You are probably all familiar with Japanese swords. And I’m willing to bet that when someone talks about a Japanese sword, you conjure up visions of a long, shiny, curving blade. The swords of the samurai. They were ornate, and highly symbolic blades. It was said that the soul of a Samurai rested in his blade. As a result, Samurai swords were elevated to aristocratic status, and became symbols of rank and prestige.
Today, however, we aren’t going to talk about samurai swords. Nope. There was another, more pragmatic sword that probably had just as much an effect on Japanese history as did the Samurai Sword. And it was a soulless, heartless instrument indeed. None other than the spartan Ninjatō. The sword of the Ninja. The Ninjatō (or Ninjaken) were designed to play a much different role. They were neither swords of ceremony or of prestige. They were made to do one thing, and they did it very well. They were the Ninjas weapon-of-all-trades.
Samurai swords were excellent weapons. However Ninja needed more from their weapons than just cutting excellence. They needed functional flexibility and versatility. And thus was born Ninjaken. Ninjaken differed from their high-brow cousins in many ways. First off, they were shorter. This allowed them to be used in smaller spaces, concealed much more easily, and were faster on the draw than the longer Samurai sword.
Another advantage of the shorter sword is that they were a little lighter, stiffer and less susceptible to lateral bending stresses than their longer Samurai counterparts. Ninjaken usually have a larger, square tsuba (guard). This, in conjunction with the shorter stiffer blade allowed them to be used in ways a samurai sword might not have tolerated well, such as leaning it against a wall, and using the larger, stronger square guard as a step.
They could also still be used with a full sized saya (scabbard), which would deceive an opponent into underestimating how long the sword was, and how fast it could be drawn. Then there was the added bonus that the remaining saya space could be used to hide all manner of small items, such as blinding powders and such. Between the numerous hiding places that could be engineered into a ninjaken and it’s saya, one could conceal a set of spike or star shuriken (throwing knives), tenouchi (small, hand-held impact weapons), powders, rope, tools, etc. The possibilities were endless.
Due to the popularity of Ninjas in the media over the past two decades, Ninjaken design has been copied rather shamelessly, spawning numerous replicas, such as the weapon used by the Operative in the movie Firefly Serenity. But the basic formula has always remained the same. A medium sized, full tang, single-edged straight blade, usually with a square tsuba (quard), and a uniquely angled, tanto-like point.
All in all, Ninjaken fulfilled their design objectives admirably. It is truly an interesting weapon, well suited for it’s task as the versatile, multi-function, close quarters combat version of the prestigious Samurai sword, kinda like the medieval equivalent of a carbine, as opposed to a rifle… Not quite the same range, but just as deadly…
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