Sojutsu Spear Fighting

Sojutsu (槍術) sometimes incorrectly read as yarijutsu, is the art of fighting with the Japanese spear (槍, yari). Sojutsu is typically only a single component of curriculum in comprehensive Japanese koryu schools; for example Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu includes spear fighting techniques.

Other famous sojutsu schools are Owari Kan-ryu and Hozoin-ryu. Because there were so many varieties of the yari, and the fact that it was very good both offensively and defensively meant that this was an art that was very extensive.

The spear has had a long and rich tradition in Japan, ranging from being part of the very myth of creation of the country, to supreme battlefield weapon of their civil wars, to a ceremonial symbol of ones rank, position, and government status.

The Japanese spear is called a Yari, and training in the art is called Sojutsu. Sojutsu is a complete martial art on its own, but will compliment any other form of martial training. This is due to the fact it reinforces timing and distancing, increases strength and endurance, helps develop dexterity, and teaches body control.

While the yari is deceptively simple in design, learning to wield it properly can take several years. Mastering the yari can take a life time.

Yachigusa-Ryu sojutsu training includes techniques to teach every aspect of spear combat. Kata (forms) are the initial way of learning the movements required for attack and defense. We practice both solo and partnered kata. Drills to increase knowledge of footwork, distancing, timing, strength and stamina are also initially taught. Spear retention and disarm techniques complete the system.

The Yari was an essential battlefield weapon of the Samurai and took great skill to use and maneuver due to its length and size. The Yari design is based on originals dating to feudal Japan. The blade is forged in T-10 high-carbon steel and triangulated and double-edged with a deep fuller on the flat side of the blade. Differential tempering results in a clear hamon on each edge. The tang is long to absorb the shock of a blow and the one-piece staff construction reinforces the durability of the spear.

This yari is modeled after the su-yari or “straight-spear” design. The shaft (ebu) is finished in a deep black lacquer and have a flattened side at the bottom section for blade orientation. The fittings (koshirae) follow distinctive traditional designs. This Yari features a long (16-3/4″) blade and a black lacquered sheath (saya).

The rattan wrap version has a more compact 11″ long blade, making for a faster weapon. It also features a rattan wrapped section at the upper grip, making this a visually stunning piece.

Whether used in self-defense, in the hunt, or in battle one can argue that the spear is mankind’s oldest, and most multifaceted weapon of destruction. Unrivaled in versatility due to its triple threat of blade, shaft and pommel the spear can cause damage at close range and from a distance. Equally effective in offense and defense the spear can main, cripple, and terminate an opponent.

The exact origin of the Japanese spear will probably never be known, but its importance is even present in the myths of the creation of the Japanese Islands.  According to legend, the god Izanagi-no-Mikoto was given a spear [Ama-no-nuboko], by the Lord of Heaven in order to calm the chaos of the earth below them. As Izanagi descended from heaven he stopped due to a dense fog, so thick he could see nothing below it. Izanagi plunged his spear into the swirling mist looking for a foothold, but found none. He continued to thrust at the fog and it began to evaporate.

A tremor shook the spear and Izanagi discovered a clot of mud on the tip. The mud slipped off and as it did so water poured from the spear’s point. When the fog finally cleared Izanagi saw an island surrounded by a calm blue sea.  The land of the rising sun, Japan, was born.

Chances are the spear has been used in Japan since the first people colonized the land, but finding information relating to the use of the spear in ancient times is extremely hard. One of the earliest references to spear wielding soldiers is in 673. These soldiers were called genin, [warrior attendants]. These conscripted soldiers accompanied mounted warriors and acted as grooms, carried equipment, and collected severed heads [trophies of battle]. While chronicles of these early periods mainly focus on the mounted warriors there is evidence that the genin would fight especially if the mounted warrior they served was in danger. Since many were not professional soldiers it is very likely they used spears and other long-range pole weapons.

There may be many reasons why the spear did not play a major role in early Japanese military history but the main one was due to the tactics the Japanese used in battles. For the most part battles were ritualized and consisted of a series of individual duels between warriors of similar rank and status who fought with bows and swords. These weapons required a great deal of skill, something only professional warriors had the time to develop. Fights were considered a matter of honor and a way to demonstrate skill, possibly leading to an increase in fame and fortune. While spears were present they were considered less honorable and used as a secondary weapon for those with limited or no training.

While the ancient mythology of Japan refers to the importance of the spear, and historical information shows it was already used on the battlefield, it wasn’t until after the invasion of the Mongols in 1274 and 1281 that the Japanese warriors developed more of an interest in its use. The Mongol army attacked in hordes, using tactics unlike those of the Japanese. One of these tactics was attacking in mass using conscripted Chinese and Korean spearmen in specific formations intended to advance on the enemy, maintain front lines, and to keep enemy mounted soldiers from being able to make headway. Japan almost lost to the Mongol invaders, and the military lessons they learned caused them to change the way they did battle.

It was during the Warring States era [Sengoku Jidai], [1336-1573] that larger scaled armies became more important, and the demand for a trained infantry, [Ashigaru], was needed. Initially, the ashigaru were farmers and peasants drafted to increase the armie’s size for a particular battle and then released from service when the battle was over. Since they were not warriors they lacked martial skills. As a result these drafted soldiers were normally given spears, which they could be quickly taught to use.

As the leaders of Japan saw the merit of the ashigaru, they became better trained, finally developing into a specific class of military men. By the time of Oda Nubunga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi [1560] the use of trained and drilled ashigaru with spears and other weapons had become the supreme battlefield technique.  According to Noel Perrin, author of “Giving Up The Gun Japan’s Reversion to the Sword 1543-1879” Oda Nubunga is supposed to have told his followers the following; “In very ancient times, bows and arrows were the fashion, then sword and spears came into use, and recently guns have become all the rage.” “These weapons all have their advantages, but I intend to make the spear the weapon on which to rely in battle.” After that statement a debate was held regarding the use of the long versus the short spear.

Art work of the Sengoku Jidia gives evidence of a change in weapon preference.  The samurai, who long regarded the bow as their primary weapon, and the mounted archers as the definitive warrior, changed their preference and adopted spears. While different historians argue the effectiveness of mounted archers versus mounted spearmen, citing the strengths and weakness of each group, there is supporting evidence to show that the “way of the horse and bow” ended and was replaced by the “way of the horse and spear.”  Per Stephen Turnbull’s book “Samurai Warfare” samurai carrying bows were hardly ever pictured during this era, and in the battle of Seikigahara [1600] a chronicler of the battle made special note of Shimazu Toyohisa for carrying a bow into battle, a sign that it was already considered unusual to see that.

As spear use became more popular and accepted as an essential battlefield weapon, various schools and techniques developed. Some techniques were designed for the highly trained military class, samurai, who still regarded themselves as individual fighters who engaged in single combat on horseback as well as on foot. Other techniques were designed for the  ashigaru, who fought in groups using various formations. It should be noted that while many samurai adopted the spear it never reached the same level of status as the sword, which is, and always was, considered the soul of the warrior.

The Japanese spear is called a yari and training in the art of the spear is called sojutsu. The yari is primarily a thrusting weapon with a flat blade designed to pierce between the plates of the samurai armor. It can also be used to slash, peck, cut, trap, and bludgeon.  It can be debated that a spear is more deadly than a sword. This is due to the fact that the damage caused by a thrust is often times more fatal or debilitating than a cut or percussion.  Slashing and cutting weapons do not always penetrate deep enough to cause debilitating wounds, especially when facing opponents wearing armor. Where as a spear tip only needed to penetrate a few inches to be effective. Not only was the edge of the spear extremely effective, according to Masaaki Hatsumi, [34th. grandmaster of the Togakure Ryu] , recent archaeological evidence of Japanese battlefields shows the most common cause of death was due to fractured temporal bones. These wounds are attributed to the blunt end, ishizuki [pommel], of the spear.

Types Of Yari : The yari normally consisted of a seasoned hardwood shaft [nakae] of just about any length and width possible. The length could range from 3 to 21 feet, which could be round, tapered or polygon shaped. This inner core was then covered with bamboo laminations. It was then lacquered to make them weatherproof. An iron pommel [ishizuki] was fitted at the opposite end of the blade as a counterweight, and in some cases metal wire and/or rings [semegane] were wrapped around the shaft to increase its’ strength, to help with gripping, and hand placement, and for decoration.

The final piece of the yari was the blade, which was made form the same quality metal as swords. These blades came in various lengths, six inches to three feet, and various shapes, each designed for a specific purpose. While the shape and size of the yari was basically something of individual preference there is clear evidence research was done on the practibility of each design. In the book “150 Japanese Polearm Terms” by W.M. Hawley, he illustrates an example of this research with Toyotomi Hideyoshi who experimented with long and short bladed yari. Hideyoshi’s research found troops were more afraid of long points. As a result of this study Hideyoshi had his soldiers equipped with long blades.

Blades were attached to the shaft either by a tang [nakago] inserted into the shaft, or by a socket that fitted over the shaft, [fukuro yari]. A sheath, saya, was also part of the complete yari.

According to Don Drager’s book “Asian Fighting Arts” during the Sengoka Jidia there were over 700 distinct types of spear designs. While there are numerous types and styles of yari they can be summed up into three main groups: 1.shapes of the blade, 2.mountings [shaft decorations] and 3.methods of use. Of all the various forms of yari the most common are:

Choku Yari  [Su-yari] – this term basically means straight spear or “simple spear.” This is the most common type of yari with a long flat shafted double edged spear tip. It is the version most commonly associated with the ashigaru and the one most often depicted in prints and movies of historic Japanese foot soldiers.

Various versions of this spear exist, and most are named due to the length of the shaft or the blade.

Another common version of this style of yari is the te-yari [hand spear] or mochi-yari  [held spear] generic terms for a shorter version of the normal sized yari. These were mainly used for castle defense, where a long shaft would have made the spear unusable, and for mounted Samurai.

Jumonji-Yari -  cross-shaped spear. This is the second most common form of yari. It is basically a straight blade with two horizontal crossbars. Normally all three points were sharpened. The crossbars could be used to parry other weapons, as well as for pecking and stabbing. Variations such as the magari-yari had the cross points facing slightly forward, while others such as the tsuki-gata were curved or “moon shaped.”

There were also variations called katakama  which has a single sided crossbar or crossbars of unequaled length.

Kama-Yari – a spear with a straight center with a branch or branches. Also referred to as a sickle shaped spear tip. This was another spear associated with the ashigaru. They were used to defend against mounted samurai, who would be surrounded, hooked and pulled off their horses. It was also used for overhead “pecking” attacks into groups of other spear-wielding soldiers. This allowed other soldiers carrying su-yari to thrust at the enemy while they were busy defending themselves.

Various versions of this style were also modified and adopted by fire fighters, and law enforcement officers.

Training With The Yari: Basic yari techniques are simple and easy to teach, the primary one being just point the blade forward, aim, and thrust at the target. While novices of the military arts can be taught this basic spear technique quite quickly this does not mean the spear is an easy weapon to master. Just learning to thrust the spear correctly, a combination of hand placement, body control, power, and speed, can take years of practice in order to develop proficiency. There are numerous stories of spearmen who would spend hours each day practicing thrusts in order to perfect their technique. These stories illustrate the extreme importance of just that one element of the art.

While the yari may appear to be simple in design it is extremely versatile. All parts of the spear can be used for offense and defense. Besides thrusting, learning how to use the spear to deflect, evade, trap and parry on-coming attacks is extremely important. This is accomplished in two ways. The first is by placing the spear at the proper angles to avoid stressing/breaking the shaft or damaging the blade. The second is by the use of proper footwork to evade danger, and deliver attacks. The combination of these two elements teach, and reinforce, the yari practitioner to use correct timing and distancing as well as poise and control. It also requires a lot of dexterity and hand eye coordination.

Evasions, entries, and retreating techniques must be mastered in order to avoid the initial attack or a counter strike, as well as for setting up a strike. Besides the proper footwork the yari practitioner must be able to adjust the reach of the spear in accordance to any weapon their opponent is using, the distance between combatants, and other surrounding elements that may be an obstacle. These various adjustments are accomplished by lifting, lowering, sliding, spinning, and turning the yari. In order to make these movements quickly and smoothly requires the proper grip, and grip strength.

Using the yari requires a combination of many of the elements listed above combined with strength and speed.  This can only be accomplished after many years of constant practice.

The Yari In Modern Times: The Tokugawa era [1603 -1868] brought peace to Japan, and a decline in the military arts. With a lack of battles to fight, the samurai, once fierce warriors, became a class of administrators and bureaucrats. While training in the martial sciences continued, the need to train and refine techniques was not as much of a necessity as when wars were common. Even with the reversion from firearms to traditional weapons that occurred during this era it was not enough to maintain the status the yari had developed.

As Japan reopened itself to the world during the Meiji Restoration [1868] yari techniques could have been lost forever. Fortunately, through the efforts of skilled yari masters and schools specializing in spear techniques the yari did not disappear into total obscurity. Interestingly enough the very weapon that made the yari obsolete, was the one that helped to preserve its’ techniques. That weapon would be the early firearms reintroduced into Japan. More specifically the bayonet attached to the end of rifles. The art of the bayonet is called juken-jutsu, and many, if not all, of the movements are directly related to the spear.

The yari has had a long rich tradition in Japan, ranging from being part of the very myth of the creation of the country, to the supreme battlefield weapon of their civil wars, to a ceremonial symbol of ones rank, position, and government status. Unfortunately, throughout the centuries many yari techniques have been lost for various reasons ranging from the death of spear experts who didn’t pass their knowledge on, only partially passed their knowledge on, to a general lack of interest.

There is also the additional factor that there is very little written information on the yari and techniques showing how to use it. In the book “Asian Fighting Arts” Donn Draeger states that sojutsu is one art that never matured into a budo form. This may be true, and as a result finding a qualified teacher, skilled in traditional yari techniques, who is willing to share his knowledge, is extremely hard to find.