Naginata is a pole weapon that was traditionally used in Japan by members of the samurai class. A naginata consists of a wood shaft with a curved blade on the end; it is similar to the Chinese Guan Dao or European glaive or Russian sovnya. Usually it also had a sword-like guard (tsuba) between the blade and shaft.
The martial art of wielding the naginata is known as naginatajutsu. Most naginata practice today is in a modernised form, a gendai budō called atarashii Naginata meaning "new Naginata", in which competitions are held. Use of the naginata is also taught within the Bujinkan and in some koryū schools. Naginata practitioners may wear a form of the protective armour known as bōgu similar to that worn by kendō practitioners. Wearing the bogu means using a naginata that is a mix of light oak wood shaft, with a bamboo blade habu for atarashii Naginata.
The naginata has become associated in modern Japan as a woman's weapon as it is studied by women more than men; whereas in Europe and Australia Naginata is practiced predominantly by men - this is however simply a reflection of the martial arts demographics of Europe, where there is no historical association - as there is in Japan - that naginatajutsu is for women.
The term naginata first appeared in the Kojiki in 712 AD and was used by Sohei warrior priests during the Nara Period, around 750 AD. It is most likely based on the Chinese Guan Dao. In the paintings of battlefield scenes made during the Tengyo no Ran in 936 AD, the naginata can be seen in use. It was in 1086, in the book Ōshū Gosannenki ("A Diary of Three Years in Ōshū") that the use of the naginata in combat is first recorded. In this period the naginata was regarded as an extremely effective weapon by warriors.
During the Gempei War (1180–1185), in which the Taira clan was pitted against Minamoto no Yoritomo of the Minamoto clan, the naginata rose to a position of particularly high esteem. Cavalry battles had become more important by this time, and the naginata proved excellent at dismounting cavalry and disabling riders. The widespread adoption of the naginata as a battlefield weapon forced the introduction of sune-ate (shin guards) as a part of Japanese armor. The rise of importance for the naginata can be seen as being mirrored by the European pike, another long pole weapon employed against mounted horses. An excellent example of the role of women in Japanese society and martial culture at this time is Itagaki, who, famous for her naginata skills, led the garrison of 3,000 warriors stationed at Toeizakayama castle. Ten thousand Hōjō clan warriors were dispatched to take the castle, and Itagaki led her troops out of the castle, killing a significant number of the attackers before being overpowered.
By the 17th century the rise in popularity of firearms caused a great decrease in the appearance of the naginata on the battlefield. However, the naginata saw its final uses in combat in 1868, at Aizu, and in 1876, in Satsuma. In both cases it was used by fighting women.
Due to the influence of Westernization after the Meiji Restoration the perceived value of martial arts, the naginata included, dropped severely. It was from this time that the focus of training became the strengthening of the will and the forging of the mind and body. During the Showa period, naginata training became a part of the public school system in 1912; and it "remains a staple of girls’ physical education"
Martial arts training in Japan was banned for five years by the Allied Forces after Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. After the lifting of the ban in 1950, a modern form of naginata training, known as Atarashii naginata ("new naginata"), was developed. Since World War II, naginata has primarily been practiced as a sport with a particular emphasis on etiquette and discipline, rather than as military training.
Although associated with considerably smaller numbers of practitioners, a number of "koryu bujutsu" systems (old school martial arts) which include older and more combative forms of naginatajutsu remain existent, including Araki Ryu, Tendo Ryu, Jikishinkage ryu, Higo Koryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu,Toda-ha Buko Ryu and Yoshin ryu, some of which have authorized representatives outside Japan.
In the USA, there are an estimated 200 practitioners, half of whom are male.
The naginata, like many weapons, can be customized to fit the build of the bearer. Generally, the naginata shaft is the height of the bearer's body, with the blade mounted atop usually measuring two or three shaku (one shaku is equivalent to 11.93 inches, or 303 mm) long. Unlike most polearms, the shaft is oval in cross section to allow easy orientation of the blade, and ranges from 5 to 7 feet (1.5 to 2.1 meters) in length. The blade is usually curved, sometimes strongly so, towards the tip. As with Japanese swords, naginata blades were forged blades, made with differing degrees of hardness on the spine and edge to retain a sharp edge but also be able to absorb the stress of impact. Some naginata blades may, in fact, have been recycled katana blades. Note also at the opposite end of a naginata, the ishizuki, (a metal end-cap, often spiked, which functioned as a counterweight to the blade) was attached, rendering the naginata an effective weapon whichever end was put forward.
In contemporary naginatajutsu, there are two general constructions. The first, the kihon yo, is carved from one piece of Japanese white oak and is used for the practice of katas (forms). This is quite light, and may or may not feature the tsuba between the blade and shaft sections. The second type, the shiai yo, uses a similar wooden shaft, but the blade is constructed from bamboo and is replaceable as it can break through hard contact. This type is used in atarashii naginata, the bamboo blade being a lot more forgiving on the target than a wooden or metal blade.
Many of the imitation "naginata" for sale to the public are not actually naginata at all, as may be concluded from the above details on proper construction. Specifically, these imitations have shorter, rounded shafts, very short blades, and screw-together sections.