The Naginata is a Japanese weapon similar to the European glaive. Naginata were traditionally used by women, especially the women of Samurai families. Today Naginata is studied by women and men of all ages. In its competitive form, Naginata involves the use of a bamboo naginata which is reminiscent of a Kendo shinai. The armor for competitive Naginata is similar to Kendo armor with the addition of shin armor. Like Kendo, Naginata also involves the study of various kata, or choreographed forms.


Origins and history

An incredibly versatile weapon, it was used by both men and women in Japan, though women used it far more. A polearm weapon, it was made of a pole (starting at 4') with a curved blade on the end (usually 2'). Naginatas were of variable length - they could be custom-made for the user based on their size and requirements. They usually around 6' in length, but some were over 10'.

In feudal Japan, women did not usually bear weapons like katana or yari. They were normally shorter and more slightly built than men, so they could not wield them with as much force or ease. However women, especially those of samurai rank, were expected to be able to defend their honour and homes against intruders. As Amdur states,

However, unlike the upper-class women of Victorian England, who were expected to be subservient and frail, the bushi women were expected to be subservient and strong.

The naginata was the perfect weapon for them.

Mainly defensive, with a much greater reach than a sword, it was also more effective than a spear as it could be used to stab or slash. This combination allowed a woman (or man) to attack in almost any direction, often but not always with a sweeping motion. Their foes were forced to stand back, or leave themselves open to attack before they could close the distance and attack themselves. Thus women could protect themselves effectively with training, despite their gender's physical shortcomings compared to men. Some women became quite fierce fighters, even scaring off men with their furious charges.

Even though the Edo era of Japanese history was supposedly more stable under the Bakufu and Tokugawa Shogunate, Japanese women were still required to train in the arts of the naginata by 18. How they were trained depended on the region they came from. Some communities saw it as being a mere form of spiritual training, whereas others wished their women to be able to fight if necessary. By this time, the naginata were heavily decorated and a key part of a woman's dowry. Even in the Meiji era, when Western thinking was used as a model for reforming the nation, the naginata still had an important part to play in society. As compulsory education for girls after elementary school was brought in towards the end of the 19th century, they also had mandatory lessons in Japanese martial arts. The most prevalent of this was in the naginata and though it was sometimes seen as a spiritual exercise, every young girl was supposed to take lessons in it until after World War II.

Modern naginata

Inevitably after the defeat in 1945 and subsequent Allied occupation, the old ways changed. Compulsory lessons in martial arts were not deemed necessary or desirable - many blamed the obsession with samurai traditions for leading the nation to war. Quite rightly the sporting curriculum became more flexible and now both boys and girls can choose from a wider range of sports to participate in. Girls still practice naginata at school, as well as kendo, kyudo, judo and the like, though inevitably the numbers have falled drastically from pre-war levels.

Currently the modern version of naginata fighting, called atarashi naginata in Japanese, is practised by both men and women in competitive form. Mixed fights are allowed, though like most sports, this is more the exception than the rule. Classical naginata is also practised, though in a non-competitive form. It is based on prearranged, choreographed forms, or kata often performed at high speeds. The style has not changed for many centuries and is a truely impressive sight.

For safety, of course real naginata are not used. They are sometimes used in displays by those who are sufficiently proficient in the chosen field. However for matches and practice, wooden naginata are used. In the competitive sport (atarashi naginata) the blade is made from bamboo and if there will be contact, armour is worn by both competitors. The traditional kata is a lot less dangerous, so armour is not worn and the whole naginata is made of solid wood.

The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History by Ellis Amdur (

The Naginata is a traditional Japanese weapon with a long and varied history. It consists of two main parts firstly an oak shaft; secondly its single edged blade that is mounted on one end. The total length was anywhere from 6' to 10'.

It came in to use sometime around the Nara Period (710-784 AD). Initially the Naginata was used by the Bushi, however in time was taken up as the main weapon for the Sohei or Buddhist monks. There were traditionally two varieties of Naginata the shorter of the two would be used by foot soldiers, whilst the longer variety by mounted warriors.

As is the case with other shafted weapons, it was most effectively used in a sweeping arc. These motions were more than capable of cleaving an armoured opponent in two. Stabbing motions also proved very effective against weak spots in the armour used.

The Naginata was also used very effectively against mounted opponent as it could be used to slice the horse’s legs and toppling the rider. The blade used would be manufactured in an almost identical fashion to the Katana; old unused Katana’s could be made in to a Naginata. For this reason the Naginata was treated with the same reverence as the Katana, believing that the blade contained its own spirit.

A European equivalent to the Naginata is the Halberd. The Japanese origins of the weapon are however unclear. There seems to be several theories (as explained at about its initial evolution.

"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, utilised, and refined by the Japanese."(

Around 1180 was the Gempei War between Minamoto and the Taira clan. During this time the Naginata's profile increased greatly. Due to this, several changes were made in armour design. An example of this was the introduction of shin guards (sune-ate), to defend against wild sweeping cuts.

In time battlefield tactics changed, mainly due to the invention of gunpowder so the old weapons fell in to disuse. The Naginata however had already been taken up by women, due to its characteristics. As previously stated, it was used mainly in large sweeping motion so aesthetically could be considered a very graceful weapon. A particularly famous woman warrior who used the Naginata is Itagaki, who was in charge of a garrison of 3,000 warriors at the Torizakayama castle.

During the Edo period, Japanese women were required to master the Naginata by age 18. This stemmed from the use of the Naginata by women defending their home and children when the men were of fighting. Attackers could be held at a fair distance due to the length of the weapon, avoiding a grappling situation. By the Edo era, Naginata were usually ornately decorated, and were considered an essential part of a woman's dowry.

Today both men and women in traditional and modern schools use the Naginata. Traditional schools e.g.Tendo Ryu, teach application through kata - both singularly and in pairs in a style almost unchanged for hundreds of years. Modern schools e.g. The International Naginata Federation have a drive towards competition, using wooden shafts with a bamboo end Kendo style competitions are held.


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