Bokuden and his Live Lesson regarding the Naginata

Today’s post is a continuation of reviewing the Hyakushu, a gunki (軍記, military documentation) written by the famed Tsukahara Bokuden. Whereas in a previous post we went over various rules out of the 100 entries found in the Hyakushu, this time we look at 3 that focus on a particular theme. Along with this, will be a real life story of Bokuden that serves as an example of, through experience, how advice can be passed down with merit.


The 3 rules we will look at are #35, #36, and #37. These 3 rules share a common theme regarding on the weapon known as the naginata (長刀 or 薙刀, glaive). Here’s the rules both in Japanese, and their English translations provided by myself. The source being used is the book “Gunjin Seishin Shūyōkun” (軍人精神修養訓):

Rules #35, 36, and 37 from the Hyakushu, circled in red.


ー、手足四つ持たる敵に小長刀持て懸けるとよもや切られし (三十六)


  • It is a disadvantage to wield a naginata with a blade less than 2 shaku (2 feet) (#35)
  • You will certainly not get cut down by an enemy who possesses many skills, wielding a konaginata (#36)
  • Understand that you, despite how skillful you are, will end up in a mutual kill against an enemy who wields a tachi or katana (#37)

In regards to #35, the standard length of the blade found on an ōnaginata (大長刀, a long-bladed glaive) in the past was 2 shaku 3 sun (87.4 cm) or greater, while anything less would be a konaginata (小長刀, a short bladed glaive).  Here, Bokuden implies that any naginata that has a blade less than 87.4 cm, is a konaginata, which he does not have a favorable opinion on.

For #36, one should not worry about an enemy wielding a konaginata. No matter how skillful he/she is, or tricks they may use, because their reach is short it will not be a problem to defeat them. Naginata’s advantage is reach, but making it shorter, especially the blade, nulls that advantage.

As for #37, Bokuden advises against using a konaginata. It is a continuation from both #35 and #36, except that now he cautions skilled warriors that no matter how good you are, at most you will end up committing ai-uchi (相打ち), where both fighters die at the same time delivering killer blows. It can be said that Bokuden puts more faith in kenjutsu than naginatajutsu.

Note that this is just the opinion of one individual, and these rules are not written in stone that the konaginata is an ineffective weapon. This is probably based on his experience with the weapon, or what he’s seen by those who so happen to use this.

A version of Tsukahara Bokuden’s duel against Kajiwara Nagato, found in the book “Budō Gokui” (武道極意)


Speaking of experience, there are many recordings in regards to Bokuden’s real life experiences in combat, many of them related to duels and fights. One particular story that will be covered here is his bout against a specialist who fights with a konaginata. Note that many sources such as “Nihon Bugei Shoden” (日本武芸小伝) and “Zusetsu – Kobudōshi” (図説・古武道史) reference this story, sometimes in great details, and other times not. Below will be the story as full and accurate as possible. Take note that there are some graphical descriptions in the text, so please read with caution.

During Bokuden’s kaikoku shugyō (廻国修行, journey around Japan for the sake of training and employment), he came across a warrior by the name of Kajiwara Nagato (梶原長門). Through much boasting, Nagato was making a name for himself as a renown fighter with the naginata. He did so by performing feats of leaping into the air, and coming down with a strong strike fast enough to cut down birds such as kiji (雉子, green pheasants) and kamo (鴨, ducks). Nagato also claimed that no warrior has yet to either avoid or withstand his power strikes, as many of them, whether they be swordsmen or spearsmen, were slain in mortal duels. Furthermore, he made it known that he used a peculiar method of first cutting off his opponent’s left hand, then the right hand, before finally finishing them of by cutting clean through the neck. Learning about these points, Bokuden was certainly up for facing against such an individual. So he challenged Nagato to a duel to the death, who willingly accepted.

When the day came, the two held their duel at the lower area of Kawagoe in Bushū (present-day Kawagoe City, Saitama Prefecture). While Bokuden wielded a tachi (太刀, an older word for sword), Nagato used a konaginata, with the blade length about 1 shaku 5 sun (57 cm). Bokuden’s disciples were there to bear witness¹. At the start of the duel, Nagato leapt at Bokuden like a bird taking flight², and swung his konaginata down at him. Bokuden evaded the attack, with the konaginata’s blade cutting into the ground. Instantly, Bokuden countered with a severe blow, as he sliced Nagato’s face in two.


Depending on the source, Bokuden is usually depicted as expressing the weaknesses of the konaginata to his disciples right before the fight. If stated simply, he mentions that having a long shaft, yet a short blade for a naginata gives no advantage no matter how fast the wielder moves or tricks used. Whether or not he actually spoke such info right before the duel is hard to prove, but for the sake of the readers this could’ve been included to further enhance his views regarding the konaginata. In regards to Nagato’s merit, Bokuden also expressed his opinion about him not being that great, as cutting down wild birds or inexperienced warriors was nothing that impressive. In some sources this conversation is short and just focuses on the size disadvantage the konaginata has, while in others it is quite long and detailed.

In some sources, credit is given to Bokuden for incorporating psychological warfare. As an example, from the tales coming from Kashima City, there is one that states Bokuden lecturing his disciples about the weaknesses of the konaginata…while his opponent was in ear shot. This made Nagato furious, so when the duel started he fought recklessly, which made him lose rather easily. In another source, it is written that Bokuden brought to the duel a much longer tachi than what most would use at the time. On one hand, this supports his views on always giving yourself the advantage with a longer weapon, which can be seen in rule #20 of his Hyakushu regarding swords³.


In ending, Tsukahara Bokuden is an individual portrayed as having a great amount of experience in warfare. His opinion on weapons like the naginata is based on his personal experiences, especially versus those who’ve used them against him in duels. As mentioned before, there are many stories of his life experience, with some that can be compared to the Hyakushu. I may revisit the Hyakushu again, using a different story of Bokuden’s to reference the lessons expressed in a few of the rules.

1) In various sources, the type of bird Kajiwara Nagato is compared to ranges from a tsubame (燕, swallow) to mozu (鵙, shrike). These birds are usually admired for their grace or speed in flight.

2) Unlike other warriors who had to tough it out during their training journeys solo, Bokuden was generally accompanied by a group of individuals, from assistants to personal students. Credit goes to him coming from a rather wealthy family, thus the ability to have support while far away from home.

3)This can be reviewed in a previous post here.

Understanding Te no Uchi

A topic that often comes up no matter how long a person studies martial arts is what he/she should be doing with their hands during x, or how they should manipulate their weapon during y. These examples are generally related to te no uchi (手の内), which is an important area of training that is introduced to many beginners of martial arts, yet is deep enough in principles that even advanced practitioners continue to work on.

Te no uchi refers to how you wield a weapon in your hands. It is not limited to just how one holds a weapon, but goes as far as how to manipulate it, how to do certain strikes, how one’s hands change grips, how it is held based on one’s posture, and so on. You’ll hear this used for many weapon-based martial systems such as kenjutsu (剣術), kyūdō (弓道), sōjutsu (槍術), and so on. However, it is not just used for when you possess an object in your hand, for te no uchi is also used for hand-to-hand martial systems like karate (空手) and taijutsu (体術), for in essence even a martial artist’s hands are a “weapon”.

Let’s refer to the te no uchi of the naginata. One of the basic te no uchi often taught very early is keeping a consistent grip style with the right hand on top and left hand on bottom similar to wielding a katana. This is reminiscent to how it was used on the battlefield in the past especially in troop formation. Another te no uchi taught is how to switch hand positions, which is important depending on the situation and type of naginata being used. The following example below illustrate this when doing repeated horizontal cuts.

① The initial grip (left pic) is important, as it determines the te no uchi for the right horizontal swing.

② Finishing the swing, the right hand turns the naginata vertically (left pic), from which the left hand slides up and switches place with the right hand (middle pic). Through this a transition to a horizontal swing using the intended te no uchi can be established.

③ Finishing the left horizontal swing, same action is performed again, this time left hand bringing the naginata vertical (middle pic), then switching with the right hand (right pic). Repeat.

This is a step-by-step demonstration on how to achieve this switching of hands in order to maintain a specific reach with the naginata. Of course, as one becomes proficient, this manipulation will become smoother & natural. However, the overall execution of this te no uchi will still remain as long as it’s properly ingrained in the body.

Another scenario concerning te no uchi can be seen during kenjutsu, when two practitioners lock their katana together in tsuba zeri ai (鍔競合い). When the skill level between the two are about even, the one with the better te no uchi can get the upper hand. For example, it is advantageous to understand the moment when to push the opponent’s hands up through the use of one’s tsuka (柄, sword handle), or how to twist one’s hands to utilize the tsuba (鍔, sword guard) to push the opponent’s sword to the side in order to break through their defense, which is possible through the use of advanced te no uchi.

In ending, te no uchi is one of the basics found in Japanese martial arts that is learned very early in training. It’s critical that beginners practice this in order to progress in their respectful martial system. Yet, it is something that can not be forgotten and left behind, as it continues to define a practitioner’s proficiency even in advanced techniques. Thus, te no uchi is a fundamental skill that can be worked on even for a lifetime.

Onna Bugeisha: Women and the Naginata

Women and their role as warriors in the history of Japan is an interesting topic I’d like to touch upon. There are many literature, plays, and artworks of onna bugeisha1, or female warriors in English, that portray their feats. Depending on the time period, onna bugeisha are said to have had their fair share of combat like their male counterparts, some in armor suited for the battlefield, and others in simple domestic wear. Women learn to use many types of weapons, according to their needs and the situation at hand. In an on-going series, I will discuss various topics related to onna bugeisha, from key figures to the martial systems they’ve specialized in. Today’s topic will start off with women and their ties with the weapon called the naginata2. This will briefly cover the historical periods where women became synonymous with the naginata, along with some truths and falsehoods that stemmed from this image.

An artwork called ” Ishi-jo, wife of Oboshi Yoshio, one of the “47 loyal ronin”” (誠忠義心傳:大星良雄内室石女). Ishi-jo is shown brandishing a naginata. Artist is Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and was made in 1848. From Wikipedia.


Onna bugeisha and their ties with the naginata is most recognized around Edo period (1603-1868), a time when the newly-established Tokugawa shogunate ushered in a time of peace after long periods of war. To ensure that no opposing factions or groups ever rose up to challenge the rule of the Tokugawa clan, all battlefield weapons were restricted from public possession and use. At the time, the naginata was considered a large battlefield weapon, consisting of a blade similar in length to a katana, which was mounted on a long, sturdy pole. Due to this, the naginata was subjected to strict regulations, such as “Naginata Naoshi”3. While many were converted into shorter-bladed swords, the knowledge of utilizing the naginata would soon be given a new route to stay viable during the more peaceful era that settled into most areas.

Families that have a military background were known as buke4, or warrior family. Members of these household were often trained in various combat arts, so to be able to protect themselves from danger, as well as to maintain the family’s martial tradition. In one instance, to ensure that homes and mansions were protected from theft and invasions, military and martial specialists trained their wives, daughters, and young women in how to wield the naginata. The techniques learned were initially from those used on the battlefield, but modified so to be adaptable for use indoors against armorless opponents. This became the norm over the years as the naginata became a favorite among women as a means for self defense due to its reach advantage against the katana, and balance due to having a long shaft. This likeness prompted the label “Onna Naginata”5, or “Women’s Naginata”.

Some martial systems that have naginata techniques/curriculum modified them for use by women; whereas the original techniques required wide open space for larger swings, naginata used by women were more smaller and concise for use indoors. Through this developed entirely new systems for the naginata, complete with their own lineage. Some of these lineages are even headed by female headmasters, which is a rarity throughout Japan’s martial history. An example of this is Youshin ryu Naginatajutsu, which started around 1620s as a means of self defense for the female residents living in a castle in Yanagawa Domain6. Youshin ryu Naginatajutsu is currently headed by Koyama Takako, who continues to actively maintain this system and ensures that quality training is available to female practitioners.

As time went on, Onna Naginata went through some transformations. For starters, during the Meiji period, a competitive version of naginata was developed alongside gekiken (a sword system using a shinai and protective gear predating modern kendo), and displayed in many gekiken competitions around Japan. Women participated using wooden naginata, and would often pit their skills against men doing gekiken. An example is Chiba Sanako, the daughter of Chiba Sadakichi Taira no Masamichi, who ran the Chiba Dojo belonging to Hokushin Itto ryu Hyoho. Sanako was not only a licensed master of Hokushin Itto ryu Kodachijutsu, but was also very proficient with the naginata. It is said that she had defeated every challenger that stepped foot into the Chiba Dojo located in Fukagawa, Tokyo.


A portrayal of Chiba Sanako with a wooden naginata dueling with a gekiken practitioner. From the 3-panel woodblock print called “Chiba Gekikenkai (千葉撃剣会) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi in 1873(?). To see the entire print, please visit Hokushin Itto ryu Hyoho’s website here.

Next, women’s naginatajutsu further developed from Meiji period (1868-1912) onward as a kyougi budo7, or a sports-centric martial art. Under kyougi budo, there are many rules that dictate both movements and areas to strike. This type of naginatajutsu became the standard, and was introduced to certain schools as a physical education class for young women not only to train their bodies, but to learn discipline and refine their spirit. Sonobe Hideo (4/18/1870-9/29/1963), the 15th lineage holder of Jikishinkage ryu Naginatajutsu, contributed to this. She took the role as instructor and taught naginatajutsu at several schools and institutions around Japan from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including Himejishihan Daigaku (later changed to Hyougoshihan Daigaku), Osaka Kyoiku Daigaku (Osaka Kyoiku University), and Gakushuin Joshi Daigaku (Gakuin Women’s College).

Onna Naginata continued to develop with the times, even after Japan’s defeat during WWII and the practice of martial arts was banned for some time. Stripping away most of its combat elements, naginatajutsu was still made available to women with the intention to be more for sports and health purposes. In modern times, it further evolved to fit under the standards of Zen Nihon Naginata Renmei, the organization that oversees all participating systems of naginatajutsu for both competition and forms nationwide. Now called Atarashii Naginata8, it is offered in high schools to female students, giving them the chance to learn naginatajutsu in clubs, and participate in tournaments against other schools. Primarily a bamboo naginata is used alongside with protective gear (consisting of a face guard, chest guard, padded gloves, and shin guards) during competition, which is often naginata versus naginata, or, in recent times, naginata user versus a kendo practitioner. Note that while Atarashii Naginata is still associated with young women, it has also been made available for young men to learn and compete in.


Now that the history onna bugeisha and their connection with the naginata has been briefly covered, let’s look at some points that will cover some of the truths and falsehoods that are associated with the image of women and the naginata.


A woodblock print of Tomoe Gozen (middle) battling Uchida Ieyoshi (left) during the Battle of Awazu in 1184. She is shown wielding a naginata while on horseback. Artist is Yoshuu Chikanobu, and was made in 1899. From Wikipedia.

1) Naginata is a women’s weapon
While there are evidence that leans towards this, primarily in the modern society of Japan today, it is not entirely true. In earlier times when wars were abundant and Japan wasn’t unified, male bushi, otherwise known as warriors, utilized the naginata a great deal. It was a heavy weapon that was effective against enemy troops and cavalry alike through its reach and large sweeping cuts. It wasn’t until Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate and big battles were almost non-existent where the role of the naginata switched from a battlefield weapon to a self defense weapon. During this time, the katana was the primary weapon that the samurai took pride in, thus many male warriors focused their attention to kenjutsu. Since women were not allowed to carry a katana, they focused their energy into being proficient with other weapons, one being the naginata.

2) Naginatajutsu is designed for women
Again, not entirely false, but not quite true either. Onna Naginata, as it is labeled was designed for women due to some important points. For starters, the naginata used by women was shorter and lighter than the version men used on the battlefield, allowing for faster cuts and ease in manipulation. This type of naginata is often called a konaginata9. Women at the time wore long kimono that restricted them from taking wider stances for big swings, so they needed to learn how to move with the naginata taking smaller steps, and using agility with quick body turns that matched their normal wear to move accordingly. Naginatajutsu for men, often labeled “Otoko Naginata10“, still exists, and often retains techniques used for the battlefield against armored opponents. However, Otoko Naginata is not as popular or publicly documented in Japan. This is generally found in some kobudo11, such as Katori Shinto ryu, Shidare Yanagi ryu, and Kukishinden ryu.

3) Onna Bugeisha that had to go to battle did so with the naginata
This not only refers to actual female warriors in the past, but the general viewpoint of them that is now visible in pop culture. Contents that have a historical setting before Edo period tend to show these female warriors going to battle with a naginata. This can be seen in books, comics, and games. A big contribution to this image is ukiyoe12, or woodblock prints, that were commonplace during the 1700s to 1800s. Many ukiyoeshi13, or woodblock artists, often took a theme from society or history, and would paint them with a more romanticized flavor in order to make the visuals more appealing. Ukiyoe, while visually stunning, tend not to be accurate. Case in point, a famous female warrior by the name of Tomoe Gozen is depicted in ukiyoe. Decked in armor, she is a prime representative of a Japanese woman not only taking part in battles, but having the prowess to best men in mortal combat. One misconception is found in the actual weapons used in battle by her. In historical accounts,  it is said that during one of her last battles Tomoe was using a sword to duel and beat her opponents. However, in a ukiyoe by Yoshuu Chikanobu (shown above), the same scene is vividly recreated, but with Tomoe using a naginata instead. The change to the naginata may have been due to the current trend of women training in naginatajutsu at the time.


In closing, onna bugeisha made great strides in being a formidable force with the naginata. Women have demonstrated its effectiveness as a means of self defense, as well as utilized its superior reach in competitions. Even as Onna Naginata transformed from a combative art to a sports-centric system,  women continue to train in it with the same vigor as in the past. Hope you enjoyed today’s topic, and look forward to future posts on on female warriors!

1) 女武芸者

2) There are 2 ways of writing this in Japanese, which are 長刀 and 薙刀. The 1st one, an older version, stands for a ‘long, bladed weapon’. The 2nd one, more commonly used in recent times, stands for a ‘bladed weapon that mows down’. Both use the same pronunciation.

3) 薙刀直し. Naginata Naoshi was a movement where blades of many naginata were reforged and turned into shorter swords, usually in the style of a katana. Due to this, there are almost no naginata in existence dating back before the 1600s.

4) 武家

5) 女薙刀. Also called Josei Naginata (女性薙刀), which has the same meaning.

6) 柳河藩. Former domain during the Edo period in present Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu.

7) 競技武道

8) 新しい薙刀. This means “New Style of Naginata”.

9) 小薙刀

10) 男薙刀

11) 古武道

12) 浮世絵

13) 浮世絵師