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Origins and history

An incredibly versatile weapon, it was used by both men and women in Japan, though women used it far more. A polearm weapon, it was made of a pole (starting at 4') with a curved blade on the end (usually 2'). Naginatas were of variable length - they could be custom-made for the user based on their size and requirements. They usually around 6' in length, but some were over 10'.

In feudal Japan, women did not usually bear weapons like katana or yari. They were normally shorter and more slightly built than men, so they could not wield them with as much force or ease. However women, especially those of samurai rank, were expected to be able to defend their honour and homes against intruders. As Amdur states,

However, unlike the upper-class women of Victorian England, who were expected to be subservient and frail, the bushi women were expected to be subservient and strong.

The naginata was the perfect weapon for them.

Mainly defensive, with a much greater reach than a sword, it was also more effective than a spear as it could be used to stab or slash. This combination allowed a woman (or man) to attack in almost any direction, often but not always with a sweeping motion. Their foes were forced to stand back, or leave themselves open to attack before they could close the distance and attack themselves. Thus women could protect themselves effectively with training, despite their gender's physical shortcomings compared to men. Some women became quite fierce fighters, even scaring off men with their furious charges.

Even though the Edo era of Japanese history was supposedly more stable under the Bakufu and Tokugawa Shogunate, Japanese women were still required to train in the arts of the naginata by 18. How they were trained depended on the region they came from. Some communities saw it as being a mere form of spiritual training, whereas others wished their women to be able to fight if necessary. By this time, the naginata were heavily decorated and a key part of a woman's dowry. Even in the Meiji era, when Western thinking was used as a model for reforming the nation, the naginata still had an important part to play in society. As compulsory education for girls after elementary school was brought in towards the end of the 19th century, they also had mandatory lessons in Japanese martial arts. The most prevalent of this was in the naginata and though it was sometimes seen as a spiritual exercise, every young girl was supposed to take lessons in it until after World War II.

Modern naginata

Inevitably after the defeat in 1945 and subsequent Allied occupation, the old ways changed. Compulsory lessons in martial arts were not deemed necessary or desirable - many blamed the obsession with samurai traditions for leading the nation to war. Quite rightly the sporting curriculum became more flexible and now both boys and girls can choose from a wider range of sports to participate in. Girls still practice naginata at school, as well as kendo, kyudo, judo and the like, though inevitably the numbers have falled drastically from pre-war levels.

Currently the modern version of naginata fighting, called atarashi naginata in Japanese, is practised by both men and women in competitive form. Mixed fights are allowed, though like most sports, this is more the exception than the rule. Classical naginata is also practised, though in a non-competitive form. It is based on prearranged, choreographed forms, or kata often performed at high speeds. The style has not changed for many centuries and is a truely impressive sight.

For safety, of course real naginata are not used. They are sometimes used in displays by those who are sufficiently proficient in the chosen field. However for matches and practice, wooden naginata are used. In the competitive sport (atarashi naginata) the blade is made from bamboo and if there will be contact, armour is worn by both competitors. The traditional kata is a lot less dangerous, so armour is not worn and the whole naginata is made of solid wood.

The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History by Ellis Amdur (www.koryu.com)