othersidhe said: weren’t they mostly used for suicide?
This is one of those great historical ironies. No, they actually weren’t. Much like the Gladiators of Rome, whose matches in the arena rarely ended with death, Samurai didn’t actually commit suicide as regularly as it’s commonly believed they did. There are many different warrior codes in many different cultures across the world, the Code of Chivalry for example also includes a passage on suicide for failure. But the knights weren’t committing suicide left and right for failing, that would be a waste of resources and manpower. The samurai weren’t either.
Here’s why: the period of time when the samurai existed in Japan, there existed a caste system that broke people down into different classes. Peasants were peasants, merchants were merchants, and samurai were samurai. A samurai, for the most part, could only come from the samurai class. Japan has never had an extremely large population, especially not when compared to other countries in the region. China can kill for failure (if they were dumb enough to, they’re not), Japan can’t. They didn’t have the manpower, the options, or the replacement candidates for a samurai to kill himself every time he failed his liege lord. There was a little bit of flexibility, but not much. This is what happened to the Spartans, Spartans were supposed to die in battle and they did. Eventually, the Spartans ran out of Spartans because they were all dying. If samurai were really killing themselves with any regular frequency, Japan would have run out of samurai very quickly. Plus, if this were also true and everyone was behaving the way they were supposed to there would have been no ronin.
The concepts of suicide and the Bushido code we have today come out of the period shortly before WWII, when Japan was reinventing itself. They looked back to the past, to “when they were great” and repeated the same mistake that every culture does when they look back on who they think they are with rose tinted glasses. They readopted the Bushido code, but much more rigidly. The No Failure State was a response to that. The mass suicides that happened during WWII were unique to WWII. However, the concept of No Failure still exists today in Japanese politics.
So, while the wakizashi was used for suicide, that wasn’t it’s primary purpose. It can’t have been. Japan didn’t have enough iron to really waste on two swords that a single samurai wasn’t really doing anything with.
The Gladiator problem is this: it’s inverted. Thumbs up you can kill him, thumbs down, you didn’t perform well enough for him to die. Hollywood screwed it up for dramatic reasons.