In modern culture
the ninja are often portrayed as coldblooded assassins, men and occasionally women garbed in black and armed with samurai swords and throwing stars, agents who appear out of nowhere in the shadows of the night to dispatch their victims without mercy. They’re said to possess magical powers, including invisibility and the ability to walk on water. They’re depicted as the owners of physical skills that could give Olympic athletes a run for their money. Once in a while, you even hear a fantastical statement like, “Only a ninja can kill another ninja.”
That kind of hype might be fine for entertaining kids who were raised on comic books, video games and
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flicks. But adults tend to prefer a dose of historical accuracy in their movies and books.
Most Americans got their first glimpse of ninjutsu in 1967 thanks to the James Bond movie You Only Live
Twice. By the 1980s, the Western world found itself in a ninja craze, and that’s what prompted me to start consuming every ninja book, article and documentary I could find. I learned that the ninja’s reputation had been exaggerated by the media. Sure, it’s more exciting to portray them as sword-slinging, roof-hopping executioners with mystical powers, but that’s not realistic. To help others expand their awareness of the facts surrounding these men in black, I present the results of my research.
Where does our historical information on the ninja originate?
Much of it comes from Bansenshukai, a collection of information accumulated by the clans in the Iga and Koga regions of Japan. It was compiled by Fujibayashi Sabuji in 1676 to preserve the know-how that had been developed during the near-constant conflict that raged from the beginning of the Onin War until the end of the Siege of Osaka almost 150 years later.
In addition, there is Shoninki from 1681. Together, these texts are the most important sources of information about this shadowy profession. Slightly less authoritative is Ninpiden (aka Shinobi Hiden), a manual from 1655 whose name translates as Legends of Ninja Secrets. Some attribute it to Hattori Kiyonobu, while others link it to Hattori Hanzo. In either
Espionage was their chief role. They spent more time spying than killing.
case, it was passed down within the Hattori family and wasn’t shared with outsiders.
When did the ninja exist?
They lived primarily during the unrest of the Sengoku period (15th century to 17th century). That’s when spies and mercenaries became active in Iga and Koga, and it’s from the clans of these areas that we get much of our knowledge of the ninja [Ancient Warfare: Shinobi Ninjas
and Kung Fu Shaolin Monks]. Following the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (17th century), the ninja faded into obscurity [Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia, by Thomas A. Green].
Were the ninja really assassins?
Espionage was their chief role. They spent more time spying than killing. While they were trained in covert operations, propaganda, spy craft, infiltration and the use of explosives, they acted as assassins only when other means failed. As such, ninja manuals rarely cover the subject [The Lost Samurai School: Secrets of Mubyoshi Ryu, by Antony Cummins].
How did they operate?
The ninja were not necessarily independent or selfserving. They often hired themselves out to a particular
daimyo, or feudal lord, as mercenaries. Unlike the way they’re portrayed in movies, the ninja sought to avoid battlefield engagements, especially when facing a numerically superior enemy. That’s why their strategies focus on cloak-and-dagger methods and hit-and-run tactics.
Were they always called “ninja”?
The word “ninja” didn’t appear until the 1800s, long after the real ninja had disappeared. Before that, the word
shinobi was used. Meaning “to sneak,” it described covert agents and mercenaries in feudal Japan. Shinobi appears in writing as far back as the eighth century. In official historical documents, shinobi is almost always used, while ninja is not.
Did the ninja wear masks?
No references to ninja wearing masks have been found. However, they often resorted to covering their faces with their long sleeves when the enemy was near, and when working in groups, they sometimes wore white headbands so they could see each other in the moonlight [Cummins].
In early Japan, ordinary men and women would wear head scarves on colder days. This could have been the origin of what’s become a Hollywood cliché.
Did the ninja wear black?
It’s been argued that ninja wore blue, not black. This stems from the book called Shoninki. It states that a ninja should wear blue to blend in with crowds because blue clothing was popular in Japan. Often, a ninja simply would disguise himself as a civilian [Cummins].
Historian Stephen R. Turnbull suggests that the stereotypical image of the ninja dressed in black comes from kabuki theater. In kabuki, the kuroko, or stage hands, rearrange scenery, move props and assist in costume changes while wearing black from head to toe to convey the notion that they’re invisible and not part of the performance. He says this convention was adopted by kabuki actors who were portraying ninja, and it stuck.
Did the ninja carry samurai swords?
It was illegal for anyone to own or carry a samurai sword unless that person was a samurai. Furthermore, samurai swords weren’t available to the public [Tiger
Scroll of the Koga Ninja]. If a ninja was in possession of a stolen samurai sword, it would be the equivalent of impersonating a police officer in modern times, and the ninja could be sentenced to death [Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws, by Hiroko Yoda].
Then what type of sword did the ninja use?
Many of the swords they used were crafted in mountain villages and, therefore, were crude in comparison to what the samurai used. Some say the blades carried by the ninja were called shinobigatana. They were shorter than a katana so they could be carried across the back — with the hilt projecting above the right shoulder. That kept them accessible while facilitating the scaling of walls and the climbing of trees [Tiger Scroll].
The subject, however, is often debated. Before the 20th century, there’s no evidence for the existence of a katanalike short sword that was used by the ninja. Skeptics believe that the designs of modern ninja swords are actually based on the wakizashi or chokuto, the shorter companion swords of the samurai [Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult, by Stephen R. Turnbull].
Was the sword the primary weapon of the ninja?
If the goal was to blend in, using or adapting agricultural implements as weapons would have been
far more practical. Because the ninja often dressed in disguise — for example, as farmers — carrying a sword would have attracted attention. A more viable option would have been to carry a kusarigama, or a sickle with a weighted chain attached. The weight could be swung to injure, and the sickle could kill at close range. Further, it quickly could have been disassembled into harmlesslooking farmer’s tools.
Did the ninja use the nunchaku?
The nunchaku was never known as a battlefield weapon because it was ineffective against long arms such as the sword and spear. Also, being of Okinawan origin, it’s unlikely the ninja used it.
Did they use throwing stars?
The sharp-pointed throwing star was a secret weapon in many samurai schools, but such devices did not become linked to the ninja until the 20th century thanks to comic books and anime. Furthermore, in all the shinobi documents left behind, only one “ninja throwing star” is mentioned, and even then it’s in reference to shinobi working in peacetime to apprehend criminals [Cummins].
However, that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from having their ninja hurl stars — with deadly results. In reality, unless a star struck a vital spot or was coated with poison, it would not have killed. The weapon’s principal use was to distract, slow and injure the enemy.
What weapons did the ninja use?
Devices they relied on for infiltration and espionage are abundant, and many are on display in Japanese museums [Iga Ryu Ninja Museum]. Examples include gardening tools, sickles, chisels, hammers and drills that, if the ninja was captured, could be claimed were tools and not weapons.
Less-inconspicuous examples include knives, saws, grappling hooks, collapsible ladders, blowguns, poison darts, spiked climbing gear for the hands and feet, fire-making tools and eggshells that could be filled with blinding powder. Hollow bamboo walking canes were popular and ideal for concealing blades, chains and powders.
Despite the large array of accessories that were available, the Bansenshukai scroll warns against being overburdened with equipment: “A successful ninja is one who uses but one tool for multiple tasks.”
Did the ninja also use explosives?
Arson was the primary form of sabotage practiced by the ninja when targeting castles and camps. Introduced from China, explosives were known in Japan by the time of the Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Designs for hand-held explosives, fragmentation devices and softcased bombs that released poison gas appear in ninja manuals. How well they worked and how widely they were used are not known.
What about smoke bombs?
In films, ninja are often shown escaping pursuers by creating a thick cloud of smoke and then miraculously vanishing. The notion of the ninja using a smoke bomb is exciting but misleading. Ancient manuals don’t contain directions for making smoke bombs, but they do contain recipes for fire-based tools such as waterproof torches, flaming arrows, explosives and poison gas [Cummins].
Did they use firearms?
Guns were introduced in Japan in 1543. The ninja likely would have used anything that gave them an advantage, including firearms. Primitive matchlock- and flintlockstyle muzzleloaders are known to have been available during the ninja/samurai period.
How secretive were the ninja?
It’s hard to say. Much more was written about samurai history than ninja history. Because anyone caught spying for an enemy could face death, it’s understandable that the ninja would have been cautious about logging activities or keeping diaries. Furthermore, training secretly in forests and on mountains meant there were few firsthand witnesses [Tiger Scroll].
Did the ninja use disguises?
The ancient Buke Myomokusho states, “Shinobi-monomi (ninja) were people used in secret ways, and their duties were to go into the mountains and disguise themselves as firewood gatherers to discover and acquire the news
about an enemy’s territory. They were particularly expert at traveling in disguise.”
As espionage agents, they would use disguises and aliases to blend in. They might take on the role of a farmer, a poet, a carpenter, a beggar, a priest, a musician, a fortune teller, a monk or even a ronin.
Did female ninja exist?
There are no historical records of female ninja, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t perform certain tasks for the ninja clans. Movies like to depict them as maidens who spied on employers or assassins who worked as seducers, but all that’s conjecture.
Did the ninja start training when they were young?
According to Turnbull, the ninja were trained from childhood, as were the samurai. Outside the expected martial disciplines, they studied survival and scouting techniques, as well as the use of poisons and explosives. Physical training played an essential role in their lives, especially running, climbing, and stealth methods of walking and swimming.
So were they world-class athletes?
They probably weren’t the Olympic-caliber acrobats we see in movies, but out of necessity, they would have to be adept at climbing, long-distance hiking and running, scaling castle walls with a rope and grappling hook, and so on.
What about the mystical and magical feats we see in films?
Incredible feats like walking on water, moving through walls, changing shape and disappearing into thin air are just legends. “I personally don’t think they had any … particular mystic powers,” Turnbull said. “It was one of the myths that they encouraged to make people more frightened of them.” Today, we would call similar actions psychological warfare.
Could an outsider join a ninja clan?
Like the samurai, the ninja were born into their profession, and traditions were passed down within the family. Outsiders were not trusted. Therefore, one had to be born into a ninja family. The only exception was an orphaned infant being adopted into a ninja family.
What happened when a ninja was caught in the act?
Ninja were sometimes boiled in oil to send a warning to others. Such barbarous treatment made it a common practice for them to kill themselves when capture was imminent by taking poisons or using their own blades. There are stories of ninja disfiguring their own faces so they wouldn’t be recognized when captured [Ninjutsu: The Art of Invisibility (Facts, Legends, and Techniques), by Donn F. Draeger].
Did the ninja really use secret hand gestures?
Called kuji, these exist but had no documented connection to the ninja. The practice most likely originated in India before moving to China and eventually Japan
[Cummins]. The gestures purportedly sharpened the mind, reduced stress, warded off evil, bolstered courage and improved endurance in certain situations.
Were the ninja exceptional martial artists?
Because their primary function was espionage, hand-tohand combat would have been a secondary skill. If they did have to fight, the skills they used likely would have come from jujitsu, which included lethal blows as well