​Irimi Shiai & Its Application To Training

This past weekend during training, I engaged in a session of Irimi Shiai1. For Irimi Shiai, this involved one person using a bokken (wooden sword), while the other uses a training yari (Japanese spear). As this was a rather free form practice, it gave us a chance to work on techniques we learn from Kukishinden ryu Bikenjutsu, and see how to apply it against the techniques from Kukishinden ryu Sōjutsu. However, as this training was focused on the concept of Irimi Shiai, there were some rules we had to abide to, in order to make it a challenging, and informative, learning experience. This also included moments of referring to wearing armor and what role it would play in our kamae, along with spots to attack if the situation was on the battlefield.



What is “Irimi Shiai”, exactly? Well, it is well known as a competitive engagement between a longer weapon and a shorter weapon, but in reality goes beyond this as tactical practice. After Japan moved away from the constant wars of Sengoku period and was followed by several eras that promoted a more peaceful society, many martial schools utilized different training and competitive methods to keep their styles active. One method involved closing the distance between longer weapons, such as the yari. This became more prominent in the 1800s, when most martial schools moved in the direction of Kyōgi Budo² (sports-centric martial arts), competitive engagements that featured a sword style versus a spear style became commonplace.

An artwork (low-quality version) called “Sakakibara Gekikenkai Ezu” by Kaisai Yoshitoshi (aka Tsukioka Yoshitoshi). It features many martial artists in competitive matches while wearing protective gear. In the middle-right, there are 2 individuals squaring off using training yari, while below that are two fighters, one with a shinai, and the other with a naginata. From Wikipedia.


In some older cases of Irimi Shiai, the kenjutsuka (swordsman) dons on padded training armor and uses either a bokken or shinai, while the sōjutsuka (spearman) uses a padded-tip training yari, and no body armor. The goal of this match was the kenjutsuka had to close the distance and get in range to strike, whereas the sōjutsuka had to keep the kenjutsuka with only the tip of the yari. The rules were usually in the favor of the kenjutsuka, whereas they have more range of techniques to use in this match, the sōjutsuka was restricted to only using thrusting techniques, and only to the armored areas on the kenjutsuka. 

Having no body armor for the sōjutsuka is an interesting rule; while it insures the safety of the kenjutsuka (they will get hit a lot by the yari due to its reach), it is a nod the favor of the sōjutsuka, indicating the superiority of the yari. On the flipside, this puts more pressure on the sōjutsuka, for allowing the kenjutsuka to get pass the tip of the yari and in range to attack will put the skills of that sōjutsuka in shame…as well as in the receiving end of the shinai. 


There are records of competitions with Irimi Shiai involved, most speaking in favor of those using a longer weapon such as the spear coming out as the victor. There is a documention of such competition called “Taryu Shiaiguchi Narabi ni Montai³”, written by Kasama Yasunao. In it is analyzation of a large martial arts event that consisted of 17 kenjutsu schools competing against 9 sōjutsu schools. Some well-established and renowned schools were involved, such as Shinkage ryu, Takeda Hōzōin ryu, Sekiguchi ryu, and Niten ryu. Very detailed writeup included a description of each school and their  specialties, the methods some schools use to train, and the techniques used during the matches. In the end, the sōjutsu schools prevailed by having the most wins. 

The settings used for Irimi Shiai isn’t just limited to kenjutsu versus sōjutsu. Depending on the participating martial schools, numerous conditions can be set featuring different weapon systems. Over the years, some of the matchups included tachi vs naginata, naginata vs yari, mokujū⁴ vs tachi, and kodachi vs tachi. Despite the weapon styles used, the idea remains the same when concerning Irimi Shiai: one side is trying to get within range to attack, while the other side is trying to maintain range and keep the other out.



While Irimi Shiai is best suited for sports-related martial arts, it’s important to remember that the principles stem from actual combat. During the long warring periods in Japan, certain weapons were considered superior both in use and the strategies applied to them, such as the yari. On top of this, many types of weapons were carried and used by an armor-clad samurai varying in length, and not always was it possible to carry the “superior” weapon at all times. When a samurai armed with an uchigatana5 has to confront an enemy who so happens to have a yari, that samurai must do what it takes to win. This is true even off the battlefield, where warriors may engage in duels with each other, sometimes facing off against specialists in a specific weapon system. Some examples include Bokuden Tsukahara defeating a renown naginata master named Kashiwara Nagato by cutting of the naginata’s blade with his tachi, and Miyamoto Musashi outbesting the famous spear play the monks of Hozoin took pride in.

In Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, the different ryuha studied do not have a “sports” curriculum in it. This doesn’t mean that one cannot use “Irimi Shiai” as a tool to learn, but gives us an advantage of studying this with rules that are more suitable. For example, many forms and techniques found in Kukishinden ryu are designed for fighting in armor, so one can incorporate this in Irimi Shiai. Certain areas in one’s kamae and techniques are naturally protected by armor, so you can use this factor to guide your movements, as well as pick areas that are vulnerable to attacks on your opponent.

For Bikenjutsu, one can practice using their bokken as a shield to get by the blade of a yari. A practitioner can also seize the yari and hold on to both neutralize it and use their other hand to score a winning blow with their bokken. For sōjutsu, one is not limited to just thrusts with the blade of the yari, so all parts (including the ishizuka) can be utilized both offensively and defensively. Understanding the principles of one’s art, Irimi Shiai can be approached much realistically with less restrictions, yet must retain some structure in order to keep this as a method for learning.



This concludes my story on Irimi Shiai. It was a good experience on my end to engage in Irimi Shiai. I believe it would do wonders for others studying martial arts to challenge themselves in such a training method.


1) 入身試合

2) 競技武道

3) 他流試合口並問對

4) 木銃. The mokujū is a wooden replica bayonet for the purpose of training in Jūkendo. The techniques are heavily derived from sōjutsu.

5) 打刀. Uchigatana can be considered the predecessor of the modern katana due to similarities in blade length and shape. This was used as a close-range weapon on the battlefield.

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