Ninja Weapons and Tools

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Shuriken - Ninja Weapons

A shuriken or ninja throwing star
Presumably real ninjas did not label their weapons with the word "ninja.". goldenfox fox on Flickr.com

The weapon most closely associated with the ninja today has to be the shuriken or throwing star.  Its name literally means "sword hidden in the hand," and the term actually can refer to any type of small blade.

Although the wheel shuriken or shaken pictured here is the most popular form of this weapon now, traditional shuriken also could be straight metal sticks or throwing darts (bo shuriken)Shuriken were made from leather-stitching needles, coins, nail removers, and other small tools. Usually, they were a distraction tool rather than a lethal weapon, although they could be dipped in poison or infected with tetanus if the user wanted to kill his or her target.

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Kunai - Ninja Weapons

Israeli martial artists with kunai or Japanese daggers
Modern martial artists practice with kunai. Avinoam Sharon on Flickr.com

The kunai is a type of dagger used by the ninja.  Originally made from either a farming trowel or a masonry trowel, the kunai was used primarily as a tool for digging holes through plaster or wood walls – very useful if one is trying to gather intelligence, and needs to see or hear what is happening inside a building. 

With a soft iron blade that is only sharpened on the very tip, the kunai was literally a blunt instrument, and not a very efficient weapon.  However, in a pinch, it could be used for stabbing, either on its own or lashed to a handle to form a spear.  Despite pop culture claims to the contrary, the kunai was not a throwing weapon.

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Makibishi - Ninja Weapons

Makibishi or ninja road spikes
Makibishi - ouch!. samuraiantinquities via Wikimedia

Makibishi or caltrops are early antipersonnel weapons, useful for slowing down enemy pursuit.  Ninja could scatter behind them either metal makibishi, like those pictured here, or water chestnut seed pods, which dry into a similarly pokey shape.  The spikes would disable any human or horse that stepped on them long enough for the ninja to escape.  In addition, a rusty metal makibishi could transmit tetanus, eventually killing the pursuer.

The first historical use of the caltrop in Japan is not recorded.  Elsewhere in Asia, the Persian emperor Darius III used them in 331 BCE during the Battle of Gaugamela, but still was defeated by Alexander the Great.

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Shikomizue - Ninja Weapons

Ninja cane sword or shikomizue
The blade of a shikomizue was concealed inside an ordinary-looking bamboo walking stick. samuraiantiquities via Wikimedia

After Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Sword Hunt in 1588, most ninjas were not allowed to openly carry swords such as the katana.  Those weapons were reserved for the samurai class, and the penalty for disobeying the weapons ban was death. 

Even before this time, however, most ninja weapons could be passed off as farm implements or other tools.  The shikomizue, or cane sword, appeared to be a harmless bamboo walking stick, but a sword blade was concealed inside.  The name shikomizue literally translates as “prepared cane,” and the ninja who carried one was prepared to defend him- or herself if the need arose.

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Kyoketsu Shoge - Ninja Weapons

Kyoketsu shoge or dagger on a rope
The kyoketsu shoge was a multi-tool for ninjas. Hyakuraiju via Wikimedia

The kyoketsu-shoge was a ninja’s multi-tool.  This weapon’s name literally means “to run in the fields and mountains.”  Comprising a short double edged blade with a curved blade attached to it near the hilt, the kyoketsu-shoge was attached to a four or five meter long rope or chain that ended in a flattened metal ring.  Sometimes the rope was woven of human or horse hair for extra strength.

Although many of the most famous ninjas were from the samurai class, most ninjas were peasants.  The kyoketsu-shoge was a perfect peasant weapon, made from a sickle or other farm implement.  Its uses included stabbing and slashing, but also tripping or ensnaring an enemy, tying up a disabled foe, or the ring could be thrown into a tree to help the ninja climb up quickly.  Particularly skillful kyoketsu-shoge users could even rip a sword out of their opponent’s hand with this tool, and the ring served as a make-shift shield.  Most of these tactics would have been considered dishonorable by the aristocratic samurai warriors, but peasant ninjas were not bound by the rules of bushido.

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Fukiya - Ninja Weapons

Fukiya or ninja dart gun
The fukiya: poison-tipped darts and a blowgun. Erakko Papu via Wikimedia

Another multi-purpose ninja weapon was the fukiya, or blowgun.  From close range, ninjas could shoot darts from a 50 centimeter (20 inch) long tube at their targets.  The darts would have been a nuisance or distraction tactic rather than a deadly threat unless they were first dipped in poison.  The tube of the blowgun supposedly also served as a makeshift snorkel, allowing the ninja to conceal him- or herself in a pond or river and breath while staying submerged. 

In modern Japan, fukiya is a competitive sport akin to archery.  As far as I know, the blowguns are no longer used for snorkeling, however.

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Kusarigama - Ninja Weapons

Kusarigama, a type of ninja weapon
Kusarigama on display in a museum. via Wikimedia

During the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), Japanese warriors developed a new weapon known as the kusarigama.  Made of a sickle attached by a chain to a heavy iron weight, the kusarigama allowed its user to rip an opponent’s weapon out of their hands, or to entangle their limbs in the chain.  Once the opponent was disarmed or snared, the kusarigama’s sickle end could dispatch the downed foe.  Samurai and ninjas alike used this particular weapon, although it is associated more with the ninja today.

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Tekko-kagi - Ninja Weapons

Ninja claws or tekko-kagi
Ninja claws or tekko-kagi. Ian McBurnie on Flickr.com

The tekko-kagi is a form of brass knuckles or knuckle-dusters, designed to make a fighter’s fist heavier while also protecting him or her from the force of the blows.  Early Japanese tekko were simple weapons in the form of a stirrup or a capital letter D, with an iron arch covering the outside of the fist, and a straight wooden bar inside the fist.  Over time, more elaborate designs evolved, culminating in the bear claw type of tekko-kagi pictured here, also known as shuko.  A ninja armed with these spikes could do serious damage to an opponent in hand-to-hand combat, and could also grapple a sword and strip it out of the other fighter’s hand.  To me, this weapon brings to mind the Wolverine character from the X-men comic books.

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Ashiko - Ninja Weapons

Ashiko or ninja climbing cleats
Climbing cleats or ashiko that attached to a ninja's shoes. samuraiantiquesworld via Wikimedia

 When a ninja needed to climb a castle wall or a steep mountainside, he or she might employ a type of crampon or climbing spike called the ashiko.  Pictured here, the ashiko had triangular metal spikes sticking out of the bottom to provide traction.  It attached to the user’s shoes with leather straps.  This could be a very useful tool for infiltrating a castle unseen, whether on a spying mission or to carry out an assassination.

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Kaginawa - Ninja Weapons

Kaginawa or ninja grappling hook
Ninja grappling hook or kaginawa, useful for scaling walls. samuraiantiquesworld via Wikimedia

The kaginawa or grappling hook is another climbing tool that was used by both samurai and ninjas to scale Japanese castle walls.  The name literally means “hook rope.”  It was most often employed during castle sieges, but also came in handy for stealthy entrances into a castle’s hold by a single operative.

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Katana - Ninja Weapons

Japanese samurai swords
A katana, top, and other Japanese swords. Morten Falch / Sortland via Getty Images

Although the katana is the signature weapon of the samurai, ninja would use it at times, too – particularly those who were ronin or outcasts from the samurai class.  It stands to reason that any fighter with access to one of these beautifully curved, slender, and deadly blades would use it.

In 1588, the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi forbade non-samurai from carrying katanas, and scoured Japan for illicit weapons in the Sword Hunt.  By that time, however, the ninjas were already on the ropes, reeling from their crushing defeat by Oda Nobunaga, who put down the ninjas’ Iga Revolt in 1581.  In the Tokugawa Period that followed, warfare all but vanished from Japan, and ninjas’ services were no longer required.