The History of Naginata
Miyako Tanaka, revised April 2012
Naginata as a battlefield weapon
The naginata was used as a weapon during the Nara period (600-704) from the time of Emperor Shomu. The word naginata was first recorded in the Kojiki (ancient Japanese chronicle). Foot soldiers in the rebellion of Tengyo (935 AD) were depicted using naginata on screens. There is also a record of the naginata being used by foot soldiers in the third year of the Oshu documents.
A painting from the kamakura period (1185-1333)
At that time, the naginata was an advantageous weapon for foot soldiers due to it's length. However, in the Oda and Toyotomi periods (ca. 1500) use of the yari (spear) became widespread. Due to this and the introduction of firearms, the method of battle changed, and the naginata fell out of common use on the battle field.
At this time, naginata gradually became a weapon used primarily by priests and samurai women.
Sohei (armed priests)
Naginata as a method of spiritual training for samurai women during the Edo period
The Edo period (1603-1867) was a relatively peaceful period in Japanese history. During this time, samurai men tended to train in Kenjutsu (sword techniques) while samurai women tended to train in Naginata. Persistent training in Naginata and adherence to the etiquette of practice was seen as a way of cultivating character. Naginata practice became a way for samauri women to develop their etiquette and moral character. During the Edo period, naginata were used as ornaments for the entrances of homes of high-ranking samurai and daimyo's processions.
To this day, naginata are occasionally used as decoration in wedding ceremonies. Naginata was used as women's weapon during this period. The book titled “Sharp Spear, Crystal Mirror,” by Stephanie Hoppe describes the use of naginata during the Edo period:
The naginata was originally a battlefield weapon, but after the advent of firearms in the 1600s in Japan, Naginata was practiced primarily by women of the warrior class – wives and daughters of samurai – both for self-defense and as a method of moral training. Beautifully decorated weapons became an important item in women's dowries. Malyne [Hazard] later told me several stories about Japanese women using these weapons in earnest. The last stand by the women of the Aizu clan was the most sensational of several incidents. It took place in 1868 after the Tokugawa shogun surrendered to the emperor.
The Aizu clan held out. The men of the clan were killed or scattered, and the women made a last stand at a stronghold in northern Japan. They were defeated and exiled, but later received amnesty, and in the 1870s many of the women served in the police force.
In addition to this and other final defenses of their homes, samurai women sometimes used the naginata to achieve revenge for the murder of their husband or father.
Women participate in what seems to be a demonstration fight
Naginata as a way of training body and mind in modern girls' schools and teachers' colleges
During the Meiji restoration of 1867, Japanese society and culture changed drastically due to the importation of western culture and ideals. In naginata, training in battle technique became secondary while the main objective became training of spirit, body, and mind. Increase militarism lead to a resurgence in the practice of martial arts. As part of this movement, naginata was introduced into girls' schools and teachers' colleges.
At the beginning of the Showa period (1923-1989), naginata was introduced into public schools as a part of the curriculum for female students. The various styles of naginata were combined to form a style of “School Naginata” appropriate for educational purposes. This “School Naginata” style had strongly competitive aspects.
After World War II, the US government imposed a ban on the study of martial arts. After the ban was lifted, naginata was re-introduced into schools in its present form.
Hamamatsu Girls High School 1911 Sports Day Naginata
Present day naginata
The All Japan Naginata Federation (AJNF) was formed in 1955. It drew on aspects of many traditional schools, primarily Tendo Ryu and Jikishinkage Ryu, and combined them to form a new Japanese national style called “atarashi naginata” or “new naginata.” New kata (forms) were introduced, as well as a system of kata and free sparring competitions.
The AJNF has been active in promoting Naginata outside of Japan. The United States Naginata Federation was formed in 1974, and the International Naginata Federation was formed in 1990. Naginata is now open to men and women of all ages everywhere in the world.