The image of ninja has been heavily influenced by Japanese pop culture in our modern times, and there are many misconceptions and myths about them. We often think of men dressed head-to-toe in black, disappearing into the night. But in reality, is that what ninjas are? Let’s take a look at ninjas and find exactly what they are, and bust some myths and misconceptions about them.
Facts about ninja
What is a ninja?
Ninjas were spies who were tasked with sneaking into enemy castles to observe and listen in on enemy plans. They often dressed in black so as to be stealthier, and had excellent athletic abilities that allowed them to infiltrate heavily-guarded locations easier.
Where did ninjas come from?
Ninja were said to be mostly recruited from the lower class, and therefore little literary interest was taken in them. It is believed that because of the background of ninjas, mostly from the lower class and criminals, they are willing to trade their service for money without honor and glory.
The 4th-century prince Yamato Takeru was titled ninja in the Kojiki when he disguised himself as a maiden and assassinated two chiefs of the Kumaso people. However, this was often dismissed to be related to the shinobi ninjas.
It was not until the 14th-century war chronicle Taiheiki, when there were many references to Shinobi.
During the 15th century was when ninjas were specially trained and hired for their purposes. It was around this time when the word “Shinobi” appeared. They were recruited as spies and raiders.
Ranks of ninja
Jōnin, translated as “upper person”, was the highest rank of ninjas, representing the group and hiring out mercenaries. Then there was Chūnin, which means “middle person”, who were assistants to the jōnin. At the bottom was the genin, also known as “lower person”, who were field agents drawn from the lower class and assigned to carry out actual missions.
What is a ninja clan?
There are two main regions that have villages that were devoted to the training of ninjas. There is Igo clan, in the northern part of the modern Mie Prefecture, and Kōga clan (formally known as Koka), in the southern part of modern Shiga Prefecture.
Both the Igo clan and the Kōga clan were surrounded by steep mountains, situated in remote areas and access was incredibly difficult. They were “hidden villages” and this contributed to the mysterious nature.
Many people that faced troubles would flee to these clans, such as trespassers, officials, and thieves. Both of the clans accepted them, so despite the ninjas being separated from the rest of the world in the mountains, they came into contact with outside information and absorbed the knowledge of religion and practice of medicine and drugs.
Ninjas from these two clans are distinctly different from the commoners or samurai that were hired as spies. The Iga clan and Kōga clan bred and produced professional ninjas, trained strictly and purely for their designated roles.
Professional ninjas from these two clans were actively hired by daimyōs between 1485 to 1581, the powerful feudal lords that ruled most of Japan until the Meiji period. The clans were then wiped out by Oda Nobunaga when he invaded Igo Province. Survivors were forced to flee and many arrived before Tokugawa Ieyasu and were well treated. Some former Iga clan members later served as Tokugawa’s bodyguards.
What are the skills of a ninja?
Walking and Running
- Ashinami jū-hō 足並み十法
Ninja’s peculiar way of walking without making noise. Ninjas take large side steps, while keeping their bodies low. It is said that the aim was to reduce the strain on the lower back and to walk longer distances.
- Ninja hashiri 忍者走り
Ninjas run by leaning their upper bodies forward, one hand in front and the other hand in the back, run with almost no arm swing. This is to keep your hands to touching any obstacles.
- Suiton 水遁
It is a technique of taking a tubular object and using it to breath under water, a similar way as snorkeling. Ninja used bamboo tubes to do this.
- Mizu kumo no jutsu, the art of water spider 水蜘蛛の術
It is a technique to move on the water using a tool made of wood called a water spider, which ninjas were said to be able to use to walk on water.
Ninjas are said to be good at using fire. The technique of fire escape means hiding yourself or escaping from the enemy by skillfully manipulating the fire to deceive the enemy.
It is a technique to emit smoke and hide from the enemy. This is exactly what “wrapping in smoke” means and it is used a lot in different movie scenes.
- Kinto 金遁
It is a technique to escape from the enemy by using metals. It is said that the main method was to ring a bell or scatter money. By scattering money, ninjas could escape while the enemy or bystanders pick it up.
- Mokuton 木遁
It is a technique to hide yourself using trees, rice, wheat, grass or other nature objects. Ninjas were great at using their surroundings to hide themselves and using nature to camouflage themselves is a common way to disappear.
- Doton 土遁
Doton is another skill using the environment around. Instead of nature, it is about using houses, carts and other man-made obstacles.
- Altercation 分身の術
It is said to be a technique to deceive the eyes of the enemy by creating an afterimage with high-speed movement. This technique is largely exaggerated, but it was achieved with speed and deceptions.
Martial arts to train body and skill
It is a martial art that fights against enemies without using weapons, and is centered around striking techniques. Specifically, there is “掌底 (Tenohira soko), which is striking an enemy with the palms of the hand and “浴びせ蹴り” (Abisegeri), which is a kicking technique. Professional wrestlers today have adopted it as a technique due to its effectiveness.
- Kento 剣術
Rather than slashing like a samurai, the main thing that ninjas do is to poke with a sword. They have a short history of swordplay and is said to have been incorporated into ninjutsu during the Warring States period.
- Sōjutsu 槍術
It is a ninjutsu that uses a spear to strike or hit an enemy. It seems that the spear was often used because it can keep a distance from the enemy.
- Shuriken 手裏剣術
The skill of Shuriken is to use different types of shuriken to fight and create distractions, with techniques such as throwing, stabbing, piercing and causing distractions.
- Kajutsu 火術
Ninjas used bamboo cylinders filled with gunpowder like fireworks. They would smoke it, create smoke and to confuse the enemy, ignite objects to create distraction, use it as a light, or as a means to keep warm.
- Kiai-jutsu 気合術
It is the technique of sinking the spirit of the enemy. In other words, it is a technique to depress the enemy, similar to what you might think of as harassment in the modern days.
- Kyōmon 教門
This is the art of fitting in with the society, so the ninjas could blend in and wouldn’t get caught. It is the technique of conversing and joining in on social activities.
- Yūgei 遊芸
It’s the knowledge of art. Understanding cultural activities such as tea ceremony and flower arrangement were said to be useful for intelligence activities, such as gathering information and infiltration activities.
Myths about ninjas
Ninjas wear all black
Yes and no. Ninjas wear all black when spying and moving in the night. They are covered from head to toe in light black clothing with just their eyes showing, to help them move quietly and quickly.
However, a large part of a the job is to spy while hiding in plain sight from their enemies. They do this by camouflaging and as regular civilians such as Buddhist monks and the salesmen.
Ninjas are good at killing
In a way, yes, ninjas are good at killing because they are trained to be able to defend themselves and attack their enemies when needed. However, since their main job is to spy, they move quietly and avoid being seen, in order to be able to bring information back.
In anime and manga, ninjas are being portrayed as people that can kill with a touch. However, that is not true. Ninjas understand the use of “pressure points”. Similar to acupuncture, there are certain points on people’s bodies that are connected. By understanding these pressure points and applying the techniques, they are able to immobilise their opponents.
Ninjas can disappear
While ninjas move quietly in the night, they can’t simply disappear. It is the their job to master how to assess the situation and learn when to flee. They are taught to master the art of escape, since their job is to bring back information. They are masters at distracting their opponents and causing diversions.
Do ninjas throw shuriken to kill?
You know the “ninja stars” that ninjas throw in movies and anime to kill opponents? That is actually inaccurate on many levels.
The shuriken that is shaped like a star is just one of the many types of shuriken that ninjas use. The word “shuriken” referred to the type of Japanese concealed weapon. There are many different types and they are mainly used as hidden daggers to surprise enemies, as well as to cause distractions. Throwing it would be a last resort a lot of the time, since that would mean losing their weapons. In fact, most ninjas rarely throw the type of shuriken you see in movies at their opponents.
It is believed that poison was placed on shurikens to paralyse the opponents so the ninjas could escape. As mentioned before, it is not the ninjas’ job to kill. Instead, they spy, collect information, distract, flee and report.
The way that ninjas fight vary depending on the situation but it is believed that there are eighteen major techniques that they learn. Here is a brief overview of how ninjas fight, and most in all, how they distract and flee.
Ninjas are Samurai
Ninja and samurai are quite different, from their roles to their appearances. You can find out more about samurai here.
A ninja’s main job is to spy and collect information, whereas a samurai’s job is to attack. There is a sense of ritual and honour in the way that samurai fight, since they are to fight and duel openly. Compared to that, ninja’s move in the dark, collecting information of the other party and sending it to allies, assassinating in secret.
Ninja’s wear a black outfit that only exposes the eyes, so they can move at night without being noticed, whereas samurai wear Hakama, Haori, White tabi and sandals. They usually carry a sword along with them.
As for weapons to fight, samurai use a sword and ninja uses bow and arrow, spear, chained kama and knives. In fact, ninjas didn’t usually carry around a lot of weapons with them, since that would prevent them from moving quietly. Instead, they would create distractions with things around them and use the items they can get their hands on as weapons.
Modern interpretation of ninjas
Ninja is popular in foreign countries and has appeared in numerous movies in Hollywood. Of course, their activities in movies and comics are exaggerated and far from reality, but they are as real as it gets.
The “Ninja Boom” started in the 1980s with movies “Moeyo NINJA”, “Ninja II”, and “THE NINJA”.
After that, “NARUTO” became popular in Japan’s otaku culture and manga/anime boom in Europe, and “NINJA” became completely immobile.
Nowadays, many tourists that come to Japan join different experiences to get a glimpse into the ninja culture.
Are there still Ninjas?
A lot of people think that there are still ninjas in Japan but in fact, there are no more “real” ninjas in the modern days… at least that we know of.
Often being called “The last ninja”, Jinichi Kawakami is the 21st family member of the Koga clan, whose history can be traced back about 500 years ago. Although Kawakami was trained by his family and has the knowledge passed down through generations, he is not going to take on any more disciples and believes that the art of ninja doesn’t fit in this era.