Not much documentation is available concerning Shuriken because it was a secretive art. The skill of throwing employed independent exponents. Its integration with other weapons might have caused some confusion as well.
Moreover, instructions by main schools were heavily engrossed into deception. Hence, only information from scrolls, trusted students, and commoners appeared. These commoners might not have engaged themselves into the art but had some knowledge.
Derived from Japanese characters Shu-ri (“hidden in the hand”) and Ken (“blade”), Shuriken (手裏剣) translates as “hand-hidden blade”. In some cases, Ri may also mean “release” which gives the term the meaning, “hand-release blade”. Still, other translations suggest “rear-end blade” tracing back from Warring States period (1482-1558).
During this time, the weapon was known as Shiriken. It was due to a misconception that it was a small utility knife held in the scabbard of the long sword.
Shuriken comes into different shapes, styles and sizes. It has two major types: the plate type and the stick type. Shaken (plate or wheel type) is made from flat metal plates. It is categorized into Hira Shuriken, Senban Shuriken, and Teppan.
Hira Shuriken is multi-pointed and star-shaped. Senban Shuriken has the shape of a lozenge. Teppan is simply a larger version of Senban.
Moving on, Bo Shuriken (stick type) is long, thin and cylindrical. Thickness and shape vary, classifying themselves into three designs defined by the material used. The first one is cylindrical, straight-sided, and needle-shaped. The second is square. The third is shaped like a knife.
Resources provide no accurate and chronological history of Shuriken. Available are only speculations and random traces from preserved manuscripts and handed-down stories.
During ancient times, throwing of things has been a favorite pastime. Later on, people used them for protection and food hunting. This paved rise to the idea of a throwing system.
One of the earliest mentions of throwing things is from the oldest Japanese extant chronicle, Kojiki. Written around 600AD, a particular passage narrates Prince Yamato-Takeru killing a white deer. He threw a cylindrical vegetable into its eye. In the same year was also written another account entitled Nihon Shoki. It describes Ishihajiki, a stone-throwing implement.
Moreover, Man’yoshu portrays throwing an arrow and a flat stone called Tsubute. It was written in the 8th century.
Meanwhile, a section of Hiyori no Ki depicts holding a short blade hidden in the palm and throwing it. This was believed to be the origin of the term Shuriken.
Furthermore, Osaka Gunki tells about Tadamasa saving himself from his enemies by throwing a Wakizashi. He later created the first Shuriken called Tanto-gata.
Still, other Japanese chronicles such as Heike Monogatari mentioned stone throwing. They used Totekibuki to refer to stones designed to aid throwing. They later called them Tsubute. Evolving into an iron stone, the name changed to Tetsutsubute, believed to be the progenitor of Senban Shuriken.
The development of the Shuriken art appeared fragmented. Thus, there were no standardized rules concerning manufacture and use. Consequently, various schools with different instructions have emerged.
For instance, swordsman Matsubayashi Henyasai founded his own school named Ganritsu Ryu in 1624. He pioneered the throwing blade.
Later on, Katono Izu founded Izu Ryu and invented the throwing needle. Placement was between the middle and ring fingers. It resembled a dart to throw into the eyes of the enemy.
Miyamoto Musashi founded the school Enmei Ryu. It employed throwing a knife blade. He got the idea from the dagger he used in killing Shishido, a Kusari-gama expert.
In 1800s, Shirai Toru Yoshikane founded the Shirai Ryu. A metal rod with a sharp and a round end characterized his blade.
During the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, Negishi Nobunori Shorei founded Negishi Ryu. His blade was a projectile-shaped pen with an enlarged head and tail.
Katori Shinto Ryu pioneered one of the most famous martial arts of Japan. This composite art had a complete range of weaponry. Teaching had Shuriken integrated with Samurai. As such, manufacture employed hard metal rather than undefined iron.
Similarly, Tatsumi Ryu taught a number of weapons, including Shuriken. Tatsumi Sankyo founded this school in the mid-1500s. It still operates today.
During his service in the Shogunate’s security force, Okamoto Munishige used Shuriken on various occasions. He used to carry 12 blades in the places he visited.
Finally, modern-day Shuriken master Shirakami Ikku-ken founded Ikku Ryu. This school pioneered the modern method of Shuriken making. Involving a double-pointed blade, this style gives greater flexibility by solving the problem of positioning the blade in the hand.
Shuriken is classifiable by characteristics. However, this section provides examples based on the two major types: plate type and stick type.
Under the plate type, cross-shaped Shuriken is the standard. Its sharp and deep corners inflict wounds on targets. This comes into a foldable version as well. Meanwhile, the three-pointed and four-pointed Shuriken constitute the original design of the weapon. These have no adaptations from other weapons or tools. Swastika-shaped Shuriken has double-edged angles. It inflicts big damage on the opponent. Finally, eight-pointed Shuriken easily sticks on the target, aiming to hurt rather than kill.
Under the stick type, Biao is shaped like a pin while Kugi-gata is like a nail. Hari-gata resembles a needle. Matsubata-gata is pine needle-shaped. Kankyuto is in the form of a piercing tool while Kunai-gata, in a utility tool. Tanto-gata, one of the most common forms, takes the shape of a spear. Lastly, resembling a plate metal is Teppan.
Self-defense rather than killing has been the ultimate function of Shuriken. People often used it to slash and hypnotize the opponent. Primary targets were the eyes, face, hands and feet.
Shuriken was mostly used by Ninja clans. Hence, the States refer to them as “Ninja Stars”. However, Samurai shared a part in the use of these weapons as spears and swords. In other words, Shuriken served as supplementary tools for them.
Some people use Shuriken to disguise victims. They embed it in the ground to injure those who step on them. Sometimes, they wrap it with fuse to light up and cause fire. Still, they coat it with poison and leave it in a secret place to catch a victim.
Shuriken are small and concealable that people can wear them as hairpins. This gives an advantage for quick draw and catching the opponent off guard.
Future of Shuriken
Along with the Samurai sword, the use of Shuriken declined in the 20th century. It almost died as several masters failed to return from the war. Only a few, mostly students, survived to resurrect the art. Nevertheless, their efforts began attracting the interest of many nations, mostly in the West. Now, students from all over the world visit Japan to train.
Thanks also to the inclusion of Shuriken as a supplementary weapon in the Koryu Bujutsu arts! This saved the art from complete disremembering.
With unlimited offers of digital technology, more and more information becomes accessible online. The Shuriken awareness now extends outside the exclusive training schools into the very homes through the influence of media.
With the rising popularity of the resurrected Shurikenjutsu, a bright future is ahead awaiting.