Thursday, April 10, 2014

Arizona Sojutsu - Ancient Samurai Martial Arts

The Itsukushima Shrine, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. Photo by Andy Finley, Hanshi

One of several Japanese/Okinawan samurai (pechin) arts taught at the Arizona Hombu dojo is  sojutsu, a martial art that employs yari (spear) as a weapon. Sojutsu training includes kata along with many techniques (waza) and kata applications (bunkai).

Some sensei at Juko Kai International teach these koryu arts. If you were to train in most of these samurai arts, such as sojutsu, you would most likely have to move to Japan, as few in the US teach these. Yari is a spear that was favored by some samurai and warrior monks in Japan's past. Yari is just one of a group of nihonto (Japanese blades) (日本刀) that include yari (), naginata (薙刀), katana (), wakizashi (脇差), seoidachi (also known as odachi - 大太刀), and tanto (短刀). When I was in the US Army, we trained with bayonets fixed to an M16, but of course, this was a modern martial art. 

Sojutsu clinic, Arizona Hombu Dojo, Mesa. Todd Stoneking, 8th dan
of Murray, Utah leads the 2018 Arizona-Utah Hombu annual clinic
attendees in kata using yari. Not everyone had yari, thus,
using a bo with an imaginary blade, can provide a substitute.
Some historians assume the yari originated in China; however, other historians suggest the spear is as old as Japan, itself. When the Japanese ancestors picked up sticks to hunt game and fish, they created the first Japanese spear. Since no one recorded this event, we are left to speculate when and where it occurred.

Some suggest yari is simply a spear, others suggest to be a true yari, the blade must have a full tang and the tang must slide inside a pole similar to the tang of a katana (samurai sword). Even so, researchers separate Japanese spears into categories to include: (1) hoko or the early spears use by Japanese ancestors, (2) hoko yari or yari-like spears that originated in China, and (3) yari blades with a full tang that exhibit unique metallurgy and swordsmith characteristics 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 ocean. As he withdrew the hoko, shinny drops fell from the weapon and formed the Japan islands. This legend is very old and Draeger and Smith (1980) suggest the use of spears on the Japanese islands was older than the legend, and spears likely existed on Japan as early as 200 BC. Others argue spears appeared later in Japanese history, but this is likely an argument of semantics, which is why spears are separated into three categories.

Kapp and others (2002) reported 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 6-foot long poles. The side of these hoko yari often includes a kama (sickle) blade which was used for slicing and chopping. The base of the primary blade had a hollow socket that slipped over a pole rather than into the pole – in other words, it did not have a tang.

Ben blocks sword (katana) attack by Amira using the pommel end
of yari during a 2016 clinic at the Arizona Hombu Dojo in Mesa.
Hoko-yari likely 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 when students use low-cost katana that do not have full tang, or cheaply made tonfa purchased from most of the popular martial arts equipment outlets. I can visualize a young Japanese soldier on an 8th century battlefield swinging a hoko yari with great focus stirred by adrenalin just to have the blade fly off before striking the intended target. Armed only with a bo I imagine hearing a loud "gulp" followed by loss of bodily functions as the opposing forces made their way toward him with blades drawn – makes you wonder how fast he could run.

This happened to me (just the part of losing the blade, not the latter). I purchased a modern garden hoe (kuwa) from a garden shop in Laramie, Wyoming 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 Building Gym on the University of Wyoming campus and I’m sure some members of the club 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 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 of the Education Building. I checked my garden hoko kuwa (made in China of course) to see if it had any warning labels stating it should not be swung or used in self-defense – there were no warnings.

I learned a valuable lesson: you cannot trust 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, bunkai training let alone everyday use, and we should all consider wearing safety goggles because of this danger. As another example of the junk sold by these martial arts outlets, after the arrival of an eku I purchased from a well-known martial arts supply house, the very first time I swung the weapon in the air, it snapped in half!

Ben Moeur blocks sword attack by Amira Rodriguez using his yari during samurai arts clinic in 2016 in Mesa, AZ
When O'Sensei Bill 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. Then I picked up a kuwa from the Mekong Plaza in Mesa. The kuwa has a very heavy blade that Sensei Borea reinforced as he did with the other hoes. It should now make a formable kobudo weapon.

Martial arts practice weapons are a problem. A few years ago I taught an expandable baton clinic in Casper, Wyoming and Hanshi Andy Finley purchased new kioga from the same, well-known, popular martial arts outlet. Before the clinic was over, half of the batons had self-destructed.

At a martial arts demonstration at a University of Wyoming basketball game we also had a weapon malfunction that other Wyoming martial artists will remember. My uke and I were demonstrating a fighting kata between bo and tonfa. With the first block of my tonfa, my uke’s bo broke in half - she ended the kata with a short hoko yari.

During the Heian Period (794-1184 AD), Japanese sword smiths progressed to a point that their blade work exceeded all others in the world. Japanese 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 for manufacture of katana 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 a pole arm. They were also unique because the blades were like a double-edged knife and good for slicing and thrusting. The edges of most yari were razor sharp. These had full tang to keep young soldiers from losing blades and soiling pants. In addition to the blade, the handle was used for thrusting and had a weighted pommel known as a hirumaki. The side of the pole was also used for striking.

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 (aka nunti). The nunte bo was an Okinawan spear with three prongs. The two shorter prongs were directed in opposite directions. During the Heian Period, most yari were su-yari (straight blades). Later in the period, naginata were introduced with curved, single-edged blades (Sinclair, 2001).

During Kamakura times (1185-1333 AD), Japanese metallurgy progressed greatly. The bushi (samurai warrior) had grown accustomed to their swords which were portable and fast. It is said that excellent swordsmen could defeat a spearman (Draeger and Smith, 1980). The sword was considered the soul of samurai and became the favored weapon of samurai. The so-hei (warrior priests of militant Buddhist sects) chose yari and naginata as weapons.

Both yari and naginata had an advantage of reach over 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 defend against cavalry charges. Sinclaire (2001) reports yari were as long as 18-feet while most were 10- and 12-feet-long. Foot soldiers marched into battle with their nagae yari to stop the cavalry, while others carried shorter su yari, arquebusiers (muzzle-loaded firearms) and yumi (bows).

During the Edo era (1603-1868 AD) the yari lost favor as the samurai placed greater emphasis on katana and close quarters combat. Even so, some yari were still produced, but mostly were ceremonial.

  • 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.
  • Soke Hausel, world head of Seiyo Kai Shorin-Ryu Karate & Kobudo
    demonstrates yari at the Arizona Hombu in Mesa, Arizona
  • Sinclaire, C., 2001. Samurai: The weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior: The Lyons Press: 144 p.


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