Ninja swords, everyone knows that they are a straight blade, with a square hand guard, right? If you even do a small amount of research into ninjato, you’ll quickly discover that there are two schools of thought when it comes to Ninja swords.
The first school of thought, which is probably the most commonly believed, is that the legendary Ninja warriors used a unique blade as described above. This concept has been wholly adopted by popular culture. The other school of thought which makes the most sense is that as Ninja where primarily scouts and spies, they would not want a sword which distinguishes them as a Ninja warrior.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to conduct a fair amount of research into Ninja, going so far as to visit the birthplace of the Ninja in Iga. Despite my extensive research, there’s not a clear cut case for either argument. Ironically, this reeks of ninja subterfuge and misdirection.
Within this article I’ll do my best to present the facts as I understand them, allowing you to draw your own conclusions as to what constitutes a real ninja sword.
When most people are asked to describe a Ninja sword, they will most likely think of something like the example below. As classic short sword, with a straight blade and chisel tip.
I, like most people who had done a little bit of research into ninjato, believed that the ninja sword was an invention of the martial artist Stephen K. Hayes, who went a long way to popularising ninjas during the 1980s.
I firmly believed this until I saw this in the Iga Ninja Museum.
There was a classic ninja sword proudly displayed in a reputable ninja museum. The plaque read:
“A straight sword with a distinct rectangular guard. The sheath of the shonobi-gatana has a triangular end. The ninja could climb a fence by driving the sword in the ground and stepping on the guard, leaving no evidence by retrieving it by its long sword knot. Although popular, from the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate, the ninja’s sword was more of a symbol-like item rather than a practical one.”
I asked around in the museum and gathered that the sword was not an original; it was in fact a replica. After doing a bit more digging and research, I discovered that there are absolutely no surviving original antique ninja swords anywhere.
The obvious reason for doubting the existence of a Ninja sword is fairly obvious, why would a spy want something which readily identifies them as being a spy? There is also the small fact that there are no originals left in the world.
These facts have not stopped the spread of ninja sword replicas. At this point the classic image of a ninja is very firmly part of modern day culture, even if it’s wrong.
The other school of thought which I alluded to earlier, and is probably the most likely type of sword used by Ninja, is the concealed blade. That is to say a sword or blade which is not obviously a sword or a blade. This obviously provides several tactical advantages, allowing the spy to sneak a weapon into areas that they would not normally be allowed to.
The Ninja museum in Iga has a great display of swords which are disguised as traveller’s staves.
This type of sword is of course very plausible. Ninja where known to disguise themselves as merchants or farmers, and would need to travel great distances without looking suspicious. At this time it was often illegal for a commoner to carry weapons, so a ninja would need to hide their weapons in plain sight in order to pull off an effective disguise.
It is not particularly common to find replica swords disguised as walking staves, possibly due to legality of such a weapon.
Dr Hatsumi has an interesting theory about Ninja swords; he’s off the opinion that they probably employed a sword which for all intents and purposes looked like a Katana. However, when drawn the sword had a far shorter blade than normal. This imparts some tactical advantages, allowing the sword to be drawn extremely quickly, and allows for the sword to be used in cramped quarters.
For non-stealth missions, or when Ninja were employed as shock troops, the Katana was probably the preferred choice of sword. If it was good enough for the Samurai in open battle, then it was probably good enough for Ninja as well.
At this point in the article you may be asking yourself, which is the true ninja sword? The ninja thrived on creating confusion and misdirection, so perhaps it’s completely understandable that there isn’t a clear cut easy answer. The best answer is that every sword we’ve discussed is probably a ninja sword.
When the ninja mission called for a stealthy entry in the dead of night, then a tactical classic ninja sword was probably the best option. It was a multi-functional tool that could be used in many ways.
If the Ninja was required to travel and scout an enemy position, then a monk disguise complete with a traveling stave was probably the best choice.
When the Ninja needed to travel in a city or on a busy road dressed as a Samurai, a sword which looked like a Katana was the obvious choice. The difference being that if challenged, the Ninja could very quickly draw their sword and overwhelm the enemy before they knew what was happening.
It’s up to you to decide what you think a real Ninja sword is.