The word «polearm» refers to a trusting or cutting weapon consisting of a long wooden shaft to which a blade is attached. This general term is used to designate under one heading all naginata and yari.

HEIAN Period (794-1184)

The Heian period is an important one in the history of Japanese weapons. It is at that time that the sword became curved and the first naginata appear to have been made. Such provinces as Yamashiro, Bizen, and the environs of Kyoto were noted for their good swordsmiths. It is possible that some of these well-known artisans made polearms even though surviving examples are extremely rare. The middle and late Heian period is one of great power for the monastic organisations. Nearly all the sohei, or warrior-priests, of the great monasteries were armed with naginata besides their swords. Furthermore, this weapon was very popular with the ordinary bushi. Long and short bladed yari were also employed but disappear from view towards the end of the period.

KAMAKURA Period (1185-1331)

Under the Kamakura shogunate the country settled down to a relative peace, and feudalism was fully introduced. The naginata remained the chief polearm in common use, even if other types of spear were also employed. The schools of fencing that taught both the use of the spear and the sword to the bushi came into prominence in the latter part of this period. The Chujo-ryu was established at the time of the Hojo Regent Sadatoki (1270-1311), but this is not recognised as being properly organised until the beginning of the next period.

The attempted invasions of Japan by the Mongols in 1274 and 1281, both ending in disaster on the coast of Kyushu, and the bitter strife between the rival factions of the Northern and Southern Courts, brought swordsmithing to its highest peak, and this is true of polearms.

MUROMACHI Period (1332-1573)

The whole of this period is marked by extensive strife and constant conflicts between the various feudal lords. The demand for weapons of all kinds was very great. Spears by the Yenju swordsmiths of Kyushu and other leading schools are well known. Great smiths such as Hojoji Kunimitsu, Ise Muramasa, the greatest Bizen Sukesada, and Bizen Munemitsu, all made spear blades. The Great War of Onin which started in 1467 and was marked by the bitter fighting between the Yamana and the Hosokawa and their allies in and around Kyoto, saw the resurgence of polearms, all types appearing suddenly in the full development of their design: nage-yari, su-yari, magari-yari, naginata, nagamaki, hoko, and many other varieties. These are all encountered in rising numbers from this time onwards.

AZUCHI-MOMOYAMA Period (1574-1602)

Unification of the country was well in hand by Oda Nobunaga, Lord of Owari, and his generals, the chief of whom was Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The long nightmare of the Sengoku Jidai (Age of the country at war) was drawing to its zenith and conclusion. This is a period in which the arts flourished, including those of weapon making. Under the rule of the Taiko Hideyoshi, a time of great magnificance rivalling that encouraged by the Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimitsu (1367-1395) ensued.
Spear blades were still of high functional quality and generally of more pleasing shape than they were to become in the following period.

TOKUGAWA Period (1603-1867)

Despite the stable dictatorship of the Bakufu making this long period one practically without war, great quantities of polearms continued to be ordered by the daimyo and samurai. The magari-yari became elevated to the important function of a ceremonial emblem carried before gentlemen of rank. The naginata blade became shorter and the weapon took its place as the most important household spear. The common yari were produced in thousands. Spears of the highest quality were made by prominent swordsmiths: Inoue Shinkai, Tsuta Sukehiro, Suishinshi Naotane, Yamaura Kiyomaro and Hizen Tadayoshi, to name a few.

This spate of production was brought to a sudden end on the restoration of the Emperor Meiji. The story of the polearms does not end here, however, for after a period of decline, the martial arts (Budo) were revived and the teaching of naginata and yari exercise flourished right up to the pacific war. Since 1950, there has been further resurgence of interest in these arts. Young Japanese ladies are commonly taught the use of the naginata at school and university just as they learnt it in feudal days.

The naginata can be described as a glaive. It is defined as a ridged blade without yokote, having a pronounced curve, and widening towards the point. It is nearly always mounted on a long oval-sectioned shaft. The group of naginata can be subdivised as follows:

Tsukushi-naginata - weapon with a back-curving blade which stands away from the shaft having a socketed head.

Naginata-no-saki - weapon with a socketed blade.

U-no-kubi-zukuri-naginata - weapon with a cormorant head type blade.

Shobuzukuri-naginata - weapon with a long blade and very long tang.

Kammuri-otoshi-zukuri-naginata - weapon with a thin shinogi-ji and two fine bonji.

Straight naginata - the yakiba follows the back edge of the blade.

Nagamaki or nagatsuka-no-katana - weapon with a very long blade and tang, or made out of a sword mounted on a spear shaft.

This particuliar weapon progressed from a utilitarian fighting arm to become an elegant processional polearm preceding the daimyo and other persons of quality. The magari-yari, that is sometimes referred to as jumonji-yari, gave birth to numerous variations.

Magari-yari - weapon with a cross-shaped triple blade.

Bishamon-yari - weapon with a central blade and one half-moon blade on each side.

Hoko - weapon with a L-shaped double blade.

Futomata-yari or sasumata - weapon with a forked blade.

Gekken - weapon with a half-moon blade.

Kagi-yari - hoko type weapon with a hook instead of a blade at the side.

Kama-yari and o-kama-yari - yari type weapon in the shape of a sickle.

Kumade - grappling hook usually composed of a curved blade backed by one or two hooks.

Nagegama or kusarigama - weapon with a sickle-like blade attached to a short shaft to which a chain is fixed.

Having examined curved blades and those with hooks, crosses, and their variations, let us move on to the last, and by far the largest group of polearms, that of the straight bladed yari. All spears of this type fall into two categories: blade of triangular section (sankaku-yari) or blade of diamond section (ryo-shinogi-yari).

Sankaku-yari - yari with a triangular section blade.

Ryo-shinogi-yari - yari with a diamond section blade.

Oma-yari, omi-yari or su-yari - yari with a socketed blade.

Mori and chishima-yari - the term mori refers to a harpoon, and chishima-yari probably refers to a fishing spear.

Taishin-so - spear of su-yari type.

Choku-so - another general term for a straight spear of any length.

Makura-yari - small light spear placed beside the bed at night.

Nage-yari, nagari and naguya - weapon of javelin type.

Shakujo-yari - spear of su-yari type looking like a simple pole with rings at one end.

Uchi-ne - short javelin with feathered flights.

Inoshishi-no-yari - spear used for boar hunting.

Yumi-yari - socketed spear head attached at the top end of a bow.

Kuda-yari - spear contained in a long hollow shaft.

Take-hoko or take-yari - lopped-off length of bamboo.

Return to Main Page