History of Naginata

In its past Japan saw many hundreds of different schools and instructional systems developed to teach the use of classical weaponry such as sword, naginata, spear, etc.. A problem common to all schools was the application of combat training, providing students with adequate fighting experience without the risk of severe injury. Most schools trained on the basis of katajutsu, having students perform series of pre-arranged attacks, defences and counter-attacks while using blunted or padded weapons made of wood or bamboo. These forms can number among the hundreds for each school pitting many different combinations of weapons (naginata/sword, sword/spear, etc.) against one another. This provides students with a great choice of techniques and situations to use in real confrontations. Tend˘ryű and Jiki Shinkageryű are two examples out of the relatively small number of koryű naginatajutsu still practised today.

Tendoryu Naginatajutsu: kata "ishizuki koishi gaeshi no midare"

Jiki Shinkageryű Naginatajutsu: kata "kiridome"

However, it is difficult to accurately reproduce any spontaneous, uncooperative combative situation with pure kata training. As a result a number of schools introduced protective equipment as well as specialized training weapons in the late 17th century to allow light sparring. These sparring matches usually allowed practitioners to strike protected targets only. The Itt˘ sword school is the most well known example of this development due to its influence on kend˘ and it's characteristic armour (b˘gu) during the mid 18th century. Based on this armour design many disciplines such as Naginata or Jukend˘ (bayonet fencing) have developed their own specific protective equipment. Naginata as it is practised today has only existed since the foundation of the All Japan Naginata Federation (ZNNR) in 1955 and is the result of a development originating in the 1930s. During this time representatives of various ancient styles as well as the Japanese government endeavoured to create a form of Naginata training suitable for public schools. After the war these efforts were resumed incorporating various styles and resulting in Naginata becoming a Bűdo discipline and including b˘gu training. Interestingly, various wood prints from the Edo period already show Naginata and spear fighters wearing b˘gu.

Wood prints showing blunted weapons and protective equipment

"Naginatad˘" and "Atarashii Naginata"

The name "Naginatad˘" suggests itself for the bud˘ discipline teaching the use of naginata ("d˘" meaning road or path, both in a worldly and philosophical sense), being analogous to kend˘, jud˘, etc.. This is however not commonly practiced, as the modern day budo discipline is commonly known simply as "Naginata".
Such naming conventions using "-d˘" were common during the 1930s and 1940s, when multiple efforts existed to establish forms of Naginata suitable to be taught at public schools. These training programmes were based on various koryű naginatajutsu and were meant to utilise the naginata as a means toward physical education. One of these methods was known as "Gakk˘ Naginatad˘" ("Way of the Naginata for schools") and was based on the older school of "Jiki Shinkageryű Naginatajutsu".
The ancient Koryű Naginatajutsu as well as the pre-war schooling programmes, such as "Gakk˘ Naginatad˘" were viewed as having a strong militaristic connotation in the post-war era. To create distinction to this image the early years of the ZNNR saw use of the name "Atarashii Naginata" ("new naginata"). Today this use is hardly, if ever, found outside of Japan, often including incorrect spelling and has disappeared from Japan almost entirely.
The use of "Naginata" both for the weapon and the discipline lends itself to no small amount of confusion, especially when discussing ancient styles. However the Japanese written form differentiates clearly on this.

Gakk˘ Naginatad˘

Meaning and writing of the Japanese word "Naginata"

The original Chinese character (kanji) used for the Japanese word "Naginata" translates to "long sword", relating to the long grip of the weapon (see figure 1). However the 14th century gave rise to the increasing appearance of swords with unusually long blades making the expression ambiguous. Therefore the word Naginata was often, though confusingly not always, written using an alternate character in the first position, thereby changing the meaning to "cutting" or "mowing sword" (see figure 2). This also related to characteristic motions performed with the weapon, rather than the weapon itself.
In recent times however the original character has largely been forgotten and is not among the characters commonly taught in schools today (j˘y˘ kanji). Currently Naginata is almost exclusively written in Japanese syllabary (hiragana), only carrying the pronunciation, but omitting any further meaning (see figure 3). This is also meant to further stress the distinction to the old koryű naginatajutsu and the training programmes of the Sh˘wa era. The old characters can however still be encountered when dealing with historic blades and ancient Naginata schools.

Three forms of writing the word "Naginata"

Naginata and women

The Naginata saw extended periods of deployment on the battlefields of medieval Japan and training its use was seen as equally essential as sword fighting, riding and archery. It was especially favoured among the S˘hei, Japan's Buddhist orders of warrior monks.
While the Naginata gradually lost its role on the battlefield, its great range and leverage made it a weapon of choice for Japan's female nobility throughout the 17th and up to the 19th century. Many Naginata given as dowry to a clan's female members became prized heirlooms. Due to this historic relationship Naginata is today predominantly practised by women in Japan. Outside of Japan the ratio is more balanced with an approximate 25-50% women among practitioners.

Original German text: Andreas Nicol
English translation: Mark Littlewood

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