So in conclusion…

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.

Keith J. Rainville

March 2011

7 Responses

  1. krainville

    Thanks for the input, but I’m not seeing the short, square guarded ornate 80s merch blade here at all man, sorry.

  2. krainville

    The sword in the Mujina book has a long scabbard, blade length unknown. AND it’s a piece of 1990s merch, not 80s, which we criticized earlier for betraying the logic of the short blade anyway. No case there…

    And the more of these Naruto pics you post, the more you’re reinforcing my point – to which I’m grateful. Each blade you’ve pictured is different. If this was an 80’s American property, every one of those blades would be cookie cutter identical. The entire point of these discussions has been critical of the American media’s rigid exclusivity of the mail-order concurrent prop, to the point of regulatory usage. The fact that Naruto’s blades reflect myriad designs and influences is one of its strengths and part of how it broke that 80’s mold for a new generation of ninja fans here. Even if one of these characters had the exact S-K style sword down to the wrap, blow-gun tube and color, it would still be next to a dozen other weapons of widely differing styles.

    Thanks again.

  3. Lee Drew

    I just wanted to thank you for this interesting look into the Ninja-to. I have to say that I agree with your conclusions. While I concede the point that it is possible that some Ninja might have carried something similar to the stereotypical Ninja-to with the straight blade, it is certainly not some sort of standard. For the most part Ninja would have carried a curved sword of various lengths. Depending on the era or the specific mission, etc. it is likely that Ninja used wakizashi or shorter bladed Katanas.

    However, while it is doubtful that the historical Ninja carried the stereotypical Ninja-to, I can say for a fact that a whole lot of them had them in the eighties! 😉 One wonders what some future historian will conclude about this era based on existing magazine articles and movies! 🙂

  4. CC Coleman

    Legend has it (damn this is an old thread) that a Japanese Ninja Movie did not have enough swords for a night fight scene involving dozens. Straight wooden sticks were used as stand ins for swords… thus the “Ninja Sword” was born into movie lore. “Look! They had different shaped swords!”

  5. Jon

    First of all, I love this site!

    I have a very similar outlook, with a few exceptions. I theorize that the short straight ninja blade (20-22 inches) in a longer 32 inch saya (ala Shinobi no Mono) gave birth to the misconceived 28 inch long straight bladed Hollywood “Ninjatou”.

    To the eyes of Hollywood, some would speculate that the blade extends to the full length of the saya (like the deceptive device of the Shinobigatana). So it’s easy to see where the misconception came from.

    I don’t think the all powerful Shinobigatana was the standard end-all for all ninja, I believe that the weapon fit the mission. Furthermore, I do believe the short straight bladed katana existed. Perfect for stabbing and maneuverability in close quarters.

    I also believe in the square tsuba. Some believe the larger square was a myth and/or impractical. I disagree. Not only does it serve as the famous “step stool” for going over walls, it provides good hand protection against longer blades, and makes blade trapping easier.

    Some argue that the square tsuba screams NINJA!!! I have seen many samurai katana with square/semi-square tsuba.

    So if you need an agile stabbing weapon with good hand coverage, then perhaps a ninja might want one of these. I’m not saying that straight bladed swords are exclusively ideal for this task.

    It is said, there is no historical documentation of this blade, save the Iga Museum (but that is also under speculation).

    The Chokutou is a straight blade from early Japan, and some Shikomizue were straight bladed as well, but I don’t think Hollywood had those in mind when creating the “Ninjatou” of legend.

    Those are my thoughts, and I do very much enjoy this site and any “Ninjatou” articles. Cheers!

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