Masakari (鉞) - The Samurai's War Axe

Masakari (鉞) - The Samurai's War Axe

Samurai holding a battle axe; detail from the 春日権現験記. 第8軸

Also know as Ono () or as Fuetsu (斧鉞), this weapon is one of the less related within the "Samurai warfare" context.
For many years inside the internet I've read a lot of stuffs about the fact that Samurai didn't use Axes in battle. If there is someone to blame, his name is Bashford Dean
Although I do extremely respect the man for his pioneering approach inside the field of Samurai Arms & Armors in the late 19th and early 20th century, we can read in his first catalogue, "Catalogue of  the Loan Collection of Japanese Armor" dated 1905 from the "Metropolitan Museum of Art" one of the most "romantic" cliché associated within the Samurai warrior culture.


             
    
     Bashford Dean wearing Samurai Armor

Quoting from the man itself, page 10 of the catalogue:

""In Japan, on the other hand, the aim of the armorer was rather to produce harnesses which were light, strong and flexible, which would hinder the wearer as little as possible in the active use of arrow, spear and sword. This could the better be done since the war hammer and kindred weapons were generally regarded as unsoldierly." Yes, a classic episode of "Bullshido"; anyway, it was the 1905.

Samurai and Japanese warriors used those kindred weapons and quite effectively.
It might not be a surprise since
Axes used as tools were highly developed due to the relevance of wood's architecture and carpentry in medieval Japan; yet battle axes differs from those used to work with threes and forest, and were also deeply related with the military culture.



 
Twin axes used as Maedate in this Kabuto made by a famous Myochin armorer


However it is fair to highlight that despite the fact that we have some evidences of their actual use, war axes seems to be quite rare, and I will try to give you some explanations to this fact later on.

In the Japanese Folklore, the axe was the weapon of choice of Kintaro (
金太郎) and in many Ukiyo-e, huge war axes were associated with mighty warriors; however those depictions are total fantasy due to the impressive dimension of the weapons. Battle axes were also used as maedate, or helmet crest, to highlight the strength and the power of the warriors, and were also associated with the martial culture of the Sohei (僧兵): the warrior monks used these tools to help them to clear the path for their "Shugendo"(修験道) , an ascetic training to obtain enlightenment through the study of the relationship between man and nature in rugged areas such as the sacred mountains across the country, but they also used these tools as weapons when they were involved in battles.
In fact those axes became ritual and sacred objects too. 





A really huge Axe taken from a section of the Ukiyo-e "Descending Gees at Yahagi Bridge" by Yoshitoshi, 1868



Kintaro and his huge axe, from 
金太郎山狩


Shape and Use

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Masakari, we lack the amount of data we have with spears or swords, so this article will be quite short.
Axes were used both as cutting and percussive weapon; in fact most of the weight of the weapon is on the head: this make the weapon an heavy hitter, capable of cutting, chopping but also bypassing armor to some extent; Akamatsu Ujinori used his axe to smash the helmets of several opponents during the wars of the 14th century.
They were mounted on shafts of various sizes, and were used both as one handed or two handed weapons.
But they were also useful to destroy gates, barricades, standing shields , ladders and others objects one could find on sieges battlefields.
They were used on the battles of the Nanbokucho period
(南北朝時代) and also during the Ryukyuu Invasion; the Shimazu clans listed them in their inventories according to the Shimazu Ryuukyuu Gunseiki.
Later Edo period iconography often shows Samurai wielding axes from horseback.

Here are some sketches made by me** to show what kind of axes were used during the medieval period (11th-17th century roughly speaking). I'm definitely not an artist, so please forgive my shaking hand.





Here is an interesting type of axe with a long spear-like back head. The heart-shape holes are quite unique to the Japanese design. From 武器袖鏡. 初編



Here instead are my sketches; starting from left to right:
- The first one is actually a pretty famous ritual axe called Nyuubu Ono (入峰斧) and not a battle ones; despite this fact the blade is quite thin and the back head seems pretty useful to bypass any type of armor, two hints that might suggest its martial usefulness. Is from the 14th century and is currently in the Tokyo National Museum.

- The second one has a very thick base which tapers towards the edge; it must be quite heavy to wield. The three red lacquered lines are a typical Japanese features and this particular axe resemble the one depicted in the Ukiyo-e. Is currently located in the store room of the "Überseemuseum Bremen",Germany 

- The third one is actually a really fine example of a Ono Su Yari, an axe combined with a spear. It is also called ken'iri masakari (剣入鉞), and is often a ceremonial weapon, although a "practial version" existed too, with a longer shaft and a lighter blade; in this case, it is called fusō (斧槍) and it will be discussed in the Yari article.This particular example was also decorated with dragons and clouds. Is currently located in the "Samurai Art Museum" in Berlin, dated 16th century.

- The fourth is the same model as the one seen in the 
十二類巻物の書誌情報 and probably it was the most common one handed axe used in the Muromachi Period. The back head looks similar to the ritual axe, but more compact and small.

- The last one came from the "A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: in All Countries and in All Times" by George Cameron Stone. Although is the only one that doesn't show any particular Japanese design features (like heart shaped holes or dragons/clouds decorations) is listed as a Japanese axe in the book. The back head is a spike, capable of damaging armor.



Other examples made by me:
 
The first one is another common depiction that appears in the 
前九年絵巻物, while the second one is another Ono Su yari, with clouds decorations, dated from the 16th century which could be seen inside the book "Japanese Spears: Polearms and their use in old Japan" by Ronald and Patricia Knutsen.

On the far right a Tsukushi Naginata (
筑紫薙刀) which resemble the model of a western "Bardiche" and a complex Magari Yari (曲槍) with a convex type of blade which resemble an axe blade, dated from the late 16th century, currently located to the "Royal Armouries" in Leeds, Uk.


And here other examples of axes appearing inside artworks, from the 絹本著色聖徳太子絵伝. [3] ,十二類巻物の書誌情報 and the 前九年絵巻物. [1] ;



This is the "絹本著色聖徳太子絵伝" which describes event of the 7th century; However, like in the majority of the warriors artistic representations, the armor and the weapons are the same of Kamakura period and the scroll is dated Muromachi ( around the 15th century). It is quite weird to see shields, Oyoroi and axe in the same scroll!!





Some Final Thoughts

As I said before, axes were never mainstream weapons; the reason behind this might be the fact that others polearms, like Naginata and Yari were capable of outperforming the heavy Masakari in reach and speed, not to mention that sometimes, similar axe's blades were found in some variations of the Naginata and the Yari themselves (see my sketches in the picture above) .
Anyway, some warriors, unlike the majority of people think, still adopted these weapons on the battlefield of the medieval Japan.

Please feel free to comment and share this article if you like it!

**As I stated in the descriptions of the items I've drawn, the models are based on real objects. However I wasn't able to use pictures due to various copyright issues; I hope you would still be able to understand what kind of shapes they have!


Gunbai

Comments

  1. Nice article, so if axes where not mainstream what about stuff like maces, hammers and specialized daggers also how well do you think the blade on the sun ono su yari would do well against riveted mail I'm curious lastly what is your next article going to be about

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi! Thank you for leaving a comment! Maces like the Kanabo and the Ararebo were fairly common during the Muromachi Period, it is also fair to notice that spikes with squared cross section (like the spike of a warhammer) were integrated in spear ( the most common weapon used) and used as a standalone weapon:
      https://www.pinterest.jp/pin/343610646561635476/
      https://www.pinterest.jp/pin/210050770104448452/

      Specialized dagger like the yoroidoshi or the yari tanto were probably carried by every high ranking samurai. But is also important to remember that guns like the bajozutsu were carried on horseback; a close shot with a large caliber would bypass armor.

      I think that the spear point will go through mail. The point might be a little bit too wide but still is narrow and rigid. This highly depend on the type of mail but on average I would say yes. You can see the real ones here:
      http://www.samurai-artmuseum.com/site/assets/files/1030/sam_home_vitirine.png
      http://www.japaneseswordbooksandtsuba.com/sites/default/files/styles/product-full/public/IMG_3580.JPG?itok=wfgqoZZq
      https://www.hampel-auctions.com/img/auktionen/A76/b/Hampel-73205024-a.jpg

      It would be an article about how much samurai armor could cover ;)

      Delete
  2. Interesting and educative read! This is indeed new to me.

    It should be noted that axe is not considered "mainstream" weapon in other cultures as well. Some cultures place more significance on the axe than others, but generally speaking the most common weapon would still be spear and sword.

    *Unless poleaxe and halberd are included

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Is always an honor seeing your comment under one of my post! Yes I do agree with you, axes were not as common as many people think. They don't have the reach of a spear, nor the versatility of a sword. I should also add that probably, the design of this Japanese weapon was inspired by Chinese ones; I've seen a Edo period book which illustrate some axes, but they did look Chinese. I will leave a comment to your blog with that link If I could find it! In Japan, like in Europe, Naginata ( which resemble glaive/halberd) and some types of yari blades were developed in lieu of the axe

      Delete
  3. About the specialized dagger, yeah probably every high-ranking Samurai use but they probably were not the only ones https://www.scribd.com/mobile/document/319606184/Yoroi-Doshi-for-JSSH , This research tells us the yoroidoshi what's the most used knife by the samurai class prior to the edo period. https://www.japaneseswordindex.com/unji.htm I found this talked about different types of tantos one of which being the yari tanto, some which were made by sword makers with a hamon and others mass-produce for foot soldiers that lacked a hamon, I was able to find an old discussion about this type of tanto one person said these are not uncommon and I have seen dozens of them throughout the years http://www.militaria.co.za/nmb/topic/5153-yari-tanto/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes Kevin Yoroidoshi were indeed pretty much as common (if not more) as the European Rondel Dagger. Thank you so much for sharing those links, they would be useful when I will write a post about the Yoroidoshi weapon!
      Have a nice day

      Delete
  4. the connoisseur's book of japanese swords mentions the yoroidoshi was widely produced during the warring state period and the tanki yoriaku hi ko ben did say it was most used in order times, forgot to mention that sorry

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fascinating!

      Is it also possible for you to have found a site or thesis paper that talks about the Senkaku Yari (armor piercing spears) in depth like you did with the Yoroi-Doshi?

      Delete
    2. Just a correction; sankaku (三角) is a term used to indicate the triangular cross section of the blade. While some sankaku blades have finer points and could be used to target the armor's weakspots, a lot have rounded points which won't be able to go through.

      Delete
  5. Excellent read! I just love everything Samurai related and find it great when I get to read articles like this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much! I'm glad you liked the article, I hope you could find more on this blog ;)

      Delete
  6. The shorter axe, I assume meant to be a single handed weapon, with heart shaped home in the blade.. do you have some rough dimensions on the side of the head and the length of the handler? Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes it is supposed to be single handed; I've made the sketch based on the 十二類巻物 and on the 前九年絵巻物:
      Unfortunately I have no idea about the dimensions, although they shouldn't differ much from other Asian style axes

      Delete
  7. Wanderfull post im waiting for your next post
    visit our website

    ReplyDelete
  8. Very enjoyable read, the video game For Honor will introduce a Japanese character wielding a axe and since the devs likes to base there character on historical info this is a nice way to get a hint of just what that character will be before they actually reveal it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you!
      I'm curious to see what the new hero would look like indeed, it would be nice to see some of the real designs being implemented in the game! Although I have to say that that the "teaser" picture didn't look like a Japanese axe at all

      Delete
    2. To be fair that looks like a very end game model and all of them are laughably "bling bling" so I wouldn't take the exact design to seriously

      Delete
    3. The For Honor Samurai faction hero is just been revealed. Class name is hitokiri and she is creepy af. Wields a double-headed masakari axe. I'd say she is the most creative hero to date, and lovin' it.

      Delete
    4. I've seen her! Probably I'm going to write a brief article about it and For Honor in general.
      She is very cool indeed!!

      Delete
  9. I may have missed the answer to this above: did samurai use throwing axes?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As far as I know there are no references for throwing axes. Most of these items were two handed large polearms weapons so not exactly the ideal type of axe to throw

      Delete
    2. True! Although the warrior who could throw a two-handed axe would be impressive! I vaguely remember a reference to a Scotsman throwing a huge axe. I guessed that the Japanese didn't traditionally have throwing axes, but there are a couple modded for Shogun 2, so I thought I'd ask. Thank you!

      Delete
  10. Surprisingly enough, the first example of Fuso/ Onoyari I saw (unknowingly) was in the videogame Sengoku Basara (2), where elite spearmen from certain factions have those weapons which are basically Yari with a small, slightly downward-pointing axe blade right below the spearhead. I first thought it was meant to invoke the western polearm, but I have to reconsider it...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Keep it in mind that those type of Onoyari were more likely to be ceremonial tools rather than weapons, although the design was known in Japan.

      Delete
    2. Well, it's Sengoku Basara; compared to weapon comboes such as falchion + shotgun, dual jumonji yari and mechanical drill-lance the Onoyari is rather tame.

      Furthermore, to be honest, those portrayed here still look like something you could use to defend yourself in combat, rather than those large, heavily-decorated ceremonial chinese axes (which, if memory serves me right, were often used, for example, to formally declare war on someone else or as a sign of authority).

      Delete

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