Introduction to Japanese Ninja Swords
Ninja swords are a popular choice among collectors, martial arts practitioners, and aficionados of Japanese culture. This type of weapon represents a long and detailed history of the country and connects ancient history with modern practices. The term ninja sword is generally used to describe any sword used by samurai in feudal Japan, but more specifically can refer to the ninjato or shinobigatana. This particular style of sword has been popularized by the film industry in both Japan and the United States. If you are making plans to purchase one of these swords, learning more about their background may help you choose between the varieties of weapons available.
Description of Ninja Swords
Ninja swords like the ninjato, which is also called a shinobigatana, are somewhat different in appearance from the popular katana. They are notably straight along the full length of the weapon, rather than curved. They are also usually somewhat shorter than a katana, closer to the size of a wakizashi, which is less than 24 inches in length. Some manufacturers may create versions between 27 inches and 33 inches in length. These longer models are generally for collectors, rather than martial arts practice.
The blade is frequently forged from high carbon steel using traditional Japanese hand-forging and clay tempering methods. It is sharpened only on one side. Some ninja swords are engraved on the blade, but this is often done when the sword will be used for decorative or entertaining purposes. Those used for martial arts are often un-decorated.
The tsuba, or guard, is made from iron or steel and has a distinct square shape, in contrast to the oval tsuba seen on most katana and wakizashi. It is believed that ancient swords may have had a tsuba of leather to make it more lightweight. The handle is wrapped with cord to ensure a comfortable and sturdy grip. The koshirae, or sheath for the blade, is usually made from iron. It is usually black, so as to blend in with the ninja’s clothing and surrounding background, but may also be found in other colors. Some historians speculate that the koshirae may have been longer than the blade it housed. This would provide space for a ninja to store other materials such as poisons.
Historically, to test a sword’s sharpness, sword makers used a method called tameshigiri. This involved cutting through a series of mats or bundles made from rice and bamboo. Records show that swords were also tested on cadavers. Modernly, the tameshigiri is generally only done to test a swordsman’s skills by cutting through soaked bamboo bundles or synthetic targets using various strokes. This is usually part of a training program, as several factors can make this a dangerous activity without proper training.
History of Ninja Swords
Ninjas were the secret agents of feudal Japan. They worked as spies, assassins, and saboteurs. Ninjas were also popular characters in fictional literature for much of Japanese history. These legendary heroes had a supernatural ability to walk on water, become invisible, and control the elements. The blending of these two traditions makes it difficult to separate myth from history and Western embracing of the ninja lore tends to favor the fantastical side of these stories.
Ninja swords are best recognized for their use in modern movies and television series. It is unverified whether this weapon was historically carried by ninjas. It is possible that they were carried between the Sengoku Period and the Edo Period, but no swords of this style from the period remain. The earliest record of their use dates back only to 1964, when the Japanese Iga-ryu Ninja Museum began displaying modern replicas of swords that were given this name. In the same year, the swords also appeared in a popular film series about a ninja in the Sengoku period.
The concept of a straight ninja sword, rather than the more common curved ones, comes from the idea that ninjas had to forge their own blades with rudimentary tools. Creating a straight blade was simpler and took less time to forge than a curved one.
By the 1970s, the swords were beginning to be imported into the United States for sale to collectors. In the 1980s, the style of weapon and the concept of ninjas had reached a height of popularity and began to appear in American made films and television shows. This list includes Revenge of the Ninja starring Sho Kosugi and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Despite the fact that ninjas were often portrayed comically in kabuki-style productions in Japan, the Western view was that of a serious warrior.
Ninja Swords in Popular Culture
Perhaps one of the most popular references to ninjas and ninja swords is the legend of Kouga and Iga. The two were clans in feudal Japan, situated in a small area between mountains, and at some point were at war with one another. The legend tells the story of two lovers, one from each clan, in the tradition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The story’s origin is unknown and it has been adapted into several modern versions, the best-known version perhaps being a1958 Japanese novel called The Kouga Ninja Scrolls. It has also been adapted into comics like Basilisk and a live-action film called Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. Modernly, Kouga and Iga are regions in Japan and considered the historic birthplace of classic ninjas.
Ninjutsu is the modern practice of the martial arts of the ninja. There are several styles and it is debated which is the oldest or most traditionally accurate. The practice includes more than simply martial arts moves, and also incorporates warfare tactics, strategy, and espionage. Classically, ninjutsu also included survivalist tactics, as ninjas in feudal Japan needed to survive using whatever they could on the move. According to the school of Masaaki Hatsumi, the study includes 18 disciplines. Those are as follows, in no particular order of priority:
- Sword fighting
- Staff fighting
- Spear fighting
- Naginata fighting, which involves a weapon like a pole arm
- Kama fighting, which involves a weapon like a sickle
- Throwing weapons
- Unarmed combat
- Escaping and hiding
Modern Ninja Sword Makers
There are several modern forges that create practical and fantasy ninja swords. Most use the traditional methods for creating swords that are battle-ready. However, it is important to ensure that the brand meets your needs, whether that is for a decorative piece or one for martial arts practice.
Hanwei is the brand name for the Dalian Forge in China. The company was started by famous sword smith Paul Chen and his name is often synonymous with the brand. His unique style of creating weapons blends Japanese and Chinese techniques. Products are created with a combination of hand-forging and modern tool methods. The majority of blades are made with high-carbon steel and sharpened before shipping.
Masahiro forge is actually a group of small forges that operates in China. The majority of their weapons are created using full tangs and high carbon steel. Some of their budget level weaponry is die-cut. Swords leave the factory sharpened and polished, ready for use.
Ten Ryu forge specialized in Japanese weapons. Their swords are hand-forged using classical methods and stainless or carbon steel. All of their weapons are intended for combat or practice use.
Tips for Choosing a Ninja Sword
When searching for a ninja sword, it can be helpful to use different terms to see all that is available. Some manufacturers simply use the term ninja sword, while others may use the more specific ninjato and shinobigatana. The latter is sometimes shortened to shinobi, which is another term for ninjas. Swords of the East carries several brands under each of the terms from the above mentioned manufacturers.
The next most important factor is how you will use the weapon. For decoration or costuming, you may choose a sword that is made on modern machinery and is more elaborately decorated to be visually appealing. If you will be using it for ninjutsu or other martial arts practice, it is important to find a sword that is rated for combat and will stand up to heavy use. It may be necessary to check with your dojo to ensure your weapon meets the specific requirements for safety purposes.
Other things to consider are whether you might want a display stand for your home, an over the shoulder or back sheath, or other complimentary weaponry such as a dagger or throwing weapon. Some swords may come with the accessories or be sold in matched pairs. Finally, the price often plays a role in any shopping experience. The forges mentioned that make ninja swords produce pieces to suit every price range.