A few years ago I wrote an article for the previous dojo I was in about a Japanese weapon called the nagamaki. This article was to help support the training theme for that year. Since then I continued to do research on it, which also went in the direction of learning more about the nodachi (the roots of the nagamaki), as well as the nakamaki (predecessor to the nagamaki). For my blog, I would like to share the progression of my research and focus this post on both the nakamaki and nagamaki.
BEGINS WITH NODACHI
Taking a brief look into Japanese history, the birth of the nagamaki was around the late Kamakura period (1185-1333) to early Muromachi period (1338–1573). With the Ashikaga clan in power, new methods of warfare were being implemented. Soldiers and warriors alike began to take pride in very long-bladed swords called nodachi (野太刀), or also known as ōdachi (大太刀). These swords had an appeal over the regular tachi due to their superior length and reach.While those with strong arms were able to wield these long swords, in the long run they proved difficult to utilize properly due the imbalance in weight distribution between the blade and handle. To rectify this, the swords went under different modifications. One route had their regular-sized handles replaced by longer handles, and from the sword guards up to the midpoint of the swordblade was leather or silk wrapped, which had these swords labeled as nakamaki (中巻).
Despite the improvements, such as added support of bearing the weight with one’s hand on the wrapping, the nakamaki did not fully meet the expectations desired. With considerations on a way that did not sacrifice efficient use, yet another design was put into motion. Taking these same long swords, their handles were replaced with even longer length handles, while leather or silk was wrapped around the middle of these long handles as added support. This change gave these particular swords the label nagamaki (長巻).
A long sword with a longer than normal tsuka (handle) with fabric wrapping from the middle of the blade down. Note that “nakamaki” is a shorthand name. The full name is said to be “nakamaki nodachi”, as these are still nodachi (or otherwise called ōdachi).
The wrappings around the blade for the nakamaki allowed a warrior to hold there for better balance. A means to make the nodachi/ōdachi more manageable, one would think that techniques for long swords would apply here. Fortunately, koryu bujutsu schools such as Koden Enshin ryu (古伝圓心流) and Jigen ryu (示現流) have demonstrated publicly their use of such long swords, which can easily be viewed online. Whereas in Enshin ryu the drawing of, as well as the manner for cutting with, the ōdachi is displayed, in Jigen ryu it is shown in simpler usages, such as enhancing the training of kenjutsu. There may be more to the nodachi/ōdachi for each of these schools, so we do have to keep an open-mind for more that is not shown.
As for the nakamaki, one example that is very informative comes from the Shunpukan dojo, which is a Shinkage ryu branch (新陰流) of the Kanbe line. This particular branch has kata for ōdachi. Surprisingly, the ōdachi also incorporates wrapping on the blade. This appears to be similar, if not the same, to a nakamaki.
Screen captures of the ōdachi (nakamaki style) in use. To see the actual videos, click on the links here or here.
With the wrapping around the blade, a warrior can safely manipulate a nakamaki as the weight is better distributed. Note that while this is a necessity here, it is not unusual to do the same even for a shorter length sword. In numerous kenjutsu and battō/iai styles, there are techniques such as where a practitioner places one hand (usually the left hand) on the back of their in order to assist in thrusting the sword forward like a yari (spear), or to block & push away an oncoming sword cut as if handling it like a bō. In fact, in some kenjutsu schools this method is called “kenbō” (剣棒).
A nagamaki is a long sword fitted with an extremely long tsuka, which has leather or silk wrapped around the center of the tsuka. Note that nagamaki is a shorthand name, for the full name of this is recorded as “nagamaki koshirae no nodachi”, and “nagamaki nodachi”. Much like the nakamaki, the nagamaki is categorized as a sword.
The handle of the nagamaki is the same as that for a normal katana, as it is designed in a similar fashion, only longer. There are cases of the handle being slightly curved (reminiscent of past battlefield swords’ curved handle) or straight. The te no uchi (or method of handling in English) for the nagamaki is said to be the same as that for the katana, where the right hand is on top and there is no switching from right to left like a bō. That being said, this doesn’t mean that the nagamaki doesn’t have any unique traits of its own; with the added handle length the nagamaki gains additional usages similar to polearms, such as larger sweeping motion similar to a naginata. This is key to remember.
Koryu bujutsu schools that have techniques for the nagamaki are few. While it would make sense for nagamaki training to match that of kenjutsu, from my research and personal experience, it tends to parallel that of naginatajutsu. Why is this? There is an interesting relationship between the nagamaki and the naginata, which will be touched upon in the next paragraph.
NAGINATA OR NAGAMAKI?
The naginata (薙刀), Japan’s version of a glaive, was in use around the Heian period. This was distinguished as a polearm, or naga-e (長柄) in Japanese. There are quite some comparisons to the nagamaki. In reality they are not the same, yet it appears the line blurs due to how some koryu bujutsu schools retain their unique knowledge.
By design, the difference between the 2 weapons are as follow:
- has a longer shaft, as a polearm
- features a shorter blade
- more defined curve in the blade, and is more wider
- has a tachiuchi (metal wires wrapped under tsuba)
- bottom end is an ishizuki (metal piece at the end of the shaft)
- has a long handle, as a sword
- features a longer blade
- blade has a slight curve and is slimmer
- Definitions of the blade match that of a normal sword
- handle is wrapped tsuka ito (sword handle wrap), along with wrappings around the center for support
Despite these obvious differences, koryu bujutsu schools seem to have not only adopt, but maintain the concept of training the nagamaki like a polearm.
For example, in an older document called “Heihōyōmu Budōzukai Hiketsu” (兵法要務武道図解秘訣), there is a section that has techniques for the nagamaki from Jiki Shinkage ryū (直心影流). However, from reading the descriptions the words “naginata” and “nagamaki” are interchanged a good number of times. Also the diagrams shown a weapon more closer to the naginata in design. Based on my opinion, it sounds as if nagamaki is another name for naginata…or they share the same techniques. In another example, Kukishinden ryū (九鬼神伝流) has techniques for the nagamaki, which I have studied. Design is similar to what one would expect, although the blade is also very wide and heavy, which dictates the use of its weight and gravity. Te no uchi is the same as with the katana, although the techniques are abit different from that found in kenjutsu and naginatajutsu.
Yet another example can be found on the website of “Tenshinden Jigen ryu Heiho” (天真伝自原流兵法). Along with this school’s descriptions on the weapons taught, there is a description regarding the nagamaki. Here’s the original Japanese text, followed by my translation in English.
“Although not commonly known, the nagamaki is a style of weapon well utilized similarly to how the yari was during the Sengoku period.”
The nagamaki is a very effective weapon, as it is designed with the dimensions of the tsuka (handle) being sanshaku (around 3 feet), and the blade length being sanshaku (around 3 feet). It is also systematized with techniques that are identical to those of the naginata.”
Could this be the case of adopting the name nagamaki for naginata in later years? Or could it be that the nagamaki, or at least the concept of it, was further refined where it became a long blade on a shorter shaft, and developed from the techniques of the naginata? As the martial arts evolved in Japan especially from Edo period onward, this could very well be the case. From a perspective of practicality, the nagamaki of old (i.e. featuring a long handle) is similar to the naginata in terms of length and concept of design. With the added reach, one can logically utilize naginatajutsu with it.
Understanding this point, it is not difficult to see the similarities in these 2 weapons.
Studying the development of martial systems in Japanese history, along with how technical skills & formal structuring of martial schools came about, one can understand that there was a methodical approach to using the nakamaki and nagamaki, but not as systematically developed as other weapon systems. One reason being is there was not much time to do so with the civil unrest that lead to constant warring when they saw usage on the battlefield. On top of this, these two variants of long swords were both short lived as their worth on the battlefield could not match other weapons that outperformed them in the long run, such as the yari (spear), uchigatana (close-range battlefield sword), and teppo (guns & rifles).
As far as koryu bujutsu schools that have nodachi as part of their tradition, it appears that some possess specific techniques, while others may use it as a supplement to their normal kenjutsu training. Techniques for the nakamaki seem to be far & few, while the nagamaki has been retained yet modified in some schools, if not just conceptually.
We’ve come to a close on this analytical discussion on the nakamaki and nagamaki. What is written is all based on my own research, training experience, and what I was told by certain instructors over the years. While it helps to give a somewhat clearer picture, I’ve learned that there are still varying opinions and viewpoints regarding this topic even in Japan, so nothing is quite written in stone.