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, a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese upper class.

Naginata for fighting men and sōhei 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 battlefield ō-naginata in order for women to use them with greater dexterity and mainly for self-defense, rather than trying to put emphasis on physical strength and the battlefield like armoured male warriors would.

Description

A naginata consists of a wooden pole with a curved single-edged blade on the end; it is similar to the Chinese guan daoor 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 (nagaye or ebu).

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.

History

The naginata may have descended from the earlier hoko yari and was possibly influenced by the Chinese Guan Dao. 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.

However, 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 Gempei 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 less 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.

Modern Naginata Construction

The modern naginata is between 210 cm and 225 cm in length and must weigh over 650 grams. In contemporary naginatajutsu, there are two general constructions. The first, the kihon yo, is carved from one piece of Japanese white oak and is used for the practice of katas (forms). This is quite light, and may or may not feature the tsuba between the blade and shaft sections. The second type, the shiai yo, uses a similar wooden shaft, but the blade is constructed from bamboo and is replaceable as it can break through hard contact. This type is used in atarashii naginata, the bamboo blade being more forgiving on the target than a wooden or metal blade.

Many of the imitation "naginata" for sale to the public are not actually naginata at all, as may be concluded from the above details on proper construction. Specifically, these imitations have shorter, rounded shafts, very short blades, and screw-together sections.