Ninja Weapon Prototypes Found in Japan
After analyzing artifacts collected from three locations in the Saitama Prefecture, which is located just north of Tokyo, a Japanese archaeologist has announced findings that shed new light on the development of ninja weapons. The latter were covert spies and assassins who first appeared during what is known as the Sengoku or Warring States Period (1467-1615 AD), when chaos, warfare, and politically inspired murder engulfed a Japan that had once experienced far more peaceful times.
The stone and clay artifacts that were used as early ninja weapons in Japan discovered in Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo, Japan. (Saitama Prefectural Ranzan Historical Museum)
The Earliest Ninja Weapons Made of Stone and Clay
The artifacts in question are a cache of stone and clay artifacts recovered during excavations at sites associated with the Hojo clan, who ruled a vast area of land around the city of Tokyo in the 15th and 16th centuries. These artifacts include flat stones and clay balls that may have been the forerunners of two more advanced types of ninja weapons that were known as “shuriken” and “makibishi.”
The person making this connection is Akihiro Iwata, an archaeologist who currently serves at the Saitama Prefectural Ranzan Historical Museum. As Iwata explained in an interview he gave to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, he developed his theory following a recent reexamination of the Hojo-era artifacts, which were originally unearthed at Hachioji Castle in the city of Hachioji in 1960 and at Iwatsuki Castle and a nearby Hojo administrative site in Saitama in the 1990s and early 2000s.
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One of the notable things about these discoveries is their association with the most famous battle of the entire Sengoku Period. This was the 1590 Siege of Odawara, when massive forces under the command of the legendary Japanese feudal lord (daimyo) Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Hojo territory and surrounded and attacked the primary defensive fortress of the Hojo clan, which was known as Odawara Castle.
After the Hojo defenders at Odawara surrendered to Toyotomi, he then continued his siege at other nearby Hojo strongholds, including both Hachioji Castle and Iwatsuki Castle, in order to snuff out the final Hojo resistance to his rule (which he was able to do).
If indeed the stones and clay balls recovered during excavations at these other Hojo castles were weapons, they may very well have been used by the Hojo during their battles against Toyotomi’s forces.
Five kinds of razor-sharp shuriken ninja weapons, which could be thrown or used in close combat. (Chatsam / Public domain)
Tracing the Evolution of Advanced Ninja Weaponry
One of the most well-known of all ninja weapons, the circular-shaped shuriken featured razor-sharp metal edges. It was designed to be thrown at an enemy at high speed from a moderate distance. They could inflict serious injury if it hit a sensitive area, and even cause death when used as a hand-held knife to stab or slash enemy fighters.
Designed to be used more stealthily, the makibishi were sharp, spiked metal devices that ninjas would spread on the ground while fleeing an enemy advancing on horseback. When galloping horses would step on these sharp objects, they could injure their hooves seriously enough that they would have trouble continuing.
The clay balls and flat stones examined by Iwata weren’t anywhere near as well-refined as these weapons. But Iwata couldn’t help but notice the obvious overlap.
Only one of the artifacts was found in the ruins of Iwatsuki Castle. This was a small hexagonal-shaped throwing stone that was just under two inches (4.8 centimeters) in diameter and just a half-inch (about one centimeter) thick. Archaeologists digging at the Owada jinya (the name of the Hojo administrative headquarters) had more success, recovering 17 flat stones that were slightly thicker than the Iwatsuki stone and up to three times its diameter.
A pair of kusarigama ninja weapons, on display at Iwakuni Castle. Kusarigama consist of a kama (the Japanese equivalent of a sickle or billhook) on a kusari-fundo, a type of metal chain (kusari) with a heavy iron weight (fundo) at the end. The kusarigama is said to have been developed during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) in Japan. (AMorozov / Public domain)
While none of these stones was particularly large, all had been sharpened along the corners in order to inflict more damage. This makes it easy to see them as a prototype of the razor-sharp metal shuriken.
Archaeologists recovered four unglazed clay balls from the ruins of Hachioji Castle during a 1960 excavation. The balls were between a half-inch and 1.2 inches (one-to-three centimeters) in diameter and included four pointed projections on opposing sides. The spikes weren’t sharpened as much as the projections on the ninja makibishi, but the shape and positioning of the points makes it clear they were used for the same purpose.
These weapons wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous, at least in comparison to the ninja versions. That suggests they were made quickly and out of desperation.
“It is possible that the Hojo clan made these getaway weapons after realizing it faced Hideyoshi’s overwhelming force,” Iwata said.
In the situation the Hojo were facing, their resistance was futile regardless of what types of weapons they used. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was on a mission to reunify a Japan that had disintegrated into numerous warring clans following the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate (Japan’s last ruling military dynasty before the Sengoku Period) following a civil war in 1467. Hideyoshi brought all the forces he needed to make sure the Hojo would surrender to his authority.
The samurai Ashikaga Mitsuuji playing an instrument as a ninja sneaks up behind in an 1853 woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada. (Utagawa Kunisada / Public domain)
The Ninja are Mostly Gone, But their Legend Lives On
Yuji Yamada, a ninja expert and professor at Mie University’s Faculty of Humanities who has studied the ninja for many years, credits Akihiro Iwata for making “groundbreaking discoveries.”
“Flat throwing stones could have developed into shuriken in later years,” he said, confirming that thesis. He noted that he’d never seen anything like the clay balls before, which clearly resembled the makibishi.
Anything that has to do with ninjas tends to get a lot of attention in academia and in the media. This is because of the prominent role ninjas have come to play in modern Japanese folklore, and because of popular culture’s fascination with these mysterious covert spies and expertly trained assassins.
Real-life ninjas served almost exclusively as the deadly servants of elite feudal lords and of the samurai aristocracy that supported them during the Sengoku Period. Once Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his successors began to reunify the warring feudal leaders under a single authority, the need for the specialized services of ninjas declined and they faded from prominence.
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The last mention of ninjas being deployed in warfare comes from stories about the Shimabara Rebellion, which took place in 1637. During this spirited conflict, the first true ruling dynasty of the freshly-united Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate, used ninjas to help defeat an alliance of Catholic peasants and disaffected samurai who staged an armed insurrection in protest of draconian tax policies and the Tokugawa suppression of Christian worship.
Ninjas likely remained around after that, in one form or another. But they were no longer deployed as warriors, spies, or political assassins. The Tokugawa presided over a peaceful era in Japanese history that lasted until the 19th century, and the ninjas had no obvious role in such an environment.
Ninjas weren’t major players on the stage of Japanese history for very long. But they are still remembered, and that is why any archaeological find that provides insights into their history and practices is bound to be highly publicized.
Top image: Flat throwing stones with sharpened corners, an early form of ninja weapons, unearthed at the ruins of the Owada jinya administrative headquarters in Saitama, Japan.Source: (Saitama Prefectural Ranzan Historical Museum
By Nathan Falde