history of the Kiridashi and Kwaiken ?

Discussion in 'Hammer & Tongs' started by john april, Dec 12, 2015.

  1. john april

    john april KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Feb 27, 2006
    does anyone know the history of those knives ? i have seen and admired old tachi, katana, wakizashi, tanto, aikuchi, and kogatana but do not recall seeing any kiridashi or kwaiken. i have been enjoying the kwaiken-mania lately in the custom knives area of the forum :)
  2. Stacy E. Apelt - Bladesmith

    Stacy E. Apelt - Bladesmith ilmarinen - MODERATOR Moderator Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Aug 20, 2004
    The kiridashi ( or kiradashi) is a small angular tip craft knife. It is the equivalent of the X-acto knife of today. It was used to sharpen and shape pen quills, trim paper, and cut string. Scribes used it to shape brush tips and carve wood blocks for printing signatures. Carpenters used a slightly larger version for marking wood and trimming mortise/tennon joints. In Japan, all children carried one to school in their "pencil box" ( anyone remember those :) ). It was part of any scholar's writing desk set. Our small Western "pen knife" ( penknife) had the same use and history.
    Pen knives and kiridashi are thousands of years old. For most of their history, they resembled a scalpel or X-acto knife ( pen knives did not fold until very recently). Because metal (especially steel) was scarce, the small thin blade was usually bound on the end of a split dowel with waxed cord.

    A Kwaiken ( or kaiken) is a "pocket knife" or "sleeve knife" originally carried by women. The name means "Bosom knife". It later became part of the Samurai equipment, but specifically was carried by women. All wives of a Samurai class man were expected to carry one. It was a small knife carried in the inside pocket of a kimono sleeve or inside the lapel. It was used for grooming tasks, cutting loose threads or string, and in an emergency, self defense. It is the equivalent of the Scottish Sgian Dubh. One additional use came from the Samurai tradition ... it was used by women for ritual suicide. The neck veins and arteries were quickly cut through with it. If their husband was incapacitated by his wounds, they would cut his neck veins, then their own.

    Additional info:
    The folding pocket knife is a very recent thing, and the term "pocket knife"is not the same everywhere. In much of the world, a "pocket" knife is a small fixed blade with a light sheath, carried in the side or back pocket. In the last couple centuries, when suits were worn by most working men, the folding version was often carried in the vest pocket, attached to the end of a chain. If the man was wealthy enough, a "pocket" watch was attached to the other end of the chain. The knife's main function was nail grooming and pencil/pen sharpening.

    When I was a lad, you looked forward to getting your first knife. It was likely a small Barlow or Case bought from a display at a hardware store counter ... for $1.00. It was a right of passage, and it went everywhere with you - to school, church, and play. This often happened as early as six or seven years old, but was more likely at age eight to ten. At age 14-16, you were becoming a man, and things like grooming were necessary. You got your first razor ( mine at age twelve), and someone gave you a "gentleman's" knife for your birthday or Christmas. It was a small folding knife, usually with two blades, and always with a bail. Most had brass scales, and some were in silver or gold. It quite likely had your initials engraved on it. Most were rather cheaply built. One blade was a small 1" "pen" blade for cutting string and trimming pencils, and the other had a blunt edge and tip "nail" blade. It had a file groove down the center, or one side fully file toothed. It was used to keep the nails and cuticles clean and well trimmed - the sign of any gentleman. Somewhere in my dresser I probably still have mine. IIRC, it was from Swank, a maker of men's jewelry for well over 100 years. Today, when my nails need a little work, I pull out the Victorinox multi-tool and file away .... so not much has changed.
    Last edited: Dec 25, 2015
  3. Lu1967


    Oct 20, 2014
    Good read Stacy,I always wondered about the history behind the kiridashi,thanks.
  4. john april

    john april KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Feb 27, 2006
    thank you !
  5. islandblacksmith


    Jan 2, 2014
    ...just to add a bit from my findings, for those interested in the traditional Japanese knife 懐剣, "kaiken" would be the spelling of the correct pronunciation, and one of the sources of confusion is sometimes because tanto and kaiken are not two types in the same category:

    • tanto refers to a blade type, other types in this category would be katana, tachi, wakizashi, etc...

    • kaiken seems to refer to a mounting type, other types in this category would be aikuchi, chisagatana, shirasaya, etc...but in addition, this mounting is usually called kaiken only when used on smaller tanto (small enough to be carried in the sleeve pocket or belt fold of the kimono, though relatively large examples do exist)...

    so traditionally, kaiken describes a way of mounting a smaller sized tanto that was characterized by lack of guard (aikuchi) and often lack of any other protrusions and fittings (though i have seen kurikata), and they would be carried hidden in the kimono for last defense and emergency use by men and women...there is some overlap with the mamori-gatana as well, which is a kaiken tanto specifically for women as a family gift when they marry...the literal translation of the roots for kaiken seems to come from futokoro-gatana 懐刀 which means "clothing fold katana", the mounting/carry style is very central to the classification...

    or listed as sub-categories: all tanto > aikuchi tanto > kaiken tanto > mamori-gatana

    here is a somewhat rare example of a fairly ornate kaiken mount for a small tanto, with some clarification about the often misquoted seppuku issue:

    one last note, as they are based on a small tanto blade, the blade style of kaiken should actually be quite straight-spined and hirazukuri, so we may need to coin the phrase "north american kaiken" as with "american tanto"...or perhaps just continue to let the altered spelling "kwaiken" belong to the north american knife it is oft used to label...

    ...hope that helps your research! (^___^)
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2015
  6. john april

    john april KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Feb 27, 2006
    thank you island blacksmith. good info !

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