Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Japanese Spear - Sojutsu in Arizona


One of many weapons in the Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate Renmei arsenal taught at the Arizona School of Traditional Karate in Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa Arizona is the yari (), or better known as the Japanese spear. This martial arts weapon, along with other samurai weapons are taught to members of the Arizona School of Traditional Karate in Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert, Arizona, and to our Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Kai members in North America. 

The yari is a spear, once favored by some samurai and warrior monks in Japan’s past. There are many types of yari and each one had its own indigenous techniques as well as interchangeable techniques from yari to yari. Yari is the weapon of sojutsu, a Japanese martial art.

The origin of yari is described by some to be of Chinese origin. However, others suggest yari is as old as Japan itself. For example, when Japanese ancestors picked up sticks to hunt game and fish, they created their first spear. Since no one was recording this event, we are left to speculation as to when it may have occurred. But before we continue with this discussion, we need to define what a yari is? Is it just a spear used by the Japanese, or is it a Japanese spear (unique to Japanese culture)?

Some suggest a yari is simply a spear: others suggest a yari is a spear with a full tang that slid within a pole much like katana (samurai sword) blades. In the following, we separate spears into three categories: (1) early spears (hoko) use by Japanese ancestors, (2) yari-like spears (hoko yari) that originated in China, and (3) spear blades (yari) with a full tang and unique metallurgy and swordsmithing that was indigenous to Japan.

According to Japanese folklore, a god named Izanagi no mikoto stood at the Bridge of Heaven and thrust a hoko into the earth’s ocean. As he withdrew the hoko, tiny, shinning drops fell from the weapon back into the ocean to form islands we now know as Japan. This legend is very old and Draeger and Smith (1980) indicate the use of spears on the Japanese islands is older than legend, and spears likely existed on Japan as early as 200 BC. Others argue that spears appeared much later in Japanese history, but this is likely an argument of semantics, which is why I separated spears into the three categories above.

Kapp and others (2002) report hoko yari originated in China and was exported to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794 AD). These Chinese spears typically consisted of wavy-shaped blades mounted on a 6-foot pole. The side of hoko yari often had kama (sickle) used for slicing or chopping. The base of the primary blade was a hollow socket that simply slipped over a pole rather than into the pole – in other words, it did not have a tang.

Dennis Ingram practices sojutsu with Dai-Shihan Neal Adam, 6th dan, at the Arizona
School of Traditional Karate
I can almost guarantee the hoko-yari produced some interesting moments on the battlefield, when a foot soldier, or an angry Buddhist priest lost their spear blade as it flew off the pole similar to what we periodically see in dojo today with low-cost katana that do not have full tang, or cheaply made tonfa with tsuka (handle) poorly attached to the monouchi (baton shaft). I visualize a young Japanese soldier of the 8th century on a battlefield for the first time swinging his hoko yari with a focused downward cut using every drop of adrenalin, just to have the blade fly off before striking his intended target. Now armed only with a bo I imagine hearing a loud gulp with a loss of bodily functions as the opposing forces made their way toward him with blades drawn – makes you wonder how fast a soldier could run.

This happened to me (just the part of losing the blade, not the latter). I had just purchased a modern garden hoe (kuwa) from a garden shop in Laramie that had a blade attached like a hoko yari. The blade simply slid over the end of the handle. I took my new kuwa to the evening class in the Education Gym on the University of Wyoming campus. I’m sure some University of Wyoming Campus Shorin-Ryu Karate and Kobudo club members still remember this event. Luckily, I was facing the dojo shomen so no one was in front of me when I swung the kuwa down with full focus for an atama uchi (head strike) at my imaginary opponent: the kuwa blade shot off the handle like a guided missile! The blade struck the tatami (mats) on the shomen wall with a loud report that echoed throughout the gym and down the halls of the Education Building. I checked my garden kuwa (made in China of course) to see if it had any warning labels stating that the tool should not be swung, used for self-defense, or used as a garden implement – of course there were no warnings.

I learned a valuable lesson: you cannot trust any martial arts practice weapon or garden tool purchased from any martial arts supply house (or local garden shop) – most are junk and not made for kumite (sparring), kata practice, bunkai training let alone any kind of use other than mounting them on the wall. One should consider wearing safety goggles because of this danger. As a result, Sensei Bill Borea purchased garden hoes from a local hardware store in Gilbert, Arizona for use in our hombu dojo in Mesa Arizona. He drilled holes through each shaft and added a screw to keep the blades from flying off. This helps keep our Arizona Martial Artists safe.

Martial arts practice weapons are a problem. A few years ago I taught a kioga clinic in Casper, Wyoming and most attendees had new kioga purchased from a well-known, popular martial arts outlet. Before the clinic was over, half had fallen apart. And at one of the many martial arts demonstrations we performed at a University of Wyoming basketball games, my uke and I were demonstrating a fighting kata between bo and tonfa. The very first strike of my tonfa broke my uke’s bo in half and she had to end the kata with a hanbo.

During the Heian Period (794-1184 AD) which followed the Nara Period, Japanese swordsmiths progressed to a point that their blade work exceeded all others in the world. Their smithing and metallurgy resulted in some of the strongest and enduring blades in history. These swordsmiths produced yari and naginata blades using the same methods they used to manufacture katana (sword) blades. The naginata and yari blades were mounted on poles of varying lengths designed to outreach their opponents’ sword. And some were very long.

Yari of the Heian Period were unique in quality, sharpness, metallurgy, smithing and method for mounting on the polearm. They were also unique because the blades were like a double-edged knife and used for slicing as well as for thrusting (see photo of a su-yari to the right). The edges of most yari were razor sharp. These had a full tang to keep young soldiers from losing blades and soiling pants. In addition to the blade, the pole arm was used for thrusting and had a weighted pommel known as a hirumaki. The side of the pole could also be used for striking or unbalancing an enemy.

Some blades came with sharpened horns or cross blades known as jumonji yari (also known as magari yari). These looked like a cross and were similar in shape to the Japanese number 10. Ten translates as ‘ju’, thus the origin of the root of jumonji. Some jumonji also had cross bars similar to the Okinawan nunte bo (also known as nunti). The nunte bo was an Okinawan spear with three prongs. The two shorter prongs were directed in opposite directions making the blade to look like a swastika. During the Heian Period, most yari were su-yari (straight bladed). Later in the period, naginata were developed that had curved, single-edged blades (Sinclair, 2001).

During Kamakura times (1185-1333 AD), Japanese metallurgy had continue to progress. The bushi (samurai warrior) had grown accustomed to their swords which were portable and fast. It is said that excellent swordsmen could defeat spearman (Draeger and Smith, 1980) (other authors disagree and suggest the yari was more effective). The sword was considered the soul of samurai and could not be dispensed with, as a result, it became the favored weapon of samurai. So-hei (warrior priests of militant Buddhist sects) chose yari and naginata as weapons.

Our staff samurai at the Arizona School of Traditional Karate in Mesa,
Gilbert with practice naginata.
Both yari and naginata had an advantage of reach against horse-mounted samurai. Near the latter half of the 16th century, Japanese foot soldiers known as ashigaru were armed with long pikes (nagae yari) to stop cavalry. Sinclaire (2001) reports yari were as long as 18 feet while most were 10 and 12 feet in length. There are reports of some that were even longer. The foot soldiers marched into battle with their nagae yari to stop the charge of cavalry, while others carried shorter su yari, arquebusiers (muzzle-loaded firearms) and yumi (bows).

During the Edo era (1603-1868 AD) the yari lost the favor of samurai as greater emphasis was placed on katana and close quarters combat. Even so, some yari were still produced, but mostly for ceremonial use. Some of more interesting varieties of yari that were used at various times in history include: (1) sankaku yari which had a triangular cross-section designed to penetrate armor; (2) kikuchi yari had a single sharpen edge similar to katana, (3) yajiri nari yari had a very broad spade-shaped blade; (5) the kama yari had one horn projecting from the base of the blade and looked similar to a jumonji yari, but was asymmetrical; (6) the katakama yari looked like a pitch fork with two prongs; (7) the tsuki nari yari had a crescent-shaped blade for slashing and hooking; (8) sasaho yari had a bamboo leaf shaped blade; (9) makura yari known as a pillow yari, was kept by one’s bed for protection at night and the (10) naga yari had a short pole and used like a javelin.

  • Draeger, D.E., and Smith, R.W., 1980, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts: Kodansha International, 207 p.
  • Kapp, L, Kapp, H., Yoshihara, Y, 2002, Modern Japanese swords and swordsmiths: Kodansha International, 95 p.
  • Sinclaire, C., 2001. Samurai: The weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior: The Lyons Press: 144 p.