Naginata and nagamaki are two partially similar weapons of which it is difficult to find information. The reason for this is probably because during the Edo period the sword became the focus pushing other weapons aside.
The meaning of this article is not to teach how to use the weapons The way to learn how to use them is to use them – preferably while getting advice from someone who knows it… This article focuses on the weapons themselves while letting some questions linger.
These weapons are in their purest – or basic – form quite dissimilar, but their varieties have common characteristics.
Naginata (mowing edge) is a spear weapon with a cutting blade cut and grooved in a very distinctive way. The shape of the blade differs from other Japanese weapons.
Nagamaki (long wrapping) is a sword with with handle and blade of similar length. The “maki” in the name refers to the fabric ribbon used to cover a sword’s handle. Close relative ôdachi/nodachi could then be defined fitting between nagamaki and normal sword – “bigger but still looks like a normal sword”.
But when a naginata is made with a longer blade and a nagamaki is made without the wrapping – or the length of handle or blade is varied – then we’ll arrive to a more uncertain ground and classification gets ifficult. Especially when one takes into account other varieties of cutting spears and other similar weapons with different names.
Both have most certainly seen battlefield use – in what extent is difficult to say. However, I’d say the “pure” nagamaki has seen a smaller role because of being more difficult to use (and more expensive). On the other, the “pure” naginata is a bit unnecessarily ornamental for massed use in combat. In any way as individual armor has evolved both of the weapons have lost their usability against it when compared to a thrusting spear. In the case of nagamaki problem has also been the requirement for a larger equipment and greater need for skill in the manufacturing process than with blades of normal length.
Which of them is older – for that I’ve heard both alternatives. Roughly we are talking about what happened first – spear blade was lenghtened or a sword’s handle. One source of old Japanese weapons are paintings – but there are examples where the painter has illustrated weapons and equipment of his own era on a historical painting – so they are not totally trustworthy, and on the other hand the they are not necessarily detailed enough. Oldest example of these weapons could be considered to be the tsukushi-naginata (a spear weapon with cutting/hacking blade fitted with a socket), but to me it’s a different animal than “pure” naginata.
During the Edo period naginata became a home defence weapon for samurai women. Why – for that I haven’t found a definitive reason. Often the reason given is that it is suitable for women because of need for relatively little power. But this would actually favor a thrusting spear… If one would think about the matter beginning from the requirement, meaning how to defend oneself within house and garden, then a more fitting choice for me would be a bow (of suitable strength) – of which even Tomoe Gozen was famous for… It would even be more applicable for indoors than a naginata requiring quite wide movements, even though a spear weapon gives certain self-confidence. Of course to get the most out of the bow requires distance… but getting the naginata into hand also requires time… And for the real surprise attack, there’s the kaiken.
So there has to be some other reason for this development (it is always good to remember that even in the old times there were smart and logical people…), and a logical reason would be that the use of naginata was practiced/applied for home defence because one was available.
(What was the extent of practice is a different matter altogether – during the Edo period even male samurai had to be encouraged to train!)
A while back I heard an interesting piece of information: naginata was part of the dowry for a bride of samurai class! So the logic seems clear: since the naginata came to the house with the bride, and being her weapon most likely stayed there, it’s use for defence is quite understandable. But why naginata?
For some reason – most likely because they were displaced by firearms but still were a reminder of old times – during the Edo period spears and naginata became a symbol for samurai‘s formal standing. For example they could be seen beside a castle gate. Another example is in Ritta Nakanishi’s book The History of Japanese Armor there’s a drawing of a samurai entourage from that era. It consists of for example units of musket, bow, and spear men and coming just behind the leader a naginata carrier!
To reverse my theorizing, I’d suppose the shaping of the naginata blade comes from this symbol value – maybe even Benkei used this kind of weapon. On the battlefields a large variety of cutting spears where the size and shape of the blade and it’s length in relation to the shaft has varied according to materials available, skill of manufacturers, fashion and the users’ preferences. The weapons have most likely had different general and local names, which have mixed during times. And all have had their uses on their times.
Jukka Nummenranta, shidôshi, dôjô-chô
Addition November 10th, 2018:
It was mentioned in a book that in 1149 Taira no Kiyomori saw in a dream that the naginata of sea goddess would help him oversee peace and order in the country and to protect the imperial family. Just might be basis for the symbol value…
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