//By Brianna Hom//
At the risk of sounding hipster and condescending, there’s a good chance you probably haven’t heard of naginata. Even among the Japanese, people may have heard of the martial art but only vaguely know what it is. The naginata, whose closest Western equivalent is the glaive, is a tall pole weapon topped with a one-sided blade. Its use began during Japan’s feudal period and was wielded primarily by samurai, though during the Edo period it became more commonly used by women of nobility. Today, it survives in the form of atarashii naginata (new naginata), practiced by pockets of people all over the world.
To be fair, it is one of the rarer Japanese martial arts, so it’s not unusual to be unfamiliar with it. I was lucky enough to grow up in a very Asian city with a high Japanese/Japanese-American population, and doubly lucky that there was even a class. I stumbled upon it while flipping through the community center course catalogue, looking for an extracurricular sport to round out my college application. Having just taken a stab at fencing, I opted to look for something more unusual and found myself in the Japanese martial art section. I had never heard of naginata before–and hey, getting to wield a long staff? How cool was that? Admittedly, they were largely superficial reasons for joining, but naginata has turned out to be extremely rewarding. It is a constant endeavor to better one’s technique and, consequently, better oneself.
Like most martial arts, naginata’s current-day focus is more on the “art” rather than the “martial,” and practitioners hone their naginata skills in order to cultivate respect, concentration, determination, and, ultimately, mental and emotional balance. (Looking cool is just an added bonus.) If it sounds like something I pulled out of thin air, rest assured the goals of naginata are explicitly outlined in the official naginata federation handbook (minus the looking cool part). I can only speak for myself, but I appreciate a sport that tells you exactly what you’re doing and why. It provides goals, a focus for your efforts. However, when I practice, these aims begin to melt away from the forefront of my mind. I sink into the steady and rhythmic swing of the naginata, the comfort of muscle memory, and the familiar mental emptiness that is necessary to attain a naturalness to one’s motion. The outlined ideals of naginata instead begin to work their way into these mundane moments–the concentration required to make minute adjustments, the humility needed to accept (frequent) critique from elders, and the determination to keep moving forward despite the many mistakes and feelings of inadequacy.
The result, though only noticeable in retrospect, is an ease and confidence with yourself, your failures, and your ability to persevere and stay positive. Naginata is not about conquering your opponents–it is about conquering your doubt, your hesitation, your fears, and your loss of composure. Even when you spar with an opponent, the focus is still on executing clean hits, not on victory. There isn’t a pressure to compete, or even to take a higher rank; the goal is to simply practice the best naginata that you can. Even if you have mistakes, as long as you work to improve them, you are considered to be practicing good naginata. It took me at least a couple of years to come to the point where I wasn’t constantly putting myself down for not getting the waza (techniques) correct or for being as good as my peers. But somewhere along the way, you reach a point where the desperation to become better turns into thoughts of, “Well, guess I messed up. But I’ll try again. I’ve got an infinite number of tries to get this. There’s no punishment for not getting this now.” It is a subtle mental difference, but looking back over the past 10 years since I began naginata, that mental shift into acceptance and perseverance began to seep into my daily attitude, and let me tell you, life is 100% less stressful. Plus, it begins to look like confidence, and before you know it, it is.
If you stumble across the opportunity, I recommend taking a look at naginata. It has everything–a uniform with a hakama, a neat weapon, the opportunity to hit your partner with it, and a chance at finding mental and emotional stability. Taking up a martial art can be intimidating and discouraging at first, but I can promise you that, if you stick with it, you’ll become a happier person for it.
If you want to give naginata a try, a group meets in Akita City’s budokan (by the ice rink) most Thursdays at 7PM. Omagari is also well-known in Akita Prefecture for their naginata tradition, and you can inquire at one of their high schools.