The Sliding Yari of the Owari Kan Ryu


Until Japan’s Warring States Period (1490-1600), warfare in Japan was predominantly a horse- mounted affair. The mounted warriors, bushi, constituted a martial class, and were primarily armed with bow (yumi) and long sword (tachi). Although the bushi were particularly well trained in the mounted use of the bow and sword, they also had to be adept with the spear and halberd (yari and nagamaki or naginata). For mounted combat, however, these other arms were secondary weapons. While the yari was used on horseback, it was difficult to wield in close combat, often leaving the user open to attack by an enemy armed with a shorter weapon. As a result, the yari was often abandoned in the crush of a melee. The nagamaki and naginata–both primarily cutting weapons–were even more difficult to use while mounted on horseback. On the battlefields of that period, the spear and halberd were used primarily on foot, mainly by non-bushi footmen, the ashigaru.

Typically, the ashigaru were poorly trained or untrained conscripts–usually impoverished farmers–brought in by military commanders to fill-out the ranks. Poorly trained as swordsmen at best, they were armed with pole arms–such as the spear and halberd–to fight against others of their own kind as well as against the well-trained and mounted bushi. In later periods, some ashigaru were armed with firearms, weapons that provided them the means of actually defeating their better-trained, martial superiors.

The Sengoku Jidai–the Warring States Period–was a turbulent era of warfare, which began towards the end of Japan’s Ashikaga Period (1336-1573). Martially, it was an intensely active and socially disruptive period. During this era, larger scale armies became more important, raising the demand for trained infantry who could skillfully wield spears and halberds, and eventually the tactically superior firearms.

Because of the greater importance placed on unmounted warfare, growing numbers of bushi were also found fighting on foot. In the hands of trained bushi, the spear came to the fore as one of the most deadly battlefield weapons.

Wounds caused by the spear are particularly devastating, as the pathological damage caused by a thrust is more often fatal than that caused by a cut or percussion. It takes only three-to-four inches of penetration into the torso to achieve a debilitating wound. Slashing/cutting weapons often do not penetrate deeply enough, while thrusting weapons achieve that penetration more effectively. Although the spear is arguably a more deadly weapon than a sword, because of its length and weight, it demands great strength and stamina to wield competently. Nevertheless, on the battlefield, the yari reigned. While the Nihon- to–the Japanese sword–is considered the “soul” of the Japanese warrior, the yari should perhaps be considered the king of the battlefield.


The Japanese bushi developed a wide variety of yari based on point shape as well as the length and shape of the shaft. Accordingly, a large number of spear systems and traditions evolved over time.

The common form of yari is known as su-yari, “simple spear,” or choku-yari, “straight spear.” Variations include the kagi-yari (key-shaped spear), jumonji-yari (cross-shaped spear), makura- yari (pillow spear), and others. Each particular type has an associated system of use that takes advantage of its special features. Aside from morphology, the demands of combat and the idiosyncrasies of the spearmen themselves resulted in a wide number of spear arts–sojutsu.1

One of the most interesting and most deadly types of yari is the kuda-yari, or “tube- spear.” The kuda-yari is a spear that is used by sliding the shaft (e) through a kuda, a metal tube or pipe. This is the primary spear of the Owari Kan Ryu tradition of sojutsu.

Owari Kan Ryu

The main spear system of Owari Kan Ryu was founded by Tsuda Gonnojo Nobuyuki, the second son of a retainer of the Owari clan. Owari was the province surrounding the city of Nagoya.

Tradition has it that from infancy Gonnojo displayed an interest in sojutsu. He first studied Ito Ryu kuda-yari under Mori Kanbee, a disciple of Torao Mitsuyasu (of Torao Ryu sojutsu). Later, Nobuyuki studied under the teacher Saburi Enyueimon Tadamura (of Saburi Ryu sojutsu). Dedicating himself to austere training, morning and night, Nobuyuki is said to have achieved satori (enlightenment) on 15 May 1671, at the age of 16.

His enlightenment, it is said, allowed him to perceive the secrets of integrating the mind and body through the energy of the kuda, thus Nobuyuki originated a new school – Kan Ryu.

At different times, the tradition has been known as Tsuda Kan Ryu, Kan Ryu, and Owari Kan Ryu. Although Tsuda Gonnojo Nobuyuki devised his own system in formulating Kan Ryu, he retained the techniques and kata of the earlier traditions in which he had trained.

The lord of the Owari clan and province, Daimyo Tokugawa Yoshimichi, considered the new ryu of such great value to his realm that he forbade the spread of its instruction beyond his own domain, designating it Gotome ryu, an “exclusive tradition.” Tsuda Gonnojo Nobuyuki died 4 July 1698 at the age of 44.

The essence of the kuda-yari of Owari Kan Ryu is in the technique of using the kuda to fully thrust out and instantly withdraw the spear with great control. Here, the secret principle, Engetsu (“Crescent Moon”), is a vital component. Normally, when thrusting with a spear, the shaft and point will go more or less in a straight line to the target. However, in thrusting the Kan Ryu kudayari, the kuda and shaft are manipulated in a manner that causes the spear point to enter the target while twirling in a circle with a diameter of about six inches. The twirling of the yari point creates an intense striking power and concentrated destructive force, resulting in a gaping wound. This is the secret principle of Engetsu that is behind the deadly effect of Kan Ryu sojutsu.

The importance of attaining the Engetsu skill cannot be understated. During a normal training session, the skill of controlling the yari‘s slide through the kuda to achieve the twirling effect is continuously practiced without rest for ten minutes at a time. This is an exhausting practice considering the length and weight of the pole weapon.

One of the main advantages the kuda provides is greater thrusting speed. This is primarily due the decreased friction in sliding through the kuda as versus sliding the wooden shaft through the bare hand. Aside from greater thrusting speed, another advantage with the kuda is extended thrusting range. The more usual method for using the Japanese spear is to thrust with the rear hand locking onto the hip or side of the body at the full extension of the thrust. This allows both great force- transfer in the thrust, and a greater control over the spear shaft in recovering from either a thrust or from a strong block or deflection of one’s spear. However, as a result of locking the rear hand on the body, the actual thrusting distance is limited to two-to-three feet. This is because the reach of the spear is limited to the forward movement of the hip. When using the kuda, however, the spearman can safely thrust with the rear hand going all the way up to the lead hand. This can increase the thrusting distance as much as four or five feet further, as the hip is able to travel further without the rear hand locked to it. Because the kuda allows greater speed in thrusting and withdrawing, control of the shaft can be effectively maintained throughout the thrusting range.

In sojutsu there is a saying:

The resolution of victory or defeat is at the moment of perception. The line of the enemy’s spear; how his intent is perceived; here is the path that leads to the secret principle.

That instant of resolution is an important concept in the use of the kudayari.

With sojutsu–as with all the classical Japanese martial arts–it is important that maai (combative engagement distance) and breath-control be developed and naturally maintained. At the same time, the form must be complete. For this reason, there is the saying:

Kan Ryu yari begins with shiai (contest) and ends with kata (form).

This is in contrast to traditional sword training, in which the beginner starts with kata and ends with shiai.

In Owari Kan Ryu, a sojutsu training session starts with basic thrusting practice. This free-thrust training is done solo to improve the student’s ability at thrusting with the Engetsu, circling blade. At the same time, the student is learning to thrust to the full length of the spear. Along with thrusting, basic e (spear shaft) usages in deflections and disruptions are practiced. Also in solo training, the student learns to use the hip to “crank” the spear shaft, rotating it in a manner that forcefully disrupts an opponent’s spear thrust. This is practiced to both the front/inside (omote) and the rear/outside (ura). All such movements are immediately followed with a thrust.

While moving forward to attack, the Owari Kan Ryu spearman must be able to thrust and quickly pull back, rapidly shortening the forward portion of the spear in order to compensate for a closing maai. And then be able to thrust effectively again. The thrust can be made from as close as a few inches away while gripping directly behind the spearhead.

As well as moving forward to attack, the spearman must be able to thrust effectively while literally running backwards. If an opponent running forward with a sword manages to enter within the spearman’s maai, the spearman must be able to back pedal quickly enough to allow time to shorten the spear and counterthrust. Of course, side-stepping and other footwork are also practiced.

Very few, if any, classical martial traditions in Japan utilized only one weapon. The trained warrior had to be able to contend against a wide variety of arms on the battlefield, and so was trained to be familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of all the main weapons. The man wielding the yari had to be able to adjust to the length and reach of any weapon he might encounter. Interestingly enough, when facing the tachi or kodachi (sword or short sword), the kodachi is considered the more effective weapon against the spear. This is because the shorter blade and single-hand use of the weapon allow greater mobility and agility in closing the maai against the spear. Nevertheless, a well-trained Kan Ryu spearman would not have much trouble in dealing with either weapon.

The standard length of the Kan Ryu spear is 3.6 meters (11 ft 10 in). While live blades are generally used in kata practice, they are only occasionally used in basic solo training. In most basic practice and all shiai training, keiko-yari are used. These are full-length blades whose blunt point-ends are tipped with leather-covered padding. While providing some protection for an armored opponent, they are quite capable of causing serious injury to an unprotected body.

The main portion of an Owari Kan Ryu sojutsu training session follows the basic thrusting practice. At this time, the students don bogu–training armor similar to that used in kendo. Because of the greater force developed by the spear, the men, or face mask, is heavier and more solid than that used in kendo. It also has extra padding for the throat area. The do, or chest piece, also has extra protection over the left pectoral area, as this is an important target in shiai. Unlike the kendo do, the sojutsu do has the leg protectors (tare) directly attached. In addition to wearing the men and do, the spearman wears a kata covering the left shoulder and part of the chest. This provides heavily padded protection for that area. All this protection is necessary even with the padded spear. Knockouts are not uncommon, and the heavy metal grills of the face masks are occasionally dented inward. The spear armor used nowadays is actually the same as that used in jukendo, the Japanese bayonet art. However, not too long ago, specially made spear armor was used.

As well as the bogu, the spearman wears protection on the lead (left) hand. This is usually in the form of a kendo kote (glove), or a specially made spear training glove that provides more flexibility than the kendo kote. As the hand is not a particular target for the spear, the lead-hand glove is mainly to provide protection against the incidental banging that occurs during the shiai practice.

Once the gear is on, the two opponents face each other and bow. And the shiai starts. There is no scoring system, and the training has no particular method of deciding winner or loser; each knows who has been hit or missed. The bout can go on as long as ten minutes, or more commonly, until fatigue wears down one or both opponents. The action tends to be very fast with occasional slow periods as the practitioners try to catch their breaths. With the weight of the armor at around eighteen pounds and the spear another eight or nine pounds, at least 26 extra pounds of extra weight are being carried. The extra weight, the difficulty in wielding an 11-foot 10-inch pole, and the effort needed to move rapidly while restrictively encased in armor, causes an enormous aerobic and anaerobic training effect. A few minutes of fast shiai causes much the same exhaustion as five minutes of free-style wrestling. It is definitely the toughest physical training the author has undergone in over thirty years of Japanese, Chinese, Okinawa, Malay, and Indian fighting arts experience.

Although the shiai training is predominantly done on a spear vs spear basis, other weapons are occasionally used as well. The most common is the sword,2 followed by the naginata and nagamaki. However, experience has shown that the most formidable weapon to oppose the spear is another spear. And here, the kudayari of Owari Kan Ryu has the decided advantage.

After a considerable amount of shiai training, the renshusei (practitioner) begins learning the kata. These, of course, include the Kan Ryu kata themselves, of which there are five: 1) Umu-no-ichiban, 2) Shigo, 3) Oguruma, 4) Makiotoshi, 5) Saien. However, kata retained from the predecessor traditions – Itto Ryu, Saburi Ryu, and Torao Ryu, and Kakuten Ryu – are also practiced. Many of these kata do not utilize the kuda. The person who training in Owari Kan Ryu sojutsu learns both the kudayari and the more standard forms of spear use.

The Owari Kan Ryu, though primarily a spear tradition, also contains elements of Shinkage Ryu swordsmanship. As the Owari Kan Ryu was located in the same province as one of the main branches of the Yagyu sword tradition, it “borrowed” some of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu sword arts. A portion of the Shinkage Ryu kenjutsu syllabus are practiced, including such kata groups as Nanatsu-no-tachi and Enpi. Although the training of sword and spear are generally kept distinct, essences of one are used to enhance the other. Illustrating this is the saying, “The spear is not just thrusting, it’s striking; the sword is not just cutting, it’s thrusting,” which is often heard during training. As well, in Owari Kan Ryu dojo, the sword and spear are often talked of as “two wheels of a cart.” The other oft heard admonition, “The speed at which you pull back the forward-thrust yari determines victory or defeat,” is also an important point in sword use.

Not only is Owari Kan Ryu one of the few remaining classical martial traditions in Japan today, it is one of the even more rare classical ryu specializing in sojutsu. Perhaps more importantly, the tradition retains aspects of earlier predecessor spear ryu, providing a unique insight to an even earlier age of Japanese martial culture.

Copyright ©1994 Hunter B. Armstrong. All rights reserved.

  1. The Japanese character for yari is also pronounced, “so“. The Japanese term for “spear art” is sojutsu rather than yari-jutsu. ↩︎
  2. Usually a kendo shinai is used, but on rare occasions a bokken will be used for added realism in weight and shape. ↩︎