Picture a samurai. No doubt you’ve got in your mind the iconic warrior with the cool helmet and armor, poised to attack with his trusty katana. Because of course, he’s wielding a katana. That’s what the samurai brought with them into battle, right? If there’s anything pop culture has taught us, it’s that the samurai was armed only with his courage and his katana. Well, not so fast. The weapons of a samurai were far more varied and versatile than movies would have you believe. We’ve dispelled some myths about the samurai in the past. Now, let’s throw some facts that squash even more.
10. Ninja Throwing Stars
The problem with ninja throwing stars is that they have very little to do with the ninja. Known as shuriken, they come in two major forms: star shaped, and straight. Their main purpose is to be thrown at an enemy to give a person time to draw their sword and make a kill. They are a form of distraction weapon – if you consider having a heavy nail puncture your body distracting.
They were used by the samurai, with each samurai school giving them various names depending on their shape. Their connection with the ninja did not start until the 20th century, so calling them ninja death stars is quite wrong.
9. Punching Spikes
The samurai had various punching spikes and spiked rings. The example shown here demonstrates that the spike can move from a hidden position against the wrist and be flicked outward and used as a vicious puncturing weapon against an enemy’s body, inflicting deadly wounds.
In addition to this, there are spiked rings used for strikes and grabs when trying to capture an opponent. This also extends to forms of so called “knuckle dusters,” which are bands of iron gripped in the hands and are used for striking the body or defending against other weapons.
8. Chains and Weights
The samurai had various chains and weights of many different lengths and styles – some being short and others considerably longer. These mainly can be divided into two basic sections: a chain with smaller weights on both ends, and a chain with a formidable weight on one end.
The first is mainly used to ensnare people and to restrain them. The second deals much heavier damage and carries weights that can easily kill a person if a target is hit with one. A fantasy version of this weapon can be seen being used in movie Kill Bill, where the Bride fights a Japanese Schoolgirl bodyguard. This weapon is used for striking, restraining, and choking the opponent.
There were various bludgeoning and blunt force weapons used in old Japan, from basic truncheons and longer iron rods, to wooden poles and iron fans. Often a samurai may have to leave their sword with an attendant or in a special area at a party. A host may even ask for the samurai’s short swords to be removed.
In this situation the samurai may conceal a dagger for defense, or have on them a heavy metal fan that could be used to bludgeon people. Also, some samurai or lower ranking military men were what we would consider as “police” and they used truncheons and staffs to capture criminals or targets.
6. The Iron Beaked Staff
As houses and major buildings in Japan were made of wood, fire constantly devastated cities and towns. To counter this, teams of firemen were established and a part of their job was to tear down the buildings around the fire so that it did not spread. This job was done by all classes, from samurai to commoners, and one of their major tools was a staff with a heavy iron head in the shape of a beak. They would smash through walls and screens, pulling down sections of buildings to create a break so that the fire did not spread.
However, some of these gangs formed bad reputations and this tool sometimes became a devastating weapon. Examples of this tool range from high end samurai versions with family crests, down to cruder versions.
5. Sickles and Chains
A sickle is a curved blade used to cut plants and grass, and was common across the medieval world. Warriors of Japan turned this into a heavy duty weapon and attached a chain to the shaft of the sickle; sometimes at the bottom, sometimes at the top near to the blade. The chain and weight section is spun around and keeps an enemy at bay, or can be used to ensnare an opponent, at which time the blade is used to cut into the enemy.
Ninja also use these blades, but not for fighting. They used them to cut through fences and barriers, and in some clans used fold-away versions that could be kept in the sleeves of their kimono.
4. The Quick Rope
If the intended target of a samurai or arresting officer was to be kept alive, then the quick rope was an option that could be used. This consists of a sharp iron hook on the end of a long and thin cord that can be deployed very quickly. The hook can be hooked into the ear, the cheek or the hand and the opponent can be pulled about and restricted with the cord. After the opponent has been restrained, a sturdier rope is used to bind the target.
There existed a complex system of traditions about how to bind a prisoner, depending on their social status. It is a common mistake to think that the samurai bind with the rope first. In fact at the start of the arrest, the quick rope is used, and only after, when the target is secure are they bound in the correct way.
3. The Polearms of Capture
If it is too dangerous to get up and close to a target, the arresting officers may use the polearms of capture. This is a set of three long poles with different attachments:
- the T-shaped head – a spiked cross bar that can be pushed past the target, hooking them and bringing them in or if needed, keeping them at bay.
- the barbed rake – a claw like attachment that ensnares the targets’ clothes, helping to restrain them or pull them down.
- The U-shaped head – a wide attachment that can be used to push targets up against walls and hold them there
These effective tools were used to restrain wild samurai, thieves, or criminals. But if they were not available, then ladders, doors, or bamboo could be used to hold people in place.
2. Utility Spikes and Knives
Have you ever seen that, on some samurai swords, there is thin spike on one side of the scabbard and a small knife on the other, which gently slide into position through the hilt? There are different theories for the use of these, but a samurai school called Natori-Ryu tells us that the spike is for piercing one ear of a decapitated head so that an identification tag can be attached and the name of the victim written upon it. The spike is also used to push the tongue back into a dead head, as a protruding tongue from a head is considered unseemly.
The knife is a basic utility knife, but because some are personalized, they were used as evidence. If a samurai infiltrated deep into enemy territory, he could leave it hidden to prove he was there when the allies have taken enemy lands, or if a samurai needs to send an important message he can send his personal scabbard knife as proof of validity. This duo was the Swiss Army Knife of samurai times and, while they are not directly weapons themselves, they accompany the weapons in our number 1 slot.
1. A Pair of Long and Short Swords
Many people know that the wearing of two swords (a shorter sword called a wakizashi, and a longer sword called a katana) is the symbol of the samurai, and only warriors were allowed to carry these swords. However, before the end of the 16th century, swords could be owned by almost anyone and movement between the classes was much more common. Being victorious in battle could mean promotion to samurai.
However, with the unification of Japan in the 16th century came the oppression of the peasants and the solidification of the class system. The samurai government launched “sword hunts” which deprived the common folk of their weapons. This was done to help prevent any future uprisings and it is only in the Edo Period – the last age of the samurai – that the sword truly become symbol of the samurai. Before that it was primarily the spear and the bow.
If you want to support Antony’s research and find out more information about samurai weapons, help him by picking up a copy of The Lost Samurai School. Find out more about Antony on his YouTube channel and website.