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Introduction to the Japanese Naginata

The Japanese naginata is a formidable weapon in any hand. It is a pole arm, similar to the medieval European glaive. The weapon was originally carried by samurai in feudal Japan, but is perhaps best known for its assumeduse by warrior monks called sohei. The length of the handle keeps opponents at a safer distance when compared to weapons like the katana. It also has the benefit of leverage for persons of smaller stature or strength. If you are looking to add this piece to your collection or are just curious about the unique design, a closer look at its historical usage and modern availability is essential.

Description of the Naginata

The naginata is a large weapon, though it is fairly lightweight at around two pounds.Ancient examples of the weapon measured between 47 inches and 96 inches in length. Most modern versions measure between 82 inches and 88 inches in length.  It has a long wooden shaft that ends in a curved blade. The blade is usually between 11 inches and 23 inches, depending on the total length of the weapon. It is sharpened only on one side and may be used for hitting, stabbing, or hooking on the opponent.

The historic version of the blade was hand-forged and folded by the same traditional method that other Japanese swords were made. The blade had a tang, which was inserted into the shaft. In these versions, the blade of the naginata was removable. It was secured to the shaft with a simple wooden peg that passed through the tang and shaft. The shaft was topped with a metal collar and often wrapped in cord for a sturdy hand grip.When not in use, the blade of the naginata was covered with a simple wooden sheath called a saya.

Modern construction of this weapon when used for martial arts is somewhat different from its ancestor. There are two styles that are commonly available. The kihon yo is carved from Japanese white oak, which is very lightweight. The second style is for more aggressive combat. It features a replaceable blade made from bamboo, which does not damage its target because it can flex. This version is called the shiai yo. Both types of weapon are used in martial arts combat with the practice of naginatajutsu.

There are also modern replicas intended for collectors that may not be made using the approved martial arts materials and techniques. They may be forged or cut from metal and can feature a screw connection for the blade, rather than the classic wooden peg. Some do not come apart at all. Some versions may follow the appearance of fantasy weapons with blades of different shapes or varying levels of detail in engraving on the blade or handle.

History of the Naginata

It is uncertain at what point in history that the naginata was invented. Although examples exist from the Kamakura Period, it is debatable whether the weapon was in use prior to that time period. It is popularly believed that the sohei monks carried these during the feudal Japanese era, although there is no evidence to support this theory. The texts and images that support the idea are from a much later time and may portray the naginata only to help differentiate between types of soldiers. It is also possible that early literature sources referencing weapons use the wording to describe a hoko yari. The hoko yari was an ancient spear carried by guards and gatekeepers. It has been hypothesized that this early weapon probably inspired the later creation of the naginata.

During the twelfth century, the naginata became an increasingly popular weapon of choice for horseback warriors because it could be used to stab at opponents wielding swords at a safe distance. At some point during the Edo Period – roughly between1603 and 1868 A.D. - gunpowder and matchlock guns began appearing on the Japanese battlefield due to a Western influence. This significantly impacted the value of the pole weapon and it was used less often in favor of swords that could be used in close combat.

The naginata eventually became a status symbol for the wives of samurai. Women were rarely seen on the battlefield, but were expected to defend the home from invaders if necessary. These became family heirlooms that were passed down through generations as part of the daughter’s dowry much like samurai swords. By the early twentieth century, the weapon was no longer used in combat by samurai at all. Rather, it had evolved into a common physical education component in girls’ schools. Since World War II, the activity has become a competitive sport and use of the weapon is significantly different than its predecessor. In Japan, this activity is almost exclusive to girls, but worldwide the sport is enjoyed by both boys and girls.

Naginata in Popular Culture

The modern martial arts practice of using a naginata is called naginatajutsu. It has limited popularity in the United States at a competitive team sport and is also played throughout South America, Australia, and Europe. Naginatajutsu players wear soft padded armor similar to other martial arts like kendo for protection. The martial arts skills used are called gendai budo, which is a modern style of budo. Budo places emphasis not only on specific combat techniques but also on personal character development.

The naginata is seldom used in American film productions. However, most Japanese films that are set in the Kamakura Period, when the samurai class was just emerging in Japan, feature the weapon generously. Outside of Japan, the naginata is a more popular weapon in manga and video games for background characters. It appears in a significant number of these from both Japan and the United States. It is not exclusive, but often the weapon carried by female characters, due to the fact that it was primarily associated with women in Japan during the early 1900s and afterward.

·       One of the earliest depictions in film was in the Japanese kabuki-style feature Yajikita Zenkoujimiri, made in the 1920s.

·       In the Japanese Persona video game series, the character of Chie Satanoka wields a double-bladed naginata. It is also a weapon of choice in the videogame Shogun: Total War and the online role-playing game Tibia.

·       In the manga seriesKamui Den, the character Atena is a naginata master.

·       Samurai in the opening scenes of the 2003 American film The Last Samurai use naginata on the battlefield.

Modern Naginata Makers

The naginata is not an exceptionally common weapon and thus the selection from retailers can be more limited than that of more popular Japanese blades, such as the katana. The following forges are known to make it and their styles and techniques vary greatly.

Ten Ryu forge makes hand-forged Japanese weapons. It puts an emphasis on the samurai code of respect and their attention to detail. Swords and other weapons are crafted using traditional methods and intended to be fully-functional. The blades are sharp and may be made from stainless steel or carbon steel.

Hanwei is produced by the Dalian Forge in China. The master sword smith Paul Chen created the company, which uses a combination of Japanese and Chinese techniques, as well as a blend of traditional and modern forging methods. Most blades are crafted from high-carbon steel and finished with a heat temper on the edge before sharpening.

Tips for Choosing a Naginata

The naginata is considered a woman’s weapon in Japanese culture. However, that is not to say that it cannot be appreciated and carried by men. When shopping for such a blade, there are a few things that you may take into consideration. The first involves the method of storage for the weapon. Due to the exceptional size – most are over five feet in length – finding an appropriate location takes some planning. The naginata does not usually come with a display stand, although one could be custom made to hold it vertically. Most include a protective sleeve to cover the blade. If you are using it as a decorative piece only, you may consider purchasing one that is not already sharpened for safety purposes. Alternatively, if you plan to store it inside of something, look for a variety that can be disassembled. If you are intending to use the weapon in martial arts activities, you may require one that is made of wood rather than metal. Check with your organization to determine the specific requirements.

Most of the details like specific length and decoration style are simply a matter of personal preference. Some manufacturers engrave the blade or put decorative wraps on the handles. While these are not traditional elements for the ancient version of this weapon, they make a modern one more interesting for those who are not concerned with historical accuracy. Budget is often a factor, but you may find that the naginata is priced in a relatively affordablerange between makers. There are several options available from Swords of the East that are sure to meet your specific needs.