What is Hoko Spear


Because of anime and tv show you might think katana is the only weapon samurai use, but the truth is, there are many choice of weapons for a samurai warrior, and one of them is Hoko 矛, a type of Japanese spear. This article will introduce what Hoko is, how it was used, the features and types of hoko, and famous hoko appearing in mythology or in real life.

What is Japanese Hoko Spear 矛?

Antique Japanese Hoko Spear 矛

The Hoko is a type of Japanese spear with a double-edged blade attached to a long handle. It is a weapon that was used not only in Japan but also worldwide, and is said to be the predecessor of the Yari and naginata. It often appears in Japanese mythology as a weapon owned by the gods. 

History of Hoko矛

Samurai on horseback fighting against each other using hoko

Hoko has been a part of Japanese weaponry since ancient times, as evidenced by its mention in the Kiki Shinwa (記紀神話). During ancient periods when forging technology was still not mature, the Hoko, known for its robust structure, was the mainstream weapon in battlefields. However, its production gradually declined. This decline was primarily due to the high costs associated with its production, especially when compared to other weapons like Yari and Naginata, which were simpler in design and cheaper to produce.

Difference between Yari 槍 and Hoko 矛

Difference between Yari 槍 and Hoko 矛

The Yari and the Hoko are both traditional Japanese spears, it might be difficult to distinguish them at first glance, their major difference are:

The Hosaki 穂先 (Blade Tip) shape

Yari: The Yari is essentially a spear. It typically has a straight blade and is designed primarily for thrusting. Some Yari variations have blades with cross-sections, others have multiple blades or points.

Hoko: The Hoko, on the other hand, is an ancient type of spear. Its design is more primitive compared to the Yari. It often featured a rounder, broader, leaf-shaped double edged blade and was used more for slashing or cutting, in addition to thrusting.

Method of spearhead mounting

Yari : the tang (Nakago) is inserted into the shaft and secured with bindings such as vines.

Hoko: theblade features a socket-like structure into which the shaft is inserted. The blade and handle are then secured together using rivets. 

How they were used in battle

Foot soldier using hoko and shield

While there is not a big difference in how yari and hoko are held in Japan as both are held with both hands, there was a difference in China. The hoko was basically used with one hand, so that a shield could be equipped in the other hand. Yari was usually hold with both hands.

Types of Hoko

The Hoko can be broadly categorized into three types based on the material used for the spearhead. These are the wooden Hoko (Ki Hoko), stone Hoko (Ishi Hoko), and bronze Hoko (Do Hoko).

木矛 Wooden Hoko (Ki Hoko):

This is the most primitive type of Hoko. Historical records, including the "Engishiki 延喜式" (a Japanese book of laws and customs compiled in the mid-Heian period), mention that during the early Heian period, bureaucrats known as "Hayato 隼人" (an ancient group of people and an institution under the Ritsuryo system) were equipped with wooden spears measuring about 333.3 cm. This indicates that wooden Hokos were already in use in Japan as weapons from at least the early Heian period.

石矛 Stone Hoko (Ishi Hoko):

The stone Hoko, which predates the bronze Hoko, is more durable and sharper than the wooden variant. It was typically made by attaching a sharpened stone to the end of a wooden shaft. During the Kofun period (around 3rd to 7th century), a beautiful stone Hoko known as "Izushi no Hoko出石桙" was brought to Japan by a prince from Silla (新羅 an ancient Korean kingdom). This Hoko was named "Izushi," meaning "beautiful stone spear," though some theories suggest that "Izushi" could also imply "sharp" or "acute."

銅矛 Bronze Hoko (Do Hoko):

The bronze Hoko, which emerged during the Kofun period, featured a bronze spearhead. This was a period when bronze swords were becoming common, leading to the development of bronze Hokos. Unlike wooden or stone Hokos, the bronze Hoko had its spearhead fitted over the tip of the shaft, similar to the later "Fukuro Yari 袋槍" (a type of yari spear). According to Japanese mythology, during the time of Amaterasu's concealment in the heavenly rock cave, Ishikoridome no Mikoto mined copper from Amanokaguyama and crafted the bronze Hoko. However, with the introduction of iron spears from northern Asia, the less sharp bronze Hoko fell out of favor.

Later, towards the end of the Heian period, iron spears were gradually replaced by Naginata, a type of long-bladed weapon. However, in the Muromachi period, spears, now evolved in form, reclaimed their prominence on the battlefield.

Uses of Hoko Beyond Warfare

Ceremonial Instruments

The application of the Hoko extends beyond its function as a weapon in battle. For instance, the Kashihara Shrine (Kashihara no Miya), located in Kashihara City, Nara Prefecture, a site believed to be associated with the ascension of Emperor Jinmu 神武天皇, is known to have housed Hoko and shields for ritualistic purposes.

In historical records, there are instances where the Hoko was used in ceremonial contexts. During the Daijoe 大嘗会 (Great Thanksgiving) ceremony in November 698, the second year of Emperor Monmu's reign, and the reconstruction of the Heijo Palace in 745 (the 17th year of the Tempyo era), there were directives to newly prepare eight Hoko, each about 545.4 cm in length. The Hoko mentioned here refers to a derived form of the traditional weapon, characterized by a rounded L-shaped blade, differing from the typical straight or leaf-shaped blade of the conventional Hoko.

Spears of 'Gion Festival' 祇園祭

The Gion Matsuri, originating in the Heian period, is a traditional religious event held in Kyoto. During the Jogan era (859-877 AD), the city of Kyoto experienced an epidemic, and disasters like earthquakes and eruptions of Mount Fuji occurred nationwide. People believed these calamities were manifestations of the wrath of Gozu Tenno (the deity enshrined at the Gion Shrine, now known as Yasaka Shrine, in Heian-kyo).

To appease Gozu Tenno's anger, a purification ceremony, which eventually became the origin of the Gion Matsuri, was performed. This involved erecting 66 Hoko, corresponding to the number of provinces in the country at that time, and transporting a portable shrine (Mikoshi) to the Shimizu Garden (Shimizu-en).

Over time, the Hoko evolved in form, taking on the appearance of elaborately decorated floats called "Yamaboko." These are a type of parade float used during the festival. The transformation of the Hoko into Yamaboko has since become an integral and beloved part of Kyoto's summer, symbolizing the city's rich cultural heritage and its connection to historical traditions.

Famous Hoko

Spears in Shosoin 正倉院にある矛

Several spears exist in the Shosoin in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. Among them, there is a spear with a hook on the lower part of the tip.

The hooked spear was used to drag down horse-riding warriors and to stab them, as well as to trip horses and make horse-riding warriors fall off. In the Battle of Hakusukinoe, which was a battle between the Japanese and Tang armies, the Japanese army was forced to struggle against this hooked spear.

After that, hooked spears began to be manufactured in Japan as useful weapons. In addition to this, there is also a spear called 'Teboko'手鉾 in Shosoin, which has a bent tip. Teboko was considered a tool for rituals for a long time, but in recent years it has been said that it might have been a weapon made for actual combat.

Ame-no-nuboko 天沼矛

'Ame-no-nuboko' is a spear that appears in the 'Kiki Mythology'.

In the Kojiki it is called Ame-no-nuboko , and in the Nihon Shoki it is recorded as 'Ame-no-niho-yari' or 'Ame-niho-yari'. In the 'Kuniumi Mythology', which is a tale of the creation of the land of Japan, it is said that 'Izanami', the ancestor of the Imperial family, and her husband 'Izanagi' stirred up the chaotic earth from a bridge called 'Ame-no-uki-hashi' with Ame-no-nuboko, creating an island.

Hihiragi-no-yahoko 比比羅木之八尋矛

'Hihiragi-no-yahoko' is a spear that appears in the Kojiki. It is said to be a spear that was given to 'Yamatotakeru' by his father, 'Emperor Keikou'. The name 'Hihiragi' is presumed to be derived from the fact that the sacred tree 'Holly' (Hihiragi), which wards off evil spirits, was used for its material."

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