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A shuriken is a traditional Japanese concealed weapon that was generally used for throwing, and sometimes stabbing or slashing. They are sharpened hand-held blades made from a variety of everyday items, such as needles, nails, and knives, as well as coins, washers, and other flat plates of metal. Shuriken is the name given to any small-bladed object, while shaken is traditionally used to indicate the well-known "throwing star".
Shuriken are commonly known in the West as throwing stars or ninja stars though they took many different shapes and designs during the time they were used. The major varieties of shuriken are the bō shuriken and the hira shuriken or shaken.
Shuriken were mainly a supplemental weapon to the more-commonly-used sword or other various weapons in a samurai warrior's arsenal, though they often played a pivotal tactical role in battle. The art of wielding the shuriken is known as shurikenjutsu and was mainly taught as a minor part of the martial arts curriculum of many famous schools, such as Yagyū Shinkage-ryū, Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, Ittō-ryū, Kukishin-ryū, and Togakure-ryū.
Contrary to popular belief, shuriken were not primarily intended as a killing weapon, but rather as a secondary weapon that sometimes played a role supportive to a main weapon, usually the sword or spear. Shuriken were primarily used to cause either nuisance or distraction. Targets were primarily the eyes, face, hands, or feet — the areas most exposed under armor. The shuriken would sometimes be thrown in a way that cuts the opponent and becomes lost, later causing the opponent to believe that they were cut by an invisible swordsman.
Shuriken, especially hira-shuriken, were also used in other novel ways — they might be embedded in the ground, injuring those who stepped on them (similar to a caltrop or makibishi), wrapped in fuse to be lit and thrown to cause fire, or wrapped in a cloth soaked in poison and lit to cover an area with a cloud of poisonous smoke. They can also be used as a handheld striking weapon in close combat.
There are reports of shuriken being coated with poison, intended either for a throwing target or for whoever may pick them up when left in a conspicuous place. Other reports indicate that shuriken may have been buried in dirt or animal feces and allowed to harbor the bacterium Clostridium tetani — if the point penetrated a victim deeply enough, the bacteria transferred into the wound could cause a then-incurable tetanus infection.
Shuriken are a simple weapon, but their historical value, thanks to their wide variety of uses and the ready availability of material from which they could be made, has increased. Unlike the treasured katana and other bladed weapons, antique shuriken are not often well preserved, largely due to their original status as expendable weapons.