In mod­ern cul­ture

Black Belt - - SCREEN SHOTS -

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

Phys­i­cal train­ing played an es­sen­tial role in their lives, es­pe­cially run­ning, climb­ing, and stealth meth­ods of walk­ing and swim­ming.

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