Photo:Anna Lagercrantz on Flickr

Naginata: Japan's Most Popular Martial Art for Women

Writing may be my occupation of choice now, but this wasn’t always the case. Back in my college days, there was a time when I was a martial arts coach. More specifically, I was a teacher of Tae Kwon Do, the Korean self-defense form that bears a number of similarities to Japanese Karate.

As much as I enjoyed being a Tae Kwon Do teacher, I was always somewhat dismayed by the gender imbalance in my classes. In short, the vast majority of my students were boys, despite the fact that, in my opinion, the smaller, more nimble and flexible female form is better suited to the practice of martial arts.

In Japan, however, women are much more active participants in the field of marital arts. The majority of martial arts practitioners in Japan are still male, however the difference in numbers is far less pronounced here than in the west. Perhaps this is because sports clubs are a mandatory part of secondary school education here.

So, which of the many martial arts currently taught in Japan is the most popular with high school and college age women these days? The answer: Naginatajutsu: The fighting style of the Naginata.

The weapon, the naginata, is probably best described as a cross between a staff and a sword.

Rama on Wikimedia

It comprises a long pole, with a curved blade at the end facing away from the wielder. It is similar in some ways to the Glave of medieval Europe or the Dao from Chinese martial arts.

The origin of the Naginata as a weapon of war is something of dispute. Some say it is indeed copied from the Chinese Dao, indeed Japan and China had a number of conflicts in the pre-feudal period. Another, more simplistic idea is that it simply came to be when a samurai decided to tie his Katana onto a wooden pole to increase the weapon’s range.

Katori Shinto Ryu Poland on Wikimedia

It was the increased range of the Naginata–the entire weapon is more than 2 meters long–that first saw it rise to prominence within Japan’s military during the early days of the Tokugawa period. In those days, cavalry was still a big part of military strategy, and the naginata was renowned for its ability to take down mounted opponents.

Samuraiantiqueworld on Wikimedia

It was later during the period when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate that the Naginata came to be associated with women.

Back in the early days of Japan, contrary to what many so-called experts may tell you, females actually played an active role in warfare. Whilst nowhere near as numerous as their male counterparts, there was amongst Japan’s nobles a great number of female samurai known colloquially as Onna-Bugeisha or “Woman Warriors”.

Photo by Wikimedia. Art by Yoshitoshi.

As time moved forward and Japan shifted into the Edo period, the role of the Onna-Bugeisha changed. Whilst the men would actually fight on the battlefield, societal norms of the time dictated that the women would stay home. It then fell to these warrior women to protect their homes and indeed the whole village during these feudal times, when raids from rival warlords were commonplace. The naginata, with its long range and relatively lightweight build came to be recognized as a weapon of grace, elegance and strength, embodying all the desirable qualities in the era’s ideal woman.

The naginata itself became a symbol of female empowerment and the protective role of the Japanese mother and wife in the art and culture of the time. These days, Naginata is a popular sport, not just in Japan but around the world.

Marshall Astor on Wikimedia

Although it is popular with women, men can practice too. With the weapon’s long range and the emphasis on skill and precision striking rather than reach and raw power, the many perceived disadvantages that females face when fighting male opponents in a martial arts contest, namely less muscle mass, shorter height, and a more delicate frame, are largely negated. Today Naginata is one of the few martial arts where men and women can compete on a genuinely level playing field.

So, how do Naginata tournaments work? The All-Japan Naginata Federation was founded in 1955 as Japan’s post war economic boom led to a whole new generation of confident, financially stable young people seeking new and interesting pastimes. Naginata and other similar arts such as kendo enjoyed a renaissance around this time.

In 1990, the International Naginata Federation was established, to oversee development of the sport overseas. The armour worn in battle by today’s practitioners is modeled after Kendo bougu. And combat operates under similar rules. However, as with most Japanese martial arts, tournament glory isn’t a primary motivation for those who choose to practice it.

Naginata has a number of practical health and well-being benefits. One of the major plus points of studying naginata is the way in which one is required to shift from left sided to right sided attacks during the course of the fight. This is great for improving one’s balance, reactions and concentration. One of the great challenges in facing someone in a naginata contest, is that unlike boxing or other styles where the fighter has a noticeably stronger left or right side of attack, naginata encourages the equal development of both sides of the body, and utilizes both high and low attacks. You literally are facing someone who could attack from anywhere at anytime. This heightens concentration and builds character.

Photo by Wikimedia. Art by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The naginata is a weapon of grace, power and skill. In the right hands, it is amongst the most lethal on Earth. With a heritage that goes all the way back to the legendary Empress Jingu in 9th century AD, there are few martial arts in the world today that provide a greater symbol of female empowerment than the naginata. Thankfully, in today’s more open society men can get in on the fun too.

For more information on how to get involved in Naginata in Japan and across the world, check out the All Japan Naginata Federation website.

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