The spear is a weapon that has been used in some form in virtually every corner of the earth, and must be, after the club and the rock, one of the most basic weapons devised by mankind. Japan is no exception, and has a long tradition of the use of various pole arms, including spears, dating to way back before the 'samurai' era. However, as far as samurai are concerned, the spear was not even the principal pole arm until the 15th or 16th century. For some reason, it was the naginata that assumed that role, while the spear languished until the time of the Namboku-cho (1334-1392) when it gradually gained popularity. This popularity increased during the early Sengoku period, until, by the time of the famous warlords of the mid to late 16th century, it had assumed the position of one of the main weapons on the battlefield. This was partially due to logistical considerations, and indeed, the growing size of armies meant that it provided a cheap and easy to use armament for levies and other
Though individuals became famous for their use of the spear, on the battlefield, their particular forte was in tactical deployment. Walter Dening, in his The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, tells the story of how Hideyoshi got caught up in an argument to see whether long or short spears were superior. Oda Nobunaga's spear instructor favored short spears (short in this case means up to 8ft long) whereas Hideyoshi favored the longer type.
A trial was arranged: both men would train a group of fifty men in the use of their chosen length of spear,and after three days, the two groups would compete against each other. To cut a long story
short, while the spear instructor taught his men the techniques to oppose the longer weapons, Hideyoshi told his men they had the advantage anyway, so they could attack any way they liked, and wined and dined them. He also divided them into three units so they could make forward and flank attacks. On the day of the contest, Hideyoshi's men made mincemeat of his opponents.
Although this is probably an apocryphal tale, it does indicate the tactical value of the spear on the battlefield. That is not to deny that a shorter spear offers definite advantages to the individual warrior, but in battles employing formations of troops, longer spears offered a decided advantage. In fact, Nobunaga employed longer than average spears in his formations, and even on an individual level,
some warriors made use of the longer spears. Maeda Toshiie, for example, used one that was reportedly 6m in length.
In fact, despite it's efficiency as a thrusting weapon, on the battlefield even the shorter spears were, as often as not, probably used to knock down an opponent and then despatch him. The triangular sectioned blade of the su yari (straight spear) was particularly effective for this, and this may also explain the popularity of the tanged spear head over the socketed type – the tang running deep inside the shaft gives greater durability as well as weighting the head, making it more effective for sweeping and striking movements.
Practice with long weapons quickly brings an appreciation of the difference in their range and speed compared with the sword. Facing someone with a spear (if they are using it well) allows one to realize the advantage it has – it is said that the spear gives its user a 3x advantage. When you see the speed with which a spear can be extended and retracted, how quickly the blade can shoot out at different targets, you appreciate how difficult it would be to face one in earnest.
With the end of the Sengoku Period, the call for spear use declined. Nevertheless, the Bakumatsu period saw some notable use of the spear:
Sakamoto Ryoma's companion, Miyoshi Shinzo, wielded a spear in the famous fight at the Teradaya, as, indeed did their attackers. Ryoma described the events as follows:
We had come up from the bath and were on the point of going to bed, when we thought we heard something strange; it sounded like the footfalls of someone sneaking around below us (we were on the second floor). Then, in the same way, we heard the clattering of six-foot staves. Just at that time [the woman he would marry], with no thought of her own safety, came running up to us and warned, ‘Look out! The enemy have invaded unexpectedly, and men with spears are coming up the stairs!’ At that, I jumped up, grabbed my hakama and the two swords, along with a six-shooter pistol … and crouched down towards the rear of the room. Miyoshi Shinzo… put on his two swords, and grabbed a spear; and then he too crouched down.
“There were already 20 men lined up with spears; they also had two burglar lanterns, and to top it off there were fellows carrying six-foot staves everywhere…
“By the time this one spear-man was half way up the stairs and coming in my direction. He was on my left. I figured that if there was a spear on my left it could strike me from the side, and so I shifted my position to face to the left. Then I cocked my pistol, and threatened all ten of the spearmen, from right to left. They ran away. Meanwhile, others of the enemy were throwing spears, and also charcoal braziers, and fighting in all sorts of ways. We, for our part, were ducking spears, and you can imagine that it was really a noisy war inside that house. We also hit one man, but I don’t know whether we killed him or not."
As this account suggests, although they were not necessarily wielded with any great skill, spears were still common during this period. Common perhaps, but still unusual enough that expert spearman were far less common than swordsmen. Many schools of martial arts taught the spear along with the sword, but it seems that few had the time or inclination to master this weapon. Among those who did were Yamada Sanosuke of the Shinsengumi, Takahashi Deishu, the shogun's personal spear instructor and brother-in-law of Yamaoka Tesshu, Sagawa Kanbei, one of the leaders of the Aizu forces who fought a brave but losing battle against the Imperial forces under Saigon Takamori, and General Yamagata Aritomo were all noted for their use, or (in the latter case) training, in the spear.
In this period, the spear was no longer a formation weapon, but the weapon of the individual. On the battlefield, the rifle and bayonet had taken its place, but it is clear that the men who wielded it with skill still commanded respect