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Additional History of the Naginata

The naginata is a halberd-like weapon that was used extensively in feudal Japan. Described by some as simply "a sword on the end of a long pole", the naginata was actually a sophisticated weapon which required considerable skill and stamina to use effectively in battle. It consisted of a curved blade, 1 to 2 feet in length, mounted onto an oak shaft that was usually 5 to 9 feet long. The actual dimensions of a naginata were primarily dependent on personal preferences and battle conditions. Attached to the butt end of the shaft was a sharp end-cap, or ishizuki, which was used to pierce between the plates of an attacker's armor.

Although the exact origin of the naginata is not known, three theories are prominent today. The first states that the naginata evolved from a simple farming tool used for chopping. In the early part of the third century BC, farmers attached sharp stones to the end of long wooden shafts. Later, metal was used in place of the stones.

The second theory is that the naginata evolved directly as a weapon. The first prototype blades were most likely made of bronze, followed later by steel. This theory sets the development of the naginata well after the introduction of metal to Japan from the Asian continents (after 200 BC).

The third theory is that Chinese halberds were carried to Japan during early migrations, sometime around 200 BC. By the Han and Wei Dynasties (approximately 200 AD) these weapons closely resembled the type of naginata eventually used by Japanese warriors. Some historians believe that, although the Chinese may have invented the weapon, it was later developed, utilized, and refined by the Japanese.

Image of Samurai with naginata

Despite the uncertainty surrounding its origin, it is a well-known fact that the naginata was being fully utilized in battle by the 10th century. Cavalry battles had become more important by this time, and it was difficult to repel mounted warriors simply by means of the bow, arrow, and sword. The naginata proved to be a superb weapon for close-up fighting; it's sweeping arcs of destruction were used to cut a horse's legs and kill its rider once the horse fell to the ground. During the Gempei War (1180), in which the Taira clan was pitted against the Minamoto, the naginata rose to a position of particularly high esteem. Because of its extensive use at that time, changes were made in the type of armor worn by warriors. The addition of "sune-ate", or shin guards, came into use directly because of injuries inflicted by naginata-bearing warriors. The naginata was also used extensively by women warriors. It is a common misconception that women of that era were submissive and subdued. In reality, they were highly trained warriors who were well versed in the use of the naginata as well as many hand to hand fighting techniques. One of the most famous women warriors was Itagaki. Famous for her naginata skills, Itagaki was in charge of a garrison of 3,000 warriors at the Torizakayama castle. The Hojo shogunate dispatched over 10,000 warriors to crush them. Itagaki led her troops out of the castle directly into the Hojo warriors, killing a significant number of them before finally being overpowered. Off of the battlefield, the naginata was also used by women as a means of protecting themselves and their children while the men were away in battle or working in the fields. Because of the size and reach of the weapon, a woman could keep an attacker at a safe distance.

Woman running with naginata

The introduction of firearms into Japan in the mid-17th century significantly altered battlefield strategies, and the naginata gradually became a weapon used solely by women for protection in their homes. Naginata training was also used as a means of exercise and character development. During the Edo period, a time of relative peace in feudal Japan, all Japanese women were required to master the naginata by age 18. By this time, naginata were usually ornately decorated, and were considered an essential part of a woman's dowry.

Women with naginatas

Today, the martial art of Naginata is still practiced extensively in Japan and elsewhere. Many different "styles" or schools (ryu) of Naginata are in existence, with Atarashii Naginata and Jikishin-kage ryu being the most popular. Other popular styles are Tendo ryu and Toda Ha Buko ryu. Regardless of the style, all naginata training has at its core the goal of developing respect for traditional etiquette and spiritual training.

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