Shuriken: the Ninja Star

by Susan Spann

If I asked you to name a ninja weapon, the most common answers would be a sword and a shuriken, which many people call a “throwing star.”

In reality, “shuriken” translates “behind-the-hand knife” or “hand-hidden blade,” meaning a knife or blade which a person can easily conceal in the hand. And despite all the untrue myths about ninjas, they really did use shuriken–though not always in the way that you might think.

Most Westerners think of the shuriken as a star-shaped throwing weapon with dangerous, sometimes poisoned, tips (hence the popular name “throwing star”). However, shuriken weren’t always thrown … and they weren’t always shaped like a star.14F27 Bo Shuriken


Bo shuriken (also called “stick shuriken”) were essentially sharpened iron spikes, either square or rounded in shape. These were generally thrown, though ninjas (also called “shinobi”) also used them for stabbing in close combat.


When most Westerners talk about “shuriken,” they generally mean the flat hira shuriken (also called “shaken”), which came in a variety of shapes, including the familiar five and six-armed star-shaped versions. In addition to the star-shaped types, hira shuriken came in crosses, triangles, and even swastikas–a shape and symbol that had a very different meaning before the twentieth century.

In addition to its utility as a throwing weapon, the shuriken made an efficient fist load weapon for hand to hand combat. Careful placement of the hand allowed the spikes to protrude through the fingers, while the shape of the weapon helped make the grip secure.


The shuriken demonstrates a cardinal aspect of shinobi weapons and other gear: the multi-purpose nature of the tool. Since ninjas worked in secret, and needed to avoid detection, lightweight gear and minimal baggage were vital to their survival. A tool which filled many different roles was better than one which had only a single or limited range of purposes.

A ninja could use a shuriken as a throwing weapon, a stabbing weapon, a cutting tool, and in any other circumstance when a thrown or hand-held blade might come in handy. Although the shuriken’s primary purpose was as a weapon, shinobi training taught ninjas to be resourceful, creative thinkers and problem solvers.

An ideal setting for a shuriken attack

An ideal setting for a shuriken attack

The shuriken remains an iconic ninja weapon to this day because of its dramatic, easily-concealed nature. Let’s face it–shuriken are cool. They fit the popular image of the black-clad ninja sneaking into a castle to assassinate a samurai…and, as it happens, they fit the history too.


Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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