Ninjas vs. the Explainer

How do you throw a ninja star? And other stealthy questions …

A typical ninja, as depicted in the 15-volume Hokusai Manga

Security screeners at a Japanese airport made Apple CEO Steve Jobs throw away his ninja stars before boarding a private plane in July, according to Bloomberg News. Apple denies the incident occurred, but the case of the contraband stars (legit or not) raises all sorts of questions, answered herewith.

Do ninjas still exist?
Yes and no. The original ninjas were the losers of a 12th-century Japanese civil war. Unable to defeat their enemies in the ritualistic fighting style of the then-dominant samurai, they retreated to the mountains and based their resistance on stealth and superior intelligence-gathering. There are still schools in Japan and around the world where you can learn ninja-style fighting tactics or ninjitsu, like somersaulting around your opponent then seizing him from behind. But Japan is no longer plagued by stealthy insurgents prowling the mountainsides.


Did ninjas really use stars?
Absolutely. The shuriken, or throwing star, was one of the ninja’s primary defensive weapons. In contrast to Hollywood representations, the shuriken were typically used not to kill but, rather, as a delaying tactic. Ninjas would forestall the enemy’s advance by forcing them to duck, dodge, or block the projectiles.

The origins of the star are hazy. Legend has it that some ninjas joined construction crews to gather intelligence on their enemies’ castles and that the original shuriken were iron plates used to center nails. Others point to ancient Buddhist imagery of fearsome deities wielding three-, four-, or 10-pointed stars.

How do you throw a star?
It’s all in the wrist. Place a stack of shuriken in the palm of one hand—ninjas used to carry nine, an auspicious number. Brush the thumb of your opposite hand across the top star. The inside of your knuckle should catch in the center hole, enabling you to bring the star in between your thumb and index finger. From there, it’s sort of like throwing a frisbee. Bring your arm forward and flick your wrist to spin the star. Just don’t move your arm across your body in an arc—that would ruin your aim.


Steve Jobs always wears a black shirt. Is that appropriate ninja attire?
No. The original ninjas wore dark blue or brown for stealth. It was very difficult to dye clothing black in the 12th century, so it’s unlikely ninjas wore that color. The misconception probably originates with Kabuki theater. In stage representations of ninja exploits, actors wore black to blend in with the painted backdrop.

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Explainer thanks Stephen K. Hayes, author of The Mystic Arts of the Ninja and headmaster of SKHQuest martial arts.

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