The Samurai Spear and Polearms

Aside from the popular Katana, the Samurai spear and polearms were also some of the main weapons of the Samurai. These warriors have also utilized these weapons to achieve victory during battles.

The Japanese polearms consist of the Naginata and the Yari. The previous is quite similar to the Japanese-styled halberd while the latter is more likened to the Japanese-styled spear. A lot of warriors from the earlier periods specialize in handling Katana well, yet they are also excellent in handling a certain form of polearm during battles.

Their main weapon is the polearm as it provides better range, while the Katana was their auxiliary piece specifically for close range battles.

The Samurai Spear and Polearms

What is Yari?

The Yari or spear is a long-range polearm that the Bushi greatly depended on. It was the dominant weapon during skirmishes. Its reach and overwhelming offense were perfect for group formations.

From the Kamakura period onwards, high-ranking soldiers use this polearm since it represents status and pride. This weapon is pitted against the swordsman. It had the considerable advantage of keeping the opponent at a good distance and maintaining adequate range.

In battle, the Yari and spears are weapons to be kept. This is because the weapons are handcrafted by smiths; thus, had the same construction and build that is similar to the Katana.

Yari

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

What are the Types of Yari?

In history, there were two different types of Yari. The primary types were the Su Yari with straight blades, and the Kama Yari that featured horizontal crossbars on the blade.

The exceptionally long Su is the Omi no Yari. When the crossbars of the Kama had equal length, it is a Jumonji Yari.

The Kama is a specific type that featured a single-sided crossbar with unequal length. It has been speculated that this weapon was the result of a repaired sidearm of the Jumonji Yari. Socket fits over the pole’s end instead of a long Nakago. With that, these types of polearms are namely known as Fukuro Yari.

The Kikuchi Yari is a bit rare. The weapon is a single-edged piece that normally features the Shobu Zukuri or Kira Zukuri style. Its name came from the Kikuchi clan of Higo around the years 1336 to 1392 of the Nambokucho era.

It appeared just like a Tanto on long poles. Its blades commonly range from six inches to over two feet long. Its poles measured around six to eight feet tall. They often have a smooth finish with an intricate design like mother pearls.

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What are the Characteristics of the Yari?

These weapons have straight blades that span to over three feet in length. The blades were commonly made from the same Tamahagane as the ones used for the Nihonto.

Throughout history, various straight-bladed Yari exists. These usually featured protrusions on its central blade. It featured a long Nakago which should typically be longer than the sharpened part of the blade.

Its tang extended into a reinforced hollow area of the Tachiuke or Tachiuchi (handle). This resulted in a stiff shaft that made it almost impossible for the blade to break or fall off.

Its Ebu or Nagaye (the shaft) appeared in numerous lengths, shapes, and widths. These are made from hardwood with bamboo strips lacquer coating. These often came in a round, polygonal, or oval cross-section. The shafts have metallic wires or rings wrappings with an Ishizuki or metal pommel on its butt’s end.

Characteristics of the Yari

Who was Umataemon?

If there were master swordsmen, there was also a master of the Yari. His name was Katsuhisa Umataemon but goes with his other names Saito and Umataemon. He is a highly skilled Bushi with knowledge on using various weapons but is exceptionally proficient with the Yari. He even created his own style called Oochi Muhen Ryu Sojutsu, where the Yari was his primary component.

Based on records, together with one of his students, he went on a training journey or Kaikoku Shugyo. During their travel, they crossed paths with a swordsman who is also on a journey to hone his skills. The swordsman and Umataemon agreed and decided to duel until death. This was to see who was more skilled and proficient.

Who was Umataemon?

What is the History of Yari?

The earliest Yari was said to have been based on the Chinese spears and the Hoko Yari was claimed to be from the Nara era. While these weapons were present in the early history of Japan, only in 1334 did the term Yari appear for the first time in written sources. Despite this, the weapon was not a popular polearm until the late 15th century.

The classic warfare of the Bushi was not something for commoners. It was a form of ritualized battle between two opponents who challenged each other on horseback archery. Yet the attempted invasions of the Mongols in 1274 and 1281 a­­ltered the weaponry and warfare tactics of the Japanese.

The Mongol Invasion

The Mongols hired Korean and Chinese foot soldiers. They wielded long pikes and battled in tight formations. These soldiers moved in large groups to stave off cavalry.

During this time, polearms like Naginata and Yari were more efficient for military use compared to swords. This was due to their significantly extended reach, lighter weight, and excellent piercing function.

From the Heian to the Muromachi period, swords in a full-battle situation are for emergency sidearms. Around the latter half of the 16th century, the Nagae Yari or Ashigaru-holding pikes became the primary forces in armies.

Eventually, the Yari becomes a popular and prominent weapon more than the longbow. It also became the more favored piece among the Samurai and Ashigaru. Yet as the Edo period came, the popularity and use of the weapon had dropped significantly.

The Mongol Invasion

What is Naginata?

The Naginata was a common polearm utilized throughout the rich history of Japan. Its forging, construction, build, and polishing methods were similar to the Nihonto. These weapons feature poles that measured around 2 meters long.

The Naginata is only often utilized by the Samurai warriors. However, the traditional use of these pieces was by Samurai women. They wielded the Naginata to defend their castle when the men were absent and out on the battlefield.

Generally, these are ancient Japanese polearms with sword blades that has a long handle mount. The blade did not have fixed lengths. In fact, some were as short as 6 inches while others went over two feet.

The blade also varied in curvature and width.  Just like the blade, its pole also did not feature a fixed length. Sometimes, these only measured around three feet but could go over ten feet long.

Who Used the Naginata?

Who Used the Naginata?

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The Naginata is commonly used by the Ashigaru or foot attendants to the Samurai and warrior monks. Its main function was to cut off horses’ legs during battles.

In the year 1400, the fighting style developed and made use of long straight spears while in massed formations. The Naginata was not efficient for this specific style of warfare.

Since it is useless on the battlefield, the Naginata is left at home in the care of women. They utilized this to protect their homes and castles from enemies or intruders. All Samurai-class women underwent training on how to wield the Naginata and how to use a small dagger for extra protection.

Because of this, the Naginata represents the status of Samurai wives during the Sengoku period.

Young noblewomen underwent rigorous training on how to wield the Naginata with precision. They underwent training to be able to defend the home of their future husband.

The Naginata was a common part of a Samurai woman’s gift or dowry. Females who are highly skilled in wielding the Naginata are highly attractive to promising suitors.

Is Naginata Still Used in the Modern Martial Arts?

In this day and age, the practice of the Naginata is still alive in a number of Koryu. These include the Jiki Shinkage Ryu or the Katori Shinto Ryu. Here, the weapon is still greatly utilized by both men and women.

The practice is also taught and learned within the legitimate Naginata federation wherein women represent a large number of practitioners.

Naginata for the Modern Martial Arts

What are the Advantages of Studying the Naginata?

A major plus of studying the Naginata is to learn how to easily shift from left to right-sided attacks within the course of a fight. This is excellent for improving and developing a person’s balance, concentration, as well as reaction.

There is one great challenge when facing an opponent during a Naginata battle: this would be the challenge of determining if your opponent has a stronger right or left attack.  It encourages the practitioner to equally develop both sides of their body where they make use of both low and high attacks.

This is vital since, in a Naginata bout, the practitioner will be facing an opponent who could attack anywhere and anytime. This will greatly increase the concentration of the user; thus, building their character and strength efficiently.