By shouting “men” I’m not shouting that I must attack the masucline gender. Rather, like in kendo, men (面) is a strike at the face.

I’ve been practicing the naginata at the Shimane Prefecture Martial Arts Hall for six months now under the tutelage of a few teachers, including the #1 ranked competitor in Japan for two years running (she’s quite cool!). While not as well-known as kendo or kyuudo, the naginata also has a long history closely tied with warrior history. While it’s hard to say exactly where it started (some sources say it’s based on the weapon General Guan Yu used in China’s Three Kingdoms era), one of it’s most famous wielders in Japan was Benkei, who had a lot of ties out here in the San’in region!

In the Warring States era, warriors used this sort of sword-on-a-stick to reach horseback riders, but as the country transistioned into a time of peace over the course of the Edo era, it gradually became the weapon of choice for samurai women, should the time ever come when they must protect the home. It was considered ideal for women because they wouldn’t have to be too close to their opponent, and despite its reach, it can be used in narrow spaces. As women started to receive education outside of the home as Japan was westernizing, they frequently learned how to use the naginata as part of their physical education. While it sounds like it may be a male-dominated sport outside of Japan today, in general, it seems to be more popular with women here. In my class, for example, we only have two male students. (Conversely, the judo classes are pretty skewed in the other direction!)

While it’s okay to practice in regular street clothes, most of my classmates (albeit most of my classmates aren’t even half my age!) wear traditional style clothes for practice, including the pleaded trousers know as hakama. Hakama also have a rich tradition of use in many places, but the ones used for martial arts practice are thick, washable material that’s okay to get a little rough in. They can be a bit drafty, though–I always wear something underneath–and they don’t carry the same forced-formality as a kimono. Case in point, some of my young classmates fool around by sticking their arms down the slits at the slides and then flapping them around like wings.

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