Yari: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Spear

Bushi, the label given to warriors of Japan. The bushi were skilled with many weapons, especially with the Japanese sword1. While the sword is claimed to be the soul of the samurai2, there was another weapon that held this spot and received more higher acclaims at a much earlier date in Japan’s history: the yari.

various yari
Different types of Yari from left to right: Kagi Yari (Hook Spear), Oomi Yari (Large Spear), and Su Yari (Normal Straight Spear). From Wikipedia

The yari, or spear in English, is a long-range polearm many bushi depended on. It dominated during skirmishes in big battles in both its reach and overwhelming offense in group formations. From the Kamakura period3 onward it was reserved to high-ranking soldiers as a symbol of pride and rank4. Pitted against a swordsman, the yari was considered to have the advantage at keeping distance and maintaining range.

Despite the prestige held for the yari, bushi were not one dimensional and a loyalist to just the yari alone; most warriors were trained to be well versed with other weapons. For example, It was common place for a high ranking soldier to go into a battle wielding a yari, and having a daisho5 at their side. This ensured that in the event where the yari is lost or rendered useless, they could always draw their uchigatana6 or yoroi-doushi7 and continue to fight.

Let’s take a look at an individual who was considered to be a master of the yari, yet capable of casting it away when his life depended on it. Going by the name Katsuhisa Umataemon Saito8, Umataemon was a skilled bushi with many weapons, and exceptionally proficient with the yari. He went as far as creating his own system called “Oouchi Muhen ryu Sojutsu”, with yari being the main component.

In written records it is told that Umataemon went on a kaikoku shugyo (training journey) with one of his students. During the way they ran across a swordsman, who too was out to hone and test his skills with the sword. Both in agreement, Umataemon and the swordsman decided upon a duel to the death. Below is a text in Japanese describing the incident from when they clashed9.


Here’s my translation of the text:

“…the blade of his yari was cut off at the sendan maki10 when he thrust at his opponent. Umataemon then reacted in an instant by sweeping the katana back with his broken yari’s ishizuki11, followed by a strike to his opponent’s hand, and then finishing him off by drawing his own sword and swiftly cutting him down, which secured his victory. However, later on Umataemon turned to training in bojutsu (staff techniques) and created a new style called “Muhen Yogan ryu Bojutsu” after giving up on sojutsu (spear teachniques).”

Yari anatomy
Anatomy of Umataemon’s yari in regards to specific areas according to the story, using my training yari as an example: 1) sendan maki, and 2) ishizuki

In this incident one can understand that despite how good he was with the yari, if Umataemon didn’t study other weapons prior to this duel, the outcome could’ve been different. Umataemon surely had the advantage in reach alone, yet his opponent was able to turn the tide in his favor by neutralizing the yari, making it near impossible for it to kill in this duel. In the end, Umataemon was resourceful enough to carry multiple weapons, so to keep on fighting in the event his trusted yari failed on him.

From the Edo period onward, with the ban on long battlefield weapons by the Tokugawa Bakufu, the yari saw little usage as an actual fighting weapon. While many martial systems preserved the techniques and strategies of the yari, those of the warrior class began to depend greatly on the katana. Many sword specialists emerged, which in turn increased the knowledge and techniques with the sword, as well as gave birth to new martial systems that focused on the sword to train both the body and the spirit.

In closing, the bushi were trained to be skilled in many areas of combat. At certain points in Japan’s history some weapons were seen as a necessity to be proficient at due to their advantageous usage in warfare. The yari saw many years through actual battles as being a superior weapon. Even then, the Japanese sword remained close on the side of bushi, to cover the yari when it was out of use. Martial artists today should learn from this, and strive to be versed in all forms of weaponry, but not be solely depended on just one no matter how advantageous it may be.

1) Depending on time period, the Japanese sword went under different names due to shape, length, style, and purpose

2) Another word for bushi, refers to a warrior who lays his life on the line for his lord or master

3) (1185-1333) The period which the Kamakura Shogunate ruled Japan. Beginning of the importance of the warrior caste (samurai) due to the rise in feudalism.

4) Low ranking soldiers, such as ashigaru (aka foot soldiers), also used the yari, but possibly of lower quality and not designed to match the bearer’s reach and size

5) ”Long sword and short sword”, 2 swords of different lengths that a warrior carried at their side

6) ”Skirmish Sword”, was used on foot in the battlefield at close range. Predecessor of the katana.

7) ”Armor Piercer”, a short dagger designed primarily to fit through openings of Japanese armor

8) Katsuhisa is his given name, while Saito is his family name. Umataemon could possibly be a name given to him based on where he was stationed for work. In Japanese it would follow the word order of “Saito Umataemon Katsuhisa” (斎藤亦右衛門勝久)

9) Taken from a discussion here

10)Tight reinforced cord wrapping under the blade along the upper part of the yari’s shaft. This helped with gripping just under the blade for control.

11) A metal piece or fitting at the base of the shaft of a polearm weapon, used for striking or planning the polearm upright in the dirt

One thought on “Yari: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Spear

Leave a Reply