What is naginata?
In some ways, naginata can be likened to Western fencing or Japanese kendo. Naginata practitioners dress almost identically to kendo practitioners, though the weapon they use is entirely different. Competitions also resemble kendo matches, though there are ways of using the naginata (nagi and kiru techniques) that are unique to the weapon. The nagi strike is a downward horizontal cut and thought to be the origin of the word “naginata”. Another major difference between naginata and kendo is that naginata allows strikes to the shin.
The naginata itself is one of the ancient weapons of Japan, and consists of a blade attached to a pole. It was originally a curved blade attached to a long pole that was designed for warriors on foot in order to cut down samurai on horseback. According to historical scrolls and stories, naginata first appeared in battle around the tenth and eleventh centuries. The elongated shape made it a much more versatile weapon than the classic Japanese sword when facing multiple opponents, and it was also extremely useful in sea battles. Soldiers on foot who carried naginata now had an effective way to combat enemies brandishing arrows on horseback as well.
Firearms arrived on the scene in 1550, drastically changing the way that samurai did battle and causing the naginata to quickly fall into disuse. By the time Japan entered the Edo period (1603–1868), the naginata had already disappeared from battle. At this point, they were either owned by samurai as a decorative weapon or used by their daughters for self-defense. The fact that naginata were used by women who were going to marry into samurai families is the reason that the art is still predominately practiced by women today. It was also during the Edo period that the different schools of naginata developed, gradually taking shape over many generations. The characteristic fighting techniques, which can be executed to the front, back, or either side, underwent a variety of changes—including kuridashi (extensions), kurikomi (retractions), and mochikae (grip changes).
The International Naginata Federation was founded in 1990, and today has fourteen member countries: Belgium, Brazil, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, the US, the Czech Republic, Australia, Italy, Germany, Canada, the UK, and Japan. Outside of Japan, the naginata is popular with men, and a variety of exchange programs are being developed to popularize the art. The federation sponsors a World Championship once every four years.
Note: Excerpts taken from the All Japan Naginata Federation website
What are the benefits of practicing naginata?
Practitioners don white uniforms and hakama and vigorously swing naginata through the air, yelling out as they move. The training improves posture, while the shouts energize the body. Naginata training also develops kindness and consideration for others. The martial art is a brilliant expression of traditional Japanese culture.
Benefits of naginata training
- More energy
- Better posture
- Improved health
- Self confidence
- Fine manners and etiquette
- Kindness and consideration for others
- Knowledge of traditional Japanese culture
Naginata’s deep ties to Itami
In addition to being the headquarters of the All Japan Naginata Federation, Itami is home to the Shubukan, one of the top three privately run dojo in Japan.
Itami: A center of naginata culture
Martial arts underwent a revival in 1953. Shizuko Konishi, the granddaughter of Konishi Gyomo, began working alongside people with ties to the Shubukan to restore the art of the naginata. The Shubukan later became the headquarters of the All Japan Naginata Federation. Shizuko Konishi served as the first director of the foundation, and under her leadership, Itami eventually became the center of naginata culture that it is today.
Uniforms and protective equipment
Proper naginata uniform
When asked what made them start naginata, many people say that they admired the practice uniforms. Naginata uniforms express the soul of the naginata practitioner while expressing their level of mastery as well.
The uniform is one of the criteria that judges look at when deciding on the winner of a naginata performance match. A practice uniform worn smartly in a way that matches the shape of the body gives the practitioner a fresh and pleasant appearance.
Protective gear (bogu)
Groin and leg protectors (tare)
Tare protects the waist and thighs. Ensure that o-dare (three pieces), ko-tare (two pieces), and the obi (belt), are wrapped securely around the waist. Practitioners must take care to ensure that the six parts do not become loose and that the ties are the same length as they were when the equipment was first purchased.
Unlike kendo gloves, naginata gloves have three fingers, which makes it easier for practitioners to change the grip on their weapon.
Shin guards (sune-ate)
As the sune-ate are worn on top of the hakama, it is important that they fit the legs well and can be snugly secured with ties. Because the ties cover legal targets during sparring matches, the ties are extra sturdy.
Unlike a kendo mask, the men used for naginata makes it easier for practitioners to move their necks (since naginata practitioners fight to the sides as well as the front), while the menbuton padding does not extend as much down the left and right shoulders. The menbuton are fitted diagonally and are not as long as the ones used in kendo. And since naginata gear is typically worn by women, the materials used for both the mask and the padding is lighter. The size of the men is also adjusted for individuals as well.
Torso protector (do)
The dodai should not be too narrow, but is not useful if it is too wide either. Ideally, there should be about a finger’s width of space between the dodai and the waist. Adults use a do equipped with a komune chest piece. Ideally, the piece should be secured tightly against the body.
Storing naginata bogu
Never store bogu in a gear bag unless you are transporting it. Keep it away from direct sunlight in a dry, well-ventilated area. Always wipe the sweat from any areas of the men that contact the face (the inside top and bottom and the howa ring). After using the kote, remove the creases in the leather grips before storing. Take all protective equipment from the bag and bundle the men, kote, do, tare, and sune-ate together. There is a specific method of bundling that you should follow.