In pop culture, the word “ninja” conjures up images of masked warriors, all in black, who scaled walls and carried out assassinations all over feudal Japan. People often picture ninjas as covert killers who used exotic blades, throwing stars, and smoke bombs to kill their targets, all while locked in a feud with the more honorable samurai. That is plain myth. In reality, such super cool ninjas never existed. The ones who did exist did not fit modern popular perceptions of what ninjas are supposed to have acted and looked like.
Ninjas did not wear black outfits as part of a uniform getup. At least no more so than average Japanese people of the period wore black clothes. What we consider ninjas were simply scouts, spies, and mercenaries, hired by various armies in feudal Japan. To carry out their tasks, they blended into the local population. They did not use throwing stars, but did use thrown poisoned darts known as bo shurikens. They did not have a blood feud with samurai. Indeed, quite a few ninjas were actually samurai.
For years after WWII, a persistent myth circulated to the effect that Hitler had kept a diary and that it had survived his demise in 1945. Many quested for that diary like it was the Holy Grail. Then in April of 1983 Stern magazine, a popular German current affairs weekly, held a press conference to make an important announcement. Their star reporter Gerd Heidemann had managed to get his hands on the Fuhrer’s diaries. They had been recovered in 1945 from the wreckage of a plane crash, and languished in obscurity until Heidemann tracked them down. The documents abounded with juicy tidbits that ranged from Hitler’s sensitivity about his bad breath to his remarkable ignorance about what was done to the Jews.
Stern’s jubilant editors declared that their scoop, which shed light on the Nazi dictator’s innermost thoughts, would lead to a major rewrite of the war’s history. The magazine, which had paid $6 million for the documents, sent them to three handwriting experts, all of whom declared the diary authentic. Hugh-Trevor Roper, a prominent British historian reviewed the diary on behalf of the Sunday Times, Stern’s publication partner, and concurred. However, because Stern’s editors feared a leak, they refused to allow any German WWII experts to examine the diary. As seen below, that turned out to be a huge mistake.
Once Hitler’s diaries were published and German WWII experts finally got the chance to take a look, it did not take them long to spot signs of obvious forgery. The paper used was modern, and so was the ink. Moreover, the diaries were riddled with major historical inaccuracies about events and dates that Hitler could not have possibly gotten wrong. There were even dated entries in which the Fuhrer described events before they had actually happened in real life – an impossibility unless Hitler had access to a time machine. An investigation revealed that the diary had been created by a notorious German forger named Konrad Kujau.
A conman with a track record of petty crimes, Kujau had made money in the 1970s from the sale of Nazi memorabilia smuggled from East Germany. Then he realized that he could charge even more if he forged authentication details to link the items to important Nazi figures. He eventually teamed up with Stern’s reporter Gerd Heidemann to rip off the magazine. In the fallout, historian Hugh-Trevor Roper’s reputation was ruined, and editors at Stern, the Sunday Times, and Newsweek, were fired. As to Kujau and Heidemann, they were tried and convicted of forgery and embezzlement, and sentenced to 42 months in prison.
The Japanese katana, thanks to Hollywood and assorted works of history, fiction, and historic fiction, is probably the world’s most recognizable sword. It is also one surrounded by many a myth. The katana is a single-edged curved sword, with a long handle for two-handed use. It features a square or circular guard, and a slender blade of around two and a half feet in length. Katanas are among the finest cutting weapons in history, and were used by Japanese samurai since feudal times. Their earliest recorded mention in the historic record dates to the twelfth century.
Katanas are the product of natural evolution. They started off as hefty “great swords” that grew thinner, lighter, and more agile over time in order to meet the demands of emergent combat styles that relied upon speed. They became popular with samurai because the ease and swiftness with which they could be drawn was a decided asset for the newer and faster techniques. The new combat styles were collectively dubbed kenjutsu, the art of sword fighting. The issue was often settled within seconds, and reaction time spelled the difference between life and death.
Katanas inspired many legends. They were reportedly forged by master sword smiths who hammered and folded the blade over a thousand times. They were also rumored to be so sharp that they cut through machine guns in WWII. Unfortunately, that is a pure myth. In real life, back in their heyday, katanas, coupled with a smaller sword, were thrust, sharp edge facing upwards, through the bearer’s obi – a sash wrapped tightly around the samurai’s waist. The configuration was known as daisho, and it identified the wearer as a samurai – the only people authorized to tote paired swords.
Katanas worn in the daisho style facilitated a speedy draw, ideally allowing samurai to draw and cut down opponents in a single fluid motion. An entire martial art, Iaido, was dedicated to the speedy retrieval of katanas from their scabbards. Katanas are made from tamahagane steel. It is produced by traditional Japanese smelting processes that result in layered steels with varied carbon concentrations that are welded, folded, and hammered out to reduce impurities. A katana needs a sharp and hard edge. However, steel that is hard enough for a sharp edge is brittle, while softer steel that is not brittle will not take and retain a sharp edge. That posed a problem for sword smiths.
1. The Folding of Katana Blades Thousands of Times is a Myth
Katana makers solved the dilemma of a sword that had to be both sharp and hard-edged via the use of four metal bars. A soft iron bar to guard against breakage, sandwiched by two hard iron bars to prevent bending, and rounded off with a steel bar to take the cutting edge. The result was a sword that had a hard enough blade, and a sharp cutting edge. However, contra many a WWII tall tale, no katana was ever hard enough, or sharp enough, to cut through machine gun barrels. The four metal bars of which katanas were made were heated at high temperatures, then hammered into a long bar that would become the blade.
Contrary to myth, katana blades were not folded thousands of times. So many folds would be counterproductive, and render the steel useless for a sword. Instead, katana blades were folded between eight to sixteen times. When the sword was sharpened, the steel took a razor-sharp edge, while the softer iron kept the blade from breaking. Well-crafted katanas became prized heirlooms, passed down generations of samurai families for centuries. Magnificent specimens of centuries-old katanas can be seen in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, Japan.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading