~ It Doesn’t Matter ~
© Margaret Emerson
Published in Qi Journal, spring 2008
Above us, silver stars pierced a black sky as my friend Stephanie and I drove U.S. 101 north from San Francisco to Ukiah. She was telling me about her ten-year-long training in the Japanese martial art of Naginata. Competitors (mostly women throughout its history) wield a wooden spear with a blade attached. Altogether the weapon is about seven feet long. The basic uniform is a white tunic and long-skirted black hakama. Elaborate protective gear makes the combatants look like medieval warriors. A stiff, heavy helmet fashioned of quilted indigo-colored cotton has sides that extend outward and flip upward to guard the neck as well as the head. An attached metal grate sits in front of the face. The breastplate is solid bamboo covered with black lacquer. The ensemble also includes an apron made of overlapping panels of quilted cotton, bamboo-slatted shin guards, and gauntlets that reach above the wrists. Naginata is a refined and formal art with measured, graceful movements—until a participant lunges forward, lets loose with a ferocious kiai, and does her best to bash her opponent on the head.