Naginata In history and modern days
Naginata, looks basically like a katana with long handle, is actually one of famous weapon in Japanese history. It's a pole weapon, but it is often be seen as something primarily practiced by women, like Kendo. However, the Naginata was a preferred long-handled weapon used by Samurai during the Nanboku-cho period, a time of civil war that divided Japan for half a century. In this article, we will explain some basic knowledge about the Naginata, including its history, the difference between it and the Nagamaki, and different types of Naginata.
What is a Naginata?
A Naginata is a type of long-handled weapon in Japan, and it is considered a Japanese sword. It is characterized by a long handle and a wide blade, and it was designed as a weapon to "mow down" enemies. Naginata looks pretty similar to the "GuanDao" from China. It used to be referred to as "Naginata" (long sword), but as the term "Choto" (long sword) began to be used for Uchigatana (short sword), it became commonly known as "Naginata".
The Blade of the Naginata
The blade of the Naginata, also called the "ho", generally ranges in length from one shaku (about 30 cm) to two shaku (about 60 cm), but some exceed three shaku (about 90 cm). The shape of the blade changes over time and varies according to the owner's preferences, making it difficult to determine the era based on shape alone. The blade is usually single-edged with a curve towards the tip, but there are some with double-edged tips. The tang (nakago, the part that fits into the handle) is made longer than the sword for strength, and is generally about the same length as the blade. The groove (bohi), which is carved for the purpose of lightening, is usually carved about halfway down the blade, and this is called a Naginata-hi.
The Handle of the Naginata
Generally, the handle of the Naginata ranges widely from three to six shaku (approximately 180 cm), and it seems there were various lengths depending on the height and skill level of the user. The cross-section is oval-shaped, and the Ishizuki (the tip of the handle) is often shaped like a crescent moon, and it is said to have been designed to be able to strike with the Ishizuki side as well.
The History of the Naginata
The Naginata is said to have appeared during the Heian period, but due to its similarity in shape and use to the hand spear of the Nara period, it could be said that the Naginata as a slashing weapon has been around since then, though this is not certain. Let's trace the history of the Naginata from the late Heian period to the present day.
Late Heian Period
The Naginata rapidly spread from the late Heian period as a very powerful weapon in close combat. It evolved from a shape called "Shobu-zukuri" with a long handle attached to the blade, the blade was widened to increase strength, the curve was strengthened, and eventually the shape typical of the Naginata was established. The Naginata is also famous as the weapon of choice for Musashibo Benkei, a figure from the late Heian period.
Kamakura to Nanboku-cho Periods
From the Kamakura to Nanboku-cho periods, combat was mostly individual battles. Although the Tachi was convenient on horseback, the Naginata, with its reach and high killing power, was a popular choice of weapon in ground combat.
Exquisite Naginatas made by famous swordsmiths were born, marking the golden age of the Naginata. The image of the Naginata as a weapon of the monk soldiers may come from the fact that many of the monk soldiers depicted in the drawing of this time are shown holding Naginatas.
Muromachi to Azuchi-Momoyama Periods
From the Muromachi period onwards, Japan entered the Sengoku period. The style of combat changed from individual to group warfare, and battles were fought between armies made up of generals and many foot soldiers. In group battles with many foot soldiers around, there is a risk of injuring allies, and the advantages of the Naginata cannot be fully utilized. Spears, which can stab or swing down to strike the enemy in front, were more functional, so the Naginata, as a long-handled weapon, gradually lost its place as the mainstream weapon. Eventually, Naginatas that were no longer used on the battlefield began to be refashioned into Uchigatanas. This is called "Naginata-naoshi", and as the Naginata had been active on the battlefield for a long time, many of them are of high quality, and it was said that there are no dull swords in "Naginata-naoshi". In fact, it is said that many of the existing "Naginata-naoshi" swords are famous blades.
Edo Period to Present Day
The Naginata, which had once declined, re-emerged in the Edo period as a martial arts technique and as a hobby for samurai women, with the advent of "Naginata-jutsu". However, as it was far from the long period of war, it never regained its status as a mainstream weapon, and has been passed down as one of the different types of martial arts compared to swordsmanship. During the Showa period, after passing through the Meiji and Taisho periods, "Naginata-do" was introduced as part of girls' physical education under the guidance of the government. After the Second World War, Naginata-do education was abolished, but the techniques as a martial art were handed down to future generations and continue to be passed down to the present day under the name "Naginata". Naturally, when it is referred to as "Naginata", it is not the Naginata as a Japanese sword, but remains purely as a martial art
The Naginata and Nagamaki are both types of long-handled Japanese weapons. Though their usage is quite similar, making them difficult to distinguish, the Nagamaki is a weapon that evolved from a long sword, specifically a "great sword." Unlike the Naginata, the Nagamaki's blade width is similar to a great sword, and it has a handle of about three shaku (roughly 90 cm). The entire handle is tightly wrapped with thread for easy gripping.
Types of Naginata:
The Naginata varies in types based on length and blade shape. Let's introduce five main types.
The large Naginata was frequently produced during the Nanboku-cho period when great swords were popular. At its peak, some had blades that were as long as five shaku (about 150 cm). However, if the total length of the blade and handle combined is longer than that of a regular Naginata, it's called a large Naginata, regardless of the blade length. There are historical records showing weapons of the same blade length being called a large Naginata in one case and a small Naginata in another.
With the emergence of the large Naginata, the traditional Naginata were distinguished as "small Naginata." If you stand the handle on the ground, and it reaches about the height from the bearer's shoulder to ear, it's typically called a small Naginata.
Named after Shizuka Gozen, the consort of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the Shizuka-shaped Naginata is characterized by its narrow blade and weak curvature. It's also called a "male Naginata."
Named after Tomoe Gozen, the consort of Kiso Yoshinaka, the Tomoe-shaped Naginata has a wider blade and strong curvature, making it easy to slash with little force. Though it's also called a "female Naginata," its wide blade requires substantial skill to handle. Therefore, it's not exclusively for those with less physical strength.
The Chikushi Naginata was commonly used in the Kyushu region, centering around the Daimyo of Chikushi, the Otomo clan. Its most prominent feature is its unique shape. The Chikushi Naginata blade does not have a tang; instead, it has a ring-shaped metal fitting called a "Hitsu." The handle is inserted and fixed into this Hitsu.
Naginata, the long-handled weapon that has survived to modern times despite its decline, is a type of Japanese sword with a history of 1000 years. It was once treasured by samurai as a main weapon on the battlefield. With the changing times, it finished its role but was revisited as a martial art in modern times and has been passed down to today. Notably, the existence of the Naginata is very valuable due to its historical decline.