The Mighty Shuriken!

Since I have been running into so many interesting throwing weapons lately, and I’ve already posted an expose on the enigmatic kunai, I thought it would only be fair to give you all a deeper look into another one of the oft-toted ninja weapons of stage and screen. The ubiquitous shuriken! ‘Cause the etymology of shuriken is just about as interesting as that of kunai. Not to mention that there are a lot of Hollywood induced misconceptions about shuriken. So here goes nothin’!!

Contrary to what you might think, the term “Shuriken” is not restricted to throwing “stars”, but rather refer to two general forms of small, hand held throwing implements. The first form is basically a throwing spike called the bo shuriken. The second, more commonly seen shuriken type, the throwing star, are called hira shuriken, aka “Shaken”. Each requires a different throwing technique, but are equally effective. The history of these shuriken is quite interesting.

Bo Shuriken

Bo Shuriken
[view full size]

Back in the times of feudal Japan, Ninjas were perhaps best known for being skillful and wily assassins. Their greatest abilities were their stealth and resourcefulness. A common ninja practice was to hide in plain sight, as farmers, peasants, monks, etc. However the incognito assassin faced a tough challenge. How to carry the tools of the trade, as it were, in an inconspicuous manner. Generally, “farmers” and “peasants” did not routinely tote big, black ninjatō around. Kinda a dead giveaway, if ya know what I mean. The ever resourceful ninja often circumvented this troublesome little issue by disguising their weapons as commonplace items, like walking canes, flutes and such.

Hira Shuriken

Hira Shuriken
[view full size]

But the clever shinobi warrior could do even better: turn common items into weapons! Sickles become kama, flails turned into nunchaku, etc. Shurikens evolved in much the same way. In fact, shuriken was often sourced from some random building material, most commonly construction nails, pressed into duty as bo shuriken, and roofing washers, into hira shuriken. And of course these items being of plentiful supply in farms, constructions and so forth, were easy to find.

In some traditional shuriken designs you can see the influence of thier original forms. Many traditional bo shuriken often had square or triangle cross sections, mimicking the shape of the large nails of the period. Similarly, both square, triangle and sharpened ovoid style hira shuriken replicate the shapes of coins, roofing washers and other construction pieces, sword guards and so on. True to the ninja style, they probably palmed whatever was available, sharpened them on a rock, and held on to them for when the need arose. Did I mention they were really resourceful? The little kleptos… As the use of shuriken grew, clans began designing their own special flavor of shuriken.

Traditional clan-specific Hira Shuriken Design

Traditional Hira Shuriken

A common misconception was that shuriken were used for killing. Yes, they could be used to kill someone, but they were hardly the ideal killing tool. Unless they were poisoned. But then again, back in the day, there were few acting poisons that could cause instantaneous death in very small quantities, and I rather doubt that any self respecting shinobi warrior would hang around just to see if their particular brand of poison performed in accordance to the advertised claims. I’m sure the victims family would get most suspicious of the “friend” in black that showed up unexpectedly to supposedly pay their respects.

Rather, they were used for distraction, deterrence and disruption, to hinder the movement of the enemy, or discourage pursuit. A shuriken to the face, or in an extremity, might not have killed an attacker, but would certainly be enough to delay an enemy long enough for a shinobi warrior to escape. Similarly shuriken could be thrown in the ground as makeshift makibishi or punji sticks, slowing down pursuing forces. They could also be used as push daggers in a pinch.

The Modern Hira Shuriken

A modern Hira Shuriken
[view full size]

The shuriken changed a lot over the years. Many Japanese clans redesigned them to meet their specific needs. But even today, their basic simplicity belies how truly effective they were. They may not be the lethal universal weapons pictured in the movies, but they still hold a place of honor in the historic halls of weapons of stealth and efficiency, which, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, makes them just my kind of weapon…

6 Point Hira Shuriken – [Gung-Fu]
Triangular Bo Shuriken – [Asian World of Martial Arts]
4 Point Classic Hira Shuriken – [Gung-Fu]

9 Responses to “The Mighty Shuriken!”

  1. May 25, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    That made very much sense. I love how you phrased it and got right to the point. Exellent Job!!..

  2. 3 ChroniclerLoki
    September 28, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    Sadly if only poor Yuffie (the self proclaimed best ninja in the world from Final Fantasy 7) knew she wouldn’t be carrying one almost bigger than her but a handful of smaller ones and a more traditional ninja weapon. I have often commented, but this is the first time online so take note, on the incongruity of video game characters carrying huge weapons into battle but them not being visible outside of battle. Where do they keep them during the cutscenes????!!!!! (Aya Brea from the Parasite Eve games was the culprit that made me start to question this especially when she would run around with the hypervelocity gun in the second game where she pulled a nearly limitless supply of ammo for her guns out of the back pocket of her very tight bluejeans which didn’t seem to make any impression upon the material itself, and watching her grab a gun that size from seemingly nowhere when a battle started was always disconcerting to see with a five foot two hundred and ten pound blond.)

    Deep pocket mysteries aside these weapons were surprisingly effective for their assigned roles in the hands of a skilled user ie a ninja wanting to escape hot pursuit. A shuriken to the foot, knee, or groin, or even a set of them embedded in the ground in the path of a company of soldiers out for ninja blood would have very effectively slowed the followers down, and if they had horses it would have been even more cruel to try to follow through such a trap as it would have severely injured their hooves.

  3. October 5, 2008 at 2:37 am

    Well, this is why we don’t talk video game physics here… There are too many physically impossible (but ostensibly plausible) things that happen in the video games for people to easily make logical distinctions…

  4. 5 ChroniclerLoki
    October 5, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Sorry, I had to get it out of my system for a receptive audience, but I cannot promise I won’t do it again because I try not to make promises I likely won’t be able to keep.

  5. October 12, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Well don’t make any promised you can’t keep, but do be prepared to find me dissecting your post into its component molecular particles afterwards… LOL 😉

  6. 7 ChroniclerLoki
    October 12, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    fair enough lol 8D

  7. January 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    yo dude this is so sick,i mean sure i do research on ninja and their weapons
    but somehow i missed this info so thanks and keep up the work

  8. 9 Cossack
    April 11, 2011 at 2:31 am

    Shuriken were often coated in urine and left for several days in a moist atmosphere . They did not kill instantly but the fear of infection made them a great psychological warfare tool . Much like the pogo sticks during vietnam . I do know one vietnam veteren , it is hard for him to talk to me of any experince he had there and i dont press as i respect him and he talks to himself alot . He has however said ( he makes up weird rhimes while his working sometimes ) that when we were doing some work on the property i live on bunging in tent pegs into chicken wire to keep the rabbits out that i may as well shit on them . When i said ” huh , what ” he said thats what they used to do back in vietnam on the pogo sticks . I said who , he said charlie .

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