The naginata (なぎなた, 薙刀) is one of several varieties of traditionally made Japanese blades (nihonto) in the form of a pole weapon. Naginata were originally used by the samurai class of feudal Japan, as well as by ashigaru (foot soldiers) and sōhei (warrior monks). The naginata is the iconic weapon of the onna-bugeisha-archetype, a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility.
Naginata for fighting men and warrior monks were ō-naginata. The kind used by women was called ko-naginata. Since the naginata with its pole is heavier and much slower than the Japanese sword, the blade of the ko-naginata was smaller than the male warrior's ō-naginata in order to compensate for the lesser height and upper-body strength of a woman than an armoured male samurai.
A naginata consists of a wooden or metal pole with a curved single-edged blade on the end; it is similar to the Chinese guan dao or the European glaive. Similar to the katana, naginata often have a round handguard (tsuba) between the blade and shaft, when mounted in a koshirae. The 30 cm to 60 cm long naginata blade is forged in the same manner as traditional Japanese swords. The blade has a long tang (nakago) which is inserted in the shaft.
The blade is removable and is secured by means of a wooden peg called mekugi that passes through a hole (mekugi-ana) in both the tang and the shaft. The shaft ranges from 120 cm to 240 cm in length and is oval shaped. The area of the shaft where the tang sits is the tachiuchi or tachiuke. The tachiuchi/tachiuke would be reinforced with metal rings (naginata dogane or semegane), and/or metal sleeves (sakawa) and wrapped with cord (san-dan maki). The end of the shaft has a heavy metal end cap (ishizuki or hirumaki). When not in use the blade would be covered with a wooden sheath.
The naginata have descended from the earlier hoko yari. It's difficult to tell when the naginata itself first appeared. Though often claimed as being invented by the sōhei during the Nara period, physical evidence of their existence dates only from the mid-Kamakura period, and earlier literary sources are ambiguous. The earliest clear references to naginata date from 1146 in the late Heian period, with one suggesting that the weapon may have been recent. Earlier 10th through 12th century sources refer to "long swords" that while a common medieval term or orthography for naginata, could also simply be referring to conventional swords; one source describes a naginata being drawn with the verb nuku, commonly associated with swords, rather than hazusu, the verb otherwise used in medieval texts for unsheathing naginata.
Some 11th and 12th century mentions of hoko may actually have been referring to naginata. The commonly assumed association of the naginata and the sōhei is also unclear. Artwork from the late-13th and 14th centuries depict the sōhei with naginata but don't appear to place any special significance to it: the weapons appear as just part of a number of others carried by the monks, and are used by samurai and commoners as well. Depictions of naginata-armed sōhei in earlier periods were created centuries after the fact, and are likely using the naginata as a symbol to distinguish the sōhei from other warriors, rather than giving an accurate portrayal of the events.
During the Genpei War (1180–1185), in which the Taira clan was pitted against the Minamoto clan, the naginata rose to a position of particularly high esteem, being regarded as an extremely effective weapon by warriors. Cavalry battles had become more important by this time, and the naginata proved excellent at dismounting cavalry and disabling riders. The widespread adoption of the naginata as a battlefield weapon forced the introduction of greaves as a part of Japanese armor. The rise of importance for the naginata can be seen as being mirrored by the European pike, another long pole weapon employed against cavalry. The introduction in 1543 of firearms in the form of the matchlock (tanegashima) caused a great decrease in the appearance of the naginata on the battlefield. As battlefield tactics changed, the yari (spear) took the place of the naginata as the pole weapon of choice.
During the Edo Period, as the naginata became more useful for men on the battlefield, it became a symbol of the social status of women. A functional naginata was often a traditional part of a samurai daughter's dowry. Although they did not typically fight as normal soldiers, women of the samurai class were expected to be capable of defending their homes while their husbands were away at war.
The naginata was considered one of the weapons most suitable for women, since it allows a woman to keep opponents at a distance, where any advantages in height, weight, and upper body strength would be lessened. An excellent example of the role of women in Japanese martial culture is Itagaki, who, famous for her naginata skills, led the garrison of 3,000 warriors stationed at Toeizakayama castle. Ten thousand Hōjō clan warriors were dispatched to take the castle, and Itagaki led her troops out of the castle, killing a significant number of the attackers before being overpowered. The naginata saw its final uses in combat in 1868, at Aizu, and in 1876, in Satsuma.
Due to the influence of Westernization, after the Meiji Restoration the perceived value of martial arts, the naginata included, dropped severely. It was from this time that the focus of training became the strengthening of the will and the forging of the mind and body. During the Showa period, naginata training became a part of the public school system in 1912, and it "remains a staple of girls’ physical education"
Since World War II, naginata has primarily been practiced as a sport with a particular emphasis on etiquette and discipline, rather than as military training.
Although associated with considerably smaller numbers of practitioners, a number of "koryu bujutsu" systems (traditional martial arts) which include older and more combative forms of naginatajutsu remain existent, including Suio Ryu, Araki Ryu, Tendo Ryu, Jikishinkage ryu, Higo Koryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu,Toda-ha Buko Ryu and Yoshin ryu, some of which have authorized representatives outside Japan.
In the USA, there are an estimated 200 practitioners.
Contemporary naginata construction
In contemporary naginatajutsu, Two types of practice naginata are in common use.
The naginata used in atarashi Naginata, the shiai-yo, has an oak shaft and a bamboo "blade" (habu). It is used for practice, forms competitions, and sparring. It is between 210 cm and 225 cm in length and must weigh over 650 grams. The "blade" is replaceable. They are often broken or damaged during sparring and can be quickly replaced, being attached to the shaft with tape.
The naginata used by koryū practitioners has an oak shaft and blade, carved from a single piece of wood, and may incorporate a disc-shaped guard (Tsuba). It is called a kihon-yo.
Many of the "realistic naginata" for sale to the public are not naginata at all. These imitations have shorter, rounded shafts, very short blades, and screw-together sections.
Naginata can be used to batter, stab, or hook an opponent, but due to their relatively balanced center of mass, are often spun and turned to proscribe a large radius of reach. The curved blade provides a long cutting surface without increasing the overall length of the weapon.
Historically, the naginata was often used by foot soldiers to create space on the battlefield. They have several situational advantages over a sword. Their reach is longer, allowing the wielder to keep out of reach of his opponent. The long shaft offers greater leverage than that of a sword hilt, enabling the naginata to cut more efficiently. The weight of the weapon gave power to strikes and cuts, even though the weight of the weapon is usually thought of as a disadvantage. The weight at the end of the shaft (ishizuki), and the shaft itself (ebu) can be used offensively and defensively.
The martial art of wielding the naginata is known as naginatajutsu. Most naginata practice today is in a modernised form, a gendai budō called atarashii Naginata ("new Naginata"), which is organized into regional, national, and international federations, who hold competitions and award ranks. Use of the naginata is also taught within the Bujinkan and in some koryū schools such as Suio Ryu and Tendō-ryū.
Naginata practitioners wear an uwagi, obi, and hakama, similar to that worn by kendo practitioners. For sparring, armor known as bōgu is worn. Bōgu for naginatajutsu adds shin guards (sune-ate) and the gloves (kōte) have a singulated index finger, unlike the mitten-style gloves used for kendo.
In Japan, naginata is considered a woman's art and is studied by women more than men. In Europe and Australia naginata is practiced predominantly by men; this is simply a reflection of the martial arts demographics of Europe.