Your Short But Fascinating History of the Ninja Star
People love good ninja movies. And it’s hard not to. They usually feature fantastic action sequences involving badass martial arts and seriously cool weapons. You can always count on a few references pertaining to restoring or protecting someone’s honor. And there appears to be no shortage of intriguing bad guys with questionable agendas. It’s a formula that consistently delivers. But, there is little evidence to suggest that ninjas, as typically depicted in popular culture, were actually real.
The ninja first entered popular culture during the Edo period (1603 — 1867), a time characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, pacifism, a stable population, and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. But, it’s also characterized by a lot of crime. Soldiers who were previously at war suddenly had a lot of time and no money. Martial arts schools dueled among themselves, and personal safety for regular folk became an issue.
It makes sense, then, that stories of skilled fighters, often born or endowed with supernatural abilities, emerged as a national myth. These stories were loosely based on folklore, which was allegedly based on historical figures, such as the shinobi (or "those who act in stealth"). In other words, it gets complicated. But, even though there have definitely been some impressively skilled Japanese warriors, who have performed incredible feats, there is nothing that suggests these warriors were more than human.
In most movies, ninjas are not your standard soldiers. They are martial arts warriors that often excel in espionage, assassinations, and illusion. As such, they don’t normally sport weapons characteristic of the military. Instead they use weapons specifically made for short-range, up-close and personal combat. Typically, these involve the sword (ninjato), throwing stars (shuriken), chain (kusari), and spikes (claws) made for their hands and feet.
Few weapons are as misunderstood in popular culture as the shuriken, also known as ninja stars. Meaning “hidden hand blades,” shuriken are weapons that are usually employed in a close-range fight or used to create a distraction (me-tsubushu). They come in many different shapes and sizes, but can be roughly divided into two groups: bō shuriken (stick shuriken), and hira shuriken (flat shuriken) — which also includes shaken (wheel shuriken).
Bō shurikens consist of a straight iron or steel spike that is easy to carry and conceal. Though bō shurikens vary in length as well as in the shape of their cross sections — which could be round, triangular, square, rectangular, pentagonal, or octagonal — most have one pointed end, but on occasion can sport two. Their weight, length, and shape of the cross section, all determine the weapon’s maximum range.
Shaken and hira shuriken are constructed from thin, flat plates of metal derived from a variety of sources. They often sport a hole in the center, which is useful for transporting them, and possess a thin blade sharpened mainly at the tip. Thanks to Hollywood, most people think of this type of shuriken as ninja trademarks. “The number of points on a shuriken, the shape, and the size often have esoteric religious and superstitious aspects.”
It should be noted, however, that further classifications of shuriken are possible, as the weapon’s design largely depends on the imagination of the shuriken maker. From what historians can gather by studying old shuriken as well as their depictions and descriptions in antiquated manuscripts, it’s pretty clear that there were numerous types. Interestingly, the names we have for shuriken today were given to them long after they made their debut.
Although shuriken are commonly associated with ninjas, they were actually used as supplementary weapons to the sword — or various other weapons — in a samurai's arsenal. As such, learning how to wield the shuriken — an art form known as shurikenjutsu — was taught at most martial arts schools, where students learned how to use the weapon to target the more exposed parts of their opponents’ bodies, like the eyes, face, hands, or feet.
Shuriken were usually used before or during the drawing of the sword. “There are even some shuriken designed to be held between the hand and the sword itself, making it easy to use both at the same time.” writes Daniel Fletcher in Japanese Throwing Weapons: Mastering Shuriken Throwing Techniques (2011). “Some martial arts schools consider the kozura (by-knife) that is carried in the saya (scabbard) of the katana to be their only type of shuriken.”
There are also reports of shuriken being coated with poison, dirt, or animal feces. The idea was to have a point penetrate a victim and have the bacteria transfer into the wound and cause a then-incurable infection. “A soldier could find many possible weapons in the litter of a fresh battlefield-weapons lying on the ground or protruding from bodies like broken spears, broken swords, discarded knives, thousands of broken arrows, and pieces of broken armor plate.”
Unlike the treasured katana and other bladed weapons, antique shuriken are often poorly preserved, largely due to their expendable nature. Hence, their historical value has recently increased. But modern shurikens, normally made of stainless steel, are also widely available for enthusiasts, historians, and martial arts students. And, for those who are not interested in fighting, they can always be seen in a cool ninja movie.
Note* Images via Wiki Commons