Monday, 24 September 2012

Naginata: Still the Domain of Women


If you know what naginata is, your image is probably reflected in this photo:
Strong, fierce women in hakama going at it with big biff-sticks


My experiences with naginata have looked more like... this.
"Don't cry baby, Mummy will be right back after she finishes her biff session"
Although it was not originally a woman’s weapon, naginata came to be associated almost exclusively with women (warrior monks also used naginata) during the Edo era. A naginata was part of a samurai woman’s dowry, and in the militaristic pre-war period naginata was taught as part of PE classes at girls’ schools. Outside Japan naginata seems to be practiced by slightly more men than women, but in Japan it is still very much a woman-dominated sport. I recently participated in the prefectural tournament and there were only two men competing. The scarcity is reflected in the newspaper article below. Men and foreigners are pretty much as rare as one-another.
Yup, that's me, being all perceptibly foreign
The difference in atmosphere between naginata and other martial sports like kendo or karate is profound. At tournaments there are always a gaggle of small children running around.
How cute is it that this club made their t-shirts in kids' sizes as well?!
Babies are passed from one set of available arms to another. I spent about an hour last year watching a baby… I still have no idea who her mother was. It wasn’t the woman who gave her to me, or the woman I eventually passed her to when my turn came to compete.

The woman on the right is grandmother to both the national champion and six or seven other high ranking naginata ladies
These dads came along to cheer on their wives, who were both competing while pregnant. Guess they missed out on that “Asian husbands are evil” memo too.
They are total sweet-hearts with kick-arse wives and cute kids
Helping out a team member who battled through morning sickness (and a small earthquake) to win all of her matches
I’ve been an absolutely terrible team member, taking off months at a time to work on my MA, move house, and so on. I’ve never been made to feel bad about missing practice. My teacher said once “it can’t be helped in a women’s sport. Women are so much busier than men.” I thought it was an interesting point and I wonder if it’s a common stereo-type in Japan. Most of the older women I know work at least part-time, but even the ones who work full time are responsible for all the house work, as well as the community volunteer activities like neighbourhood associations. One of the women at my club is a full time teacher, PTA member and regular volunteer at international events but still has to cook a full meal for her husband every night and make sure his laundry is done. He, on the other hand, just… works. Women of her generation (much like my own mother, it certainly isn’t an exclusively Japanese phenomenon) were caught in the double-burden of job opportunities opening up for women and an expectation for women to work, without a matching expectation for men to take on more domestic work. This is not a marriage dynamic I see in any friends my own age in Japan or otherwise. Still, the point that women have more demands on their time than men means that there is less pressure than I expected to contribute to my naginata club.

Finally, naginata is great for kids. Don't you wish this had been a school sport when you were seven?!
The little one on the left was actually six, that's her big sister helping her with her helmet
Don't be fooled by the cute smiles, all three of these girls out-rank me by four belts

Of course, naginata ALSO looks like this ;)
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10 comments:

  1. "Women are so much busier than men."
    I agree.
    I think we've got it easy by comparison~~

    I had never heard of this sport before!! Very cool! Naginata, eh? Huh! I have received an education today - - thank you!

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    1. For the record, they said that not me. I would never make such a sweeping generalisation ():)

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  2. tu hakama se mueve en tarantella huele empanada de queso

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  3. Naginata: Still the Domain of Women"

    Actually I'm told by my naginata sensei that these days young students tend to split 50/50 boys and girls, and there are a lot of youngish male teachers - especially in the schools.

    Though one could argue women still have an advantage over men as they tend to be nimbler and in naginata strength means bugger all!

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    1. It's lovely to hear from a fellow naginata student! Where do you train?
      What your teacher describes may be the case in other prefectures, but definitely not here. There are plenty of boys up until about seven years old, then most drop out. There are a few young men but they tend to pick up naginata after years of kendo rather than starting out with naginata~ I've never seen a boy compete in junior high or high school tournaments. It make the world championships pretty interesting because naginata is much more popular with men outside of Japan, especially in Europe.

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    2. Although I should qualify that although I go to see the JHS tournaments every year I've only seen one SHS tournament.
      I wonder if the sport as a whole will become better known now that it is one of the mandated martial arts for the JHS PE curriculum.

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    3. Hi, Soph, I'm UK-based. If you thought I was in Japan sorry to disappoint. :)

      Maybe it's difficult to get more penetration with Japanese boys because kendo has been very important for them. Hopefully naginata will get better known in the future, as you say. But then, maybe Japanese women would like to still be able to say it's their sport?

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    4. Well, if you were in Japan I might have had the chance to meet you, but it's never disappointing to hear from another naginata enthusiast!

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    5. Yeah, I guess there aren't many foreigners who take up naginata in Japan. :)

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    6. There aren't many Japanese people who take up naginata in Japan (^_^;

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