A naginata polearm can be shortened like a tachi, via suriage and reshaped into a katana. There is a subtype of naginata called a nagamaki which can only be truly identified when it is with its koshirae. The name actually reflects on the wrap of the tsuka of this type of polearm. Basically, how the blade is mounted and used ends up giving it purpose, and so its name.
As mentioned a nagamaki is identified by its koshirae. The koshirae specifies the use. In this we tend to see the handle being shorter than the blade.
Muromachi period Nagamaki koshiraeSo we consider this a subtype of naginata, and other than this subtype we expect a naginata to have a longer pole.
It is generally a mistake to try to identify a blade as a nagamaki without the koshirae. So they should always be called a naginata unless we know how they are mounted.
Naginata were around a long time, but like tanto, it seems like they were given a lower ranking in importance compared to tachi. We don’t see a lot of tanto preserved until the late Kamakura period, and similarly we don’t see a lot of naginata preserved until then, and not really at all. So while tanto probably got a reputation as a gentleman’s blade, the naginata likely continued with a reputation as a soldier’s weapon.
We can see in tosogu though that a lot of representations of bushi from earlier periods tend to have them carrying naginata as well as tachi, though the actual naginata they reference are mostly gone now.
Out of the 13,500 or so Juyo swords, only 123 of these are intact naginata and many of those are from the Edo period.
We do see though that many naginata were converted into use as swords. These are naginata naoshi. They can be katana and wakizashi.
Similar to suriage tachi, these blades originally were simply referred to as katana and wakizashi by the NBTHK. In the last 20 to 30 years though they have been consistently designated as naginata naoshi. Currently 339 items are specified to be naginata naoshi at Juyo, but there are maybe double this amount due to the inconsistent use of nomenclature in earlier Juyo sessions.
When a naginata has a flared head such as the example above by Sukesada and Katsumitsu, the conversion to a katana or wakizashi form is done by both cutting the bottom of the pole off, and also cutting the flared part of the head of the blade off. A yokote is added after the head is cut off, and one way of noting that this modification has been made is that the hamon runs straight off the tip in yakizume style. It’s not made like that by the smith, it’s just an artifact of the flare of the head being removed.
There are different shapes though in originally made naginata from the Kamakura and Nanbokucho periods. These have a shape that is either moroba-zukuri where the shinogi runs straight to the tip of the blade such as this middle Kamakura example by Saburo Kunimune…
This blade was shortened and turned into a katana by one of the Sukesada smiths in the Nanbokucho period, and they recored that the maker was Kunimune at this time.
This is essential information because this blade is the only naginata form blade that exists by this smith. The quality and technique shown in the blade are exquisite, which indicates that he did not make his naginata as lower class blades. Take note that there is a full boshi on this blade with a turnback, this is distinct from the Sanemori example higher up where the hamon runs straight out the tip. This presence of a boshi is what tells us the top of this naginata was not altered when it was converted to a katana. Since the Sukesada smiths confirmed they made this modificiation, we also know that the Muromachi period is when this took place.
A similar shape to the above is seen in this fantastic piece attributed to Kashu Sanekage. The careful student will see that the blade has a lot of similarities to Norishige, and traditionally Sanekage is thought to be one of his students.
This blade has a lot of interesting features. It is 75cm in length and some of the original nakago is preserved on the left hand frame as can be seen above. If it is machi-okuri it is not by so much. This gives us a nice example then of what a Nanbokucho naginata would have looked like, as not a lot of ubu ones exist.
Again if we take note of the top of this blade, we can see there is a boshi, indicating that the top is ubu. So while all of these are considered naginata naoshi, there are various shades of gray within this classification. One of these that did not get modified on the top is more precious than one that did, because it is closer to being intact.
While the Kunimune above seems to be moroba-zukuri with the shinogi running to the exact tip of the blade, this Sanekage is shobu-zukuri at the top (leaf shape). The difference is that the shinogi turns back before the tip of the blade and exits by crossing into the mune.
Both of these examples are then quite valuable because they preserve information about the shape of naginata.
I will add that this Sanekage was said to be owned by one Kiyokawa Hachiro who was a rather bad tempered samurai of the 1800s. He was rather ardently opposed to the Tokugawa regime and taught swordsmanship and was a Confucian scholar himself. He killed another samurai in the street for an insult at one time, and came into conflict several times with agents of the Shogunate, and eventually met his demise at the hands of assassins loyal to the Tokugawa.
This blade, his blade, at the time was considered to be a work of Soshu Sadamune. There are 9 kirikomi in the blade which shows that it saw extensive fighting. These are all preserved around the mune, which means there are others that were on the ji and potentialy in the ha which a polisher removed during the modern period. This story and the Soshu Sadamune attribution were preserved by Honami Koson, who also authenticated the name of the blade.
This blade is called the Ochiba-Sadamune which means the Falling Leaf Sadamune. Since in the modern period we have reattributed it to Sanekage, it is now simply the Ochiba.
It points out one of the wink-wink aspects of Japanese names for swords. A falling leaf conjures a gentle image, but I think that this is not the intention of this blade. Consider that it is shobu-zukuri (leaf-shape), a falling leaf would imply this blade coming down on someone’s head.
As far as we can tell from the 9 remaining kirikomi, the blade saw autumn many times.
Naginata were generally made as workhorse blades, but as we can see by preserved examples, this does not mean the quality is any less from what went into swordsmith’s work. The Kunimune is equivalent to Tokubetsu Juyo in quality of craftsmanship, and the Sanekage showed that it is the kind of weapon you would want to have to guard your life.
Naginata are a bit under appreciated and we see this in the marketplace, but I think that any good nihonto collection should include one naginata if possible to find one. If not, then a nagamaki naoshi, preferably one with an intact top.
Historically we can see that the workmanship and reliability were admired or else they would not have been converted to katana use.
The rare pieces that are intact, if you have an opportunity to get an earlier period work, you should take it. Sometimes they are hard to get past Juyo token, but this is not the point. We have to understand that so many of them were destroyed, that one just exists now it is a bit of a miracle.