Recently I stumbled upon some interesting information. In the book Zustesu – Kobudōshi (図説・古武道史), there is a section that talks about of long battlefield weapons used during the warring times in Japan, such as the spear. While discussing the roots, the many variations used in battle, and the exclusiveness in training among high-ranking practitioners during peaceful times of the spear, one description regarding the origin of the spear caught my eye¹. It mentioned the use of a sharp instrument attached to one end of bamboo, which would essentially make it a takeyari (竹槍). This takeyari, or bamboo spear, is a type of weapon that doesn’t get much talk about. In the past, a takeyari was quite useful due to the fact that it was low cost in production, easy to mass produce, can outfit a large group of soldiers with this, and was simple to use. While a takeyari can be crafted without a blade, placing one on the end of a bamboo would definitely increase its overall effectiveness. This falls in line with a type of takeyari related to my studies in Kukishinden ryu sōjutsu (Kukishinden style of spear techniques) that was made famous by a member of the Kikuchi family, which I will speak on in this article.
TALE OF THE ESTEEMED “KIKUCHI SENBON YARI”
There is a story in many historical books from Japan regarding an individual by the name of Kikuchi Takeshige (菊池武重), who was the 13th head of the Kikuchi family. His family line is related to those of the famed Fujiwara family (藤原家) who had relocated to Kikuchi District in Higo, Kyushu. His family supported the Southern Imperial Court for some time, since when his father, Kikuchi Taketoki (菊池武時), pledged loyalty to the Southern Emperor, Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇).
During the early mid 1300s, There was much conflict between the Hōjō clan, who claimed Shogunate rule, and those who sided with the Southern Imperial Court. A war general by the name of Ashikaga Takeuji (足利尊氏) made efforts with others to not only regain control over Kyoto, former capital and home of the imperial family, but also Kamakura, ridding the Hōjō clan’s control. In an attempt to avoid potential usurpers, Takeuji took Kamakura himself and lauded himself with the title “Sei-i Taishōgun²”…all in the name of the Southern Imperial court. However, Emperor Go-daigo did not accept these actions, and opposed Takeuji’s plans.
Late in the year 1335, Takeuji and his brother Tadayoshi lead a large force against the Southern Court. The Southern Emperor had his faithful allies take up arms to deal with this threat from the Ashikaga, which included a reputable military Nitta Yoshisada (新田義貞). It just so happened that Yoshisada had Kikuchi Takeshige and his men employed in his army, and had ordered them to fight in the forefront. Crossing through the mountainous area of Hakone Tōge (箱根峠, Hakone Pass), Yoshisada and his force made their way to Take no Shita (竹の下), where they would clash with the Ashikaga and their army. This encounter would be called “Battle at Hakone-Take no Shita”³.
Takeshige’s force split from Yoshisada to eventually go head on against Tadayoshi’s force. To strengthen his troops, Takeshige would turn his sights to a bamboo grove, have each of them take a bamboo pole that was around 6~7 feet tall, and craft theirs into makeshift spears by inserting into one split end of it the tantō each of them carried in their belts. Doing so proved to be most effective, for despite being outnumbered 3:1 when facing off against Tadayoshi’s army of 3000, Takeshige’s force consisting of 1000 spears was more then enough to surprise and force the opposition to retreat. This greatly helped to earn a victory for their side against the Ashikaga force.
It is through this improvisation by Takeshige and victory against a much superior opponent that lead to the term Kikuchi Senbon Yari (菊池千本槍, 1000 spears of the Kikuchi clan).
CONSTRUCTION OF THE KIKUCHI-STYLE TAKEYARI
Taking a knife and fitting it on the end of a bamboo pole to make a Kikuchi-style takeyari is generally associated with this tale. This episode is believed to have inspired Takeshige to have a unique style of spear created called the “Kikuchi yari”, which utilizes very long single-edge tantō-like blades made in either hira zukuri (平造り) or shōbu zukuri (菖蒲造り)⁴. However, this doesn’t mean that the concept of a takeyari was invented by the Kikuchi clan, for it is believed to have existed way before in advance.
Although I’ve made a safe training takeyari (simple design with a padded end for a point) a while back, making a Kikuchi-style takeyari sounds like it would be a fun little project. From the descriptions found in various sources, the construction of this is not complex, so I figured I would give it a try. Let’s take a closer look at the method for constructing this unique takeyari.
- Take a bamboo pole of considerable length
- Use a tool suitable for splitting the bamboo
- Insert knife (in this case, a wooden training knife) into the split up until where the handle completely fits
- Take some rope and tie it over the split section to hold the knife firmly in place
The one I’ve made is just an experiment, and a great way to understand how warriors in the past may have had to improvise. Using a bamboo pole near 7 feet, I was able to fit my wooden tantō in it, and reinforce the split end with a good length of rope. The type of wrap used for the rope added more weight, giving a better balance to this takeyari, as well as could double for a tachiuchi (太刀打, wrapping used to reinforce the spear blade against impact).
Pics of crafting a Kikuchi-style takeyari, from start to finish.
I hope you enjoy the tale of the Kikuchi Senbon Yari, which is a piece of history held in high regards in Japan. For those who have a knack for crafting, a Kikuchi-style takeyari is a fun one to try, and experiment with.
1) The original line from the book Zusetsu – Kobudōshi is on page 278 in the 1st paragraph, which reads as the following:
“…it is said that the origin of the spear (in Japan) is due in part to the shaft of a large kabura (鏑, signaling arrow) being fitted on the front end of bamboo. This was a clever idea of the Amano clan, who were once retainers of Kusunoki Masanari….”
Of course, this claim was debunked in the aforementioned book, for it was actually the precursor for a small single-handed weapon called an inji yari (印地槍), or better known as uchine (打根). What really interested me from that statement was the mentioning of bamboo and a bladed instrument being used to create a spear.
2) 征夷大将軍. This is generally translated as “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians”. Or, the shorter title of “shōgun” works just as well.
3) 箱根竹の下戦い. This title reflects that the clash between the Ashikaga army and the Imperial Court’s army took place somewhere between the Hakone Pass and the bamboo grove in Take no Shita. The area in which the battle took place is now known today as Take no Shita, Oyama Town, Shizuoka Prefecture
4) Both are types of blade-forging methods.