The spear is something to fear.
Nakayama Hakudô
What is sôjutsu? Print E-mail
Written by Jürgen Seebeck   

If you tell a Japanese person you are practicing sôjutsu he will usually ask you "soj… what?" If you then say "yari" (spear) he will usually respond by saying "I see! …Spear." illustrated with a throwing gesture.

No wonder. Even in Japan almost nobody knows what sôjutsu is or that sôjutsu still exists nowadays. And if people have an idea at all what sôjutsu is, it is usually informed by TV series and movies which often draw a picture of the use of spears that has absolutely nothing in common with reality.

At best people remember scenes from the films of Kurosawa Akira showing platoons of spearmen working as units with long spears, very long spears. And yes, this kind of infantry existed becoming tactically important towards the end of the Sengoku era. Oda Nonunaga is said to have consciously counted on the spear as a battle-decisive weapon in spite of the advantages of bow and arrow or the then new muskets.

But this method of handling a spear never was or is considered sôjutsu. Sôjutsu, literally "the art of the spear", instead denotes the use of the spear as a highly complex fencing weapon which is capable of much more than just thrusting. This may have been on foot or as when mounted (though there is no school left teaching the spear in the latter way). As a fencing weapon the spear or sôjutsu was not that taught to ashigaru (low ranking samurai/infantry) it was limited to a more elite range of the warrior nobility.

Until the Edo era sôjutsu was not usually taught in dôjôs, the knowledge was passed down within the warrior nobility and inside the castle walls of each fief*. This is the main reason that the number of spear schools was and is only little compared to the number of sword schools for example. The same is true of course for the number of practitioners in this art.

Having had such a limited base is one of the reasons for the almost complete extinction of sôjutsu in Japan. An additional reason is the fact that the spear lost its meaning and importance as a weapon (of war) during the long peace of the Edo era; during that era the spear instead transformed into a symbol of status and rank. Each daimyô was prescribed the number of spears and habiliments his entourage had to carry during his processions.

The few schools that have specialized in the use of the spear and are still active today are:

Hôzôinryû Takadaha
Ôwari Kanryû
Saburiryû
Fûdenryû

The Hôzôinryû is the only of these schools that had been founded in the pre-Edo-era. Three of these four schools specialise in the use of a specific type of spear which might be the reason for their surviving until today.

There are other, integrated, martial art schools that teach the spear as well but with the principal focus being on the sword or in other words: a swordsman has to know the spear to have a chance fighting against it successfully. The following belong to this group of integrated schools utilizing the spear**:

Tenshin Shôden Katori Shintôryû
Tatsumiryû
Maniwa Nenryû

As a matter of interest many of the integrated schools teaching sôjutsu in addition to other weapons date back to pre-edo-times. These schools generally use kozuyari (a straight spear of around 273 cm length) only.

The number of people practicing sôjutsu today is very small. This is true for the dedicated school as well as the integrated systems in which the spear usually is restricted to the most advanced students.

* This is especially true for the Ôwari Kanryû which was forbidden to be taught outside the fiefdom Ôwari (nowadays Nagoya). An exception was the Hôzôinryu as it was not of warrior nobility origin but founded by a monk and spread all over Japan in various dôjôs from the beginning of the Edo era.

**There are a number of other ryu-ha with different principal weapons that include sojutsu in their syllabus including for example Todaha Buko-ryu and Yoshin-ryu both of which have the naginata as their central weapon.

English translation with the help of Matthew Preston