Ninja Japan – A ninja, or a shinobi, is an agent, mercenary, or soldier who existed between the 15th and 16th centuries. Although you may already know this, the main purpose of a ninja was to infiltrate, assassinate, and become involved in espionage and guerilla warfare on behalf of their employers. Before we start, let’s make it clear that it is a common practice to misunderstand ‘shinobi’ and ‘ninja’, however, they are basically interchangeable; ‘shinobi’ is what the Japanese people traditionally referred to them as, whereas ‘ninjas’ is the terminology westerners have adopted.
Ninjas are, and always have been, intrinsically linked with the long and multifaceted history of Japan. Whilst the world inherently understands ninjas as part of the culture of the past and a big part of pop-culture worldwide today, only extreme enthusiasts really delve into the background of the mysterious yet worshipped figures.
The reality of ninjas is somewhat ‘warped’ when compared to what people know them as. What most people don’t realize is that at the very beginning of the inception of ninjas, they looked completely different to what they’re depicted as today. They were Japan’s answer to the language of assassination, and it was a long and windy road for them to achieve the level of mastery you see in Hollywood blockbusters today. Also, due to their trickery and use of irregular warfare methods, they were often considered as ‘below’ the samurai, to adhered to strict rules about honor in combat.
When speaking about ninjas, a lot of terminology may sound familiar, for example, ‘ninjutsu’, which means the strategy and tactics of unconventional warfare, guerilla warfare, and espionage practiced by the ninjas. It is also a highly used term in the popular anime ‘Naruto’ (which makes sense as the anime revolves around ninjas. Come to think of it, you might learn a lot from watching the anime. Give it a go! It’s popular worldwide for a reason).
Some of the questions you’d like answers to might include: What are ninjas? How did they come about? What did (or do) they do? Do they really wear all-black, full-body suits all the time?
We completely understand that curiosity! Ninjas are, at the baseline, very cool, so if there’s a part of you that wants to resonate with them, or you simply just want to learn more about Japanese culture, then please read on!
A bit of the unique history
Whilst one cannot be sure of how ninjas evolved exactly, some sources suggest that they came about as an opposing force to their upper-class contemporaries, the samurai, during early feudal Japan (the period of shoguns, between 1185-1603), but became especially prominent during the Sengoku period (1467-1568). There is little to scarce documented information on the early history of ninjas, but it is believed that they were mainly recruited from the lower class, hence why there is minimal literary evidence of them – they were simply not of a level of importance enough to keep detailed documentation.
It was during the 15th century that the water cleared up a little and more became known and documented about ninjas. Their roles became more defined, their training more purposeful, and their status more integrated. As civil unrest rose to prominence during that era, there was an equal rise in demand for trained agents who were willing to go above and beyond reputation to commit deeds often shunned by the honour code of samurais.
Two clans cleared the way for the proper developments of ninjas – Iga and Koga clans (today, Iga resides in the Mie Prefecture and Koga resides in the Shiga Prefecture). Due to their location remoteness and inaccessibility, ninjas were able to train secretly and without distraction. Thus, they eventually led the way for professional ninja development in Japan. Unlike many other areas who produced their own ninjas through under-developed training methods, the Iga and Koga clan invested heavily into their warriors through very specific training for their roles. These professional ninjas eventually become famous and skilled enough to be hired by ‘daimoyos’ (great lords).
Recognising their greatness, the ninjas were brought on and treated with respect as they went into battle for some of the biggest lords. In one famous recount, they assisted Tokugawa Ieyasu in succeeding in the Battle of Okehazama in 1560 (when they Koga ninjas infiltrated a castle, set fire to its towers, and killed off the enemy), and they also assisted during the Shimabara Rebellion (when once again they were called upon by Tokugawa Iemitsu to battle at the Hara Castle, in which case they succeeded through stealth, patience, and courage).
Ninja Japan – Their Roles in Society
Ninjas rose steeply to prominence, but their light also blew out quite quickly. By the time the Meiji Restoration period had rolled around, they had pretty much blinked out of existence. However, during their peak, ninjas indeed held important roles in society, especially in regards to warfare.
One of their biggest roles was an agent of espionage. Governments and warlords back then were constantly in battle, and required information on their enemies to proactively plan their moves and ultimate success. With the practiced stealth and skills that ninjas have been trained to hone, they were the perfect weapon of choice. As opposed to the full-black clad suits that are often depicted on ninjas in pop-culture today, they instead tried their hardest to blend in as civilians, physically and socially. With their disguises, they gathered information on the enemy’s turf (such as passwords, communication techniques, strategies, building structures), and reported It back home.
Ninjas were also involved in directly sabotaging enemy plans, mainly through the technique of arson. They targeted castles and camp bases and aimed to destroy everything there. As captured in a diary kept by a 16th century abbot, the ninjas used their stealth to sneak into a castle to set fire to some of the important quarters, and captured the most powerful sections of the guards. In another arson attack, they stole the lanterns bearing the enemy’s family crest, proceeded to make replicas, and used it to enter the castle without trouble. From there, they set fire to the castle and later emerged victorious.
Whilst it wasn’t their main role in society back in the 15th and 16th century, today’s depiction of ninjas somehow all to execute assassinations in style, ease and grace. However, during the time of ninjas, successful assassinations were few and far between, according to those who kept recounts of the events. Many ninjas were hired to assassinate powerful lords, but failures usually resulted. One of the more famous stories include the assassination attempts of the warlord Oda Nobunaga, who had a notorious reputation which proceeded him. One Koga ninja tried to shoot him and missed, another tried to assassinate him in his sleep and failed, and a group off three attempted to fire at him using large-calibre firearms but missed. Either he was really lucky, or the ninjas were not trained in ninjutsu!
As the roles of ninjas involved various dangerous forms of attack, there were many countermeasures taken by warlords and their armies to prevent a successful attack. Such things as weapons hidden within lavatories (there is a legend about how a famous daimyo of Echigo Province was killed by a ninja who hid in his lavatory and thrust a blade into his anus, but historical records have proven and disproven this so many times, it’s impossible to know whethr it’s true or not!), weapons hidden underneath removable floorboards, buildings constructed with traps and trip wires that are attached to alarm bells, castles purposely designed with mazes to be difficult to navigate, blind spots and holes in walks for secret surveillance, and covering grounds with gravel to alert insiders of incoming people.
The roles of ninjas were all dangerous, and pretty much required them to understand that once they went in, there’s a high chance that they wouldn’t come out, and many ninjas embraced this mentality wholeheartedly.
Training and Equipment
You’ve seen the flashy moves on TV, and you’ve probably tried a few of them at home, but do you really know all the training and equipment that expert ninjas go through and use during their endeavours? We’ve broken it down for you below so that next time you catch a familiar looking character on TV, you’ll be able to point out to your friends the ‘yumi’ that they’re about to use to piece the enemies heart.
Ninja Japan – Training
Ninjutsu is the modern-day term to describe the skills and techniques required to be a ninja. When official training began for ninjas, it involved a variety of espionage and survival skills which began when they were still in their childhood. Martial arts was a given during all ninja training, and survival and scouting skills were equally as important. Classes were dedicated to understanding the difference and importance of poisons and explosives, and endurance and strength training were also given priority. As part and parcel of the role, many ninjas also had to learn about different common professions in order to slip into their disguises persuasively.
During training, the following popular techniques were practiced and used widely:
- Hitsuke: the practice of lighting a fire to distract guards away from the planned point of entrance of a ninja into a castle or camp
- Tanuki-gakure: climbing a tree and camouflaging oneself as vegetation
- Ukigusa-gakure: maneuvering duckweed over water to hide underwater movement.
- Uzura-gakure: curling into a ball and remaining motionless in order to appear like stone.
Ninja Japan – Equipment
There are an abundant of equipment and tools that ninjas use to achieve their goals, most of them quite dangerous and require lots of practice and training to be able to execute as quickly and stealthily as possible in high-danger situations.
Below is a list of a few that you’ll find quite interesting to know (and might find quite familiar from all the moves and animes you’ve seen!):
- Shinobi Shozoku – the black suit in which ninjas are often portrayed in graphics and movies (however, according to many sources, ninjas were more likely dressed as civilians, and the black dress costume came about when they were being drawn and the artists seemed to think that black portrayed their ‘invisibility’).
- Kusari Katabira – this is the term describing the chain armour top that ninjas wear underneath the black suit (or their outer layer wear) to protect themselves against swords or flying daggers. The chain material is meant to stop the blade from piercing onto the skin.
- Yumi – the bow ninjas used.
- Bo-hiya – the fire-arrows ninjas used (they were ignited by lighting a fuse made from incendiary waterproof rope, wrapped around a shaft).
- Shuriken – the blades that ninjas threw (could have multiple spike points).
- Tetsubishi – similar to shuriken, but usually with only three spike points.
- Kusarigama – a sickle and chain weapon.
- Katana – special Ninja sword.
- Tekagi – hooks used by ninjas to scale walls and other surfaces.
- Tekko-kagi – Claws used for fighting through the form of scratching.
Ninja Japan – Become a Ninaj Today!
So, you think you have the undiscovered stealth, moves, and skills to become a ninja? Want to be trained in the lucative art of ninjutsu? Whilst there is a very, very high chance you won’t be needing the skills to assassinate anyone soon, there are plenty of ninja training courses throughout Japan that take you through the basic measures of how to become a ninja.
If you’re visiting Japan, why not eat your own weight in ramen, visit incredibly stunning and famous castles, climb Mt. Fuji, indulge in the freshest sashimi daily and become a certified ninja? Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too…
We highly recommend signing up for this course located smack bang in Tokyo. You will hear and learn from the descendants of the Musashi (Shibata) clan, an ancient Samurai family who owned ninja retainers. The day will involve some stealth training, swordsmanship, meditation, and you can even dress up as a ninja and take some memorable photos!
Book it here: Be A Ninja: Learn Five Basic Techniques
There you have it folks! The greatest 101 on ninjas you’ll ever read. Some of you might come away saying “I knew all this from Naruto”, whilst others might be pleasantly surprised at learning some crazy new things about ninjas! Whatever your situation is, we’d love to hear from you if you have any further comments about ninjas, or have anymore questions you’d like answers! Just pop them into the comment section below and let’s chat.