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Believe the naginata has always been a ladies-only weapon? Think again!

Japanese martial arts encompass a variety of disciplines, including judo, karate, kendo, sumo, aikido, kyudo, and jodo. Among these, there is one weapon-based martial art with significant historical importance in Japan—naginatajutsu.

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When discussing naginatajutsu, it's essential to first understand the naginata itself. Many people used to think that it was an exclusive weapon for women of the samurai class, warrior monks, and samurai. However, this is not entirely accurate.

The naginata, known as "naginata" before the Edo period, was not exclusively the weapon of warrior monks—a term that actually emerged during the Edo period. This misconception stems from the imaginations of the Edo to Meiji periods. In reality, samurai women practiced swordsmanship more than naginatajutsu. The practice of naginatajutsu among women actually became widespread in the late 19th to early 20th century.

What is the naginata? Its origins are believed to date back to the Tang Dynasty, though this remains a topic of debate.

The naginata is a long-handled weapon used by ancient Japanese warriors, characterized by a broad blade with a significant curve, similar to the Chinese guan dao. It was employed on the battlefield. Subsequently, samurai women were required to learn naginatajutsu, leading to the weapon being modified into a lighter version. This allowed women to handle it more effectively, enhancing the speed and agility of naginatajutsu.

Today, naginatajutsu has gradually evolved into a modern martial art sport. The All Japan Naginata Federation has standardized the current form of the naginata, making it one of the key disciplines in Japanese martial arts competitions. In 1953, with the revival of martial arts, the "Shubukan" became the headquarters for naginata in Japan.

It is believed that the naginata was introduced during the Nara period (710-794 AD). During this time, Japan had close exchanges with China, and Buddhist monks from the Tang Dynasty brought the large weapons used in Chinese Zen monasteries to Japan. Over time, these weapons developed into a lighter form suitable for the Japanese physique, leading to the creation of the Japanese naginata and chōken (long-handled sword). These became common weapons for warrior monks during the Nara period.

Although there are legends of the "yanyuedao" (reclining moon blade) existing as early as the Western Han Dynasty, historical evidence suggests that a weapon very similar to the naginata, known as the "meijian dao" (eyebrow tip blade), did not become a standard military weapon in China until the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty military manual "Wujing Zongyao" describes seven types of long-handled blades: diaodao (hanging blade), fengzui dao (phoenix beak blade), bidao (pen blade), qudao (crooked blade), jidao (halberd blade), yanyuedao (reclining moon blade), and meijian dao (eyebrow tip blade).

If the naginata was indeed introduced from the Tang Dynasty, it might be related to the long-lost Tang Dynasty weapon known as the "mò dāo." According to the "Tang Liudian, Volume 16":

("The mò dāo is a long blade, carried by infantry, akin to the ancient horse-cutting sword.")

However, this long-handled blade was a double-edged, straight weapon, quite different in shape from the curved naginata. Therefore, it is possible that the long-handled blade introduced at that time was merely a precursor to the naginata.

Some studies suggest that the naginata might have been developed from a unique long-handled weapon of the Nara period known as the "tehoko." This weapon was a modified spear that combined the functions of thrusting and slashing. A reconstructed tehoko measures 104.4 cm in total length, with a handle length of 66 cm and a blade length of 38.4 cm. In terms of length and shape, the tehoko and the naginata differ significantly.

Thus, the origins of the naginata remain a topic of debate to this day.

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The Evolution of the Naginata: Transforming into the Katana and Wakizashi

The naginata has experienced various transformations throughout its history, eventually influencing the development of the katana and wakizashi. Here are some key aspects of the naginata's design and evolution:

  1. Handle Length and Design:

    • The length of the naginata's handle typically ranges from 90 to 180 centimeters.
    • The handle ends with a "tsuba" (handguard).
    • Unlike the round shafts of spears, the naginata's handle is elliptical.
    • The bottom of the wooden handle features a "ishizuki" (butt cap).
  2. Blade Specifications:

    • The blade of the naginata generally measures between 30 and 60 centimeters, though some larger versions can have blades up to 90 centimeters.
    • Compared to spear-type weapons, the naginata's tang (nakago) is longer, roughly the same length as the blade itself, and may be inscribed with a maker's mark (mei).
  3. Blade Variations:

    • The naginata blade's shape and design often draw inspiration from historical records, particularly those associated with notable women.

Through these changes, the naginata has not only maintained its status as a formidable weapon but also contributed to the evolution of other iconic Japanese swords. The unique characteristics of the naginata have allowed it to endure and adapt, finding new life in the forms of the katana and wakizashi.

Naginatas of normal size or those with shorter blades were often reforged into wakizashi or short swords, while larger blades could be transformed into katana. Initially, most naginatas were used as practical battlefield weapons, and many were of quite high quality, although a significant number were of lower quality. This disparity has led to the misconception that "naginatas are inherently dull blades."

Among the most renowned examples are the works of Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, such as the famous "Namazu-o Tōshirō" and "Honebami Tōshirō."

In ancient Japan, the naginata was initially used as a battlefield weapon by samurai and others, despite the common misconception that it was exclusively a weapon for women.

According to scrolls and stories, the naginata appeared in battles around the 10th to 11th centuries. During the Heian period (794-1185), the primary warfare tactic of samurai groups involved long-range shooting from horseback, followed by "ikkito" (one-on-one combat by generals). As warfare shifted to infantry-centric battles, the naginata began to be widely used by foot soldiers (ashigaru).

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During the Genpei War (1180-1185), cavalry warfare became increasingly important, and the naginata proved effective not only in countering cavalry attacks but also in causing significant damage in infantry battles. As a result, the status of the naginata on the battlefield rose once again, and it was regarded by warriors as a powerful weapon. To defend against strikes to the lower body by the naginata, shin guards were specifically incorporated into Japanese armor.

This demonstrates the significant impact of the naginata on the battlefield during that time.

During the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (1331-1392), frequent warfare prompted the use of weapons that were effective in both stabbing and striking. At that time, long spears were not as lengthy as those used in the Warring States period and could only be used for stabbing and hitting. On the other hand,  even even even even even though even so even although

However, subsequently, weapons such as spears, guns, and long swords appeared one after another, and the use of naginata began to gradually decrease.

Eventually, it fell out of use on the battlefield and became a martial art practiced by the common people.

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Later, starting with the Ōnin War (1467-1477), the mainstream of combat gradually shifted to infantry units, and with the increasingly long lengths of spears (ranging from 2.5 to 10 meters), which were far longer than the naginata, the more convenient spears also replaced the naginata both in use and in formation, becoming the main weapons of the infantry units.

After the introduction of firearms to Japan in 1550, there was a significant change in warfare tactics, and the naginata quickly lost its prominence. While it faded from the battlefield, the naginata continued to be practiced as a martial art in civilian circles.

During the Edo period, Japan no longer faced the necessity of preparing for war, and the Tokugawa Shogunate strictly regulated civilian weapons, allowing only the samurai class to carry swords. Fortunately, the shogunate's regulation of the naginata was limited to the "ō-naginata" and similar types, allowing the naginata to survive as a martial art.

With martial skills lacking battlefield opportunities, practitioners of naginatajutsu began establishing dojos to teach and transmit their art. Various schools and styles related to naginatajutsu proliferated rapidly, scattered throughout the domains (han) of Japan.

On the other hand, naginatajutsu also served as one of the self-defense practices for warrior-class women. In the Edo period, samurai women actually practiced swordsmanship more than naginatajutsu. The popularity of naginatajutsu among women peaked in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

From the Taisho era to the post-war period, modernized "naginatajutsu" gradually evolved into a form of sport. However, despite this evolution, the stereotype of the naginata as being "suitable for women" persisted.

Today, naginatajutsu continues to be practiced by the younger generation in schools, traditional martial arts dojos, and martial arts halls across Japan. Importantly, it is no longer limited to just women but is practiced by both men and women.

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