DEDICATION AND PATIENCE: Understanding the disciplines of naginata

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM — Naginata, notable for its large number of women practitioners, relies on centrifugal force. photo courtesy of Northern California Naginata Federation

Naginata, a type of Japanese spear, has a rich history within Japan’s martial arts, and has historically been known for its abundance of female practitioners.

“The naginata is favored by women because the long staff uses the whole body and centrifugal force,” said Miyako Tanaka, kyoshi (master and teacher) and vice president of The Northern California Naginata Federation (NCNF). “Kids and children can do it since it does not just rely on the force of your fist or arms alone.”

The NCNF teaches two styles of naginata. The modern Atarashii Naginata is similar to kendo, where practitioners compete against one another in armor. The older Tendo Ryu Naginata focuses on choreographed kata, rather than competition with oak swords and naginata.

The group’s dojo, based in El Cerrito, Calif., has about 20 active members, though, at most, only five or six people show up for a practice, many of them older practitioners. “We’re a little top heavy,” said Bruce Mitchell, a fourth dan in Atarashii Naginata. “Northern California is small but strong … and have even sent in high ranking national representatives” to the international competitions.

The art of naginata takes patience, according to Tanaka, especially within Tendo Ryu. “There are many exact movements and they require you to repeat the same move over and over again,” Tanaka said. As a martial art rather than a sport, naginata stresses discipline over winning. “If you win, that’s great, but you have to win in a way you feel accomplishment,” Tanaka said.

Because of the level of dedication required, many students drop out early on before acquiring a taste for practice. Tanaka said, however, that the group welcomes new members and invites prospective students to sit in and try naginata for their first month.

The dojo has equipment to lend new students.

Though practice is hard and students are few, the NCNF members enjoy what they do and share a sense of camaraderie. With an average of two or three people at each meeting, the group offers an exciting opportunity to take part in a unique Japanese martial art.

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