The design of the Ninjato and Katana Swords
The Katana is a curved sword approximately up to 31.5 inches in length and features a square or circular guard (Tsuba).
The Ninjato is the name given to short, straight bladed sword (approximately 23 inches in length). It is quite a thick and weighty sword, for its size, and features a square guard. The Tsuba on the Ninjato is much larger than that on the Katana.
In both cases the guard not only protects your hands from being struck by your opponent’s sword but also stops your hands sliding up the sword and being cut on your own blade.
Who used the Ninjato and Katana?
The Ninjato was the preferred weapon of the Shinobi.
The birth of the Shinobi dates back to the Sengoku Period in Japan (Sengoku Jidai/Age of Warring States 1467-1600).
Japan’s Emperor, who was the official ruler of the nation, divided power between his Shoguns, the top Generals in the Country.
In turn, the Shoguns appointed local lords (daimyos) to rule over parts of their designated territory, but with economies and agriculture growing in these provinces, it was hard for the central government to hold power over the daimyos. There was constant battles between the various lords to control more territory.
This period of unrest meant that there was a demand for shady acts to be committed and there were desperate people willing to carry them out. Men and women were recruited to commit various tasks such as arson, raids, spy, and various acts of terrorism for their employers.
These individuals were later called Shinobi and became masters in their craft acting as highly trained mercenaries who specialised in surprise attacks, assassinations, covert surveillance and espionage.
The Katana was the preferred weapon of the Samurai.
The Samurai were the hereditary military nobility of Japan and were adept at a multitude of both armed and unarmed combat techniques. They were skilled in the use of the longbow, the Naginata – a long bladed pole weapon, and the Yari – a straight headed spear. However, it is perhaps the sword that embodies the culture and soul of the samurai warrior class.
History of the Ninjato and Katana
There is very little evidence of swords matching the Ninjato description from between the 16th to 19th century. It’s only from the 20th century do we find documentary descriptions of this type of sword.
This may be because Shinobi consisted mainly of individuals from the working class and their activities were seen as underhand and lacking honor. For these reasons, few scholars would have wanted to document the Shinobi’s exploits.
In addition, the Shinobi were spies and operated in secret. It’s therefore perhaps unsurprising that there is little remaining evidence concerning the Ninjato.
Early Japanese swords were known as Chokuto and were straight, double-edged bladed weapons designed for a form of combat involving stabbing and thrusting motions. They were based on Chinese and Korean designs and, in fact, were initially imported to Japan from mainland China. Japan encouraged Chinese craftsman to move to Japan to assist in the production of these swords and, in time, Japanese learned the techniques to make these swords themselves.
So the legend goes, the Japanese sword maker, Amakuni, in c.700 AD grew dispontant at the number of Chokuto that he made which were broken in battle. After much experimentation, he developed a thinner, curved sword with a single-edged blade. This design was one of the first Tachi and was more suited to Japanese swordsmanship which involved cutting and slashing motions.
Over the next few hundred years, the design was perfected. By combining different types of steel with different levels of hardness, the swordsmiths were able to produce a blade with a strong cutting edge with a soft core body, which not only made the sword lighter but also provided cushioning to deflect blows.
Combat during this time was largely done on horseback for which the Tachi was well suited, although the bow and arrow was the samurai’s preferred fighting weapon.
This fighting style would change largely as a result of foreign invaders.
In 1274 and 1281 Japan was invaded by Mongol armies. The samurai had to adjust their traditional fighting style to be able to deal with a mongol infantry who fought together in small groups.
In addition,the Mongols had arrived on ships and the samurai would climb aboard and attack the Mongol soldiers present.
Both situation triggered a need to be able to fight in the cramped surroundings at close quarters. The traditional Tachi was just too long and unwieldy to be able to cope. The samurai fell back to using a shorter dagger for this purpose (the Kogachi or Tanto). A true short sword had yet to be designed.
Over the few hundred years, the sword design became less curved and shorter and by the early 1400s, short sword technology in the Katana had risen to prominence providing a light, responsive blade that still had almost the reach of a Tachi.
The Katana came to prominence from c. 1300 – 1550 AD – a shorter, lighter and less curved sword which was more suited to combat on foot at close quarters.
Usage of the Ninjato and Katana
The katana was designed for use in battle.
The curved design is more suited to the slashing motions in Japanese swordsmanship.
The sword itself was carried on the Samurai’s waist enabling the sword to be drawn quickly.
The katana was generally suited to close quarter combat, as opposed to on horseback. It was a shorter, lighter sword that could be wielded in quick, rapidly changing motions.
There was also a spiritual element to the Katana. The sword was often referred to as the “soul of the Samurai”.
It was originally believed that the katana was an item that should be dedicated to the gods and where the gods would reside. This is why there is always a small shrine placed in the workshop of a Katana swordsmith. Some shrines also have a katana placed in the inner sanctuary.
Whilst the katana was used in battle on occasion, they tended to rely on longer range weapons such as the long bow and spear. This is why so many katanas today are in such good condition.
The katana’s themselves were more like a status symbol to show everyone that the wearer was a member of the samurai class.
Due to the lack of historic evidence, we don’t know for certain how the Ninjato were used. However, given the katana was curved to allow for effective slashing motions, the straight blade would have been more suited for stabbing and thrusting movements.
Given they acted in the shadows, it’s likely that Shinobi initiated attacks from a hidden position. In this context, stabbing with a Ninjato would be an effective way to dispatch the enemy.
The Ninjato was worn on the Shinobi’s back and its short length meant that the end would not catch on objects, such as trees and walls, when running.
It’s unlikely they would have wanted to have a stand up sword fight in the open in the same way the Samurai would do.
It was more a weapon of convenience that was used to enable the Shinobi to complete their mission. It certainly did not have any spiritual significance in the same way the Samurai’s katana had.
The Ninjato was put to many purposes.
Firstly, it was used as a sort of step ladder to help climb over high walls. The sword within its scabbard was lent against the wall, handle upwards, and the Shinobi would step onto the guard (Tsuba) to given them a boost over the wall. That is why the Tsuba is larger on the Ninjato than on a Katana. Once on top of the wall, they would pull the sword up using the cord attached to the scabbard (sageo)..
The scabbard could also be used as a snorkel on those occasions when the Shinobi needed to hide under water. The sword would be removed enabling the Shinobi to breath through the hollow sheath.