The sprit of a Naginata Elf

This text is a free translation of the interview of Jukka Paasonen made by Emilia Vuorinen to the Tengu magazine 1/2009. Tengu is the publication of the Finnish Kendo Federation.

Good photos of practitioners of Japanese polearms, such as naginata, are available at Flickr.

No one takes responsibility of the text following. All the information provided by the interviewed is not to be considered as the official information for the Kendo Federation.

An interview with an Atarashii Naginatado practitioner

1. Tell us in your own words who you are and what is your background with martial arts

I am 29 years old, of which the last 15 I have spent with the Japanese martial arts. The journey began with Karate in 1994, which was accompanied with Nanbudo and Ryukyu Kobujutsu in 2001. During the next year also Aikido took part of my weekly training routines. In 2005 it was time to start with Jodo.

After moving to Slovenia in 2006, most of those martial arts were out of the scope of the weekly routines. Here I started doing Kendo.

In the end of the same year, the Italian Kendo Federation took Atarashii Naginatado back to their disciplines and it was there where I got my first contact to this art.

Iaido as well as few other schools of using some special kind of a weapon, have been in a smaller focus due to a lack of time. For example a part of Shinto Muso ryu school has some included styles, like the use of kusarigama, tanjo and jutte, also tying the opponent with a rope.

One interesting event, or a person just popped into my mind. A teacher of Komei jyuku Iaido from Austria was having a seminar in the Hungarian side of Slovenia. Even as he was somewhat older, the hip movements were with power and the swords heavy as they were huge.

For me travelling and martial arts have always been inseparable. Among many of the countries I have visited while going to training seminars, have been Japan and South Africa.

2. Describe in your own words what kind of a martial art Atarashii Naginatado is and who are/can practise it?

Atarashii Naginatado is a modern combination of the techniques from the ancient classical naginata schools. The wooden weapon used for practising used to weight somewhat over two kilograms, but the one used today, having the blade part made of bamboo, is less than a kilogram.

The training is mainly concentrated on a duel of two practitioners, both having a naginata, where they switch roles occasionaly. Where as the old schools were practising the use of naginata mainly against a swordsman, specially in the sense that the sword side was the one taking the initial attack. Depending of the school, the amount of different weapons used against naginata varies.

Like many other Japanese martial arts, such as Judo, Kendo and Jodo, Naginatado was standardized after the second World war. For naginata it was relatively late, in the fifties and sixties. One big milestone for the development could be the definition of the All Japan Naginata Federation Kata set, which was done in 1977. The training of these forms is possible after the practitioner has achieved the level of nidan. The weapon used in these forms is completely solid wood, as the earlier forms are done with the bamboo bladed weapon. Advanced practitioners can also do these forms with a real steel blade, but they acquisition is very hard.

The techniques of Atarashii Naginatado are completely build on the one goal that the body is making the movements, whereas the weapon is just an extension of the body. Techniques are mostly cutting.

3. What is the current situation of this martial art in Japan, Europe and can you tell any numbers of how many practitioners there are?

In Japan, the training in Budo begins in young age, as the meaning of Budo is much greater in their culture when compared to the western world. The sports classes in schools are usually made of kendo or judo, but recently more of baseball too. In bigger schools there are more options to choose from, karate and naginata might be included. Naginata is mainly practised by girls, it being more aesthetic in comparison to its aggressive brother, Kendo.

4. What is the current status of practising Atarashii Naginatado in Finland and what are the possibilities with the Finnish Kendo Federation?

Atarashii Naginatado has not yet been practised in Finland, at least not officially. In February 2009 it officially landed to Helsinki.

Within the Finnish Kendo Federation, the martial art will have a good opportunity to get in to the list or arts done in the member clubs. The difficulty in this is that usually when a club decides to expand from having only kendo, they start by adding iaido first, then perhaps jodo and then it might be naginata.

On the other hand, the martial arts available in each club is completely dependent of the interested and of the resources available in that club and its surrounding areas.

Anyhow Atarashii Naginatado will provide somewhat different aspect of training methods when in comparison to the other arts within the Kendo Federation and thus expands the variety of different arts available. This gives more to choose from for the people interested in the Japanese martial arts.

5. What kind of equipments are used and what is needed for a new beginner?

White short sleeved jacket, black hakama and a naginata with a bamboo blade. These are only things needed in the first year and possibly even longer. The training outfit used in kendo, blue jacket and blue hakama, is also allowed, but for competitions and dan gradings, the official outfit mentioned must be worn.

The training consists much of so called combat in which both opponents wear protective gear similar to the ones in kendo, called bogu. There are some differences though, mainly in kote, the gloves, index finger has a separate container. There are also protectors for the shin, called sune ate.

6. Where and how did you find Atarashii Naginatado, and how long have you practised it?

The Italian Kendo Federation took it back to its program and started the activities in the Northern Italy in the beginning of 2007. Since the first seminar was just some 600 kilometres away from my home at that time and I had a great interest on the martial art, I decided to take part on it.

The club in which I was training according to the official papers, located in Torino.

In reality, my training was mainly concentrated on the seminars in Italy and sometimes in jikeigo with the people in the kendo club of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Those jikeigos were usually ended by the breaking of the bamboo blade of my naginata.

7. How does the regular training differ from the other martial arts in the Finnish Kendo Federation, like Kendo or Jodo?

Atarashii Naginatado has two sets of prearranged forms, kata. First one is called Shikake-oji, and it does not differ from the regular training as does kata in kendo.

These forms are done with the same weapon which is used in the regular trainings and in competition. Shikake-oji can be done with or without the protective gear.

8. How about differences and similarities with Atarashii Naginatado and the other martial arts you are doing?

Atarashii Naginatado is specially designed for the weaker sex, therefore the power needed in arms is irrelevant. In this art, one must really learn the principle which all the Japanese martial arts are trying to teach, the unification of the body, weapon and the universal energy.

From the elderly ladies teaching this art I have learned the value of micro details, which is even more precise than in Jodo. Believe or not.

9. How much does the training with and without weapons differ? What would be the clearest difference? Which kind of arts are more to your personal preference?

In the traditional schools the idea was to use unarmed combat as the last resort if all other had failed and weapons were lost. In some cases this has resulted as the unarmed techniques being neglected.

In many arts the main focus is either in couple weapons or completely without. Here of course is the possibility of the personal taste. Some Aikido teachers state that the training with weapons is against the goal of their art (worldwide pace). On the other hand there are teachers of Aikido who specially support the fact that the weapons are supporting the unarmed training, usually they have more background and personal liking in the traditional weapons.

Then we also have this treasure from the Ryukyu archipelagos, given to the Japanese. Well what is it?

Originally an art practised in the Ryukyu Kingdom, which consisted of armed and unarmed skills, and in which the weapons were developed from the tools available in the daily routines.

The art was brought to the main land Japan around 100 years ago and at that time the weapon system was left aside, as they believed that there were plenty of arts focusing on armed combat. This art became to be known as Karate. The weapon system is known nowadays as Ryukyu Kobudo (also Okinawa kobudo/kobujutsu or plain kobudo).

Of all the martial arts that I have been doing, it is these two that fulfil each other in the best way.

There was a time when leg sweeps were allowed in Kendo.

The separation between unarmed and armed martial arts has probably been due to the pain of modernisation, when the samurai needed to leave their swords at home.

To choose a favourite martial art is difficult and changes over time. It usually is the best to adjust according to the availability of the moment. If I did not happen to bring a certain set of weapons with me, then the unarmed is more pleasant. Then again if all tools are available in my closet, it is only the matter of scheduling.

Equal points between armed and unarmed martial arts.

10. Atarashii Naginatado is traditionally a sport for women, isn't it? Why is it so, and what is the current sex ratio among the practitioners?

In Japan some 90% of the practitioners are women, outside Japan it is said to be the other way around, so that only 10% would be women. In my experience, in Europe and in United States, the ratio is quite equal to fifty-sixty percentage. Even Matti Nykänen knows that.

The weapon naginata has appear in several occasions. It could have been used by the foot soldier in the middle of a battle field, a wife at home could defend the house while the husband was at war, a priest in the temple against the thieves, and so on...

11. Are there any seminars in Europe where one could try out Atarashii Naginatado?

In the Scandinavia, Sweden is the most active country which has had the martial art represented for some time. In 2006 there was the seminar of the International Naginata Federation. Unfortunately it does the INF seminars do not seem to be yearly arranged, last time it was held in the EU headquarter town, Brussels in 2008. Next one seems to be expected in 2010 (an update, in September 2009 is the next INF seminar, held in Prague).

12. Why should one practise Naginatado?

When you are out of steam for the suburis and running around in Kendo, you cannot stand the staring of Jodo and the knees are finally infected in Iaido, you only have Naginatado left.