One of many of weapons of the Japanese and Okinawan arsenal is the yari (槍). A yari is a spear favored by samurai and warrior monks in Japan’s past. There are many types of yari and each system had its own indigenous techniques. Yari is the weapon of sojutsu, a Japanese art. In Arizona, we found only one instructor of sojutsu, Soke Hausel at the Arizona School of Traditional Karate in Mesa.
The yari is thought to have originated in China. However, some suggest it is as old as Japan itself. When Japanese ancestors picked up sticks to hunt fish, they created a spear. Since no one recorded this event, we are left to speculation as to when this might have occurred.
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 the blade of a samurai sword. With this in mind, one should 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 full tang and unique metallurgy and sword-smithing 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 the islands we now know as Japan. This legend is very old. Even so, Draeger and Smith (1980) indicate the use of spears on the Japanese islands is older than the 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 it is important to separate spears into the three categories.
Kapp and others (2002) report hoko yari originated in China and this weapon was exported to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794 AD). Such Chinese spears consisted of wavy-shaped blades mounted on a 6-foot pole. The side of hoko yari often contained a Kama (sickle) blade used for slicing or chopping. The base of the primary blade had a hollow socket that simply slipped over a pole rather than into the pole – in other words, it did not have a tang.
The hoko-yari likely produced some interesting moments on the battlefield, when a foot soldier 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). Visualize a young Japanese soldier of the 8th century on a battlefield for the first time swinging a hoko yari with a focused downward cut using every drop of adrenalin, just to have the blade fly off before striking his intended target.
This happened at a University of Wyoming kobudo class many years ago. 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 at the University of Wyoming. I’m sure some 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 and struck the tatami (mats) on the shomen wall with a loud report that echoed throughout the gym and down the halls. 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 –there were no warnings.
I learned a valuable lesson: you cannot trust any martial arts practice weapons or garden tools purchased from any martial arts supply house (or local garden shop) – most are junk and not made for kumite (sparring), kata practice, bunkai training, and all should consider wearing safety goggles because of this danger. As a result, Sensei Borea purchased garden hoes from a local hardware store in Gilbert, Arizona for use in our hombu dojo in Mesa. He drilled holes through each shaft and added a screw to keep the blades from flying off.
Martial arts practice weapons are a serious problem. A few years ago at a kioga clinic in Casper most attendees had new kioga (asp) purchased from a well-known, popular martial arts outlet. Before the clinic was over, half had fallen apart. At one martial arts demonstration at a University of Wyoming basketball game, 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 short hoko.
During the Heian Period (794-1184 AD) which followed the Nara Period, Japanese sword-smiths progressed to a point that their blade work exceeded all others. Their smithing and metallurgy resulted in some of the strongest and enduring blades in history. These sword-smiths 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. Some were very long.
Yari of the Heian Period were unique in quality, sharpness, metallurgy, smithing and method for mounting on the pole-arm. They were also unique because the blades were like a double-edged knife and used for slicing as well as for thrusting. The edges of most yari were razor sharp. These had full tang to keep young soldiers from losing blades and soiling their 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 nunte). The nunte bo was an Okinawan spear with three prongs. The two shorter prongs were directed in opposite directions producing a blade to look similar to a swastika. During the Heian Period, most yari were su-yari (straight bladed). Later in the period, naginata were developed with curved, single-edged blades (Sinclair, 2001).
During Kamakura times (1185-1333 AD), Japanese metallurgy continued 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 yari was more effective). The sword was considered the soul of samurai; as a result, it became the favored weapon of samurai. So-hei (warrior priests of militant Buddhist sects) chose yari and naginata as weapons.
Both yari and naginata had an advantage of reach. 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. 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) yari lost favor with samurai and greater emphasis was placed on katana and close quarters combat. Even so, some yari were produced, but mostly for ceremonial use. Some of more interesting varieties of yari 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 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 sword smiths: Kodansha International, 95 p.
- Sinclaire, C., 2001. Samurai: The weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior: The Lyons Press: 144 p.