes on to explain that:

The jutte […] is a particular police weapon that was mainly used during the Edo period.

Back then, the Samurai represented more than 7% of the population and were above all assigned administrative tasks. The Jutte was one of the distinctive marks of those belonging to the police and were carried by officers of almost all ranks.

The Jutte probably finds its origin earlier in history, when the wearing of swords into some lord’s and the Shogun’s residences was forbidden, leading to the creation of many non edged weapons.


15. naginata 薙刀

薙 doesn’t appear in the children’s dictionary, which is unsurprising when you know the meaning. According to it means mow down (the enemy) and includes the following kanji and radicals:

– Grass 艹
– Arrow 矢
– Small bird 隹

So a naginata 薙刀is a katana 刀 for mowing down the enemy 薙. It’s a long wooden or metal pole with a curved single-edged blade on the end.

The kids’ dictionary does include the word naginata, but it gives the alternative (less gruesome) kanji 長刀 which means long katana.


16. yumiya 弓矢

This word means bow and arrow, and the kanji have a very simple meaning.

Yumi 弓 represents a picture of a bow and ya 矢 is a picture of an arrow.



I hope you’ve enjoyed reading abut the hidden meanings in these kanji. Martial arts training is a serious business, but it’s also good sometimes to do fun & childish things as part of our study – like pick up a kids’ dictionary and play around looking up key martial arts vocabulary.

Check out the related posts below and let me know if there are any kanji you’d be interested in learning more about . . .

Related posts:

Keiko, renshu, shuren, tanren, kufu, and shugyo – Six Japanese words for training – and their kanji

A closer look at the three kanji in “Aikido”

The meaning of the kanji for Rei (Etiquette)

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