There's no escaping it; just mentioning or reading "ninjatō" (忍者刀 in Japanese writing) immediately evokes images of ninjas. These enigmatic characters, engaged in secretive maneuvers, have fueled countless fantasies and remain partly mysterious. The same can be said for their equipment, particularly their weapons, although some are known. But what exactly is the ninjatō? What is its origin? Is it a real Japanese sword that once existed? Let's explore all that is known about it, as a veil of mystery still surrounds the ninjatō.
What is the Ninjatō?
The ninjatō, also known as ninjaken or shinobigatana, is a Japanese weapon. It differs from traditional katanas in several ways. Firstly, it is shorter, measuring less than 50 cm. Moreover, its blade is straight, lacking the typical curve of a katana. The short and straight blade was advantageous, as it could be carried on the back during movements, making it practical for climbing walls and maneuvering in tight spaces. It also facilitated quick drawing.
Another distinctive feature of this short sword is its tsuba, a square-shaped guard of significant size. It could be used as a foothold when leaning against a wall. The tsuka, the handle, was sometimes longer than the blade to conceal poison or secret documents. As for the saya, the scabbard, it could be hollowed out to function as a breathing tube for underwater use.
The quality of the ninjatō cannot be compared to that of the samurai katana. Samurai swords were meticulously forged by master blacksmiths over months, creating exquisite pieces by hand. In contrast, ninjatōs were crafted by local blacksmiths without the expertise of the great masters. Naturally, the resulting swords were not of the same exceptional craftsmanship. Furthermore, the presumed users of the ninjatō, the warrior ninjas, did not cherish their weapons like the samurai did with their katanas, wakizashis, and tantos. They were not hesitant to abandon their swords after a battle and recover the weapons of their adversaries.
Is the Ninjatō the Weapon of the Ninja?
Answering this question is challenging. Some argue that this weapon was invented during World War II, while others claim that it was indeed a weapon developed for ninjas. Without pretending to be historians, we lean towards the latter possibility. Why? Firstly, it is a more intellectually satisfying hypothesis. Please note that we do not present this theory as proven and reliable; it is merely our own opinion.
Historically, tanto and nagamaki are ancient swords with curvature and length characteristics resembling those of the ninjatō. Therefore, it is entirely conceivable that the ninjatō is a variation of these swords rather than a recently created model. Considering the methods and equipment used by ninjas, the ninjatō could logically be part of their arsenal. Hence, it is impossible to discuss the ninjatō without delving into the details of the ninja's role.
The Ninja or the Shadow Samurai
Ninjas primarily functioned as spies, collecting intelligence and being ready to confront various enemies. Hired as mercenaries by daimyos, feudal lords, they carried out missions involving sabotage and espionage. They were also tasked with assassinating significant enemies, preferably discreetly. Afterward, they needed to escape without being caught to preserve their secrets. Fearless and prepared for all situations, the ninja moved silently, embodying the well-known image of a stealthy ninja. They learned to hide and make use of their environment.
Resourceful and capable of improvising, the ninja possessed a diverse, unique arsenal of weaponry. For example, they wore ashiko, claws under their shoes, to climb walls or trees. These ashiko could also deliver deadly blows during combat. Shurikens, metal pieces with sharp points, are another weapon popularized in literature and movies. Shurikens discouraged pursuing samurai from chasing after the ninja. The shadow warriors had a wide array of weapons at their disposal, including more traditional ones like swords.
Did the Ninjatō Truly Exist?
This question is not as simple as it seems and is highly debated among historians in Japan. The ninjatō replicas found in museums were designed based on the concept of a sword typically used by ninjas. A short, straight blade equipped with a square guard indeed meets the specific requirements of ninjas, such as using the tsuba as support for climbing or easily drawing a sword carried on the back, and the tsuka concealing documents or objects.
However, as of now, no authentic ninjatō is registered with the NBTHK (Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai), the society for preserving Japanese swords. This government organization is responsible for registering and conserving ancient Japanese swords and also manages the Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo. This supports the theory of the non-existence of the ninjatō. There is a sword called chokutō, which bears a resemblance to the current ninjatō. It has a straight, flat blade (kiriha zukuri) and an unrounded tip. The problem is that this type of sword dates back to the Heian period (794-1185), while the earliest document mentioning ninjas dates back to 1487.
So, is the ninjatō a myth or reality? A Hollywood fantasy or a true ninja tradition? As long as a "real" ancient ninjatō is not found, or documents proving its existence are not discovered, the question will remain unanswered.
It's up to you to form your own opinion on the subject. Regardless of whether their existence is proven, ninjas and ninjatō will continue to fuel Japanese historical novels, movies, and manga.