Sunday, November 29, 2015

Smoke Bombs and Ninja Stars

-- Susan, every other Sunday

For many people, talk of “ninjas” inspires visions of black-clad supermen who leap from rooftops to silence enemies with a single stroke of a sword or the swish and thump of a flying metal star. 

In truth, real ninjas—(shinobi, in Japanese)—were master spies as well as assassins, and employed a wide variety of weapons and tactics. Many, if not most shinobi (and their female counterparts, the kunoichi) operated as undercover spies, instead of assassins, and their clans developed a number of specialized tools to aid in these endeavors.

During the 16th century, the two most active shinobi clans operated from bases in the mountainous regions of Iga and Koga (sometimes written “Koka”)

Iga's mountains, as seen from the train.

Today, the little town of Iga is home to a ninja museum that displays a variety of unusual weapons, many originals from the days when shinobi operated throughout Japan. The journey to the museum--a 2.5-hour trip from Kyoto, involving four changes of trains and a brief trip on the "ninja train" into Iga-Ueno station--underscores the area's isolation. It isn't easy to reach even now--let alone when horses or travel on foot was the norm.

A ninja train. (The other one is blue.)

Most people know about shuriken, the “throwing stars” made famous in the Hollywood ninja films. However, real ninjas also used shuriken as fistload weapons for stabbing victims at close range. (In fact, the shuriken's primary use was actually in hand-to-hand combat.) 

Shuriken came in a variety of shapes and forms, from pointed bars to the more familiar star-shaped types we see in films and on TV:

A small selection of the shuriken on display at the Iga museum

Shinobi also studied the manufacture and use of explosives. Bamboo tubes made handy casings; shinobi loaded them with explosive compounds in a variety of sizes, from little firecrackers to incendiary bombs:

Actual ninja firecrackers, made from bamboo and loaded with black powder.

Smoke bombs were also useful, both as distractions and as cover for getaways:

Smoke bombs, wrapped in discarded paper. Recycling, ninja style. 

Shinobi often concealed these, and other, devices in hidden pockets inside their clothing. Medieval Japanese clothing did not usually feature pockets, which made the shin obi’s attire even more unique. Since shinobi often wore disguises in order to pass as merchants, farmers, or samurai, pockets were sewn into these costumes also.

But not all special ninja tools were lethal, or able to fit in a pocket. For missions that required crossing reedy rivers or castle moats, the shinobi developed special wooden shoes called mizugumo, which allowed the wearer to cross over water—assuming he or she had the balancing skills to stay afloat.
All you need to walk on water. In theory, anyway....

 Many of the ninja's unusual tools don't make it into the movies, and thus escape the modern culture's notice--largely because the best devices didn't make for a flashy fight or an explosive getaway. The point wasn't just getting close enough to assassinate or spy on a high powered samurai target.

For for modern spies...the real trick was getting away alive, and preferably unnoticed.

And for that, they needed more than fancy throwing stars and pipe bombs. Fortunately, their arsenals  included a wide variety of subtle weapons, too.


  1. 'Subtle' is not one of the first words that leap to mind when thinking about Hollywood...

    1. Precisely why the coolest ninja weapons never made it onto the screen. Quite a bummer, really.

  2. Susan, I read this at quarter till four this morning, when the party across the way spilled out on the fire escape bringing electric guitars and lots of beer. Smoke bombs and sharp missiles would have been very welcome for me. I fantasized myself a shinobi in my black PJs, climbing up my fire escape and firing on them from above. At least I had your fascinating post to keep me company and give me imaginary revenge.

    1. I'm sorry about the party...but glad it gave you some ideas for addressing troublesome revelers. Maybe stock up on smoke and stink bombs for New Year?

  3. I think smoke bombs could solve your problem, Annamaria.

    1. Totally agree. With a couple of stinkers for good measure...