Did the ninja sword really exist in Japan and was it really used by ninja? That’s a very good question and has had much debate over the years by Japanese historians and ninja enthusiast alike. Some say that it makes perfect sense that the ninja would have used this specific sword style and some say that it’s just another piece of lore from times in Japan long past. So… Did the ninja really use the ninja sword?
First things first, let’s get some terminology right before we start delving into the lore that is the ninja sword. From here on out, I will be calling the ninja sword by it’s proper name. What is a ninja sword called? It is called a ninjato. It is also known as a ninjaken or shinobigatana. But for the purpose of this article, I will be calling it a ninjato. So let’s get started.
How did the ninjato become popular?
Just about everyone has heard of the ninjato nowadays. So how did it become so mainstream in the sword world to the point that people really believe ninja used this sword? Simple. Hollywood… Every ninja movie you watch, especially if it’s produced in the western countries or Europe, the ninja will almost always have a ninjato at their disposal.
Movies have a very interesting way of making people believe what they are watching is indeed historical fact. I’m not saying it isn’t, but did they really use the ninjato?
Did a ninjato exist in historical Japan?
The short answer would be, yes. There is a sword shape and style that Japanese smiths in the middle of the Heian period in Japan used to make that has a striking resemblance to the modern take on the ninjato.
You can see to the right the sword that I am talking about. It has a straight curve and is just about the right length. The only issue is the fact that these types of swords were forged during the middle of the Heian period in Japan or before the year 980. Ninja just weren’t around at that time period, at least not how we know them in more “recent” years in Japans history. So they couldn’t possibly of used a sword from this era, unless they took an ancient style and made use of it in their time period.
But to be fair, this sword pictured here is indeed NOT called a ninjato. It is called a Chokuto and it is very old, as you can see in the image. The chokuto was not even heat treated, as it’s development was during a period before differential heat treating was employed in Japan. Odds are, ninja would not have used this sword.
But in any case, let’s continue with thoughts on why the ninja may have used the ninjato, and why it may have existed!
Why the ninja may have used the ninjato
To know why the ninja may have used the ninjato, you first must know how the ninja operated on missions. The ninja were very, well, dishonorable in their techniques. They relied primarily on stealth and hit and run tactics. They were assassins. So what does the ninjato have to do with this?
Firstly, the ninjato was supposedly small. It was under 60cm mostly and had a large square tsuba. Also, the saya was often a bit longer than the actual blade length, for the purpose of hiding poisons, or other ninja goodies in the base of the saya. The saya was also assumed to be used as a type of snorkel.
The blade was small enough that it was able to be hidden and allowed the ninja to move quickly unhindered by carrying a sword. The large square tsuba was also presumed to be used as a tool or stepping stone if you will. With the sword propped against a wall, the ninja could then use the tsuba to reach higher places. These are all good reasons why a ninja may have used a ninjato.
A man by the name of Dr. Steven Turnbull who specializes in Japanese military history says that the sword was the ninjas most important weapon and for practical purposes, the ninja would have chosen a smaller and straighter sword. This points to the ninjato. However, whether this is indeed fact, it’s hard to say as there is no physical evidence to back up this claim. I do believe that they would have used a smaller sword for sure, as their assassin techniques would require it. Whether it was a straight blade, that is uncertain. So… I have to disagree with the notion that the ninja would have directly used a ninjato as fact. In my own opinion, I believe the wakizashi would have been more readily available to the ninja and it could have been easily fitted with a larger square tsuba.
Why I believe the ninja used wakizashi and not ninjato
My reasoning behind this claim is simple. Many historic wakizashi have been found in Japan dating back to the 15th century. There are hundreds of antique wakizashi. To my knowledge, and to this date, there has yet to be a real, legit antique ninjato found in Japan, or anywhere for that matter. There are many replicas in museums on the ninjato based on what some people believe the ninja may have used. But that is exactly what they are, replicas. There is no such ninjato cataloged by the NBTHK or any other sword agency out there. There are also no known Japanese swordsmiths that made ninjato.
So did the ninja sword, or ninjato, ever really exist? Probably not. Can you buy ninjato today? Absolutely! They are still neat swords that really put a cool atmosphere in any room in the house, especially if you buy one from a reputable modern forge. Hanwei makes a killer ninjato and if you are interested in owning one of these neat swords, check them out.
As usual, I highly recommend you only buy swords labeled battle ready from reputable forges and that they are made of high carbon steel. The sword will last longer, look and feel better, and be much safer than any sword like object out there for $20… Spend a little more and get a sword that you can be proud of that you can honestly say it’s real.