The Japanese spear (Jp. hoko, yari) is a relatively simple weapon in terms of parts and production, and while it has never been associated with rank and status like the sword, it nevertheless has a fascinating history.
Together with the bow and the sword, the hoko was one of the earliest weapons used by Japanese warriors since the beginning of recorded history in Japan, and the Kojiki even attributes the creation of the first Japanese island to a heavenly spear. It tells us that the heavenly deities gave the Heavenly Jeweled Spear (Ame-no-nu-boko) to Izanami and Izanagi.
“Thereupon, the two deities stood on the Heavenly Floating Bridge and, lowering the jeweled spear, stirred with it. They stirred the brine with a churning-chuuning sound; and when they lifted up [the spear] again, the brine dripping down from the tip of the spear piled up and became an island. This was the island of Onogoro.”
The spear described in the preface to the Kojiki, as were those produced as early as the Yayoi period (300BCE-300CE), were the hoko 矛. The hoko had a wooden pole that was inserted into a socket at the base of a forged iron blade, reaching some 2-3 meters in total length. In the 8th Century Emperor Tenmu (“Heavenly Warrior”) enacted a new military system of provincial militias that relied on professional soldiers and peasant conscripts. The structure of the new military system was defined in details in the Taiho Law Code (702), including the soldeirs’required skills and weapons. These were mounted archery, swordsmanship, spear wielding, and shooting a crossbow.
Although professional soldiers were ordered to practice the spear, having been mounted made it less desirable. Peasant conscripts, on the other hand, received “bootcamp” training in weapons and field deployment and fighting. The spear, which was probably mass produced and of low quality, and projectile weapons were best suited for the infantry conscripts.
The conscripts system did not last long as professional warriors replaced the poorly trained, and highly uninterested peasants conscripts of the military militia. Together with this shift to professional warriors were changes in war technology and tactics. Mounted archery and the bow as a primary weapon, and swordsmanship and sword as auxilary weapon, replaced the spear and other projectile weapons almost completely. Records mentioning the spear are scarce throughout the Heian and Kamakura periods.
By the late 14th Century a new type of spear, the yari, replaced the hoko. The design of the new spear was similar to that of a sword—a blade with a tang that is inserted into a slot in the wooden pole. The blade itself varied in length, and had three sharp edges. During the 1400s, with the spread of warfare throughout the provinces, the yari became a common weapon on the battlefield. Infantry units specialized in yari battle formations, often carrying a 3-5 meters yari with short blades. Their goal was to advance in a tight formation and raise a wall of blades to stop the advance of enemy infantry and horses while keeping a safe distance.
During this age of warfare that continued until the early years of the Tokugawa bakufu (i.e., Osaka Campaign), new types of yari blades were manufactured, including the jumonji-yari, kama-yari and others.
During the Tokugawa (Edo) period, with the formalization of martial traditions (ryuha 流派), description of yari techniques were recorded by a few traditions, most of which focused on the single-blade, and approximately 2.5 meters long yari. Some martial traditions, most notably the Hozo’in tradition, preferred the extra-long yari of over 3 meters in length.
The recorded yari techniques focus on thrusting and stabbing, but combine slashing and striking in the techniques. In the video demonstration below all such possibilities are displayed.