Naginata is a bladed weapon made of a long pole at the end of which is mounted a curved blade, both pole and blade of varying lengths. The English translation for the name naginata differs among Western scholars, but most common translations are “halberd” and “glaive.” In historical Japanese sources naginata is written 薙刀 (“shaving” blade), in reference to a blade for shortening the grass or hair, or 長刀 (“long” blade), which likely alludes to a long sword. Another similar pole-arm with a short pole and especially long blade is the nagamaki 長巻, but one should be careful not to assume that naginata pre-dated nagamaki or vice-versa simply because the records are vague about the first usage of both weapons.
The earliest written records that mention a naginata 長刀 are from the 11th Century, but the details and accuracy are vague. By the late 12th Century, as Japan entered the Kamakura period (1185-1333) the naginata has become more widely used by warriors and warrior monks (sohei 僧兵), albeit the depiction of warrior monks in clergy robes, wearing head covers and wooden sandals (geta), and waving long-blade naginata is highly exaggerated in visual records. These records of battles and scenes that occurred between the 10th and 14th centuries were actually produced by uninformed artists more than two centuries later. Contemporary written records describe warrior monks in battle wearing armor and appearing indistinguishable from common warriors. For example, depictions of the most famous warrior monk Musashibo Benkei were published for the first time in the 17th Century in the stereotypical but otherwise imaginary appearance of a warrior monk. Regardless of these inaccuracies, the naginata, for some time in the early medieval period, has been a primary weapon of warriors and some clergy.
As for the technical specifications of the naginata, its pole was made of wood, plain or lacquered, and approximately 5-6 shaku in length. The iron blade was produced in a process similar to that of a sword, but unlike the sword it had a wide blade with a dip curve, measuring approximately 1.5-2 shaku. Some records mention O-naginata 大長刀 (“big” naginata) such as the one used by Ouchi-no-suke Yoshihiro, measuring 3.1 shaku, or even bigger O-naginata of more than 6 shaku used by a warrior of the Kumano region. The O-naginata may very well have been a nagamaki, which normally had a blade measuring approximately between 2.5 to 3.5 shaku. It is also wise to keep in mind that historical records often embellish the description of weapons and events for various reasons.
While the technical advantage of the naginata is clear, it was not a weapon widely used on the battlefield after the Kamakura period. There are a number of reasons for that. First, projectile weapons were always primary to others. First were the bow and arrows, then firearms that were more effective than any other weapon on the open field. Second, specifically regarding the naginata, were the high cost of production, long training and high skills required, and the difficulty of using it in large and crowded battles of the Muromachi and Sengoku periods. If we examine the battle records for the years 1333-94, for example, only 2% of the wounds were caused by naginata, while 73% were caused by arrows, indicating only minor usage of this weapon.
The naginata was an especially effective weapon for close combat of few participants. The combination of a long pole that could reach farther than any sword, together with a well curved wide blade gave it a considerable cutting power, and could also deliver effective stabbing.
In the following demonstration the naginata used is typical of the Edo period, with a lacquered pole and ornamental metal features. The techniques, however, are universal and could be used with any kind of naginata or nagamaki.