Women’s Naginata Training: No secrets, full transmission?!?

In today’s generation, martial arts schools offer lessons to all, as long as necessary requisites can be fulfilled (i.e. covering fees). Through years of dedication, all can learn pretty much what is offered in a progressive format from basics to advanced techniques, and receive acclaims as proof of such hard work. Furthermore, anyone can continue their training for as long as they want, even to their elderly years. These are great points we can enjoy in modern times. However, this was a different story in Japan of old.

Here’s food for thought, about a different approach that goes against the norm. There was once s a martial system known as Kusaka Ichimune ryū (日下一旨流), which specialized in a number of disciplines, such as sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques) and jūjutsu (柔術, hand-to-hand grappling techniques). This martial system no longer exists, but there are scrolls of it that still remain. On a website called “Kobujutsu Hōzonkai ‘Getsurindō’“, a researcher presents one of the remaining scrolls from this particular system that is called “Onna Naginata”, which is about women’s naginatajutsu. Dated 1854, it contains a list of technique names, but right before this section is something a foreword about this discipline. Below is the original Japanese text, followed by my own English transliteration.


JAPANESE: “夫女長刀と云は男子と違い多年きびしく稽古之修行不成故最初より奥儀秘事を伝授せしめ事少にして慥成勝利を極める術を教ゆる事伝授の至極也”

ENGLISH: “Our women’s naginata style is different from that of what boys learn. Women will learn all that is to be passed down, for they will be taught gradually the means of attaining winning against an opponent as advanced techniques and secret lessons will be taught early in their training. This is due to not being able to engage in grueling training over many years like boys can.”


Kusaka Ichimune Onna naginata menjo
Screenshot of said scroll, with section about how women trained in naginatajutsu is mentioned. From the website “Kobujutsu Hōzonkai ‘Getsurindō’“.

What is understood from this message is that contrary to the teaching methods most people would imagine, this particular system allows women to learn much of what Kusaka Ichimune ryū’s naginatajutsu has to offer almost from the start. This is a dream for many engaged in martial arts today. However, this is because women could not spend years upon years being engrossed in personal perfection in combative training. Why was that? The answer lies in how Japanese society was structured during the Edo periond.

PROGRESSION OF JAPAN’S MARTIAL ARTS

Let’s go over a quick summary about the development of Japan’s martial systems, as this went through several stages of changes. During Japan’s ancient periods, the methods of warfare was in its infantry years, for families with combat background specialized in combat methods that were either native to them (i.e. archery), or whatever that was brought to this island country from China and Korea. As time went on, certain families rose up and became prosperous as they supported & worked for the Imperial line, and continued to improve on combat methods through campaigns in the northern part of Japan, or against those who were considered a threat. Once Japan became a military state, war became a constant against power-driven elite families that could afford their own military, all the way to the late 1500s of Sengoku period. Within old documentation, martial training is recorded as being designated to elite military families that either had their own tradition, could send their children to learn at a temple, or families that had a background for bearing weapons for survival. This wasn’t only permitted to boys, as there were girls too who, born in military families, were given martial training.

Fast forward to 1600s of the Edo period, martial training transformed into something more formalized and accessible with the opening of martial arts schools, as well as instructions in-house. Documentations about martial training from 1600s to early1800s illustrate this primarily from men’s perspective, where they could spend years perfecting their craft by taking up careers that involved combat, such as an instructor, running a dojo, and doing police/guard work. However, women didn’t have the same chances during these times when Japan was progressing towards modernization, as they were expected to get married, settle down and handle other tasks, such as child care, house work, or working for shops. While wars were not a common thing as pre-Edo period, martial training was still handled with serious attention, which men were given the chances to engage in with full commitment especially as a career; this meant they could invest as much time needed to attain full transmission of a martial system, could teach at their own schools, as well as able to inherit ownership of it. On the other side of the spectrum, women were not generally given these opportunities. While there are few rare cases of martial system being passed into the hand of women, these scenarios come up because there wasn’t a male heir present at the time.

ADVANTAGES OF MARTIAL STUDIES WITH NO LIMITATIONS

Taking the time to research about lifestyle and occupations during much of Edo period, it becomes evident the world of martial arts was a playground for boys. This didn’t mean that women didn’t learn at all; one of the more popular impression is that women born in or hired to work within the household of a military family would be taught a number of different disciplines as a means of survival and to protect the home. In fact, when it comes down to the naginata, it is said that women of a castle in Chikugō Province (筑後国, now present-day southern Fukuoka Prefecture) were taught this to be as a line of defense in case of an invasion¹.

Artwork of women particing with glaive
3-panel artwork from the collection “Chiyoda no Ō-Oku” (千代田之大奥”, Maidens of Chiyoda castle’s Inner Chambers), entitled “Naginata no Keiko” (長刀稽古, Naginata Training). By Yōshuu Chikanobu (楊洲周延). From National Diet Library Digital Collections.

The method for teaching women naginatajutsu in the now defunct Kusaka Ichimune ryū appears to have, theoretically, come with many perks. Let’s take a quick look at what these could be.

BENEFITS

  • Learning the effectiveness of techniques quicker
  • Having access to most, if not all, of the content
  • Taught advanced techniques and secret lessons early

If we take the message from Kusaka Ichimune ryū as one that reflects the trend of how women’s naginata² was taught as a standard during early/mid Edo period, then their training should be considered real throughout. When you think about it, if the available time for practice was shorter than men’s, then it is logical to only teach effective lessons so that they can immediately use what is taught. The learning process could be what most would expect: being taught the “secrets” of application alongside the study of the basics, doing repetitive drills, learning techniques, and engaging in set forms. Instructions were probably much straight forward and to the point, with the end goal taught clearly so that women could handle danger immediately. There are many merits to this.

In terms of actual content, there was probably less holding back in the lessons. This can be a two-fold argument, however, depending on how this is viewed. On one hand, if women were trained to be capable of defending their home, then what better way than to teach them everything they would need? This could also include complex or intricate techniques, along with advice & instructions on subject matters that, from a men’s perspective, would only be learn after decades of studying under a teacher and earning their trust. On the other hand, it could be that the level of the skills learned in this naginata style may not have been so complex, which could be why such a curriculum could be used. For example, if Kusaka Ichimune ryū’s women’s naginata was streamlined off of what was once used on the battlefield, it could be that tactics used in formations, against armored opponents, cutting methods, etc. were omitted, leaving a more bare-boned version. Since the intended goal was not to have women run onto the battlefield, but instead deal with one, or a handful of enemies within an indoor setting, then their version of naginatajutsu had to be taught differently. Of course, this isn’t a strong argument anyone can make wholeheartedly, for many martial systems went through this same change and focus was geared towards what was needed during this time once big battles were not a normal occurrence during Edo period. This is especially evident once hand-to-hand martial systems grew in popularity. Realistically, an assertive evaluation on the contents cannot be made, since Kusaka Ichimune ryū has already died out, meaning we can only speculate and make educational guesses.

Now, one of the more interesting points to be discussed regarding women’s naginata of Kusaka Ichimune ryū is the idea of advanced techniques and secret teachings being instructed in the early stages of training. One of the benefits of this is being inducted into the true methodology of this martial system, along with understanding how to utilize it at its fullest in a shorter time. Of course, this probably has some guidelines, as this could be problematic on its own. Considering the proficiency needed for more advanced-level skills, it would not be so fruitful to teach them to those who are brand new on their 1st day as a whole. Most likely they were coupled in with basic training, and introduced progressively so not to become too confusing or difficult to comprehend. Meaning, as each woman developed their foundation in basic movements, executing proper cuts, understanding the concept of distancing, and so on, they would then be introduced to advanced techniques that would cement their potential utilization of the skills being developed, as well as be instructed on the secret lessons that would make all that is being taught usable almost immediately.

CONCLUSION

While women’s training in martial arts may not have been so extensive during the Edo period, it is much different in modern times, as many women train freely to their heart’s content. There are even renown female headmasters of their own martial systems in Japan today, such as Ogihara Haruko of Jiki Shikage ryū, Kimura Kyōko of Tendo ryū, and Koyama Nobuko of Yoshin ryū, as they run their respective schools teaching young girls, as well as boys, the methods of handling the naginata, along with other weapons. Still, if older martial arts systems like Kusaka Ichimune ryū serves as an example, it’s quite amazing that the training for women’s naginatajutsu was so accelerated in such a short time. While I personally enjoy the traditional way of studying Japanese martial arts, it could be satisfying to engage in learning where all secrets are offered at the start of one’s journey down the path as a martial artist.


1) Part of the history of a different ryūha known as Yoshin ryū Naginatajutsu (楊心流薙刀術).

2) This also should include other disciplines that were available, such as kusarigamajutsu and kodachijutsu

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