Kanabō: The Strongest Mace of the Samurai

Kanabō was a popular anti-armor weapon in feudal Japan.

Baton-like hitting weapons are common in Japan, and the “kanabō” (金棒) is one of them. This spiked or studded blunt weapon of the 14th century is literally known as “metal club” in Japanese. It was created for the purpose of destroying armor that cannot be penetrated by swords and spears. It was mainly used by the samurai of feudal Japan. Japanese oak, chestnut, and yew were used to create the first kanabō models in the mid-1300s. These two-handed clubs were between 4.6 and 6.6 feet (1.4 and 2 m) tall, with octagonal poles. They were strengthened with square or diamond-shaped rivets and hoops called “hoshi.” This design is thought to have first emerged during the Nanboku-chō period between 1336–1392. Some later kanabō models had sheet metal or iron plates wrapped around them for reinforcement, creating what were known as “hirukanamono” and “nagafukurin,” respectively. Over time, the kanabōs were made completely from iron, with an evolution from cast iron to wrought iron.

FAQ About the Kanabō

Is the kanabō still used in combat today?

The kanabō is not deployed in battle anymore. Its primary function is as an ornament or showcase item for martial artists and fans.

What materials are used to make a kanabō?

The head of the kanabō is usually tipped with iron barbs, and it is constructed of hardwood or metal.

How heavy is a kanabō?

Depending on its structure, a kanabō can weigh as much as 11 pounds (5 kg). The lightest kanabōs were around 4.5 pounds (2 kg).

Who used the kanabō in feudal Japan?

Samurai, military monks, and even criminals all used the kanabō during medieval Japan.

What is the significance of the kanabō in Japanese culture?

In Japanese society, the Kanabo represents control and power, and it is also linked with traits like tenacity and courage.

Kanabō’s History

Kanabō during the Genpei War 1180–1185.
Kanabō during the Genpei War 1180–1185.

The oldest document relating to kanabō is from the 13th century. But considering its simplicity, the weapon was probably in use as early as the 8th century, during the Heian period.

The kanabō was widely used by samurai lords and other officials in medieval Japan, and as such the weapon came to be seen as a sign of power and prestige. Bandits and martial monks (sōhei), both renowned for their brutality and prowess in battle, also employed this weapon.

Heavy weaponry had continuously been employed by the Japanese military in combat. The reason for this was that the majority of conflicts were conducted from atop a horse, where the extra weight of armor was negligible. Therefore, even with stabbing weapons, let alone blades, it was exceedingly difficult to pierce armor.

A samurai with a kanabō and a Nanhoku-cho period armor, 1893.
A samurai with a kanabō and Nanhoku-cho period armor, 1893. (From the book: Military Costumes
in Old Japan
by Ogawa, K. Kazumasa)

Since armor moves with the body, there were gaps at the joints, making the adversary vulnerable to harm. This led to tactics such as aiming for the neck by hitting the headpiece or cutting the joints of the armor. But it was still too challenging to cut through armor, probably much harder than breaking through it with a well-placed blow. There were still instances in which a yari (Japanese spear) was able to break through an armor.

The first lighter armors were developed during the Nanboku-chō era. However, breaking through the light armor still remained challenging. This led to the creation of weapons like the “kanabō” which were designed to strike. The weapon worked well because the arms and legs were usually vulnerable in Japanese armor.

Kanabō’s Design


The kanabō was a hefty striking tool designed to cause serious damage to the target, particularly the head and chest. After being knocked off balance by the kanabō’s blow, an attacker had a better chance of killing their foe by crushing their neck or smashing their body with this weapon.

You can think of the kanabo as a giant club or mace. This blunt weapon can weigh as much as 20 pounds (9 kg) due to the robust timber or metal from which it is crafted. The weapon has a long handle for a two-handed grasp and a broad, rounder head covered in iron spikes. The tetsubo is a similar weapon to kanabō that is made of iron.

Kanabō rods of a hexagonal or octagonal shape coated in iron plates or strengthened with iron bars were typically between 83 and 141 inches (212 and 360 cm) in length. And kanabōs of solid iron were typically around 59 inches (150 cm) in length. A kanabō at this length weighed 4 pounds (1.8 kg). Most kanabōs were between 4.5 and 11 pounds (2 and 5 kg). Due to these figures, a kanabō could only be wielded by people with high physical strength.

Was Kanabō a Popular Weapon?

Yoshiyoshi Miura wielding a kanabō. He was the final head of the Miura clan in Sagami.
Yoshiyoshi Miura wielding a kanabō. He was the final head of the Miura clan in Sagami. Despite the average height of 5 ft (154 cm) at the time, Yoshiyoshi was 7 ft 5.4 in (227 cm) tall.

The kanabō was apparently used in conflict, as evidenced by historical documents like a Japanese folding screen picture (byōbu) showing the famous 16th-century warrior Mogami Yoshiaki wielding the weapon. As a result of its sturdiness and weight, it was also fashioned into improvised assault weapons to smash through the entrances of various fortifications.

Along with the masakari (“war axe”) and great swords like ōdachi, and ōnaginata, the kanabō was another weapon that called for strong arms to handle effectively. A total of only eight instances of this weapon are recorded in the Taiheiki, a Japanese historical epic, despite its widespread usage during the Nanboku-chō period.

Within 20 years of the end of the Nanboku-chō period, the ōdachi’s reputation had already begun to wane, and by the Muromachi period (1336–1573), it was virtually extinct. Within the same timeframe, the Great Ōnaginata’s reputation had also diminished, with the smaller ōnaginata becoming more common during the Muromachi period. In comparison to the eight instances of Kanabō in the Taiheiki, ōdachi, and ōnaginata were mentioned 35 and 40 times, respectively. And these mentions were exclusive to the versions that exceeded “three shaku” (36 inches or 91 cm).

Kanabō in Folklore and Mythology

The Onikko Land in Japan. A huge oni statue wielding a kanabo.
The Onikko Land in Japan. A huge oni statue wielding a kanabo.

The kanabō was not just a lethal fighting instrument, but also a sign of strength and authority. For that reason, those in command would use it as a means of intimidation. In Japanese legend and tradition, the kanabō performed a pivotal role.

  • Oni – A monster or beast with horns, pointy fangs, and unruly hair, Oni are common in traditional Japanese art. Among their arsenal of tools is a big kanabō, which they use as a primary weapon.
  • Benkei – Benkei was a monk and fighter who served in the late 12th century under the renowned Japanese samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune. He was rumored to be super muscular and a martial arts expert. He was also trained to use the heavy kanabō.
  • Shuten-doji – The fabled oni Shuten-doji was said to have abducted and devoured young women from the forests near Kyoto. He was typically shown with a massive kanabo in his hands.

Kanabō and Oni (Demon)

The demon ruler Oni, who was notorious for his fury and cruelty in combat, was rumored to favor the kanabō as his weapon of choice. The reason for that is that Onis are considered extremely strong.

The Japanese saying “Oni ni Kanabō” (鬼に金棒) depicts the iconic picture of a monster, or “oni,” wielding a kanabō, a sharpened metal weapon. The proverb literally means “giving a metal rod to a demon.” According to the ancient military record Karasu-tengu-gassen, the “Kanatsubo” was a sort of metal club used in combat in the late 15th century, and it was from this club that the kanabō supposedly evolved. “The Oni should have a Kanatsubo,” reads the chronicle.

kanabo and oni demons
Red and blue oni with kanabō.

In 1645, with the publication of “Keifukusa,” the proverb “Oni ni Kanabō” made its first appearance. The Japanese also have a saying that reads “Oni ni Tetsujo” which means “An iron rod to a demon.” The Kanabō’s spikes are believed to have evolved from rivets or fasteners used to connect iron plates to a hexagonal rod. The weapon was typically fashioned from a single piece of iron.

Similarly, the “Odawara Hojo-ki” records an account of a run-in with an Oni and includes a tale about an Oni and a Kanabo. A man who might have been a monk or a mountain ascetic was supposedly there in 1582, and he was standing near Nihonkindo. Muscular and dark-skinned, he towered at around 6’6.8″ (2 meters) in height and slung what looked to be a Kanasai-bo over his shoulder. He requested the others to tell a woman who was expected to arrive later that he was harmless and was waiting for her.

Screams from the woman were later heard, and upon investigation, they uncovered a funeral ceremony. From their investigation, they deduced that the woman was a ghost, and the odd creature was an Oni from hell that was supposed to be located close to Nihonkindo.

The Origin of Kanabō

The kanabō is defined as a “metal rod” in the 6th Edition of the Kōjien dictionary. In the same entry, the weapon is also called the “Saibō” (also known as the “zaibō”). In the dictionary, “Oni ni kin saibō” is given as a sentence and it means “a demon who is wielding a kanabō” which is from the 15th-century tale “Raven and Heron Battle Story” (Arokassenmonogatari).

The saibō was first mentioned in the 13th-century text “Kokon Chomonjū,” which describes its use by monks but not as a weapon. The “Minesōki,” an account of a crime group in Harima at the turn of the 14th century, mentions the use of a “sai-bō” several times.

Funny enough, in Japanese folklore, the saibō was seen as a stick representing the male genitalia, and it was thus referred to as “saiben-bō” or “zaifuri-bō.” Over time, the saibō progressively evolved into a form of martial art weapon.

The Japanese historian Yoshihiko Amino proposes that the first bow and arrows emerged in eastern Japan in the Jōmon period (14,000–3,000 BC). And weapons like the kanabō were invented to aim at the knees of the horses ridden by the archers. This is similar to the emergence of weapons like the inji (a slinging weapon) and ōnaginata during the medieval period.

He also implies that the kanabō was a western-style strategy weapon characterizing the battles of the Nanboku-chō period (a.k.a. the Northern and Southern Courts period). The period is marked by the collision between the Western forces, who used slinging stones and kanabō, and the Eastern forces, who used horses in combat. By utilizing slinging weapons and kanabō, the Western forces caused trouble for the Eastern forces.

The Chinese Influence on Kanabō

During the Nanboku-chō period (1336–1392), unusual weapons like masakaris, hatchets, and kanabōs began to appear alongside large swords like the ōdachi, ōnaginata, and yari. But even in the Sengoku period (1467–1615), which succeeded the Muromachi period, they were never put to good use. So, how come these weapons were so popular from the Nanboku-chō era to the early Muromachi era?

These novel fighting weapons, such as kanabō and yaris (“spears”), may have been inspired by the weapons used in China during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and by the Sui and Tang regimes in China, which had a major effect on Japan during the Heian period (794–1185).

Long spears and straight swords were standard horse equipment during the age of horse riders. Also, during the Song dynasty (960–1279), which overlapped with the Kamakura period and was ruled by foreign ethnic groups like the Jin and Yuan, there were a lot of fortress battles. This was the beginning of the age of infantry-based combat.

The yari or spear was the primary tool of war in this region. Different lengths were created for different purposes, including shorter spears for assault strikes (about six shaku, or 6 ft; 1.85 m) and longer spears for fortress defense (25 shaku, or 25 ft; 7.7 m). Axes, hatchets, bonedas (a long-handled mace), and clubs were also widely used alongside the strategies of the period due to the impact of non-native ethnic groups.

At the end of the Heian period, Taira no Kiyomori led the trade between Japan and the Southern Song kingdom (Song). This trade continued into the Kamakura period. In addition to the normal trade route with the Southern Song, military groups in western Japan called “pirates” with bases in the Kinki area and on islets negotiated with different towns south of the Yangtze River to get supplies of Song coins, pottery, fabrics, and other goods.

When raiding the Chinese coast, these groups of pirates, called “Wokou,” fought troops from the Song, Yuan, and Korean Goryeo with spears and a wide variety of other weapons. As a consequence, Kyushu, a place that had strong connections to China, gave rise to the “Kikuchi yari,” or spear of Kikuchi. It also wouldn’t be shocking to find Chinese influence in the widespread use of the axe, kanabō, and kanazuchi (“hammer”) in the Taiheiki.

Weapons Similar to Kanabō

The Sun Wukong's nyoibo or Ruyi Jingu Bang.
The Sun Wukong’s nyoibo or Ruyi Jingu Bang. (Image: Smite®)
  • Nyoibo – Also known as “Ruyi Jingu Bang,” it is a longer version of kanabō often made of hardwood and sometimes has studs. It is the weapon of the immortal monkey Sun Wukong, and Goku in the Dragon Ball.
  • Konsaibo – When compared to the kanabō, the konsaibo is very different. The iron studs gave the wood a tough and durable finish. But it still remained too bulky for use in a real conflict.
  • Tetsubō – Both the tetsubo and the kanabō are metal, but the tetsubo is made of iron and it is longer than kanabō. Since most metal staffs were originally forged from iron, making them functionally identical.
  • Ararebo – Ararebo was the one-handed, shorter version of kanabō that was easier to use in combat. But it never became as popular as kanabō due to being less powerful than its bigger brother.
Kanemuchi or aribo.
Kanemuchi or aribo.
  • Kanemuchi (or kanamuchi) – This weapon did not have any spikes or studs. It was a long, tapering version of kanabō and a common weapon in medieval Japan. It has been documented that some Kanemuchi reached a length of 39 inches (99 cm).
  • Aribo (a.k.a gojo or kirikobo) – Feudal Japan’s one of preferred weapons was the aribo. Similar to kanemuchi, it was a long, curved, octagon-shaped, forged iron cane.

Kanabō in Popular Culture

Banna wielding a kanabō in the Naruto.
Banna wielding a kanabō in the Naruto.

The kanabō appears in many different video games. Among the ones that feature a kanabō are For Honor, Nioh 2, Blade and Sorcery, Roblox, and State of Decay 2.

The kanabō is also featured in various anime series. In the Dragon Ball series the Oni of the Enma Realm, and Janenba favor the use of kanabō. In the Naruto series, the kanabō is used by Banna, Tenten, and Gatai. The weapon is also featured in Samurai Jack (2001-2017).

Kanabō Today

Martial artists and collectors alike continue to hold the kanabō in high regard. The kanabō has played a significant part in Japanese history and society, from its connection with Japanese mythology to its use by the warrior elite. This two-handed blunt weapon is an intriguing tool, whether you’re a fan of martial arts or just curious about Japan’s past.


  1. Kogan, Daniel, and Sun-Jin Kim, 1996. Tuttle Dictionary Of The Martial Arts Of Korea, China & Japan. AbeBooks.
  2. Serge Mol, 2003. Classical Weaponry of Japan: Special Weapons and Tactics of the Martial Arts. Google Books.
  3. Don Cunningham, 2012. Samurai Weapons: Tools of the Warrior. Tuttle Publishing.

By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.