Origins of the 80’s “Ninja-To”


We had some great response to this post last month, and since then another major find, so I’ve chosen to update and refine it a bit, and repost it as the start of a series of features on the storied and sometimes notorious “Ninja-To.”


Next to the black pajamas and the myriad shuriken designs adopted by ninja-craze merchants, there probably isn’t a more prevailent icon of 80’s shinobidom than the short-bladed straight-sword heavily marketed as the “Ninja-To.”

A long-handled, two-foot straight blade with plain square hand-guard, the alleged ‘sword of the ninja’ had a retro-fitted martial science all it’s own. The square guard could serve as a step to help you over walls, the sheath held hollow breathing tubes that could double as a blowgun and the end of it doubled as a spearhead or shovel. The un-curved blade was a necessity of the impoverished ninja villages where blacksmithing was much cruder. It also made the short sword easier to draw off the back. They were wielded reverse grip, a signature blade with a signature style…

Good as that all sounds, it is possibly all merchandise-inspired bullshit.

For starters, espionage arts are based on anonymity, so why carry a signature anything? Secondly, straight blades and reverse grips decimate the cutting power of a sword, why do that to yourself? And crude blacksmiths? Weren’t the same guys making all those other exotic assassination gadgets at the same time?

More to the point of this particular post, the popular version of this mass-produced 80’s sword always had shiny brass fittings, a bright-white handle with ornate cord wrapping, and a shiny-as-hell decorative silver blade. Real shadowy!

Regardless of its dubious at best historical pedigree, the Ninja-To was embraced by manufacturers and retailers because it gave them another version of the cheap and cheesy samurai sword to pawn-off on us martial arts marks (and before you ask, yes, guilty as charged, right here).

Tim and I were wondering just when this standardized “ninja sword” entered the retail vernacular, and I just found a pretty damn early mail-order ad for one in this 1977 issue of Black Belt:

Note the costuming on the cover – nothing off-the-rack here, definitely before the common mail order “ninja suit” became standard garb for such shoots. And although Stephen Hayes was becoming a fixture in these mags, the Kosugi-feuled craze was really three or four years away still. I can’t imagine we’ll find another ad a whole lot earlier. (See bottom of post!)

Also interesting to note the $69 price-point, which pretty much stood throughout the 80’s craze, and is still seen today in fact (guess inflation and changing world markets are no threat to the frugal ninja). There are cheap-as-hell sets of three you can score in any city’s Chinatown for $39, some “full-tang” display pieces of varying degrees of ridiculousness around that $70 point from online shops, and then a whole range of high-end stuff using the same design but with ‘battle-ready’ execution. You can see reviews of several superior-made versions of the this maybe-mythical classic at the Sword Buyers Guide.


Don Roley at the BudoSeek info board, as part of an exhaustive post and series of over three dozen responses on the ‘Ninja-To’ debate found this ad from a 1973 issue of Black Belt!

Damn… 1973?!?!

Take a look at the sword, LOTS of conventions we’ve all previously attributed to the 1980s. And that photo is certainly from the 60s Japanese craze era. This Los Angeles importer was waaaaaay ahead of the curve.

Ninja costume shops in Japan

Got a request for info on Japanese ninja wear outside the usual off-the-rack martial arts gear that’s pretty much stuck in the 80’s mail order mold. So here’s a few shops and their offerings.

Should be noted that all this stuff is in the realm of costuming, and won’t be up to the rigors of martial arts training. Fine for you indie film guys and cosplayers though.

*If you DO want to explore some high-end training gear that’s closer to the source than the average Karate-Mart’s, a great place to start is Shinobi Outfitters and vendors they portal to like Yamato Budogu.

Bokunan-Do sells a huge variety of traditional Japanese formal and casual wear, stage costuming, festival and parade gear, etc., with large sections of shinsengumi repros, samurai and ninja costuming, an awesome selection of basket hats, and even complete ‘travelling crow’ period yakuza garb! Fans, sandals, underwear, archery gloves, you name it.

English-language ordering, too, and we can personally recommend their customer service.

Now, we haven’t used any of the below, but know people who have. They’ve all been around for years, the websites have some bi-lingual capabilities, and we’re confident in their reputability:

Ninja-Isyo sells various grades of costumes to both the public and the entertainment industry. Unique to them is the variety of off-beat colors, including those weird brown and peach shades you see in 70s and 80s Japanese TV. Love this stuff!

The Rakuten shop is affiliated with some of the Iga-Ryu ninja theme parks/museums (and related books), supplying movie-derivative costuming to performers and public alike. Plenty of Azumi-wear and Hanzo hoods!

Shinobi-Ya has more souvenir-grade costumes for all ages, good for a single-night Halloween party or the like. They also have a wide variety of weapons and martial arts-related giftware.

Caveat emptor!

And just to crowbar in some personal advice… for my dollar, you grab a training-grade hakama from any martial arts supply depot, a judo gi top, improvise your own tie-downs and you’re more than halfway there. A visit to any textile outlet provides much of the rest.

The historical accuracy of the oft debated ‘ninja suit’ isn’t something you need to sweat, so you’re either aspiring to a movie or TV costume or are wide open to your own interpretations. I prefer the latter. Be creative. Go nuts!

*** We’re looking to follow this piece up with a round-up of more folks providing custom costuming and tailored training gear, so if you are one of those craftspeople or have had good experiences with one, please give us a shout! ***

New books for the discerning shadow reader

Continuing some gift giving ideas, these for the bookshelf:

We’ve highlighted Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda‘s Ninja Attack! before, but I wanted to give it a brief review now that I have it in hand.

This may quietly be one of the best reference books on ninja history ever published, and I claim that mostly in appreciation for the pop culture slant the publishers took in packaging it. Manga-sized and young-audience appealing with colorful illos by Yutaka Kondo, it’s all about acquiring a new audience while also exposing ninja movie, manga and video game fans to some actual historical background. It’s those same pop media qualities that may lead history and martial arts followers to dismiss the book alas, but they’re making a mistake doing so.

One of the things I admire most of this text is right in the intro, where the notion of the iconic black suits and masks is debunked, but with the admission that generations of cemented popular notions cannot be separated from the less well-packaged truths. The fact that the cover and several interior illos feature those very black suits is testament that you cannot deal with ninja history without dealing with it’s popular visual necessities. I actually wish they had gone further with this, adding the history of ninja in illustration, fiction and finally 20th century media to the already ample line-up of figures bio’d from legend, lore and battlefield reality within.

In short, there isn’t a better $15 stocking stuff out this year than Ninja Attack!

Dr. Kacem Zoughari‘s The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan is, in contrast, a much drier, more text-book oriented compilation of known shadow arts history and writings, thoroughly researched by someone who speaks and reads Japanese, has studied modern ninjutsu and other Japanese martial arts, and whose connections therein give him superb access to rare texts. Tuttle’s hardcover is an answer to Stephen Turnbull’s long out-of-print Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult, previously the best historical work available in English that wasn’t necessarily aimed at martial arts practitioners.

Kacem certainly wears his research depth on his sleeve here, with 60 pages of notes and bibliographical data. He is, however, admittedly partisan to the Bujinkan camp, so there is plenty of rehashing what you may have read about Takamatsu and Hatsumi via Stephen K. Hayes. Martial arts newsgroups cite myriad problems from the publisher end as well – mistranslations, photos and captions not matching, editing errors and more. It’s also a little pricey at $35. But, this is a significant entry into the all-too narrow field of credible tomes on ninja traditions.

Stephen Turbull, has a new book out himself, from military history publishers Osprey. Samurai Women: 1184-1187 is 60 pages of light history centered on various female figures of Japan’s feudal past; Tomoe Gozen, naginata-wielding body-guardettes and real life warrior nuns.

These little Osprey softcovers are part of a prolific line of illustrated guides for strategy gamers and modelers, but make for nice quick reference as well. I also recommend Turnbull’s Ninja: AD 1460-1650 (which reprints a good chunk of The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult) and Japanese Warrior Monks: AD 949-1603.

You can buy all of these and shop 30 or so additional Vintage Ninja-approved books and movies at our Amazon storefront.

Happy hunting and happy holidays!

Deadliest park rangers and tour guides ever…

Via the English-language section of the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum, some nifty photos of the park and museum performers, staff and crew:

Good to know there are dedicated groups out there keeping the sensationalized, movie-inspired, historically corrupt image of the shinobi alive and well for thousands of snap-happy tourists every year.

Now where’s that gift shop…

Great excerpts from NINJA ATTACK!

If you’re like me and can’t wait for Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda‘s Ninja Attack!, there are some excepts up on the English-language Japanese e-magazine Metropolis.

Illustrations by Yutaka Kondo.

Kodansha International’s Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws is due in stores in November. NOVEMBER! Those bastards in Japan have it now…

Pre-order your own NINJA ATTACK now!

I’ll be all over this book like a bad f’n smell!

Check it out at Alt Japan.

There are WAAAAYYY too few books in English that look at the various military specialists, legendary bandits and unsung shadow-heroes that are today grouped under the moniker of ‘ninja.’ What is out there tends to be either dry and scholarly or so slanted towards a certain martial arts style (and/or business) they lack credibility.

Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws looks to present some credible history with a manga flare (illos by Ninja Scroll advisor Yutaka Kondo) that will attract a wider audience. If Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda (same authors of the excellent Yokai Attack) can get some of the Naruto set to actually learn the history behind the names they’re watching, it’ll be a truly valuable work to have out there.

Awesome chain weapons

I can’t even deal with how amazing these hand-crafted custom weapons are from Japan’s Jutte Master!

I don't even know what the proper name of this variant manrikigusari (or kusari fundo) is, but damn - either of the business ends of this bad boy would mess you up...

I love kusari gama (or kasuragama), but this one is above and beyond. That hand-guard is brilliant.

This weaponsmith is affiliated with the Musashi Clan ninja re-enactment/performance group in Japan. Their activities range from serious martial arts study to festival performances to restaurant entertainment. All while lookin’ good…

Awesome resource for MA mags!

Check out this impressively thorough archive of martial arts magazine covers and topics going back 50 years:

Vintage Martial Arts Magazines

When the titles and decades are laid out like this, you can really see the trends and transitions of coverage. Ninjutsu features were a rare exotic thing in the 60’s and 70s, but man do they EXPLODE in the 80’s!

December 1966 - the first ninja cover on an American martial arts mag, heralding the feature by Andrew Adams that later morphed into the famed NINJA: THE INVISIBLE ASSASSINS book.
July 1977 - the first photo cover of a ninja on an American mag, a makeshift shinobi outfit that's pretty rough around the edges, literally. Note the shuriken, of the kung-fu variety and not the off-the-rack mail order stuff so common in the craze 80's.
11/79 - Sho kosugi's first US cover, as a Karate champion. 4/79 - OFFICIAL KARATE is ahead of the curve, as is INSIDE KUNG-FU in 4/80.
6/80 - Stephen Hayes' first cover, albeit without the celeb treatment he'd routinely get a few years later. 8/81 movie mag decries "Ninja: American's New Sinister Hero" and the movie boom is on. By 1983, "Warriors" NINJA hits the shelves, and every other major martial arts title throws black pajama'd assassins on their covers to increase sales. The craze is here.

The folks over at have done a tremendous job with this digital archive. Scans are organized by title, then by year, with some category cross-referencing (including “Ninja”). I’ve dug through there for hours, admiring old graphic design and layouts, wondering how I missed certain mags back in the day… its a real trip.

AND a lot of the pictured pulps are for sale! I’m a bit afraid of that right now, as I have tax refunds coming and am getting veeeeery tempted…

Ninja festival families

Via Austrailia’s Daily Telegraph, absolutely awesome candids from a 2008 Iga ninja festival:

Even the ancient shadow skills of the shinobi cannot prevent the 'disinterested teenage daughter forced to accompany embarrassing family' syndrome. Think that stroller is full of hidden weapons?
Best picture ever.
Anyone in ninja garb (and their ninja dogs) got free train passes.
And the one in back is throwing what?

Check out dad in the math teacher glasses and Ninja Sans-a-Belt slacks!

Read more about these touristy parades and festivals here and here.

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