The oldest days of the Shuriken trade

We’re delighted to present the first of hopefully many editorial exchanges with the superb VINTAGE NUNCHAKU communityfound on Facebook here. This ‘other VN’ is the best fountain of info anywhere on old mail order advertising from the kung-fu craze to the ninja boom, and the collections of now antique weaponry amassed there will drop your jaw. We’re happy to expand their reach beyond Facebook (where page traffic is often limited based on how much admins pay for the right to communicate with their members) and give their research efforts another archive in case the mighty blue F one day goes the way of Friendster and MySpace.


While the main focus of Vintage Nunchaku is the famed “karate sticks” — particularly the legendary stuff offered by Dolan’s Sports — there’s plenty of ninja fare as well. Scroll on through and note how many of the old scans of catalog pages and magazine ads have identical layouts and offerings from one martial arts fad to another, with cosmetic alterations like black paint and “NINJA!” typography being the only difference from one decade to the next.

Let’s start off here with a look at some of the earliest print adverts for Shuriken:


FROM VINTAGE NUNCHAKU — The oldest advertisement for shuriken found to date. Scanned from the December 1967 issue of Black Belt magazine. Factoring for inflation, that set of two would cost about $35.00 today. Wonder if any of these “Albuquerque” shuriken darts even still exist. This advertisement, nor any other from the same company, is not found in any other Black Belt issues from 1967 or 1968 — which would make them that much more rare today.

I’m blown away that not only were shrink being imported into the U.S. in ’67, but that they were referred to as “Ninja Darts” — hell, “Ninja”-anything for that matter. Pre-80s ninja boom we always called them “Chinese Throwing Stars” with only David Carradine tossing around those thick, heavy wheels for reference. But this ad seems to be an aberration.

The below ad from Asian World of Martial Arts ran 10 years later, and despite the super early ninja-like star-chucker illustrated up top, is more indicative of the kung-fu-craze mail order scene:


Again, much of the above would have some sort of black-colored, “NINJA”-stenciled version by 1984 or so.

Now, on to some of the gems of Vintage Nunchaku‘s beyond-enviable collections…


One black, one gold, one silver — a ‘senban’ for any occasion! I can’t believe cases for these once ubiquitous mail-order sets survived the decades. Note the countries of origin, Japan and Korea, an era long before everything was cheap shit made in China.


And then this grail original!!!


Companies are still producing knock-offs of this 80’s boom staple, they’re all over eBay, dirt malls, swap meets and Chinatown smoke shops. And yes, I still think a shrunken belt buckle puts a sharp-pointee way too close to your junk…

OK, if you’ve never scrolled through Vintage Nunchaku, go now! Join the community, posts some pictures of your own old stuff, drool over the loot of others. The experts over there can identify anything you find in the attic, and are always looking to buy, sell and trade!


80s Ninja Hoods

Is it just me, or did the two piece hood common to North American merchandisers completely suck?

A mainstay of retailers like Asian World of Martial Arts, the common American ninja head gear was made of a heavy duty outer hood tied over a thin spandex/lycra balaclava. The under-mask was fine on it’s own, but the outer hood was a joke. It completely killed your peripheral vision and nothing really anchored it to the under piece, so the hood sometimes stayed in place when you turned your head, making the fit even worse.

Amazingly, ads like the above didn’t even hide those facts. Take a look at the illustration, you can see the lack of vision the crappy design provided. IN A DRAWING! The artist could have fixed that, portrayed them a little more functional, but no. He or she chose to stay accurate to what I’m guessing was photo reference, and clearly none of the subjects can see a thing.

I still have one of these suits (in black) from back in the day, and played with the hood a few years back for a photo shoot. It was just as shitty as I remembered. So we made this deal in all of 30 seconds with two 16″ pieces of black cotton fabric. Kinda makes the notion of buying a prefab hood silly…

Now on the other hand, these 80’s merch hoods always intrigued me:

I never saw these hoods in person, and am still really curious as to their quality. The big superhero-like logo on the forehead notwithstanding, they seems like a decent design, more or less out of Japanese 60s cinema.

If anyone had one of these or still does, comment below or drop us a line, I’d love to know more.

Shinobi-fied merch

With the 80s craze came a lot of repurposed merchandise – stuff that for the previous decade’s boom had been sold as kung-fu gear now emblazoned with ninja logos. The above looks to have been a Chinese-esque design probably inspired by something David Carradine tossed around on network TV. But any 70s leftovers were given new life in the “ninja star” obsessed 80s.

The notion of shuriken pendants wasn’t exclusive to this company, either. In the dodgy  swap meet, dirt mall, subway blanket, Chinatown video store realm you’d see full-size, razor sharp throwing stars with tiny holes hastily drilled into them somewhere to technically make them jewelry, not illegally sold weapons.

Now just what made a net a “Ninja Capture Net?” I don’t know, and I never this particular item, but I’m pretty certain it was some type of conventional fishing deal shinobi-fied for mail order. They made some pretty strong claims here about the net’s effectiveness. Not sure I’d trust something I mail-ordered for less than $15 against a “sword-weilding enemy.”

I also like their observation for item #704A – A black stick is invisible at night!

Nothing however, beats my all-time favorite piece of repurposed merchandise, the Ninja Boomerang.

80s t-shirt ads

It was the 1980s, and there wasn’t a cheesy enough piece of Japanese graphics or ninja-related bad illustration we wouldn’t wear on a black t-shirt.

And let’s just take a look at the logic of this:

It’s a tough read at first because of some piss-poor ad layout choices, but these were indeed “Glow-in-the-Dark” ninja t-shirts. Yeah…

Hey, maybe while you were wearing the “glow of the invisable [sic] ninja” you could scream the death cry of the silent killer or something.

And look again – INVISIBLE spelled correctly and incorrectly right next to each other. Classic!


Fighting Arts Unlimited ad

Man, how 80s would that satin jacket have been? And I wonder what “scribe-spike-etc.” were.

This is a pretty dumb ad – lots of vague category and price ranges on unspecified items, but with an order form attached. In the days before the internet, return forms were crucial and this ad was probably not a big success. Love this illo at the center though:

I wouldn’t keep a knife that close to my junk…

Despite the profusion of mail order ads and supply shops, the 1980s was actually a somewhat oppressed decade when it came to martial arts collectibles. And when you look at an ad like this, it’s kind of easy to see why.

Heaven help the poor soul who actually wanted to train back then. Goods like these lumped any collector or practitioner into a public perception pool pissed in by crazed vigilantes, unhinged survivalists and blade-obsessed Travis Bickle wannabees.

I mean, who actually wanted to wear something like this, never mind conceal a dagger inside of it? Remember the Bruce Lee/ninja-fixated psycho David Patrick Kelly played in Dreamscape? HE WOULD! He was the role model for ordering these.

With questionable material like this out there drawing attention to itself, it made getting a decent sword or pair of durable nunchuks a real adventure, especially in certain states.

But I wonder if many of these even made it out of the warehouse into anyone’s mail box.

80’s mail order martial arts suppliers lived under the threat of legal shut down at any time. Some kid would poke an eye out, or some mugger would be caught with something mis-identified as a ‘deadly ninja sword,’ and lawmakers looking for cheap press would raise all sorts of alarms, promising to rid the streets of assassin tchotchkes.

For the most part, it was a lot of hot air. However the occasional swap-meet sting or raid on a Chinatown curio shop would result in products disappearing from ads, or states being added to the “cannot ship-to” list in the fine print of the catalogs.

What’s really weird is a lot of the goods back then were aluminum alloys, unsharpened chrome-plated tin and other decoration-grade materials. A decade later, it seems much of the paranoia disappeared (or some loophole in importation laws was found), and every flea market was suddenly infested with razor sharp real steel swords from China.

The new grades of cheap sword you find in plague-like quantity on eBay now are a heinous combination of sharp blades and cheap handles, and more dangerous than anything ever sold by mail order back in the 80s.

Well, more than anything save the sculpted ninja buckle stabber…

Clip art source found

In the days before scanners, throwing “clip art” into a print advertisement took some work. You had to find a cool image to start with, then “threshold” it via a stat camera and toxic chemical-laden rapid processor. And what you were left with was a ‘black-or-white’ result you hoped was close enough to the original’s coolness. And hey, it worked here:


Now it CAN be told! That’s the climactic leap from the superb Warring Clans (Sengoku Yaro). See this movie if you haven’t.

As for the ad…

This same copy suggesting major revelations of ninjutsu is nearly identical to karate and kung-fu ads from the decade previous. Yet another example of companies taking their stale martial arts offerings and ‘retro-shinobi-fying’ them in the 80s.


Yep, let’s just throw the term KOGA around…

Merchandisers love VARIETY of offerings and EXCLUSIVITY of products at the same time. But above all else, they love a healthy PROFIT MARGIN.

To those ends, you see ads like this one from the mid 80s a lot. Take the basic black uniform you currently offer, add some cheapo extra pockets, liberally borrow a region name from history to differentiate your stuff from the next guy’s, and blammo – “The Koga Combat Ninja Uniform.”

The inclusion of free bang-snaps and a light stick must have made this irresistible. I’m thinking that dart hidden at the convergence of neck and spinal column might not have been the best idea, though…

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.

The Budo Zodiac

As today is my birthday…

Found this print ad ran in a 1981 issue of Black Belt magazine, a neato blend of Chinese zodiac and Japanese martial arts. The artist did his or her homework, too!

1969 — that makes both Tim and I mighty double-nunchaku wielding karate cocks! Think I’d prefer to be an honest and thrifty assassin rat instead…

Anyone out there have one of these shirts back in the day?

UPDATE: VN reader Dominic Thibault sent us this pic via Facebook. Appropriate to the current Chinese Lunar New Year and everything!