Ninja Swords: Better Than Just a Blade

By Susan Spann

Real ninjas needed lightweight, concealable weapons which also served a multitude of purposes. With limited space and weight available, ninjas (also known as shinobi) generally opted for multi-use weapons, and carried only those most likely to help complete the mission at hand.

Ninjas used a wide variety of specialized weapons, but the shinobigatana, (ninja sword) is probably the most familiar (to Westerners, at least).

In truth, there was no single “ninja sword” that every shinobi carried. Like other weapons, swords were selected on the basis of several factors, including the ninja’s skills and personal preference, the requirements of the mission, camouflage, and other relevant details.

Man with Sword (1800s)

Like other ninja tools, the sword served multiple purposes. In addition to its obvious role as a bladed fighting weapon, the shinobi could use his sword:

— As an exploratory device. A ninja could use the sword (in its scabbard) to poke and prod dark spaces or to move carefully through a darkened room (like a blind person uses a cane).

— As a blowpipe. The scabbard (saya) of many ninja swords had a detachable cap on the end. By removing the sword and the cap, the shinobi could transform the scabbard into a functional blowpipe. Darts, sand, powdered pepper, or even rocks could be used as projectiles.

— As a climbing aid. The shinobi could lean his sword against a wall, hilt up, and use the guard as a step. After reaching the top of the wall, the ninja could pull the sword up after him using a length of rope (called a sageo) attached to the scabbard.

— As a snorkel or breathing device. By removing the sword and the cap that usually covered the tip of the scabbard, a ninja could use the hollow saya as a breathing tube.

When fighting multiple opponents, the shinobi could hold the sword and the scabbard in different hands, or swing the scabbard around while holding the sageo, thereby extending his reach.

As masters of weapons and disguise, ninjas often found other creative uses for their swords and scabbards also. Sometimes, this creativity extended to camouflaging the weapon itself. Ninjas often concealed swords (or daggers) in harmless-looking objects like bamboo flutes, walking canes, staves, and fans.

Sandaime Onoe Kikugorō no Ōboshi Yuranosuke

When impersonating samurai, ninjas carried a pair of swords, as was customary for the samurai class. By law, in medieval Japan, only a samurai had the legal right to wear two swords (generally a katana, or longsword, along with the shorter wakizashi).

Ultimately, the list of uses for a ninja’s sword was limited only by the ninja’s own experience and creativity. Practitioners of ninjutsu focused not only on martial training but also on intelligence, strategy, and independent thought. Like modern intelligence operatives, a ninja usually depended more on his mind than on his muscles, and though having a sword was important, thinking quickly and creative problem solving were far more useful skills to a ninja than merely knowing how to use a blade.

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Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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