The Ninja vs The Samurai

The Target

Mitsuharu of the Fūma ninja clan crouched under the window, listening with keen ears for any sounds inside.  His coloured cloak, so obvious in the day, now hid him better than black ever could. Hearing nothing but the quiet muffled sounds of people going about their nightly business, he quickly glanced left and right down the alley, then stood up and entered through the window.  This deep into the castle, no one expected intruders, so the windows and doors were usually left unlocked.

The room was simple, as expected of a Samurai.  The few items therein were of high quality. Mitsuharu quickly glanced around the rest of the room, his keen eyes missing nothing.  His target was Hōjō Narinaga, a mid-ranking Samurai moving quickly up the ranks. The Hōjō family, and Narinaga in particular, had thwarted too many carefully laid plans, and for those successes he had received awards, honors, and most dangerously, more power.  Thus, the Hatori clan had decreed that he be assassinated, and Mitsuharu had been chosen for the task.

Seeing nothing in the room indicating that Narinaga would soon return, he turned to leave.  As he raised his foot to step through, he sensed that something wasn’t right. Glancing behind him, he noticed the door, which had been closed before, was now open.  Turning around in a flash, he saw that inside the doorframe stood Narinaga, his target, hand already on the hilt of a Wakizashi…

The Samurai

The Samurai were a noble class in feudal Japan who occupied the upper tier of society just under their lords.  Originally little more than hired mercenaries to protect rich landowners, they became an important part of society with the rise of of the Minamoto clan who seized control of Japan in 1192 and set up a military government.  They would remain an integral part of society for almost seven centuries.

The Samurai were skilled warriors and, contrary to popular belief, were adept at using various weapons including bows and spears.  However, their primary symbol, and mark of their status, were their paired swords – originally a Tachi and Tanto, later evolving into a Katana and Wakizashi.  These swords were worn with their kimono, and marked their identity as Samurai. While the Katana was the longer and thus, primary weapon, only the Wakizashi was allowed to be worn indoors.

The Samurai are well known for their code of honor, which celebrates killing an opponent honorably, often face-to-face, and discourages underhanded attacks or ambushes.  As Samurai were the top tier of society and most of the threats to society came from domestic sources they could expect their opponents – mainly other Samurai – to adhere to the same style of combat.

The Ninja

The Ninja, on the other hand, were commoners.  Generally coming from the lowest tiers of society, Ninjas were basically assassins or spies for hire, willing to do or accomplish any task – for a price.  As they did not enjoy any of society’s protections, they were willing to use whatever means necessary to get the job done, even if those means were considered dishonorable.

While they may have existed as early as the 12th century, the formation of the Ninjas as we know them today occured in the 15th century.  They were most prominent in the Igla provence, and from the clans in that area we derive most of our knowledge of them. Because of the Ninjas’ commoner status, not as much interest was taken in recording them literarily as was taken in recording the Samurai.

However, even with the lack of contemporary sources, or perhaps because of it, legends abound about them.  While many are fanciful, such as stories of them having the ability to levitate or move things around with their minds, others are more likely.  Traditions say they carried a straight sword, unlike the Samurai’s, which was curved. While the Samurai would traditionally dress in a kimono, a bright, loose-fitting garment that leaves the head exposed, the Ninja, according to legend, would wear dark, tight-fitting clothing that covered the head, revealing only the eyes. 

The Escape

…Cursing himself for not hearing the footsteps approaching the door (how had the man snuck up to him?), Mitsuharu  quickly judged the distance between himself and Narinaga.  The room was small, a mere 12 by 15 shaku (approx 4×5 meters), and once Narinaga drew his Wakizashi, there would be even less room to manoeuvre.  Quickly drawing one of his two Tantos, Mitsuharu prepared to throw it. 

Knowing that a trained Samurai with a Wakizashi beats a commoner-wielding Tanto in any fair fight, Mitsuharu knew that he would lose if he didn’t do something quickly to make the fight unfair.  Thus, he hesitated for only a split second before throwing the Tanto and leaping backward through the window into the alley. As he did so, he heard the rasp of steel and saw a corresponding gleam of candlelight on metal as Narinaga drew his sword.

The alley was vacant, so Mitsuharu quickly sprinted to the nearby corner where he had previously noted were some boxes allowing a quick escape onto the roof. He quickly climbed them, and just as he stepped onto the roof, he saw Narinaga rushing out of the alley into the main street.  Mitsuharu flattened himself against the roof, while loosening the straight sword he carried in case he was forced to use it. He was careful to cover the exposed steel to ensure no moonlight would give away his position. Silently cursing for the second time that hour, he vowed he would return one day and finish the job.  After making sure Naringa hadn’t noticed his whereabouts and was heading off, probably to report what had happened to the guards, Mitsuharu quickly dropped down into the alley on the other side, and soon once again melded into the shadows.

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The Soul of a Sword – From Iron to Steel

Johnny looked down and pursed his lips as he mulled over everything he had just seen.  Then he looked up as a thought came to him. “You did a great job explaining the types of swords, and even the progression of materials in the earliest blades.  But I notice that while most of the swords here are made from steel, you barely mentioned the progression of materials from iron to steel.”

The shopkeeper brightened.  “That’s because the use of steel in a sword was a complex, though interesting historical development.” He went over to two swords that were arrayed vertically, with one above the other.  Both had distinctive banding patterns on them.

“The first steel swords would have been made about the same time as the first iron swords, because improperly making an iron sword can actually result in a steel one, albeit of very poor quality.  Heating iron with charcoal will introduce carbon into the iron, which is the second ingredient needed to form the steel alloy. However, the key to making steel swords consistently and of high quality requires one to control the carbon content, making sure it is homogeneously spread throughout the entire sword, and to control the tempering and quenching of the steel to a fine degree.  Thus, the first consistent production of high-quality steel was in India around 600BC where later they invented crucible steels, such as Wootz”

“Crucible steels were ingenious in their own way.  See, coal or charcoal fires have two problems – they are usually not hot enough to completely melt the iron, resulting in an uneven carbon distribution and they introduce too much carbon, forming a substance known as pig iron.  Pig iron is too hard and brittle to be used in a sword, but, and – this is key – it has a lower melting point that can be reached by ancient methods. The Indians discovered that by soaking wrought (low-carbon) iron in molten pig iron, the carbon would slowly diffuse from the pig iron into the wrought iron, and thus the carbon content could be controlled (though it was still an imperfect process).”

“Wootz steel was  exported to all of the known world, and, later, the Arabs brought the process to Damascus, resulting in Damascus steel that was made using a process not fully rediscovered today.  Damascus steel is famed for its unique banding pattern, and modern research has revealed the presence of carbon nanotubes in the metallic structure.  Unfortunately, as the process is still lost, only swords that replicate the look can be created today.”

The next sword the shopkeeper came to was curved, and had only one cutting edge.  “In Europe, iron typically came from homogeneous ore that could be cut in blocks from which one or more swords could be made.  However, in Japan they had iron sands, which meant that the iron needed to be homogenized before it could be made into steel. Now, heating up iron ore will naturally remove many of the impurities, but the problem is that the furnaces of the time had a hard time heating the whole quantity of ore to the needed temperature.  Fortunately, many of the impurities in iron have a lower melting point and will flow out of the half-molten iron, but not all of them. However, even with many of the impurities removed the steel was still not high enough quality to make a sword. So the Japanese came up with an ingenious way of homogenizing the steel.”

“The process they used was called ‘folding’, and this worked by hammering the steel flat, folding it, and forge welding it to itself.  This had the advantage of evening out any impurities in the blade and, in addition, could also remove a bit more of them by forcing out the molten impurities using the pressure of the hammer stroke.  The disadvantage of folding is that it reduces the amount of carbon in the steel, turning it back into iron if done for too long. Thus a balance must be struck between removing impurities without losing too much carbon.”

“Japanese swords have a unique aesthetic look, combining the layered look of the folded metal with the swords’ distinctly curved blades and single-edges.  The reason for this is that, unlike many European swords which focused on thrusting, Japaneses swords were designed primarily for cutting. The curve was because two different types of steel were combined – one hard and brittle that could hold the sharp edge needed for cutting, and the other tough and flexible that could bend without breaking.  This forging method, however, takes much more labor and skill, increasing the costs of the blades.”

“Today, we have the best of both worlds.  We can import iron ore from anywhere in the world and completely melt it, allowing us to have homogeneous steel with a chosen carbon content.  However, the ancient sword forging methods are not lost, and all the swords here have been hand-produced using traditional methods dating back hundreds of years.  We just have the advantage of using modern sources for the steel – ensuring consistently high quality blades at much more affordable prices.”

“So”, concluded the shopkeeper, “do you have any more questions?”.  John looked up, smiled, and said, “No, you’ve been most informative”.  “I see some Clay Tempered Steel Swords. Can I take a closer look at them?”  “Of course”, replied the shopkeeper enthusiastically. “Follow me”.


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A Concise History of Sword Development

Sword Shop

Johnny walked into the sword shop.  Inside, there were swords from all eras adorning the walls.  To his left, he could see swords from Europe, and to his right swords from China and Japan.  At the back of the shop was the shopkeeper who looked up as the bell jingled. As Johnny approached the shopkeeper, he couldn’t stop from turning to look around him at all the different swords representing multitudes of time periods and cultures.  He couldn’t help exclaiming to himself, “Ah, but which should I choose?” “That’s a great question, son,” replied  the shopkeeper, who had obviously overheard Johnny’s not-quite whisper. “To know that, you’ll need to know something about the history of these fine weapons.”

Ancient Dagger

The shopkeeper reached below the desk separating him from Jonny and pulled out a dagger.  “Daggers were the first weapons. They are different from knives in that they are double-edged.  The first daggers were developed several thousand years ago, were made from flint or bone, and were useful in that they could be used in combat without much training, just swing and stab.  As time went on, copper was discovered and daggers were made of it.” The shopkeeper replaced the dagger on the wall and pulled out another weapon, that looked more like a sword – but not quite.

Long Dagger

“Now the main limitation of the earliest weapons,” the shopkeeper continued,  “was that the materials they were made from were not very strong, so this limited their maximum length, and thus the wielder’s reach.  Now, one of the most important factors in any fight is the idea of reach – the more of it you have, the easier it is to hit your opponent without being hit in return. Remember that.  Because of this, the discovery of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) was a revolution in weapon manufacturing. It allowed longer daggers to be constructed, and eventually led to the creation of the first swords.”

The shopkeeper turned around, and, from the wall behind him, he pulled down what could definitely be considered a sword.  As he turned around to show the weapon to Johnny, he carefully unsheathed a bit of the blade. “Later on, in the 13 to 12 centuries BC, iron was discovered.  At first, it didn’t have many more advantages than Bronze other than it was more common. However, because tin is rare and producing bronze from it requires much skill while working iron is substantially easier, eventually ancient swordsmiths switched to iron.”


“Follow me,” the shopkeeper said as he replaced the sword back on the wall and walked out from behind the desk to some swords on the left wall.  As he reached up for it and lifted it from its hanger, he continued “This sword is made in the style of the gladiators of ancient Rome. It was there that swordsmanship began to be appreciated by many.  The Romans learned from other cultures about different sword techniques, including thrusting and shield blocks, and the sword became a popular fixture in gladiator fights.”

The shopkeeper continued his counterclockwise revolution around the room.  As he reached up and put his hand on the next sword, he continued “The next period became darker for swords.  The Romans suffered a grave defeat against a cavalry charge, and swords began to fall out of favor until a short period in the middle ages, when iron working improved and steel became commonplace allowing blades that wouldn’t break easily in fights, as they were wont to do before.  However, also around this time, archery was also improving, and armor became a necessity in order to defend against arrows. Because of this, the sword quickly began to fall again into obsolescence as a weapon of battle.”

Ornate Sword

The next sword the shopkeeper reached for was longer and more ornate.  “However, during this time, swords became more closely tied to religion, and with the introduction of Chivalry, a sort of mystic culture crew up around the sword.  Then a funny thing began to happen. Firearms were introduced, and, as they grew in power, armor could not keep up, so armor was discarded in return for mobility, thus the sword once again became a weapon of choice for close-quarters fighting.”

“However, guns began to increase in accuracy as well as power, and swords once again fell out of use except for cavalry, as it is much easier to hit a target from horseback with a sword than with a gun at close quarters.  This was the state at the beginning of WWI and continued until the invention of the tank, when swords finally lost all relevance as a weapon of modern war.”


Finally, the shopkeeper reached up toward a bayonet near the corner of a wall near the entrance.  “Swords were replaced by the bayonet, which was basically a pike attached to the end of a rifle, allowing the reach and mobility of a sword at close-range with the power of a gun for long range.  However, while swords were now useless for modern war, they weren’t finished. As people began to enter the middle-class of modern society, the increase in free time and the availability of disposable income meant that people began taking an interest in swords once again.”



Putting the bayonet back, the shopkeeper walked to the right side of the shop filled with Katanas, Ninja blades, and other exotic swords.  “You may think I’ve covered most of sword history, but in reality I’ve covered only half. Because the Eastern world was cut off from the West, they had a very different history and their swords served other purposes.”


“At first, sword development in the East followed much the same process as in the West.  In fact, some of the earliest steel swords were developed in India and exported to both Europe and Asia.  However, around 900 AD in Japan, the first Tachi were invented.” The shopkeeper paused and pointed to a curved sword with the cutting edge facing down.  “Less famous than the later Katanas, these swords were best used by cavalry, as they were worn with the cutting edge facing down, which makes attacks from horseback more effective.”

“One interesting thing to note is that, unlike in Europe, the sword never became a primary weapon of war, but was always intended to be a secondary weapon.  This is one of the reasons their development did not follow the same path as European swords. Swords in Japan were considered works of art as well as weapons, especially in peacetime, and their designs reflected that.  They were often ornate and used as ceremonial armaments. Japanese warriors would typically use other weapons in battle, such as bows, and only switch to the sword if their main weapon failed them. Once they could procure another primary weapon, they would re-sheath their sword and continue fighting until it was needed again.”


The shopkeeper motioned to a small dagger underneath the Tachi.  “The tanto, as this is called, is a dagger that was often paired with the Tachi to form a daishō, which literally means ‘big-little.’   This tradition of pairing weapons would be continued all the way to WWI.”


Making his way down the wall toward the entrance of the shop, the shopkeeper pointed to a second set of swords.  “This is the famous Katana and its paired short-sword, the Wakizashi. The Katana was traditionally worn with the cutting edge up, and was meant to be drawn and used in one quick motion. It was not meant to be used in an extended fight, and was designed to start and end a fight quickly. Like its earlier predecessors, the Katana was designed to be used against mostly unarmored or lightly armored opponents. The Wakizashi was smaller, but had the distinctive attribute of being allowed indoors when visiting a castle, while the Katana had to be left outside.  While both can be used for thrusting, they excel at cutting, with some sword historians calling them the finest cutting weapons ever developed.”


“So”, the shopkeeper said, “now that you know a bit of the origins of these swords, are there any that hold any special interest for you?”


Original Companion Sword – The Tanto

A Lack of Good Options

Himari and her brother Asahi approached the vendor selling Tantos.  Because of the fighting that had broken out, people were flocking to buy the knives.  The men used them to participate in the fighting themselves, while the women used them for self-defense.  As she and her brother perused the different options available, Himari turned to her brother and noted how there didn’t seem to be any that matched the quality of their grandfather’s blade.  Overhearing her comment, the shopkeeper said “You’re right, these blades aren’t the same quality they used to be…”

Featured Sword: Tanto

Tantos were originally developed between 794 to 1185 AD.  They are typically one Shaku in length (up to 30cm), with some styles being unusually long (up to 40cm). Unlike most knives, they are designed to also be stabbing weapons, thus they are often referred to as a type of dagger.

The Tanto was often combined with the Tachi to form a daishō (big-little pair of weapons).  As was common in Japan, weapons designed in peacetime were often made to be ornate works of art as well as weapons, and Tantos were no exception.  However, when Japan entered the time period of the Northern and Southern courts, fighting dramatically increased, and the resulting demand for Tantos meant that knives were made to be functional only and their blades were generally of less quality than the blades made in previous eras.  After the reunification of Japan, there was a period of peace during which the Katana and Wakizashi were invented, causing the demand for Tantos to drop dramatically and few were produced, and the ones that were were copies of those made in earlier eras. The Tanto experienced a resurgence before WWII when the empire was restored and members of the Imperial Court once again began wearing the Tachi-Tanto pair.  After WWII, demand again fell as the government restricted sword forging but has since seen a recent rise, as interest in Japanese culture from the West has created a new demand for Tantos.

There was a special type of Tanto worn by women, the Kaiken.  They were usually slightly smaller (25cm) than the normal Tantos and were used primarily for self-defense but would be used rarely for ritual suicide by slashing the veins in the left side of the neck.  When a woman married, she was expected to carry one with her when she moved into her husband’s house. It was typically worn in the Kimono in either a pocket or sleeve-pouch.

Featured Tanto Styles

The Fighting’s Effects

“…Because of the fighting that’s broken out”, the shopkeeper continued, “the demand for Tantos has risen so much that swordsmiths are pressed to make as many as possible, so they are letting the quality suffer in an attempt to meet that demand.”  “That makes sense,” Asahi replied, “but it still doesn’t make me feel any better since it’s my life on the line”.  Himari and Asahi picked out the two Tanto they thought would best suit them, paid, and left. On the way home, Himari told her brother, “Asahi, you’d better not get yourself needlessly killed in one of these fights”.  “I love you too, ane” (older sister), he replied.

Fun Fact

The term “Tanto” has been re-used for modern knives (1980+) that are designed for stabbing as well as cutting.


The Etymology of the word “Tanto” is a little unclear, but it seems the Japanese borrowed from Middle Chinese the word 短刀 (twán-taw), literally meaning “short knife” (dagger).  The modern Mandarin pronunciation of 短刀 has since changed to duǎn dāo”.

See our Tanto Swords >


European Longsword vs Katana?

Ryota galloped across the planes after the foot soldiers.  While it was difficult to fire his bow at anything accurately, the enemy soldiers were so numerous that he was sure to hit something. As he continued riding, his horse stepped in a pit in the ground and threw Ryota into the mass of soldiers colliding at the boundary of the two armies.  As he hit the ground, a little dazed, he saw a man approaching quickly, holding a kanabō (steel club). Knowing he might have only seconds to live, Ryota pushed to his feet, wincing at the pain …

Gavin heard the arrows wizzing over his head from the archers in the rear and saw the line of horseman charging toward him.  He anchored his pike in the ground, one of thirty men whose job it was to hold the line. As the line of calvary reached him, he felt the pike bend as it absorbed the weight of the horse driven onto it.  The horse’s rider jumped off and drew his weapon. Gavin quickly dropped the now-useless pike and drew his own sword…

This question of which is better: the European Longsword or the Katana has been around for as long as sword enthusiasts have known about both swords.  But two important but often neglected facts are that the environment in which they were developed and the circumstances in which they were used were very different.


Japanese Samurai carried Katanas as sidearms, similar to how officers in the west often carried swords even after the event of firearms.  It was a mark of identity and not normally used as a primary weapon. However, it was a secondary weapon that could be used in a pinch if the main weapon were damaged or destroyed, thus it was made to be easy to draw and strike with one fluid motion.

Soldiers in Japan wore uniforms that were made mostly of cloth or leather, with not much metal, at least until the introduction of guns.  Relatively shortly after firearms were introduced by the Portuguese, Japan entered a peaceful period and duels became more common that actual fights.  Because of this, the Katana was used mainly against lightly armed or unarmed opponents, and its design reflected that.


Soldiers in Europe faced a very different situation.   In combat, the ability to stay out of range of one’s opponent while still being able to hit them gave a massive advantage.  As swords in Europe were more often used as primary weapons, their length could be longer without encumbering the bearer. Their opponents were also more likely to be heavily armored, making cutting less effective and thrusts more advantageous as it was easier to aim for the weak points in an opponent’s armour.

…As the man took one last step toward him, Rytoa drew his Katana in one smooth motion while stepping forward and to the man’s left side.  Holding the hilt with both hands he let the blade continue its motion while rotating the blade around a point between his hands. The blade slashed through the man’s armour and deep into his abdomen.  The man croaked in surprise, too stunned to raise his own weapon. Ryota quickly struck again, a killing blow, and the man crumpled before him.

…With the sword in both hands before him, Gavin looked ahead and to his left and saw the horse’s rider starting to get to his feet.  Gavin rushed forward, looking carefully around for any other enemy soldiers. As he neared the fallen rider, the man started to draw his sword.  Pressing the advantage, Gavin slashed at the man’s hands, causing the man to jerk them away from the hilt. Seizing the opportunity, Gavin grasped his blade halfway down its length and quicky thrust into the man’s armpit, instantly causing the man’s arm to go limp and begin bleeding profusely.  Knowing the man would not last more than a few minutes, Gavin quickly retreated back to the line lest he be caught unaware by another soldier.


For the purposes for which they were designed and where they were used, each weapon was superior in its own environment.  But that’s not what you want to hear. So let’s rank each sword based on a few important factors and try to determine which one scores highest.


Considered by some to the finest cutting weapon ever designed, the katana wins hands-down here.  Made of harder steel, the Katana flexes less than a longsword and can hold a sharper edge, allowing more force to be applied consistently across a smaller surface area.


Here it’s not as clear-cut.  The Longsword and Katana are both designed for thrusting, however, the Longsword has one of its balance points at the point of the sword, allowing the user to move the sword around easier without moving the point.  Thus, for this round I’m going to give it to the Longsword.

Attacking Variability

The Katana is a single-edged weapon, while the Longsword is double-edged.  The Katana has a bit of advantage in speed, but the double-edge of the Longsword allows the user to use a larger variety of techniques to continually threaten an opponent.  Thus, here I’m going to give it to the longsword.

Defensive Ability

One of the biggest vulnerabilities in swordfighting is the hands and forearm.  These are extended forward with the sword, and if injured, could quickly signal the end of a battle.  Both swords have a guard for the hand, but the Tsuba of the Katana is designed more for offense: it keeps the hand from sliding down the blade in a thrust.  Guards for longswords differed in that even the simplest had a large crossguard that helped protect the hand from forward attacks. The more complex guards would actually wrap around the hand, thus protecting it from all angles.  Both swords were good at parrying. Thus here, I will give it just barely to the Longsword.


In this contest, the Longswords won 3-1.  However, while the European Longsword may be a better weapon for extended combat on the battlefield, it is important to remember that the Katana was as much a work of art as a weapon, and was a source of pride and identity for the Samurai.  Furthermore, it excelled in its purpose: serving as a backup weapon designed to quickly start and finish a fight against mostly unarmed or lightly armed opponents. Thus in their respective fields, each sword excels.


Yoshihara Yoshindo – The Best Living Swordsmith

Japanese swords are much more than tools of war: they are works of art.  Born of a time when quality steel was more precious than gold, Japanese swordsmiths created complex and exacting methods of forging swords in order to create masterpieces that belied the poor quality of the ore from from which they were created. These methods have been passed down through traditions while remaining essential unchanged for centuries.  One man Yoshihara Yoshindo is considered the greatest swordsmith alive today.

Yoshindo was born in 1943 and began studying the process of sword-making at 12 years of age under his father.  He received his license at age 22 and later became the youngest person to achieve the rank of Mukansa, doing so in his 30s.  The word Mukansa translates as “exempt from examination”, and those who carry the title are allowed to submit previously unseen works for display.

His smithy is located in Tokyo, and while there are over 300 swordsmiths in Japan, only 30 of those manage to make it a full-time job.  Yoshindo, of course, is one of them. He has several apprentices that work with him and help him craft the swords, a herculean task as each sword can take up to 3 months to make.  With every new sword he challenges himself to make it better than the last sword, and after 63 years of practice his swords are considered virtually priceless: they are masterworks in their own right.

Besides crafting swords, Yoshindo does what he can to further the appreciation of swords as art, and to that end he has written books on the subject.  One passion of his is correcting people’s misconceptions of Samurai history. While the Samurai did carry swords, they rarely used them in combat, often preferring other weapons.  For them, their swords were worn as good luck charms or for personal appearance. Wanting to keep this tradition alive, he reminds people that one does not need a permit to possess one.*

One of the most distinctive marks of a well-crafted sword is the Hamon line created at the border between the edge and core of the blade.  The Hamon on Yoshindo’s swords are so unique that his swords can be easily discerned from those of another sword crafter.

While our swords may not match Yoshindo’s, they are much more affordable.  See some of our Elite Swords here.

Elite Swords

*Not all countries allow possession of swords.  However, the UK and all the countries we ship to do.


Hattori Hanzō – The Most Famous Ninja

In The Dead of Night

The castle gleamed alone before him, surrounded by mountains now invisibly wrapped in the dark shroud of night.  Hanzō waited for the word to attack.  All their preparation led up to this moment.  At only 16 years of age, this was his first battle. As his fellow men got into position, only the consistent chirping of crickets and the calls of a few birds could be heard.  His muscles felt tense, and he quickly ran through a few breathing exercises to calm himself. Finally the awaited command was passed down, and he felt a rush of newfound energy as the attack began.

Hattori Hanzō

Hattori Hanzō is arguably the most well-known ninja in modern times. His father was a minor samurai who served the Matsudaira clan.  Hattori was born sometime around 1542 and lived 54 years until his death in November of 1596. He is often called Hattori Hanzō Masanari/Masashige I to distinguish him from other members of his family who carried the same name.

Hanzō exploits were due not to his skill as a warrior but to his ability as a commander (though he was an excellent spear fighter). He often used guerilla tactics on castles in place of direct assaults.  Hattori fought in his first battle at the age of 16, when he attached Udo Castle at night. From then on, he participated in other battles including rescuing his daimyō’s (lord’s) hostage daughters at age 20 and sieging Kakegawa Castle at age 27.  At age 30, he fought in the battle of Mikatagahara where he captured a spy and counter-attacked across a river with only 30 men.  For these brave deeds he was awarded command of 150 men of an Iga ninja unit.

Fast forward a few years, and Hanzō was in charge of defending Iga province (the homeland of the ninjas) from a ferocious attack by Nobunaga.  While he was ultimately unsuccessful, he was able to significantly slow enemy forces for two years until he was finally routed by forces under Nobunaga’s direct control.  After Nobunaga’s timely death a year later, Hanzō made his most significant contribution yet: he helped Japan’s future shōgun (king) Tokugawa cross Mikawa province with the help of the remnants of the local Iga ninja clans.

Toward the end of his life, Hanzō gave up fighting and became a monk. He took the name “Sainen” and built a temple which was later named after him. Today, his remains are kept in Sainen-ji temple cemetery in Yostuya, Tokyo.  His physical legacy lives on in the Imperial Palace, which has a gate that still retains his name. His cultural legacy is much more significant with many stories, films, and movies portraying different aspects of his life.

Kill Bill

One popular movie portrayal of a (fictional) descendant of his is in the movie Kill Bill.  Here, the Bride needs a weapon powerful enough to kill Bill, so she goes to Hattori Hanzō (revealed in supplementary material to be the 14th in that line) who is widely known as the best swordsmith in the world.  Though he had taken a blood oath not to make any more weapons of destruction and had kept it for 29 years, he decided to break it when he learned the sword would be destined to kill Bill.  The resulting masterwork he considered to be the finest and sharpest sword of his career.

Here are replicas of the swords made by Hattori Hanzō from the Kill Bill movie series:

Fun Fact

Many tales ascribe to Hanzō powers of teleportation, precognition, and psychokinesis.

What’s in a Name

Unlike Western names, Eastern names start with the family name and end with the individual’s name.  So Hattori Hanzō’s first name is actually Hanzō.  His father and son also carried the same name.  The Japanese Kanji for Hattori Hanzō are 服部 半蔵.