The nata is a very versatile Japanese axe (or Japanese machete) with a unique design different from the steel bladed agricultural tools that we’re used to. Its unique design causes a lot of confusion about what to call it in English. It might be an axe, or a hatchet, or a machete—and some look like billhooks. Depending on the type, you can use a Japanese nata to fell trees, split logs, strip bark, trunks and branches, clear brush like a machete, and collect firewood. They’re typically lighter than western axes for the same cutting ability and hold their edges well.
The usage of nata in Japan dates back to when it was difficult to travel between regions. As a result, each area developed its own unique style. With the rise of traveling migrant woodcutters in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867) the most efficient and popular styles spread, leaving us with just a few different types today. There are five main varieties of Japanese nata tool, and they’re all significantly different from each other.
Nata today are typically made from carbon steel and alloy steel, but can also be made from stainless steel. Carbon and alloy steel nata are extremely sharp and have very good edge retention, but they are prone to rust so they need to be taken care of and kept dry. Stainless steel nata tend to be cheaper, and need to be sharpened more frequently, but you don’t need to worry so much about corrosion.
So let’s get to the question: What is a Japanese nata tool? Well, some people call it an axe, others call it a hatchet, and more still call it a machete. Let’s examine some of the types of nata, and some other Japanese axes, to see if we can’t work out an answer.
The most common type of nata you’ll see for sale in Japan is the koshi-nata. If you know a little about Japanese nata, you may already know this style. Koshi-nata are straight-bladed cutting tools with squared tips. They are like the machete in form, but not function. Koshi-nata blades are thinner than other varieties, so they’re easy to use for long periods without getting tired.
The koshi-nata is one of the most famous examples of Tosa cutlery. The Tosa province of ancient Japan, which is now the southern part of Kochi prefecture, was covered with lush, thick forest. Tosa’s local blacksmiths had been making durable agricultural tools for years, when in 1306, a group of master sword makers moved to Tosa from Yamato province. The sword makers used advanced techniques to supply the area with an abundance of exceptionally sharp swords for war. The local blacksmiths learned from the newer generations of sword makers, and perfected their hammer-forging, making Tosa cutlery the gold standard for bladed agricultural and forestry tools during the Edo period.
Tosa’s nata axe style, the koshi-nata, spread across the country, and is now replicated in many regions. All modern koshi-nata have the same basic functionality and high quality regardless of where they’re produced in Japan. However, if you want a koshi-nata from Tosa, look for one produced in Kochi prefecture. True Tosa cutlery can be recognized by their blackened steel blades. Only polishing the cutting edge, and leaving black scorching on the back of the steel, is a signature of the region, as they believe it helps to prevent rust.
Although it looks more like a machete, the koshi-nata is best to be thought of as a Japanese axe or splitting maul, as it’s best at chopping and splitting logs and bamboo. You can hit koshi-nata on the back of their blades with a wooden hammer or mallet for extra force. As koshi-nata don’t have hooks on the end of their blades to protect them from damage when they hit the ground, you need to handle them carefully and should use them with a chopping block. The lack of a curve or hook makes koshi-nata inferior for stripping trees and logs compared to some other varieties of nata, but they’re the best axe for splitting wood in Japan.
The tomari-nata is the origin of the protruding tip you see on some nata today. They were developed in Asahi Town, Toyama Prefecture. The tip, which resembles a bird’s beak, made it easy to strip bark and branches and collect firewood and twigs from the ground. Their ease-of-use and efficiency made them so popular with traveling woodcutters in the Edo period that they spread across Japan and became nationally famous.
Today, there’s only one blacksmith left in Asahi who still knows how to make tomari-nata. Mr. Okubo from Okubo Seisakusho has been blacksmithing in Asahi for 78 years, and never took an apprentice. As all the other traditional blacksmiths retired, Mr. Okubo became the last person making traditional tomari-nata, but in 2021, he stopped accepting new orders.
The tomari-nata has a long steel blade, similar to the koshi-nata, but that curves toward the end rather than remaining straight. This makes its design similar to a billhook - a western tool which is thought of as a cross between a knife and an axe. Because of the similarity in design, tomari-nata and billhooks share many of the same functionalities. They are great at cutting through brush, you can use them as axes to chop through trees, and their curved design and protruding tip makes them ideal for snedding and limbing–stripping the limbs, branches and sometimes bark off of trees and logs.
Tomari-nata are great survival and camping tools, as you can use them to cut and strip logs for building camp, and to hack through the jungle growth as you hike. Their curved design means they’re certainly not the best splitting maul, but their multi-functionality makes them incredibly useful and versatile for the outdoors.
Echizen in Fukui prefecture is only about 200 km from Asahi, where the tomari-nata was produced. Considering that Japan is over 3,000 km long, that’s a relatively short distance geographically. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the traveling woodcutters that were active in the Chubu region during the Edo period would have moved between the two towns regularly, as it would have been only about a week’s walk between them, and they were both famous for their blacksmithing.
With this context in mind, it’s very easy to see how and why the tomari-nata inspired the design of the Echizen-nata. The Echizen-nata also features a curved blade with a protruding tip. The tip design, however, is slightly different. It isn’t sharp and curved, resembling the beak of the Black Kite, but more square and bulbous.
In addition, the blade of the Echizen-nata is much shorter than the tomari-nata, meaning the ratio of handle to head is completely different. This makes the Echizen-nata resemble less a machete, and more an axe or hatchet. Because the blade is shorter, the curve is slightly less pronounced, which makes it easier to split logs.
Although, in the beginning, the Echizen-nata was simply copying the popular tomari style of Nata coming out of Asahi town, through development like strengthening the protruding tip and shortening the blade, they’ve become more useful and more popular than the tomari-nata. They can do everything the tomari-nata can do, and a little more, as they split logs well, and are lighter and easier to carry around in the woods. Because of their popularity, they’re much easier to find for sale, as new tomari-nata or no longer being produced.
The hitsu-nata has the most unique design out of all the nata we’ve covered so far. It’s almost identical to a western axe type that’s very difficult to find for sale these days: the brush hook (or brush axe). Brush hooks were the best hand tools around for clearing undergrowth and making trails in the woods. They’re very popular tools with surveying teams and rural firefighters. In certain areas, in the dry season, it’s dangerous to use power tools as they could spark forest fires. So rural firefighters who are responsible for clearing brush and undergrowth for fire prevention are limited to using hand tools, and the brush hook does the job well.
The hitsu-nata is Japan’s answer to a brush hook or brush axe. Its history and provenance are difficult to find, so we don’t really know where it comes from, or when and why it was developed. However, they’re very popular in Japan for professional forestry workers for clearing undergrowth and pruning trees.
Hitsu-nata feature a blade which is like a cross between an Echizen-nata and a koshi-nata. It is long and straight, and it features a squared protruding tip on the end. The difference is that the handle is much longer than other varieties of nata, and the blade is attached at a slight angle. Their length and angle means you’re able to swing them at undergrowth and ground cover without bending over.
Western brush hooks, which look very similar to hitsu-nata, are difficult to find for sale, and are often cited as a “forgotten tool”, but many people who work in wilderness trails where power tools are forbidden, and in firefighting and forestry, still have the need for this kind of tool. Due to this, the market for Japanese hitsu-nata is growing across the world.
Finally, the ken-nata or “sword-style nata” is a Japanese hunting and survival tool. It bears nearly no resemblance to any of the other nata popular in Japan, and you certainly wouldn’t call it an axe or a machete. Ken-nata are essentially outdoor knives, or hunting knives, that have been popular among outdoor enthusiasts, campers, fishermen and hunters in Japan for some time. It’s generally believed that they’re a recent invention, modeled after western hunting knives, but there are some old ukiyo-e woodblock prints that depict tools very similar to ken-nata, so there are some people who believe they could have been around much earlier.
Ken-nata are used for cutting ropes and vines, stripping and splitting firewood, preparing and skinning hunted food or caught fish, and as a safety measure against bears for hikers and campers. Whereas most nata are generally only available in single-bevel designs, and double-bevel are harder to find, ken-nata are easily available in both configurations.
Although it’s disputed whether most types of nata are axes, hatchets or machetes, we can all agree that ken-nata are none of those things, but simply outdoor knives that have some of the same functionalities of an axe.
Traditional Japanese Axes
Among Japanese agricultural tools there are some that are indisputably axes and hatchets, and they’re not nata. These tools are very similar to the ones we know in the west, with some slight differences. In Japan, these three tools and nata tools are from completely different categories. So to the Japanese, nata are not the same as axes at all. Let’s look at some Japanese axes and compare them to the Japanese nata tool.
Masakari are broad-bladed axes that are associated with Sohei, Japanese warrior monks, and Yamabushi, a group of ascetic mountain-worshiping hermits who ascend the snowy mountains for months at a time in an effort to gain mystical powers. Because of this association, and that these groups are often depicted in Japanese art carrying masakari, the term is often translated as “battleaxe”. However, though they may have been used in battle in the past, they were created as a felling axe to chop down trees and prepare firewood.
Masakari have been used by farmers and woodcutters in Japan for hundreds of years, and they’re still very popular today. They are short-handled axes with large, heavy heads and are the tool in Japan most reminiscent of the western style small axe.
Bakin are smaller versions of masakari. They’re generally only about 30 cm long and almost always under 1kg. They’re typically used in small homes in the countryside to cut logs for the fire. They can’t handle serious tree felling or hacking into large logs, but they’re very light, don’t take up much space, and make quick work of a stack of firewood. These axes are very easy to find across Japan online or in home centers. In the countryside, many households have one at the ready. More than any other Japanese axe, the bakin can safely be described as a hatchet.
The kiwari is a Japanese log splitter. Outside of the nata we’ve already mentioned, it is likely the best axe for splitting wood in Japan. Kiwari have narrow and thick heads, with extra long handles. Their heads are noticeably lighter than the western wood splitting maul. They’re not a multipurpose axe by any means, as the only effective way to use them is to split logs. They’re not a felling axe, and you would be wasting your time if you tried to use one to sned or limb a log, or to clear undergrowth.
If you need a more general-purpose tool for land clearing and log prepping, one of the many varieties of nata would be perfect for you. However, if most of your work involves splitting logs, you can’t beat a kiwari.
Are Nata Axes, Machetes, Hatchets, Or Something Else?
So if masakari are axes, bakin are hatchets, and kiwari are wood splitters, nata must be machetes, right? Not necessarily. While nata may look like machetes, they’re often used more like axes and hatchets.
What’s more important when deciding how to define something–how it looks, or how we use it? If you think we should define things based on how they look, then nata could certainly be called Japanese machetes or Japanese billhooks. However, if you think we should define things based on how we use them, you’d be much better off calling them Japanese axes or machetes.
So we could say that there are masakari-style axes and nata-style axes, and bakin-style hatchets and nata-style hatchets. Or, we could celebrate the uniqueness of the Japanese nata tool by not forcing them into any western category, and simply referring to them as “nata” or “Japanese bladed nata tools”.
At the end of the day, how we refer to them isn’t really that important. What is important is celebrating these incredibly well-made, sharp, durable and versatile cutting tools, and letting farmers, forestry workers, carpenters, woodcutters, firefighters and surveyors across the world experience quality Japanese design and manufacturing.
If you’re looking for a more versatile alternative to an axe, hatchet, log splitter, machete, billhook or brush hook, you’ll certainly find a solution in one of the many varieties of Japanese nata tool on the market.