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Giants of Southeast Asia

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

While most collectors would be familiar with dha/daab and some of their many variations, despite their proportions and long handles these swords are not in fact two handers but rather use the long handles to achieve the desired balance and handling characteristics. However, far more rare and barely known, there exist true two handed swords in these regions, from Thailand to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The history of these weapons is fascinating and involves the brief period of Japanese overseas adventurism in the mid to late 16th century and early 17th century before an enforced return to isolationism by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1635. 

It seems likely that these swords owe a legacy to the Japanese merchants and mercenaries who established communities throughout the kingdoms of southeast Asia, including rising to promenance as royal guards and even some individuals rising through the local political ranks and even in some cases obtaining a govenorship. During this period the 'nodachi' or 'odachi', a large two handed Japanese sword, essentially an oversized katana, were in use among the 'wako', Japanese mercenaries and pirates. During the period of the red seal ships, essentially a state sponsored trade program, Japanese junks were frequent visitors to important ports such as Hoi An in Vietnam and Ayutthaya in Siam. These expeditions were armed and the Japanese seem to have enjoyed a fearsome reputation with a high regard being given for both their weapons and skill in employing them. Even the Europeans engaged in trade in the region, primarily the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, respected them and at times employed their services as mercenaries. Even in more remote areas like Cambodia Japanese presence was felt, with Japanese inscriptions from merchants and travellers still remaining in Angkor Wat from the early 17th century. 

(Wiki Commons: Edo Period Woodcut)

While the use of Japanese troops by Ayutthaya is fairly well known thanks to the fame of Yamada Nagamasa, their place in the Cambodian royal court is perhaps less well known. The excellent "The Lost Samurai: Japanese Mercenaries in South East Asia, 1593–1688" by Turnbull tells the story in full, but by 1643 and 1644 Japanese mercenaries employed by the Cambodian kingdom and the events at Phnom Penh proved pivotal to battles with the Dutch VOC. Japanese involvement in Laos is less well documented, but it seems likely there was some degree of presence due to the political important of Lan Xang in the region during the 17th century.  

Without writing an exhaustive history of Japanese involvement in southeast Asia in the 17th century, it is clear from period sources that the Japanese were viewed as elite military assets across the region and it is logical that their weapons would hold a similar level of respect. In fact local versions of the katana can be found from Siam to Vietnam and it is therefore no surprise that the larger nodachi would receive similar treatment although much rarer.

The use of nodachi is somewhat disputed, in a Chinese context these large swords are often associated with anti cavalry infantry actions, while in Japanese artwork they are often depicted as being used from horseback. Their reported use among the wako pirates is an obvious conflict with the period artwork in this instance although Chinese sources draw on a sword manual apparently captured from the wako. The reality is that such a weapon would find specialized battlefield uses depending on the exact conflict, including allowing for greater reach from horseback, anti-cavalry uses and giving greater reach in shipborn combat role.  In a Chinese setting and the constant threat of steppes cavalry, their function against horses makes complete sense, while for Japanese mariners it would allow for massive striking power for boarding actions. While many surviving Japanese examples have been cut down to katana size, some southeast Asian examples maintain their original size.

The example presented in this article is not the largest I have encountered or own, but is still impressive. At 130cm overall length it is significantly larger than any other sword from this region and clearly designed for two handed use. The Japanese influence is clear, in addition to a tonku/habaki it has 'seppa' washers between the guard on both sides. The guard or tsuba itself is a plain iron without oramentation. As with all of these large swords from the region, the hilt proportions are massive compared to a normal dha/daab, in this case with samrit pommel cap and ferrule. In this case the method of braising on the fittings are characteristic of Laos work and help to identify the likely place of manufacture. It is also possible this is a Cambodian weapon due to the long standing ties between the two countries/kingdoms. The rought, iron guard is nearly identical to guards found on Thai katana and the links between these regions and specific sword workshops is still unknown.

Half of the grip is currently wrapped in samrit wire, judging by the state and condition of the hardwood handle, it is probably that it was at one point fully wire wrapped. All of the examples I have handled are notable for the massive size of the grips and hilts. Dha/daab tend to be fairly petite in terms of handle diameter while these weapons exibit a different cross section of the grip (oval instead of circular) and are at least double if not more in diameter. This leads to an entirely different handling characteristic to any traditional sword from the region, both in terms of balance and feel in the hand. 

The scabbard is a wood core with cloth and then a lacquer finish, also a common technique to the Laos/Cambodia border regions. 

It is incredilby rare to find a complete scabbard and particularly one of the period for these swords. 

The entire design of this weapon is a fascinating journey into the common practice of southeast Asian cultures in assimilating desirable weaponry into the local panoply of arms, both retaining traditional design elements such as the seppa, while mixing local methods of blade forging and heat treatment. The exact use of these swords in a local context is unclear, their size and weight would dictate an entirely different style of martial use than a typical dha/daab. Unfortunately no traditions or manuals survive in a local context. We can only make inferences based on the use of similar weapons in a Sino/Japanese context. For the Chinese these weapons were both a natural reaction to swords of the same class used by Japanese raiders and a continuation of a long history of large sabres for anti cavalry purposes dating back to the Song dynasty. For the Japanese legendary samurai like Makara Naotaka apparently employing it from the saddle. A constant theme of these Japanese accounts seems to be that it was a highly specialized weapon and required great skill to use properly. The same doubtless held true in a south east Asian context. As with any sword, it was a tool and functioned correctly when used within the parameters for which it was designed.

While I have unfortunately not been able to secure every example that has come on the market, thanks to modern social media and the a range of researchers and collectors across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam I have been able to confirm that these large swords were present in all of these kingdoms and can still be found as heirlooms in these regions. Due to the French colonial presence, I have been fortunate enough to source several examples from old French collections including the sword illustrated for this article. In a future article I will illustrate a Vietnamese example which shares several similarities but differs entirely in construction. The condition, construction and detail of these pieces speak to a practical function for these swords, it seems their popularity was not long lived due to their rarity, but they remain a fascinating and unique area of southeast Asian arms and worthy of more indepth study.