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.
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.
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
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 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…