Ben Miller

The Spear in Japanese Martial Culture

In Martial Arts, Military, Weapons and Armor on January 31, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Article by David Black Mastro

In various martial cultures around the world, the sword is held in the utmost esteem–it is a weapon that has transcended its original role as a tool of war, and it is thus also seen as a symbol of power, justice, and so on. As the great European swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton once wrote, “The history of the sword is the history of humanity”.

That being said, the aura of romance surrounding the sword has done much to cloud the fact that there are, in fact, other edged weapons which are far more formidable.   Among the numerous hand weapons which fighting men have developed over the centuries, the simple spear is perhaps the greatest, and most misunderstood.

The Japanese have always had a very strong martial culture, and they did not ignore the development of the spear. Early Japanese spears were of the hoko type, made with a metal socket which the wooden shaft fitted in–much like Continental Asian and European spears. According to Donn F. Draeger in his classic text Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, the hoko remained in use from c. 200 B.C./B.C.E., to the late Heian or early Kamakura period (c. late 12th century A.D./C.E.). Then, the Japanese developed their distinctive yari, which featured a spearhead with a very long tang, that was fitted into a hollowed-out portion in the shaft of the weapon.

From a purely combative sense, the great advantage of the spear was obviously its superior reach. For a swordsman, facing a spearman is a daunting prospect. Draeger’s protege, Hunter B. Armstrong, commented on this in his excellent article, “Owari Kan Ryu Sojutsu–Classical Japanese Spear Arts”, which appeared in the February 1998 issue of Exotic Martial Arts Around the World. Armstrong correctly noted that “it was the spear that dominated the battlefield,” and, “In a one-on-one combat between a spearman and swordsman, the sword had little chance.”

Practitioners from other martial cultures have noted this truism. In his Paradoxes of Defence from 1599, the great English swordsman George Silver wrote that, “The short staff (quarterstaff) or half pike (spear) have the vantage against the… two hand sword, the sword and target (round shield), and are too hard for two swords and daggers…” In other words, a spearman could safely engage and defeat two men armed with sword-and-dagger, facing him at once. 

The great difficulty for the swordsman in facing a spearman lies in the fact that the spearman can make what are generally referred to today as “slip-thrusts”–i.e., a thrust delivered with the rear hand, where the shaft of the spear slides through the loose grip of the forward hand (similar to using a pool stick). The use of slip-thrusts makes it extremely difficult for the swordsman to judge the ma-ai (combative engagement distance, what Western swordsmen refer to as “fencing measure”). The spearman can thus make feints high and low, to the outside and inside lines, and is himself safe from counters, since the swordsman cannot immediately reach him.

The Japanese took the slip-thrust concept & technique to its most extreme, by sometimes making use of a small metal tube (kuda), which fits around the spear shaft, and is held by the forward hand of the spearman. With the kuda, the slip-thrusts can be made with even greater speed, due to the reduced friction. Kan Ryu sojutsu–which makes use of a yari nearly 12 feet long–features the use of the kuda.

Another advantage of the yari–one not featured on all spears around the world–is the fact that it also has functional cutting edges. Yari heads are typically of a stout triangular cross-section, and have two edges. The spearman can therefore make sweeping cuts to various parts of the opponent’s body, in addition to thrusts.

Yari were available with a variety of spearheads. In addition to the conventional head described above, there were some yari that featured a crossbar called a hadome, at the base of the head (similar to the crossbar or toggle seen on European boar spears), which could be used for parrying and trapping. In addition, there were yari with more elaborate heads, like the magari-yari (also known as the jumonji yari), with side blades more or less perpendicular to the main blade. These side blades apparently could function like a hadome, but they were also sharpened, giving the spearman more cutting options. During the 16th century, when the Portuguese arquebus (a type of matchlock musket) entered the Japanese arsenal, the nagae-yari or long spear was developed, which, at some 16 feet or more in length, was akin to the European pike. The nagae-yari was used by the ashigaru (lit., “light feet”), the footsoldiers of peasant stock who served as pikemen and arquebusiers. These organized infantrymen represented a Japanese parallel to the rank-and-file Swiss reislaufer and German landsknechte–low-born footsoldiers who could use the reach of the pike and the even greater reach of the arquebus, to down their social betters (the samurai and knights, respectively). 

 A weapon as devastating as the yari was naturally bound to produce its share of legendary users. Author Anthony Bryant, in his Osprey book, Samurai 1550-1600, noted the great Watanabe Hanzo, who was one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s retainers. He was so skilled in spear-fighting that he ultimately gained the nickname “Yari no Hanzo” (lit., “Hanzo of the Spear”). Another famous spearman was Kato Kiyomasa, one of the commanders in Hideyoshi’s army that invaded Korea in 1592. During lulls in the fighting, Kiyomasa was known to hunt tigers, using only a spear. This was yet another example of professional fighting men hunting and/or fighting big, dangerous game using spears, as an adjunct to their military training. Northern Europeans often hunted wild boar with spears, and Spanish knights engaged in bullfighting with swords and lances. While such practices may seem repugnant to the modern mind, they nevertheless require substantial skill, and a great deal of nerve.

 Even after the demise of the Feudal bushi in the mid-19th century A.D./C.E., spear technique did not die. Just as European pike and half-pike technique survived in the use of the bayonet, so did Japanese sojutsu contribute to juken-jutsu. And so the spear–one of Man’s earliest weapons–tenaciously refuses to be forgotten. Though it lacks the popular mystique of the sword, its sheer effectiveness and practicality cannot be denied.

For further reading:

 Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith

Classical Bujutsu–The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan Vol. One by Donn F. Draeger

 Samurai 1550-1600 by Anthony Bryant (Osprey Warrior Series 7)

Samurai Warfare by Dr. Stephen Turnbull

 Samurai–The weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior by Clive Sinclair

 “Owari Kan Ryu Sojutsu–Classical Japanese Spear Arts”, by Hunter B. Armstrong (from the February 1998 issue of Exotic Martial Arts Around the World)

 Paradoxes of Defence by George Silver

 The Book of the Sword by Richard F. Burton

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  1. Great article, amazing man.

  2. Great article! I’m writing a fantasy story with a spear wielder and I want her to use Sōjutsu but I’m having trouble finding articles about the techniques. Which of these books goes more in the technique of using a yari?

    Thanks again for this post!

  3. Very interesting article regarding spears and swors there and the tactics. Many thanks for an interesting read 🙂

  4. Thanks, bro… I probably should. I would love to do so.

  5. Dave, you have to write a book one of these days!

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