Although based on actual historical figures from medieval Japan, the ninjas that modern audiences are familiar with owe as much to myth as reality. Naturally, many questions arise about the historical accuracy of the representation of ninjas. For instance, did they ever use bows and arrows?
Ninjas used bows and arrows alongside several other weapons that would have been common in their day. As covert operatives, they preferred weapons that were easy to conceal and carry. Ninjas also carried everyday objects as weapons when they didn’t want to attract undue attention.
This article will describe the styles of bows and arrows the ninjas used, provide an overview of the kinds of weapons they preferred to use, and explain if ninja weapons still exist today.
What Kind of Bows and Arrows Did Ninjas Use?
Ninjas used the traditional Japanese longbow, the yumi, and arrows known as ya. Ninjas would also have been familiar with the shorter hankyu half-bow. As it was easier to conceal and carry, the hankyu was more suitable for use in the covert operations that were the ninja’s forte.
As descendants of lower-class samurai, ninjas received training in most of the conventional weapons of the day. So they would undoubtedly have been familiar with the traditional Japanese bow known as the yumi.
The yumi was an asymmetrical longbow – it was around 2 m (6.56 ft) long and had a more extended upper section. The reasons for its asymmetry are unclear, but some sources speculate that the design may have been intended for use on horseback.
The yumi was used with the unusually long Japanese arrows known as ya, which were a meter (3.28 ft) in length or longer. Released from a yumi, the ya was capable of traveling great distances at speed. It was a formidable weapon, frequently used by samurai.
However, the ninjas’ primary function in the theater of war was to perform espionage activities for their samurai lords. They specialized in guerilla warfare and cloak and dagger tactics and often went about in disguise on information-gathering missions.
Because of the clandestine nature of their role, ninjas often favored weapons that were easier to carry, conceal, or pass off as everyday tools. The notable length of the yumi meant that it would most likely have been used on rare occasions.
On the other hand, the shorter half-bow known as the hankyu was roughly 1-1.25 m (3.28-4.1 ft) long. Roughly half the length of a yumi, the hankyu would have been easier to carry when moving around stealthily. So, it is likely that ninjas would have preferred using the hankyu to the yumi on most occasions.
The hankyu was easier to operate in tight, cramped spaces such as narrow paths and inside castles. While it had a more limited range and speed than the yumi, the hankyu would also have been highly effective at close quarters.
While Japanese arrows were traditionally fitted with iron arrowheads, ninjas would sometimes modify their arrows to suit the needs of particular missions. Ninjas sometimes used poisoned arrowheads or loaded arrows with explosive tips to maximize the impact of a hit.
What Other Weapons Did Ninjas Use?
Apart from bows and arrows, other weapons ninjas used included swords, knives, spears, and even firearms. They also worked with darts, poisons, explosives, and everyday tools and farm implements when required to be more discreet.
The katana, the long, curved sword favored by samurai, was the weapon of choice for fighters of the ninja’s era. However, as with the yumi, weapons like the katana were more likely to attract unwanted attention for ninjas.
There were also legal strictures against commoners carrying the katana. Only samurai were licensed to carry such weapons. So, a ninja carrying a katana might attract attention. In the worst cases, the ninja would become exposed to his enemies.
For these reasons, ninjas frequently preferred to work with unconventional weapons or weapons modified from everyday tools. As they most often operated covertly, such weapons offered ninjas greater discretion when working in the field.
Ninjas preferred short-bladed weapons that could be concealed and carried without drawing attention to themselves. Such weapons could pass off as everyday tools used by commoners across Japan.
A favorite ninja weapon was a style of sickle called the kama. The kama was a versatile weapon. It could be modified with a weighted chain into the more lethal kusarigama. As an ordinary farmers’ tool, the kama armed a ninja without exposing him to his enemies.
Other common ninja weapons include:
- Kyoketsu-shoge: a double-bladed dagger attached to a rope and metal ring
- Yari: a typical spear used by soldiers
- Tanbo: a type of hardwood staff
- Shikoro: a short double-edged saw
- Tekagi: a claw-like weapon
- Tekken: knuckle dusters
One weapon the ninja did not use was the short straight sword known as the ninjato, which they are often depicted using in pop culture. This is entirely a fabrication.
Ninja did, however, use a wide variety of throwing weapons. Known as shuriken, they probably inspired the throwing stars that are another staple of pop culture ninja depictions.
Do Ninja Weapons Exist Today?
Ninja weapons do exist today. You can view them at museums in the traditional ninja heartlands in Japan. There are also several stores where you can buy modern copies of traditional ninja tools, although these may be of dubious authenticity.
The original ninjas lived in Iga and Shiga provinces of medieval Japan. Their territories roughly correspond to the cities of Iga in Mie prefecture and Koka in Shiga prefecture of present-day Japan.
Even today, you can find the most significant collections of ninja weapons in Iga and Koka cities. The best places to view ninja weapons include:
- The Iga Ninja Museum
- Koka Ninja Village
Today, several stores in Japan, around the world, and online sell weapons that are styled similarly to traditional ninja weapons. However, the authenticity of these weapons can often be hard to ascertain.
One US-based retailer of such weapons is All Ninja Gear. 
Ninjas did use bows and arrows. However, they did so depending on the needs of their mission and often modified these for maximum efficiency.