My Introduction to the Nata
Many years ago (about 15~) in my days of obsessively playing the Tenchu series of video games, I was exploring every nick-and-cranny of all the levels, and in one of the levels that took place in the mountain-top Buddhist monastery, I noticed a small detail where there was this sort of chopping blade sticking out of a block of wood just like a hatchet might.
A few years later I became quite interested in this short battle royal type of anime and manga called Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Cho (and later the novel that it came from). In it I was drawn to a character named Yashamaru from the Iga clan, and besides his distinct long-distance fighting style, he also carried as similar short cleaver, though between the three forms of media he never uses it, in the anime adaptation he does draw it so that you can see the angle and length (screen shots provided in the slideshow below.
Finally, in around 2008, when I started to take studying Japanese and the ninja more seriously, I acquired a copy of the Shinobi Hiden (or Ninpiden), and before even having a translated copy, I knew what the illustration I was looking at was.
I have seen two different ways to write Nata: the first seems to be the most common way 鉈, and seemingly less common way, 屶.
The first, the dictionary tends to translate as “hatchet”, but that is an evident transliteration to English based on it’s general use. However, when we break the radicals apart we find “stretch” (它) and “metal” (金). In my mind, this gives the image of a simple elongated piece of metal; which could stretch back in history as a tool quite some ways.
The second way, I cannot recall where I got the kanji from initially, but a quick google search shows the very same tool. One doesn’t need a dictionary to see that this kanji easily breaks down to “mountain” (山) and “blade” or “sword” (刀), so some form of mountain blade (see the Tenchu reference above). However, the Japanese dictionaries that I have don’t have this character. Instead, Wiktionary shows that 屶, is a variant form of 會. So in looking at that…
The relevant seal inscription form (see image to the right) is a variant form (through phonosemantics) of 介 “reduce” and 曾 “pile” or “mass” (That’s a bit of an adventure on how it gets there, but current dictionary’s go in a different direction as usual). Thus this character can refer to reducing a pile of something.
Interestingly, 會, which has come to refer to “reducing the space between things”, and as such nowadays means something like “gathering”, “to meet”, etc., and is usually simplified to “awasu” or “awaseru” (会).
Nata in the Shinobi Hiden
In the Shinobi Hiden, it is listed as a “Tetsu” or “Kurogane” (鉄), which basically means “Iron”. I’m not yet sure if the name changed at some point, but the common term for it is currently a “Nata” (鉈), referring to something like a hatchet.
In the Shinobi Hiden, it primarily details the proportions and materials used for it and it’s scabbard. It is even detailed at the end that a hole should be in the end of the scabbard and a “thieves gimbal lantern” can be attached.
What can be inferred
A point of interest is that it details to “Be sure the iron blade is well forged. Do this in case it is used in place of a sword, and thus the blade is of the most importance.” (Cummins, 2011). Though there is a growing opinion that the ninja would not have their own martial art, one can note that a machete or hatchet handles very differently from a sword or spear. As a result, in order to treat this tool as a sword, the biomechanics of ones martial tradition would have to allow for more than a familiarity with swords, spear, halberds, etc. but also a unity of combative methodology between any weapon.
This is precisely what we see in traditions such as Gyokko-ryu, Koto-ryu, Togakure-ryu, and similar traditions that have some part of their history in the Iga region of Japan.
It is important to remember that though such a tool can be weaponized, it is not in itself a weapon and is to this day used by foresters and gardeners alike. Used like both that of a hatchet and a machete. I have herd several accounts now of North American outdoors-men (and women) now preferring the Nata over that of their choppers or hatchets for their every day use.
How the Nata ended up being associated with the ninja in a few video games and anime is honestly beyond me, but for those guys dressed up in black masks and running through the bush with their Filipino machetes, this would be the direction that they would want to go.
- The Ninpiden – True Ninja Traditions: And the Unknown Ninja Scroll
- Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters. By Lawrence J. Howell, Research Collaborator Hikaru Morimoto