Monday, May 6, 2013

Samurai Arts (Naginata) in Arizona

Rich Mendolia prepares to attack Ryan Harden during naginata training.
Naginata-jutsu is a rare martial art in the West and even rarer in Arizona. Only one martial arts school teaches this ancient samurai weapon in the Phoenix valley - the Arizona School of Traditional Martial Arts on the border of Gilbert and Mesa on Baseline Road. The instructor of naginata has certification as Menkyo Shihan (master instructor) in this art. Essentially equivalent to a 5th dan in the modern gendai martial arts. Soke Hausel, the instructor, is also a Junidan in Karate and Kobudo - the highest rank awarded in these arts.

One of samurai class defending her dojo. Actually, this is Sensei Paula Borea training with a wooden naginata.
Paula is a descendant of a Japanese samurai.
Soke Hausel, Grandmaster of Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu and head of
 Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Kai shows rack of kobudo weapons.
The naginata is rarely seen in most martial arts schools, although it was relatively common on the Japanese battlefields during the reign of the samurai. Certifications (menkyo) in naginata are typically given in Koryu dojo, although there are modern Gendai dojo that offer dan ranks in naginata-jutsu.

The naginata (なぎなた, 薙刀) is also taught at the JKI Hombu, located in Texas. When one trains in this art, most wear a white or black uwagi (jacket) or keikogi hakama as naginata is a very traditional Japanese art. For those who have not trained in hakama, it is a clumsy piece of clothing for men, as it is bloused, pleated pants (similar to a skirt) that is easy to trip over until one gets use to it. It seems women never have a problem with hakama.

The naginata is considered a Japanese samurai weapon. It was just one of several bladed weapons in the arsenal of the samurai class of Japan. A halberd, or pole arm, the naginata had a long wooden pole for a handle that was attached to a curved blade with tsuba (guard between the blade and pole similar to that on a katana). The length of the blade and pole for naginata varied.

Naginata means ‘mowing down sword’ or ‘reaping sword’. The dictionary defines ‘reaping’ as ‘harvesting with a sickle’. This definition provides a very good visual of what the weapon is designed to do. When you train with naginata and in particular Naginata-Dai kata, this will give you the impression of mowing down aggressors – particularly when you perform a series of 360o propeller-like cuts.

In old Japan, naginata varied in size. The shaft was reported to range from 5 to 9 shaku and blade 1 to 3 shaku (a shaku equals 0.994 feet). The blade of some naginata were thought to have been recycled from katana (see William Deal, 2007, Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan. Oxford University Press. pp. 432) while other blades were likely forged for naginata.

The shape of the blade sort of reminds one of a banana: curved to a point. The portion of the blade (tang) that enters the handle should be almost as long as the blade itself. This will assure that the naginata is sound and hold together under most any kind of abuse.

The shaft of naginata was equipped with a pommel known as an ishizuki. The ishizuki was designed as a counterweight and as a striking surface to attack between armor plates of an enemy. Similar pommel are found on yari (spear). Unlike most pole arms, the shaft of the naginata was oval shaped to allow samurai to ‘feel’ the orientation of the blade while swinging the weapon during combat.

Naginata-ka of today often wear bogu similar to those worn by kendo practitioners to allow them to engage in combat using wooden training weapons. The bogu is gear that provides protection from powerful blows.

Like many weapons in martial arts, the origin of naginata is uncertain. Even so, many have suggested it descended from the Chinese Guan Dao. Others have pointed out that the naginata had been used by Japanese for many centuries all the way back to the Heian Period (794 to 1185 AD). Other researchers claim the naginata was used even earlier by sohei (warrior monks) during the Nara Period (710 to 794 AD).

During one of many wars in Japan (1180–1185 AD), naginata rose to a position prominence as an effective weapon. Cavalry battles had become important by this time and the naginata proved effective in disabling riders. During the Edo Period (1603 to 1868 AD) the naginata became less common on the battlefield, and instead was adopted as a symbol of social status for women of the samurai class and the naginata was often given as a part of a samurai daughter's dowry. Although women did not typically fight on the battlefield, those of the samurai class were expected to defend their homes (and dojo) when necessary. An excellent example was a famous female samurai by the name of Itagaki who led a garrison of 3,000 warriors from Toeisakayama Castle against ten thousand warriors dispatched to take the castle. Itagaki led her troops out of the castle killing a significant number of the attackers before being overpowered.

Koryu Naginata training became part of the public school curriculum in Japan after the Menji Restoration (1868). After world war II, martial arts training was banned on Japan for five years and then in 1950, a modern system of naginata training known as atarashii naginata (new naginata) was developed. This system is primarily practiced as a gendai sport with emphasis on etiquette.

Soke Hausel dons hakima in Gilbert, Arizona
Although considerably smaller numbers of practitioners still train in a number of koryu bujutsu systems (old school martial arts) of combative naginatajutsu that including Araki-Ryu, Tendo-Ryu, Jikishinkage Ryu, Higo Koryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-Ryu, Toda-ha Buko-Ryu, Yoshin-Ryu and Dai-Yoshin Ryu.




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