For being one of the main battlefield weapons of choice for Samurai and ashigaru throughout the sengoku jidai, there are surprisingly few schools of spearsmanship left today. In fact, there are only two that I know of: Owari Kan-ryu and Hozoin-ryu, . There are other schools that have tangential syllabus points related to the use of the spear, such as Teshinshoden Katori Shinto-ryu, but these two are the only ones that I know of which contain dedicated spear syllabus. With the knowledge of this weapon thus spread thin, here are a few points which might help us to better understand so-jutsu, the art of the spear.
- The weapon:
Yari come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes and reflected various preferences and trends among the warrior classes over the years. Some spears were also adapted for specific roles on the battlefield. The type of spear that I use is called a sankaku yari. This means that the blade has a triangular cross-section. This robust geometry means that such spears are particularly suited to penetrating armour. The sankaku yari had a different blade design from the su yari, or straight spear. The su yari have two edges like a European spear, whereas the sankaku yari possesses only a point. These simple designs of spear where commonly favoured by warriors of all classes. For those who could afford it, however, the addition of extra, angular blades or parrying bars greatly increased the efficacy of the weapon, enabling the user to trap and often disarm his opponent. These types of spear are very broadly called kama yari, although there are a huge number of categories which clarify the individual style of each spear head. Many of the schools of spear fighting had their own unique design of spear which fitted their particular techniques. Hozoin-ryu favours a long spear, generally around 2.8 metres in length with a horizontal parrying bar near the base of the spear head to allow for the effective blocking and trapping of other spears and weapons. Owari Kan
-ryu meanwhile, often use mobile, tubular grips on the hafts of their spears, allowing greater power on the thrust by eliminating the friction between the warriors hand and the shaft of the spear.
- The techniques for the warrior on foot:
Outside of koryu bujutsu, the nearest thing one can find to so-jutsu is jukendo. The rifle and bayonet were, after all, intended to be roughly analogous to the spear in their use and techniques. In both jukendo and so-jutsu, there is generally only one attacking move, the straight thrust. While this is the main killing technique of a spear armed warrior, this does not take into account some of the rarer designs of spear, or battlefield tactics that called for other techniques. The kikuchi yari, for example, was a straight bladed spear that possessed only one cutting edge, essentially a naginata and using many of the same forms and techniques often involving wide, sweeping cuts, but with the added bonus of a more effective thrust.
On the battlefield, soldiers could find themselves up against two types of opposition: infantry and cavalry. Yari were often used by samurai and ashigaru alike in formation whilst on foot and thus what an opponent would normally be facing was a wall of spears. As a result the aim of the individual soldier was to knock the opponent’s spear out of the way either up or down (knocking sideways earned you no favours from your comrades), making the kill, and then attempting to exploit the gap in the enemy formation, perhaps ganging up with an ally on the next man along. The main techniques in battlefield so-jutsu therefore are knocking away the opponent’s spear, thrusting, and circling movements to trap the opponent’s weapon.
Against cavalry the spearman faces a rather different problem, namely a very large and heavy horse and rider bearing down on you at some speed. If one were to try and meet the target head on in a standing position, you would simply be knocked over by the sheer force of the charge. The technique against horses was, therefore, for the front rank of the spear formation to wait until the opposing cavalry was utterly committed to the charge, then all take one pace to the side and kneel down with their spears leveled at the horse’s chest height. The back end of the spear was braced against the ground meaning that the warrior would not take the full force of the impact. This move would certainly have caused some spears to break, but with the momentum of the charge destroyed, the downed riders and now disorganised attacking force could be much more easily dealt with by the spear wielding warriors.
Anyone who has ever done any work with polearms will know that the secret to performing these techniques effectively and quickly lies in the physics of moments. When I gave a student of mine a real yari to try the other day, he immediately remarked that it was difficult to keep the spear head up and facing his opponent. Admittedly my particular spear has quite a substantial blade on it and it is also a modern reproduction and therefore the tang is only about fifty centimeters long, but even so, what was he expecting? It is after all a lump of metal on the end of a stick. Moment = force x distance from the pivot so of course, the weight of the spear head is going to be a little difficult to manage. This is why it is so important in all spear techniques that the rear hand is the one doing all of the work moving the spear head, while the front hand acts like a guide and support. Try it any other way, and you’re either going to have a very hard time controlling the weapon, or you’re going to get tired incredibly quickly just holding the thing.
- The techniques for a warrior on horseback:
After complaining about the weight of my spear, my student then asked me how on earth samurai effectively used the spear to attack from horseback. I was confused by his question until I realised that he was thinking about European knights using lances, a technique which uses one hand on the reigns of the horse, and one hand on the weapon, often tucked under the armpit for stability. While this was a technique that the samurai could employ, the fact of the matter is that their particular style of horsemanship meant that the spear could be wielded effectively with two hands even while riding.
The secret to this technique lies in the Samurai’s origins as horseback archers. In order to provide a stable platform from which the bow, a weapon that obviously requires two hands to operate, could be used, the samurai developed stirrups that essentially look like snow shoes. These wide stirrups meant that the mounted samurai could stand up and twist his body effectively even whilst riding. This enabled him both to shoot the bow and use the spear effectively from horseback. Spear techniques from horseback utilise large spins over the rider’s head, necessary in order to change the direction of the spear without hitting the back of his horse.
The techniques of the spear are an oxymoron: the most common techniques on the battlefields of feudal Japan, but today preserved and practiced only by a few people around the world. Maybe I’m saying it’s time for a re-evaluation of the importance of these techniques and practices and a revival of the study of so-jutsu by classical martial artists. The title of this article is a play on the common saying in Chinese martial arts that it takes 100 days to master the spear, and other disciplines such as the sword even longer. Perhaps it is true that weapons such as the sword and empty handed techniques are more varied and subtle and require more concentration, practice and skill but lets not forget our 100 days all the same.
Jack Horatio Buckley Sharp: 2016