For this November, the ōnaginata (大薙刀, large glaive) will be the focus of my martial arts group’s Theme month training. Handouts with information regarding the monthly theme is given out, which will be the same Other than just learning fighting techniques, it’s important to also study the history of Japanese weapons, and understand how certain ones have been preserved up to even modern times.
From a historical standpoint, the naginata is a respectable weapon used during the long warfare that plagued Japan during its medievel period. While in today’s generation we commonly see the shorter version generally called a konaginata (小薙刀, short glaive), in the past very large ones both with a long shaft and large blade called ōnaginata once were carried by some of the mightiest warriors. Once wielded in the hands of capable warriors during Japan’s chaotic warring times, it lost usage once the Tokugawa Shogunate was established during the early 1600s. Thus, due to the government rule of naginata naoshi (薙刀直し), where the giant blades of ōnaginata were to be cut down into smaller blades to be used for such weapons such as katana, kodachi, and tantō, along with other restrictions that prevented large-scale battles from erupting. It’s unfortunate that no single ōnaginata survived into modern times…or did they?
Here are 3 examples of surviving ōnaginata, from their dimensions, the makers, and the stories tied to them.
ŌNAGINATA BY MORIMITSU
The first one is labeled “Oonaginata-mei Morimitsu” (大薙刀銘盛光), located in Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture. Simply an ōnaginata that bears no unique name, it is a good representative of like weapon types used in the past which only is marked on its tang with the name of the maker, who is “Morimitsu”. This is the surname of a particular blacksmith that lasted for 3 generations, whom were active in the 1300s from the Nanbokucho period to the earlier part of Muromachi period, was respected for the craftsmanship used in the weapons produced.
There are a lot of details regarding this ōnaginata made available, with below an example of some of those that are provided:
- Blade length is 107.8 cm
- Curvature: 3.2 cm
- Straight grain tempered pattern
- Has a straight temper line with a misty-like appearance
- Has 2 mekugi ana (peg holes)
This is a fairly long blade at 107.8 cm (42.5 in.), stated to be much longer than the standard size of ōnaginata used during warring times. Just as a frame of perspective, modern iaitō (居合刀, aluminum-bladed swords) and shinsakutō (新作刀, newly-made steel swords) have a standard length around 70 cm (roughly 27 in.), which is much longer than the blade for a konaginata, which can reach up to about 60 cm (23 in.) in length. In comparison, this ōnaginata has a big advantage, boosting a difference in length over 30 cm. One can imagine that, attached on an long shaft, a person would have superior reach when performing cuts. Speaking of shaft, this blade comes paired with one, which is black-lacquered.
THE SHRINE ŌNAGINATA
The next ōnaginata is part of a 3-piece collection that includes a larger sword and a shorter sword. Written on one side of the tang, we learn that it bears the name “Hōkago Hachimangu Reiken” (奉篭八幡宮霊剣). On the other side of the tang is the signature of the maker, which is “Heianjōjū Fujiwara Kunimichi” (平安城住藤原国路). This is currently the property of the shrine called “Hirosaki Hachiman-gu”, which is located in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture.
From surviving records, this is a 17th century weapon that was in the possession of the aforementioned shrine in 1611. There is a great chance that this ōnaginata (along with its 2 swords counterparts) was made specifically for the shrine and is more of a ceremonial piece, meaning it’s never been used for warfare. It is also known that Fujiwara Kunimichi, an uprising blacksmith who resided in Kyoto, made a name for himself with his style of craftsmanship that contributed to the new types of swords many moved towards to from the early Edo period onward.
Here’s the known specs of this ōnaginata:
- Blade length: 91.2 cm
- Nakago (tang) length: 1 meter
There’s not much info regarding other specs of the blade. However, the entire built is very long, for from the tip of the blade all the way down to the tang, it measure 205 cm.
How long is this ōnaginata blade? Let’s compare it to an ōdachi (battlefield long sword) at the bottom of the pic above, which was made by the same blacksmith.
- Blade length: 107.8 cm
- Nakago (tang) length: 35.3
While the ōnaginata’s total length is greater, the actual blade length is over 10 cm shorter than the ōdachi. Nevertheless, we can see that an ōnaginata blade is roughly the size of an ōdachi. Including the length of the shaft, the overall reach of the ōnaginata is staggering.
LEGENDARY BENKEI’S ŌNAGINATA
The last ōnaginata to showcase is an interesting one. Named “Iwatooshi” (岩融), it is claimed to be the prized weapon of the famed Musashibou Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶). As a little bit of history, Benkei was active during the later end of the Heian period (794 – 1185) as supposedly a large warrior monk, and was a loyal retainer of Minamoto Yoshitsune. The ōnaginata he used was just as grand, with a name that stands for “a blade that has fine cutting edge good enough to split stone”¹. The Iwatooshi is currently housed in Ōyamazumi Shrine in Imabari City, Ehime Prefecture, and is categorized as a valuable cultural asset, and is provided safe keeping².
There isn’t much info regarding its specs, other than the following.
- Blade length: 106 cm
- Maker: Munechika
On top of being on the longer side of standard ōnaginata length, the name of the maker is important to note, as this is possibly the legendary blacksmith known by the name “Sanjō Munechika” (三条宗近). Renown for making extraordinary swords, Munechika is noted in records related to exquisite swords and exemplary blacksmiths. This includes his finest work, “Mikazuki Munechika” (三日月宗近), which not only exists today, but is considered a national treasure, as well as one of 5 swords categorized as “Tenga Goken” (天下五剣, Five Greatest Swords). With a high profile blacksmith on its label, is there not doubt the level of acclaim the Iwatooshi will receive?
As expected, the Iwatooshi isn’t without some perplexing mysteries. For starters, Benkei is a figure who’s story has many holes due to a lack of proper documentation, so his existence is rather on the exaggerated side, especially in pop culture. Second, Benkei is said to have been alive around the 1100s, which is about 1,100 years ago. The same can be said about the Iwatooshi, which is amazing that such a thing could survive throughout so many generations (and in good shape too!)…if such a weapon truly did exist. Lastly, if we go based on the information regarding the blacksmith and can accept that Iwatooshi is a relic of past medieval Japan, can it be proven that this is the authentic ōnaginata and not a replica? From what I could find, it doesn’t look like this ōnaginata is set up for public display.
This wraps up our look at ōnaginata. Once a potent battlefield weapon in ancient Japan, seeing a fully functional one today is but a think of the pass. Those who have the opportunity to see any form of an ōnaginata that has survived into modern times is usually in exhibitions, generally those held in museums.
2) An interesting note regarding items that are valuable cultural asset is that they are different from national treasures. The reason being is that while the former has a significant cultural value within Japan itself (whether it actually exists or is just a replica), the latter has prestige value on a global level in terms of tangible piece of history.