The Japanese Nata is often referred to as a hatchet. It’s time that this Japenese machete stops pretending and admits it is not a hatchet. I explain why.

First let’s define what an ax and a hatchet are, starting with the dictionary definition.


Here is a definition of a Japanese nata. The source is omitted because it is wrong.

The nata is short-handled (some of the time) and is used with one hand. It is also used for chopping and splitting wood. So far it sounds like a hatchet.

A hatchet is an ax that can be used with one hand. So is a nata an ax? According to Merriam-Webster, an ax has a “heavy edged head” with the “edge parallel to the handle”. The edge of a nata is parallel to the handle, but does it have a head? I would argue no, a nata does not have a head, it only has a blade. So based on the fact that the nata does not have a heavy head means it is not an ax and thus not a hatchet.

A Japanese Nata, Source: Crossed Heart Forge

Beyond Dictionary and Common Usage

Usage defines meaning. If enough people use the word literally to mean virtually the dictionary will state that literally can mean virtually. Because of common usage the word literally can now mean what is used to mean or the exact opposite. That doesn’t mean that using the world literally to mean the opposite of what it originally meant is clear or a good definition for someone who desires words to have meaning and useful value.

In other words we can’t always rely on dictionary definitions.

Just because enough people call a nata a hatchet doesn’t make it a good definition.

So let’s go beyond the dictionary definition of an axe or nata. Let’s look at the the features that axes and nata actually have and compare them that way. Axes often have all four of the following characteristics but at a minimum three of the following. Nata will only have 2 at most of these characteristics while sometimes 1 or none of the following characteristics. See the anatomy of axe to refresh your axe terminology.

Four Reasons Why a Nata is Not a Hatchet

1) Axes have a Handle Longer than the Blade

In my opinion, in order for a tool to be an axe (or hatchet) it will have a handle longer than the blade. If the blade is longer than the handle it isn’t an axe. While some nata do have a handle longer than the blade, many nata have a blade over twice as long as a handle. This puts it into machete or knife territory.

2) Axes have a Poll opposite the blade

Additionally, axes have a poll (or butt), even if it is short, where the blade is at least partially offset by weight opposite the blade and further past the handle. There are a few exceptions to this, such as a fireman’s axe that has a spike instead of a poll or a double-bit axes where the poll is replaced by another bit and some tomahawks or battle axes which have no poll at all. However, axes that have no poll still have the other three characteristics mentioned.

I have not seen a nata that has a poll.

3) Axes have a Cutting Edge located multiple handle-widths beyond the handle

Axes have a cutting edge that is spaced out multiple widths away from the handle.

The cutting edge of a nata is often within one handle width of the handle itself. The blade of a nata is not far enough out from the handle. This causes it to look and function more like a knife, cleaver or machete. I have seen some nata that have a cutting edge that extends multiple handle width beyond the handle which makes them more axe-like.

4) Axes have a cutting edge that is longer than the cheeks

On an axe the part of the head that is perpendicular to the handle (the cheeks) are shorter than the cutting edge. There are some splitting axes which have a cutting edge about the same length as the cheeks. In these exceptions they have the previous 3 characteristics.

I have not seen a nata that has a cutting edge that is longer than the cheeks.

This is an axe: 1) The handle is longer than the cutting edge 2) There is a poll that extends beyond the handle 3) The cutting edge is more than 1 handle length away from the handle (orange lines) 4) The cutting edge (red line) is longer than the cheek (blue line)
Nata Hatchet
This is not an axe. 1) The handle is shorter than the cutting edge 2) There is no poll 3) The cutting edge is less than 1 handle length away from the handle (orange lines) 4) The cutting edge (red line) is shorter than the “cheek” (blue line)

The Most Axe-Like Nata

Below is a picture of the most axe-like Nata I’ve seen. I might even be willing to concede it is a pseudo-hatchet. But it is not a true hatchet. It’s not a hatchet because it only has 2 of the characteristics listed above.

The nata above ticks a couple axe boxes. First, the handle is longer than the blade. Second, the cutting edge extents multiple handle-widths beyond the handle. However, it has no poll and the cutting edge is not longer than the cheek. So it only ticks 2 out of 4 attributes axes have. It would need to have the cutting edge be longer than the cheeks or a poll or some kind offset for me to consider it a hatchet or axe.

Axes often have all four of the above characteristics and at a minimum have three of them.

A Nata is axe-like but not an Axe

There are some similarities with some types of natas and some hatchets. However some natas are much more in the machete or knife category and have few similarities with axes other than having a handle and sharpened edge. I think it is much more useful and consistent to separate a nata from axes and hatchets. Birds and bats have similarities but that doesn’t mean that bats are birds or bats are birds.

I realize that one could cite various sources (like the erroneous definition at the beginning of this article) that refer to a nata as a hatchet (and also a froe, really?). But clearly a nata is in a different category from a hatchet or one handed axe.

I’m not anti-nata. I’ve never used one but I think natas look cool. I have a great affinity and appreciations for Japanese tools and weapons. However, I think that describing a nata as a hatchet is confusing, inconsistent, wrong and shouldn’t be done. A nata is not a hatchet.