Naginata – a “Woman’s Weapon”

by Francis Arnold from Great Britain

I remember, not long after I started Naginata many years ago, having conversations with Japanese people about how I had started this budo and found it very interesting. More than once I received the response, “ah, Naginata – but I think that’s a woman’s weapon”. Strictly speaking these people weren’t wrong. In Japan most students and sensei remain women. But it was how these Japanese acquaintances (as far as I can recall, all men) appeared to think it was amusing that I studied naginata that I found curious.

It’s easy to only see the naginata through the lens of the katana, a weapon for duelling – “honourable” combat if you like. But in reality the weapons are quite different, as the naginata is a true battlefield weapon. Which is why Japanese women adopted it in droves as their weapon of choice.

Japan’s medieval era was dominated by civil war, not just the Sengoku-jidai but also the Gempei War of the 12th century and the Nambokucho Wars of the 14th century. As with any conflict, women often faced the worst sorts of brutality. However, in Japan women had an opportunity to fight back, in part thanks to their membership of the samurai class.

Open combat on the battlefield was largely ruled out for women, the main exception being the famous Tomoe Gozen, described as the lover or wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka.

According to the Tale of the Heike, ‘whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain’. She was described as a warrior of great skill with the sword and bow, openly commanding a unit of Yoshinaka’s men and taking numerous heads in his last great battle. Whether Tomoe could be called a samurai is open to dispute. But whilst women were generally barred from becoming samurai, they certainly trained in the martial arts. They were required to serve their husbands and fathers, and given that service was the essence of being a samurai there were many times they were required to fight.

Castle defence was a time Japanese women commonly fought. Some aided with preparations of the defenders, making ammunition, cooking food and repairing damaged walls. But frequently they actively joined in the defence, whether using bows, muskets or in hand-to-hand combat.

According to the Bichi Hyoranki the wife of Mimura Kotoku, horrified at the suicide of many people during the siege of her husband’s castle, doned armour and personally led a sally with 83 other warriors. Wielding her naginata in a fashion described as a “waterwheel”, she challenged an enemy general, who recoiled in fear and called her an “oni” (demon). Whilst his bodyguard surrounded her, he fled the battlefield. She cut through her opponents and fought her way back to the castle.

Other female castellans include Komatsu-hime, the daughter of Honda Tadakatsu. During the Sekigahara campaign of 1600, her castle was besieged after her husband left to join the Tokugawa forces. Her own father in law was part of the besieging force, who tried to gain access to the castle on the pretext of visiting his grandchildren. Komatsu-hime bravely faced off against him in armour, refusing him entry and declaring she would prefer to burn the castle than let him have it. Defeated by her defiance, he retreated to a nearby temple. Komatsu-hime, playing the good daughter in law, later paid him a surprise visit with her children.

Interestingly there were at least a few examples of women duelling men, whether in art or written records. A popular story of revenge involves two sisters, Miyagino and Shinobu, whose father had been killed by a samurai out of panic. The daughters trained in the use of the naginata and kusarigama over many years, before approaching the samurai’s master to demand their revenge. What is somewhat curious given the traditional refusal of men to duel women was that that daimyo in question agreed to their request and summoned the samurai. Facing off against the two sisters, the samurai was helpless as his sword was trapped by the kusarigama, allowing the second woman to kill him with her naginata.

There are many other stories in Japanese history of brave women fighting for their lives or families. But through all of them one thing is clear. Their use of the naginata or other weapons was not for personal pleasure, and in only a very small cases such as that of the two sisters could any of their efforts be considered “honourable”. They fought out of determination and with fire, seeking to defy the difficult hand fate had dealt them.

It is very hard to describe, as a man, why a woman kiai-iing can be so terrifying. Perhaps it is the imagery of those female warriors from centuries ago. Or perhaps just the idea that those who bring us into this world could just as easily send us into the next one if sufficiently angered. But whatever the reason, I always felt myself truly privileged as a man having the opportunity to train with a
“woman’s weapon”. I hope that, after a long break from Naginata following the birth of my first child and the unfortunate pandemic lockdown measures, I can ever be half as good as some of the female
students I have trained with.