Naginata: The Weapon of Japan’s female Samurai

What is a naginata? And how has it become associated with female warriors during the time of Japan’s samurai? Let’s look at these questions in turn.

First off, a naginata is a halberd, i.e. a long wooden shaft similar to a spear with a curved, single-edge metal blade at the top. It is one of the many weapons that have evolved from centuries of warfare in medieval Japan, alongside the well-known katana sword, the shorter wakizashi, or the lesser-known yari, a regular spear with a straight blade at its tip. A long, impressive weapon, the naginata was commonly used by samurai as well as itinerant fighting monks known as yamabushi.

Interestingly, the naginata is nowadays often thought of as a ‘female’ weapon, used primarily by women. This is a meaning it has acquired over time; at the outset, this gendered connection didn’t necessarily exist. One reason contributing to this idea is that a naginata’s long shaft allows for strikes to acquire significant momentum, which, combined with the heavy blade at the top, make for a lethal weapon that can be effectively wielded and have strong impact without the use of physical force. Instead, using a naginata requires anticipation, strategic thinking and quick reaction. Used in this manner, a fighter with a naginata can keep at bay one or even several attackers armed with swords, and the weapon is also good for taking mounted fighters off their horses. Given these qualities, the naginata became a weapon of choice for onna-bugeisha or female samurai between the 12th and 19th centuries in Japan. Rather than requiring close-range combat backed up by a strong physique, the naginata, if handled well, could enable any skilled fighter to mete out lethal strikes, independent of their physical attributes. As such, it has become somewhat of a symbol of empowerment of female Japanese warriors of the period.

Existing literature on these female warriors suggests that they ably used their naginatas in strategic battles. One famous example of an onna-bugeisha – or more precisely, an onna-musha, a female warrior rather than a female household defender – is Tomoe Gozen. She was a renowned samurai and battle commander in the 12th century who fought in the army of her foster brother Minamoto Yoshinaka, with between 300 and 1.000 soldiers under her command. It’s hard to tell what is truth and what is myth when it comes to her story and sources are somewhat sketchy, but all agree that she was both impressive and a formidable fighter who used the katana (regular sword) as ably as she wielded her naginata. During her final battle at the end of a botched military campaign led by Yoshinaka – not a capable commander himself -, she is said to have ridden straight up to an enemy group of fighters, captured their leader and decapitated him right on the saddle of her horse in a show of strength. At the same time, her contemporaries admired her beauty and wrote poems about her. She lives on in multiple folk tales, books and even video games to this day.

Many other women in feudal Japan were thrown into fighting once the male household members were dead or engaged in battle elsewhere, and were left with defending their house or sometimes the castle of their clan or family. Women in noble samurai families were often well-trained martial artists and therefore able to perform these tasks formidably, illustrating how even then, women had to take care of virtually all reproductive labour, while also having to perform on the battlefield. All while getting no pay and fewer recognition than their male counterparts, of course.

A famous example of a group of women defending their lands and family name stems from the final period of the Tokugawa regime, the long period of authoritarian rule by shogun families that brought peace to Japan, but also instituted an oppressive caste system and prevented upward social mobility between 1600 and 1868. During the very last year of that period, when the new emperor Meiji had already been inthroned and the new period of imperial rule heralding the transition to modernity in Japan had officially begun, a last contingent of about 7.000 rebel forces faced an imperial army of almost 80.000 in a final bid to uphold the old order. Given these numbers, the rebels were quickly pushed back and were on the defensive. In the province of Aizu in central Japan, women of samurai families had a strong combat tradition and had trained as full-scale warriors using the naginata. When the rebel forces in their region were pushed back into the fortified town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, they sprang into action to help defend their clan and its stronghold, Crane Castle.

The story of about 20 of these women forming a platoon of naginata fighters is well-documented in contemporary sources, providing a better-researched example of women warriors in Japan than those of previous centuries. Members of this group included Koko Nakano and her two daughters Takeko (22) and Masako (16), as well as a number of other fighters equally identified by name. Takeko especially became famous as a fearless fighter with strong skills and the looks of a young male samurai, defying stereotypes and throwing herself into battle. When the group of women fighters from Aizu learned during the skirmishes around their castle that the female head of the clan had been abducted and was held by enemy forces about 10km away, they did not hesitate to go after her and try to liberate her, making their way through enemy territory. When they reached their destination, however, they learned that it had been a false alarm and that the female head of clan had actually returned to Crane Castle in the meantime. On their way back there, the platoon ran into advancing imperial troops and was engaged in battle at Yanagi bridge. According to reports from the battle, when imperial troops realized they were fighting women (the women had joined up with a group of male rebel forces, so they were a mixed-gender force by then), they laughed and cried out to each other to capture them alive, demonstrating that rape has been used as a weapon of war throughout all ages, and is continuously being used as such today. But these imperial soldiers underestimated the jôshigun or women’s platoon, and Takeko Nakano alone is said to have killed 20 to 30 enemy fighters with her naginata before being shot. She asked her younger sister Masako to decapitate her and take her head for burial; at the time, a common battle custom saw the winners of a battle take the heads of the losing side’s leaders to display them and demonstrate their domination of the opposing side. The majority of other women fighters from the group were also killed during that battle.

This story illustrates that women were engaged in military combat just as men were in medieval Japan, and more evidence of female warriors from earlier periods of Japanese history keeps emerging, as well. The naginata has very much become a symbol of their battlefield skills and effectiveness. After the so-called Meiji restoration in 1868, the use of traditional weapons became increasingly regulated and was subsequently transformed into a skill performed within martial arts schools only, finally morphing into a sport rather than a combat discipline. Many different styles of naginata fighting techniques continued to exist in martial arts schools often run by women from former samurai families after 1868. These have been well-documented and researched, and provide a fascinating example of evolution and change within martial arts traditions. Today, naginata-do has become a competition sport in Japan and beyond, with clear rules and referees at organized events and bamboo naginatas replacing the metal blades. However, in the ‘West’, naginata-jutsu or naginata-do remain somewhat of a rare discipline when compared to the much more popular kendo or kenjutsu, iaido or iaijutsu (the art of drawing the sword or katana) or the use of the bo, a long staff, in aikido. High time, from our perspective, to make this weapon better known and to expose the history of female empowerment that remains connected to it to this day.