The internet is a blessing and a curse, especially nowadays, where you can type anything into a search bar and find any information that supports your viewpoint on any subject of your choice. Of course, this includes history, and it has led to some very frustrating discussions with people who think they can tell you all about a subject just by reading one article. One such case for me was a family member trying to tell me that ōdachis were proof that giants existed in Japan. I wish I was kidding.
Now, anyone who has studied any samurai history, knows right away that this claim is outrageous, but I decided to see if this claim was actually something that has been kicked around by people on the internet. Sure enough, there is, one such article being from AncientOrigins.net.(1) Now here’s the thing, if you don’t read the rest of the article and read just the opening line, then one would start saying that giants existed in Japan, and they took to the battlefield with swords spanning six feet in length. There is also the fact that they are looking at one specific ōdachi in general, known as the Norimitsu Ōdachi, the most famous and one of the largest ōdachi forged, and not the others that were made significantly smaller. In this blog post, I’m going to explain what an ōdachi is, what they were used for and why some of them were made in such grand ways such as the Norimitsu.
What’s an ōdachi?
Let’s get the basics out of the way. An ōdachi, sometimes referred to as a nodachi, is a sword that was used by the samurai class in Japan that was just slightly longer than a normal katana. The swords were used from ancient times by men who were strong enough to wield the weapon in question.(2) These swords tended to be popular during the 14th century, but even then, these long swords were slowly being replaced with spears (yari) or curved bladed spears (naginata). Before the 14th century, during the Kamakura Period, ōdachis were considered to be a status symbol for this was back when the samurai were coming into power and these large swords made them stand out from the others.
Ōdachi were usually wielded by men who could handle the large and heavy swords, usually having them strung across their back or even having a servant carry it for them. Since they were a bit cumbersome, these swords quickly dropped in popularity, especially as the Sengoku Jidai came about, being replaced by tactics that used more yari and even guns once they were introduced to the country in the 1540s. Yet, ōdachi were still used by some men, mainly for a show of strength. Uesugi Kenshin gave these swords to anyone in his ranks that stood over six feet tall to guard his horse while Magara Naotaka, a retainer for the Asakura clan wielded an ōdachi, mainly because of his massive height, standing at nearly seven feet tall.(3)
Once the wars ended with the Edo Period, the ōdachi became completely obsolete. At this point, they tended to only be accepted as offerings in Shinto shrines.
Why so large?
While most ōdachi are any blade that is over thirty-six inches, there are records and swords that managed to survive World War II that show that there were blades that were much larger. Yet, the size of these blades are downright impractical for warfare, so the question then becomes why were these swords made? The answer isn’t giants, but for the swordsmith to show off their skills.
Making swords is already a difficult feat, but imagine making one that twice your size. Being able to forge a sword to such lengths shows us the skill of the swordsmith. Such a sword like this would not be used in battle but would be an offering to a shrine and a symbol of the abilities of the swordsmith.(4) The Norimitsu Ōdachi would be such a sword. It’s too large to be wielded by any man, even on horseback and it also weights about thirty-two pounds as well. Yet, the Norimitsu isn’t even the largest ōdachi. That title goes to the Haja-no-Ontachi, a sword that is fifteen feet long and about one hundred sixty-five pounds!(5)
Ōdachis were swords that could be found on the battlefield for various purposes, and one such way was for anti-calvary, using the large blade to take down horses. But to look at the Norimitsu only and claim that ōdachis were only wielded by giants…to quote Benoit Blanc from Glass Onion, “It’s so dumb”. While most men who did have these weapons were taller than the average person at the time, the strength was still needed to operate the weapon. Because of their size and weight, spears tended to be favored because they were lighter but still had the range that an ōdachi would have, causing the swords to fall out of favor with most samurai. On top of this, the swords that ended up being made with oversized proportions were to show off the skills of the swordsmith. The blades that are the size of the Norimitsu and the Haja-no-Ontachi were never meant to see battle. These famous blades are ceremonial pieces through and through.
- Mingren, Wu. “Norimitsu Odachi: Who Could Have Possibly Wielded This Enormous 15th Century Japanese Sword?”, AncientOrigins.net. Posted March 18, 2019. Last accessed January 30, 2023. https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-ancient-technology/norimitsu-odachi-who-could-have-possibly-wielded-enormous-15th-century-021428
- Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook (2000), p. 113
- “Magara Naotaka”, Wikipeida.org. Last accessed January 30, 2023
- “Ōdachi”, Wikipedia.org. Last accessed January 30, 2023
- Adan, Mamerto. “Demystifying the Giant Norimitsu Odachi”, Owlcation.com. Posted September 12, 2022. Last accessed January 30, 2023. https://owlcation.com/humanities/Demystifying-the-Giant-Norimitsu-Odachi