Look at that poor, little, unassuming sword down there. Why is that cute little fella the center of such controversy? Why do so many try to use the straight blade as a fulcrum to separate the ‘men from the boys’ in the bi-partisan ninjutsu communities? Why is associating it with the silver screen an automatic indictment of the entire ninja movie genre?
I’ve spent two months of research and writing to hone a lifetime of opinions I had toward the sword, tried to look at all sides, all angles, and having come out the other side of five articles, have any of those opinions changed?
What I believed before:
1.) The notion of a single, signature “ninja sword” is nonsense, and broad sweeping statements to the absolute fact that all ninja used these is is both ignorant and irresponsible.
2.) If the thing really was the official sword of the ninja, why didn’t it ever appear in Japanese media?
3.) The regulation ‘Ninja-To’ is largely a construct of American movies and mail order merch houses.
What I believe now:
1.) Stronger than ever – you cannot attribute a single blade style to an entire population of military specialists and martial artists with activity spanning hundreds of years. But isn’t it equally unfair to claim the blade never existed at all?
2.) I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for life now, but I still cannot find an example of the stereotypical sword in any ninja media pre-dating the 1982 American film Revenge of the Ninja. I really wanted to find one, too…
3.) No, the sword wasn’t invented by mail order companies or any movie prop master in the early 80s, BUT one can certainly see how American ninja media and magazine ads fiercely perpetuated the notion of the exclusive blade here more than anywhere else.
And some additional enlightenments:
– The practitioners who embrace this blade are under constant criticism by those who don’t. I was mildly aware of the politics in the Ninjutsu community, but never realized what a symbol the sword is and the weight it carries in the endless debates of legitimacy of schools and styles.
– There is a chicken-and-egg relationship between merchandisers, movie makers and martial artists as to who introduced the sword to the rest of the world and who is at fault for making it the stereotype it is.
– Centuries of feudal activity in such a heavily militarized country is bound to produce an instance of a straight, square guarded sword used by somebody somewhere. The blade on display in museums and sold mail order as early as 1973 likely existed in history, but I’m waiting to see some hard proof of a connection to shinobi. It is unlikely any such evidence would point to an exclusivity of the signature sword type, regardless.
And something else I noticed, specifically in my own school of thought. I have a bit of an elitist attitude toward the ‘Nija-To’ myself. I see it as a symbol, too – for lack of research, lack of depth in someone’s film literacy, lack of ability to look outside the stereotypes. It also dates a ninja fan. If that sword is an icon for you, you’re a child of the 80s. It is not the blade of the Naruto kids, and while I don’t have much use for that property, I do appreciate the dent it has made in the formerly narrow and strict visual shorthand of ninja here.
In closing, I wanted to thank everyone again for responses, comments, corrections and leads to other research. These articles weren’t about proving a point or convincing anyone to one side or another. They were about eroding the notion of absolute definitions regardless of what one believes.
The more information we can all share on the subject, the better off we all are.
At the apex of the 80′s ninja boom, I was in my early teens, had disposable income from odd jobs and a dad willing to put his name as an adult on a mail-in order to a martial arts supply company. Despite these blessings, and being a big mark for any and all ninja merch, I never owned the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To.’
I had just enough knowledge of Japanese film and TV to have gained an affinity for the curved shorter blades with square guards, plus a real contempt for stuff like Asian World of Martial Arts‘ camouflage ninja sword. As the craze movies got cheesier I increasingly associated the regulation blade with everything wrong and frustrating about the genre.
The craze waned concurrent with graduation and college, so stuff went into storage. In the mid 2000s I cracked open some of those long-stored and half-forgotten archives and was pleasantly surprised at what had survived.
This is my original “Ninja Bokken” from Dolan’s Sports. This thing was bashed against trees, other wooden swords, Tim’s head, and my brother’s head (he had a more typical straight version that broke, HA!).
It was taped-up white one winter, the blade was once painted silver to stand in for a real sword in some abandoned home movie plan, then it was stored away with a golf club tube as a sheath in a garbage bag that magically preserved it from the elements and a termite-infested basement. Amazingly it’s right as rain today, and I treasure this thing above any other piece I have.
Another treasure didn’t fare as well in storage, but then it wasn’t that pretty to start with… a T.J. Craig ‘Real’ Ninja Sword. Tim and I sent a summer’s worth of saved and scrounged nickels and dimes to some obscure address in Canada for these after seeing the no-frills ad in Ninja or Black Belt.
The sheath can break a brick! How could we not want that??? We had such romantic notions of this dealer – the low-brow ad with weird items next to all the other slick, photo-laden spreads with the same old crap month after month. To us, it wasn’t dodgy. It wasn’t cheap. It was code. This was the real stuff, hidden behind a primitive ad others with less insight would brush off. But we had a hunch we were on to something. This ad played a silent flute only we could hear!
So off went $150 or so, Canadian. And we waited. And waited. And waited. Months later we got the local postmaster involved, and a few weeks after that, a rag-tag bundle showed up at my door.
Elation turned to mild heartbreak. The execution of the swords was about as good as the ad.
These truly were the storied ‘crudely ground slab of rough steel’ forged by impoverished ninja of legend. The chisel tips were useless. The sheaths were hastily folded and crimped steel, and scraped the blades loudly with every draw – hardly the stealth weapon. The handles were barely-finished wood with acute square edges, splinters abounding.
Nothing had been misrepresented, but no triumphant ‘See, we knew it! Told ya so world!’ was going down either.
So we sandpapered and filed and taped and did what we could to make them workable, then off to the woods. At the first whack of a thin green sapling, the blades bent. BENT! Less cutting power than a flea market machete…
We hated these things, and ourselves, and wondered if our money would have been better spent on the “Ninja Hand Cannon” or “Assassin Cloaks” but what was done was done.
Every few years, we’d independently break these out and do some more cosmetic work. Tim ground the handles down to round. He got his blade pretty damn sharp if memory serves. I learned the hard way that hockey stick tape has surprisingly little shock-absorbing properties, so I added some cord-wrapping to mine. Gave it a rustic feel, as did wrapping the sheath in 50 feet of black rope.
Times cures wounded pride and squandered funds, and with my current perspective, I look at this survivor (albeit a bit rusty, but nothing steel wool won’t take care of) with warm nostalgia.
Here’s a newer piece:
I’m no swordsmith or craftsman of any skill, but I dabble and experiment once in a while. This is a prop I made in 2004 for a photo shoot for the old Ninja80 site, deliberately fashioned to look like a 60s Japanese movie sword. Started out with a knock-off “practical full-tang” wakizashi from either BudK or a shop in Chinatown, elongated the handle, slapped some leftover cord and leather remnants on there one night, and got what stage prop guys call “good from afar, far from good” results. Looked OK – and definitley not off-the-rack – in the pics though, and that’s what counted.
Custom ordered these last year from an eBay sword shop out of Hong Kong that is either defunct or changed their name. (There’s a few other sellers with the same goods now.) Nice thing was they let me get katana handles on wakizashi blades, and had a variety of wrappings and fixtures. I love the brown twine handle, and while I dislike ornate gold stuff, they had a set-up that was toad themed, 50s ninja wizard style!
So with this array of non-stereotypical “ninja swords” in hand, do I regret a hole in the collection?
Frankly, there is one that got away, and considering my passed biases and the tone of these articles lately, there’s irony here. But if I could go back and grab one of these back in the day, I would:
This is the OFFICIAL “S-K Ninja Sword” sold by Sho Kosugi Ninja Enterprises, Inc. There’s a real chicken-and-egg relationship between his fealty to this style blade on screen and the sale of a merchandised version off.
These gimmicked blades, possibly in a variety of metals and finishes, were sold out of a mail order house and official fan club newsletter in San Gabriel, California.
Yeah, if I was going to own a regulation “Ninja-To” – I’d want it to be the one that actually IS the stereotype, the sword of Kosugi, the sword of Lucinda Dickey, of Lee Van Cleef…
Maybe the only thing I’d want more than this is the TOY version!
Next time, we wrap all this sword talk up with one final thought – has the research (and responses) lead to more questions than answers?
Depending on what school of thought you believe, the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is either pure myth propagated by popular media or martial tradition traced back centuries in Japan. Well, if EITHER of those is true, then you’d think the short, straight bladed sword with square guard would show up in manga once in a while. But it doesn’t.
Depictions of ninja swords in manga are a mixed bag over the decades, but a lot of what you see are short, curved blades of the less-decorated variety, worn as often through the belt as they are on the back.
This might be little more than artistic preference. I think illustrators like Mitsuteru Yokoyama (above) and Shirato Sanpei liked drawing the curved blade, as it adds a sense of dynamic movement not necessarily there with a swinging straight blade.
It’s also important to keep in mind manga artists work on insane deadlines, so consistency of blade style can vary from panel to panel. One can find an isolated drawing or two with what looks like a straight sword, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a deliberate statement of sword preference.
Here’s a few samples of the manga ninja sword (or lack thereof):
WAIT! Osamu Tezuka‘s I Am Sarutobi (circa 1960) has a short, shealth-less, apparently straight blade! It also has a lead character with stubs for feet and eyes the size of grapefruits, so you can’t exactly lean on the exacting design here…
Kagemaru of Iga‘s curved blade (starting in 1961) seemed to change length depending on the panel layout and dramatic effect intended. This was one of the most influential properties of the 60s Japanese craze, but Yokoyama never made that strong a statement about sword style. The 1963 film adaptation used a standard katana.
Sanpei, however, was much more of a realist, especially later in his career. However both the mid 60s and early 80s incarnations of Kamui saw the character use nothing more exotic than a dressed-down wakizashi, although it was slung in the small of the back in a signature style. These panels are from the 80s Eclipse reprints, and may be partly indicative of why this superb, heady series never fully connected with mainstream ninja fans in the America. No black suit for the hero, no regulation ‘Ninja-To,’ so less visual shorthand to attract otherwise Kosugi-crazed shinobifiles.
Takao Saito‘s hit ninja properties also featured short, curved blades for their ninja. The 1969 shinobi massacre known as Kage Gari (The Shadow Hunters) is again all short curved swords, sometimes with square guards and worn on the back, but there is variety in there as well. Again, you also see some quickly rendered blades that’ll look straight at first glance.
Zanpei Kumotori (1976-78) dispensed with the sword entirely, in favor of a long tanto cribbed in the small of his back. LOVE that minimalist statement, reminiscent of Sasuke’s commando kit in Samurai Spy.
Goseki Kojima stuck to curved blades as well in the 1970 Lone Wolf and Cub series. These panels are a perfect example of perspective and speed of delivery making a curved sword look like straight for a second. This is why I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the “evidence” of old book illustrations pointing to the existence of the straight sword.
And here’s a similar look three decades later, a Kunoichi’s blade from the same team’s Path of the Assassin (Hanzo no Mon).
Now, I don’t have the most complete library of vintage ninja manga in north America or anything, but what I do have samples most of the significant series and stages of development, and the only thing I have that actually embraces the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is this 1993 series called Mujina by Aihara Koji. In an example of the snake biting its own tail, his ninja use the western craze-era notion of the regulation ninja sword, complete with catalog stock picture for reference. Eeewww…and it’s the long bladed, small guarded variety, too. This book is trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy, and the catalog ninja sword may be part of that misguided effort.
So, it wasn’t Japanese comics that cemented the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ into the our mindset, NOR did manga artists for the past half-century embrace the alleged martial arts history that should have been apparent in their own country.
FILM though… as we’ll see next post… is a lot more partisan an art form.
Martial arts are a lot like religion – you can’t have a discussion, it’s an argument. You can’t have an opinion, you take sides. And just like religions draw lines in the sand over buildings, relics and figures, so too has the ninjutsu community focused considerable scrutiny toward the alleged ‘ninja sword.’
Conflicting ‘evidence’ abounds – museums displays here, pictures in karate mags there, eyewitnesses, experts and amateurs all weighing in (*I* fall in there somewhere, ahem…), and too often folks deliver their opinions in over-confident, absolute terms.
‘They existed alright…’
‘My friend trained in Japan in the 80s and he saw the scroll…’
‘Nope, they’re a myth. The proof is in an old issue of…’
And it is those broad, matter-of-fact statements that really escalate the tone and language of these debates. You don’t have to look far, however, to see how contradictory ‘reliable information’ can actually be:
Image from Arthur Adams' NINJA: THE INVISIBLE ASSASSINS, a 1970 expansion of articles from the 60s, and America's first notion of a sword suited for shinobi espionage work. Note: CURVED, but with other elements of the stereotyped Ninja-To, like the shovel tip on the scabbard.
By the early to mid-80s, this was regulation ninja gear. In CAMMO even! Ever notice the short blades got longer and the oversized square guards got smaller as time went on?
The professionals are just as conflicted, no more evident than in the internet jousting between martial artists/authors/historians that starts with this article by Bujinkan instructor Don Roley on the BudoSeek info board, here:
Mr. Roley’s thesis in short: The stereotypical straight sword is myth, it wasn’t part of the 60′s movement in Japan, Masaaki Hatsumi never used one and shouldn’t be blamed for its proliferation. Rather, Stephen K. Hayes is largely responsible for the erroneous notion that this is the signature and exclusive blade of ninjutsu.
Retorts actually came from Stephen K. Hayes himself!
Hayes’ points: Such swords existed, but weren’t a “badge of official ninja-ness.” He admits his written works over the 80s both embraced the stereotype and guarded against it, to the point that the debate is often “silly” and folks should get on with it already.
Then, sitting somewhere between the two is historian/author Antony Cummins:
Cummins originally comes from the doubters camp ala Roley, but comes to defend Hayes as not being the source of the debatable blade. He points to illustrated reference in antiquity to straight-bladed, square guarded swords used by Ashigaru foot soldiers – so such blades may have existed – but emphasizes the lack of evidence relating directly to anything ninja.
For fairness sake, here’s some counter-vids as well, I find this one both amusing and informative, simply for the additional pictures:
Cummins might be a little too eager to state the absolute certainty of his ‘evidence’ (something a historian should be especially weary of), but I really like is his overall summation that ”There was no such thing as a specifically generated ninja sword, there were swords ninja used.” Same way there is no official gun of the bank robber. Well said!
And this is probably the healthiest attitude to have on the subject. Martial arts are part history and part faith in oral traditions where that hard data gaps. At the same time, lore and pop media notions come from some nugget of truth somewhere.
To blanket state that the sword is myth is as irresponsible as saying it is absolute fact.
Two images from the Hatsumi (and Hayes) book NINJUTSU: HISTORY AND TRADITION, showing BOTH a curved short blade (similar to what the Bujinkan endorses now)...
...and the more stereotypical sword, seen also in the 1973 mail order ad below.
And here's the very same blade in the display case of the Iga Ueno ninja museum. Neither sword is actually DATED in the display, not uncommon practice for what are more tourist attractions than museums (think Tombstone, AZ for an American equivalent).
Hayes would go on to lend his name to both curved and straight training gear.
So where does Vintage Ninja stand on all this? Think Switzerland. We ain’t got a dawg in this fight…
Tim has trained with both straight and curved blades, and can defend either’s merits. I, being the Japanese media nerd above all else, prefer the curved blades most often seen in their film, TV and comics (posts on these will follow shortly).
Neither of us like to see blanket definitive statements insisting there was or wasn’t one signature ninja sword.
Tim puts it very well, and I’ll paraphrase: If a law enforcement historian made the claim “All American police in the 20th Century wore blue uniforms and carried .38 caliber service revolvers” would it be true? Some did. A lot did. A lot wore brown or green and carried .45 automatics, too. So while there is truth there, its not the only truth, and stating it so authoritatively makes the statement wrong in general.
So if you’re a martial artist taking sides in the debate, lighten up. Martial arts evolve. The fact that these arts are no longer in-use battlefield practices means they’ve been abstracted from their native form already. Evolution of an art to fit new times is just as important as maintaining its traditions. And wasn’t ninjutsu the most adaptable and organic of all martial practices to start with?
If you want to train with a short, straight blade with a square guard, knock yourself out. Sure, it’s a standard of the mail order business, but it had to have come from somewhere to begin with, right? On the other hand, if you want to make a ninja movie where those blades aren’t used in favor of some other screen aesthetic, go nuts too!
There’s really no need to declare your fealty to one school of thought or the other. And anyone asking you to needs to think for a minute about the debate at large. If there’s this much conflicting thought, and this much contradictory ‘evidence,’ maybe there is no absolute truth to be had.
Next time: Ninja swords in manga, followed by the differences in movie props between Japan and the U.S.
The question of the ‘Ninja-To’…. Did it exist or not? Is it tradition, lore, or Hollywood?
Healthcare in the U.S. and the Kennedy assassination have been debated less.
I didn’t fully realize how much of a sticking point in the martial arts world this sword actually is, but in the past few weeks of on-and-off research, I’ve found thousands of words dedicated to either debunking or defending what I always thought was more of a merchandisers concoction than anything else. Maybe not the case.
There are students training in the fabled straight sword, then there are others embracing curved versions with less ‘regulation’ accoutrements, and both camps can cite historical illustrations, manga and movies to support their claims one way or the other.
But is one any more legit than the other? Both are modern products of lore and tragically incomplete historical records. You can buy both the maligned ‘Hollywood’ sword and the less stereotypical curved alternatives from online vendors. Both show up in popular media. Hmmm…
An Iga Ueno museum display with both straight AND curved blades.
Debates over the ‘Ninja-To’ are a gateway, a slippery slope, to more profound discussions that question the very legitimacy of varying styles of ninjutsu practice and instruction.
The iconic sword is a major cog in the visual shorthand of our idea of ninja. It is a symbol, and the curvature, or lack thereof, of the symbol you embrace is somewhat of a declaration of belief.
This concept of visual shorthand is going to be important in the next few posts, so I wanted to take a minute to explain our use of the phrase.
Say you’re a cartoonist – draw me a quick ninja. What do you scribble out? Crouched figure, black suit and hood, throwing star, straight sword with square guard. Done. Ninja.
Now you’re directing a movie, and you need a ninja to jump out and surprise some samurai guards. Instructions to costumer: black suit and hood, throwing star, straight sword with square guard.
Same holds true for stage directors, video game designers, book cover painters etc. and so forth. You achieve instant ninja-ness with a combination of key elements people are familiar with, the visual vocabulary that tells them NINJA at a glance.
And the sword is important because it is a NINJA SWORD® and not a samurai sword. Samurai swords are for noblemen and armored elite, not our crafty, downtrodden but resilient fox-like commandos, right?
Straight AND curved training weapons from the very same Dolan's Sports catalog page, circa 1986.
Visual shorthand is no less prevalent in martial arts practice. Karate has its gi and belts, judo’s are different, tae kwon do and kung-fu as well. And since the 60s in Japan and the 80s in the rest of the globe, organized ninjutsu study has embraced black uniforms, tabi boots and yes, sometimes, the straight sword with square guard.
So when someone questions the notion of the very historical existence of the iconic blade, it is easily perceived as an attack on the integrity of a student, a school, an instructor, an entire style and ultimately the sacred scrolls and family traditions it is allegedly based upon.
So yeah, calling someone a poser because their straight sword is an over-glorified mail order gimmick, or claiming someone’s curved blade isn’t authentic shinobi… them’s fightin’ words!
And as we’ll see next post, that fight is ALL OVER cyberspace.
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!
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.