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The Reality Behind The Popular Depiction

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By Krys Suzuki

Scaling walls, leaping from roof to roof, throwing weapons with incredible accuracy, and oh, let’s not forget the cool poses!

These are just some of the images that come to mind when we think about the ninja, one of the most famous yet mysterious forces of ancient Japan. We see them in all forms of media these days: movies, video games, and of course, anime. But exactly how accurate are these cartoon portrayals of these important historical fighters of Japan? Did they really wear cool jumpsuits? Leap building to building? Run like Naruto?

It turns out, much of what we know (or think we know) about the ninja — also called shinobi — is likely largely inaccurate, as there are few actual accounts of real ninja in warfare or records of their techniques. And understandably so, as the main purpose of a ninja was to operate in secret.

(JP) Link: The Real Life of Ninja During War Times

Members of a tradition swathed in stealth and secrets, the ninja weren’t ones to document their activities, developments, and progress. Much of what we can confirm are from accounts written after the fact, leaving room for inaccuracy. However, the art of ninjutsu is believed to have developed between years 600 to 900. Ninjutsu evolved with the incorporation of the new skills, philosophies, and techniques brought in by Chinese generals who fled to Japan after the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907, as well as of those of the Chinese monks who followed about a century later.

The first documented ninja account is said to be of the Koga clan from around 1487, towards the end of the Muromachi Period, when Iga and Koga ninja aided in the Battle of Magari, a fight between their then-leader Rokkaku Takayori and Ashikaga Yoshihisa of the Ashikaga Shogunate.

A stylized rendering of a ninja by famous Edo era artist Katsushika Hokusai. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Thanks to the images commonly seen in the media, such as movies, video games, and anime, many of us already have an ingrained idea of what ninja probably looked like: black body suits, throwing stars and intricate weapons, and insane acrobatic skills. However, this is more likely than not the media’s hyped of version of a common form of battle strategy documented with enough open spaces to fill in the blanks with superhero-like qualities, if for nothing more than pure entertainment.

The truth about ninja, however, is that much of what we see on TV wouldn’t have been effective at all in warring Japan. For example, contrary to what we’re shown, black clothing would have stood out like a sore thumb in the dark nights when the ninja were usually active, and therefore never employed. Rather their color of choice was closer to dark or navy blue, which blended closer to the night sky. Also, these special suits were only used in very specific situations. Most ninja disguises were as commoners and village people, allowing them to fit in with their surroundings as simple citizens.

As the ninja were technically a very secretive group of people, ninjutsu wasn’t something that was officially taught and studied until much later. Instead, it evolved amongst the above mentioned farmers and villagers as a means of fighting for themselves in times of war. This is why most of the methods and weapons employed tended to be common tools and strategies easily found in rural communities. In fact, the most common weapons for real ninja were not sophisticated items like throwing stars and the like, but tools like farming equipment. In other words, ninja didn’t go to school to learn how to leap from buildings and accurately shoot blow-darts from miles away; they learned to fight with what was immediately available to them.

Because of this, the strongest ninja clans to emerge were those of the Iga and Koga Provinces, which were famous for farmland and mountain villages (now Mie and Shige Prefectures), the ideal place to practice this kind of self-defense.

(JP) Link: What is Ninjutsu?

While many ninja were indeed skilled in physical training and combat, it is very unlikely that they relied on acrobatics and parkour-like stunts. Rather, they employed espionage techniques, such as obtaining classified information and spreading misinformation, as well as castle infiltration, sabotage, arson, and poison. Weapons were usually used only in self-defense, such as when disguises were blown and they were left with no choice.

Also, while the media tends to portray a wide variety of weapons and tools for stealth and battle — grappling hooks, ladders, climbing spikes, throwing stars, and the like — research has shown this to be more a construction of the media authors’ imaginations than based on any evidence. In fact, there are no concrete, historical accounts of such tools even being used in the ways they were portrayed at all. T tools that were used were most likely used in different ways than we are shown — such as throwing stars, which were believed to have been used for close-range attacks such as slashing (similar to a pocket knife) rather than for throwing (though, like knives, they could possibly have been thrown by a skilled user with impeccable aim).

Finally, there’s the stereotypical image of ninja as assassins. This is largely another media myth. Though assassination and clean kills were indeed a part of a ninja’s skill set, there are actually surprisingly few historical accounts of ninja committing assassinations, as most of the work they were employed for tended to be in the realm of the less deadly jobs mentioned above. And when an assassination was necessary to the gig, it was less likely a dramatic fight scene of cool combat skills and various weapons than something quick and subtle, such as poison.

(JP) Link: Summary of Cool Ninja Weapons

A man gives a demonstration at the Ninja School in Iga in Mie Prefecture, Japan. Mie prides itself as the birthplace of the Iga school of ninjutsu, and leverages its ninja history to draw in tourists. (Picture: Shutterstock)

When not setting out on a secret mission, ninja were said to live their lives similar to a typical farmer. Many of them had their families to attend to, and none were exempt from the daily toils required to get by. In fact, much of the daily tasks required of a farmer also served as a form of training. Ninja had to be both lightweight and powerful, therefore they had to be careful of becoming too muscular and bulky; the heavy lifting involved in farming was the perfect kind of training for this. Also, as their missions often required lifting themselves (such as scaling walls and climbing on the roof), they had to have strong, calloused fingers — another training benefit provided by farm work.

These daily labor activities were usually paired with martial arts techniques, practiced either individually or within the family. There were no official schools or training camps at the time, and specific techniques were passed down through lineage. Ninja were also believed to incorporate different forms of spiritual and medicinal practices, including meditation, herbal studies, psychology, breathing techniques, and even astrology and fortune telling.

As for eating habits, ninja are widely believed to have been vegetarian, or at least ate meat and fish as little as possible. This was in order to avoid lingering food smells and body odors from giving them away during stealth missions. Instead, they focused on diets rich in grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

The ninja reached the highlight of their existence during the Sengoku Period (1467–1568), when the lives of even simple peasants were in great danger of becoming casualties of warfare and victims of samurai attacks. Ninja evolved as a way for these peasants to defend themselves, their families, and their homes.

Ninja Provinces were, for the most part, independently governed and democratic. They were run by a town council rather than falling under the order of a central authority such as a daimyo (feudal lord). Not particularly loyal to any one side, their alliance could be bought by whomever was willing to pay for their services. They were lower-class citizens, usually farmers and villagers, often hired by government officials and samurai to do their dirty work, usually in the form of sabotage and espionage. However, this does not mean they were without any form of structure at all. There was a hierarchy, in which the higher-up ninja (jonin), would pass down orders to the lower, or ordinary ninja (genin) via a middle-man (chuunin).

The two biggest clans were the Iga and Koga ninja, which while developing under the same influences, maintained several key differences. The Iga and Koga were said to have a gap in status, with Iga ninja deriving from mostly wealthy families, and Koga making up a majority of lower-class ninja. Therefore, it was the Koga who were normally given the “dirty work.”

There was also a difference in beliefs and skill. Koga ninja followed Shintoism, while many Iga ninja adopted Zen Buddhism, so the Koga were known to pray to certain deities while the Iga were the ones more likely to incorporate “magic” (such as fortune telling and divination) and meditation into their practice.

(JP) Link: The Difference Between Koga and Iga Ninja and their Relationships During the Edo Shogunate

Regardless of family name, all ninja were deemed particularly useful to officials of the samurai classes, who were strictly forbidden by the honor code of Bushido from engaging in certain acts. These samurai would employ ninja to carry out these acts in their stead, such as sabotage. It is also believed that some ninja themselves were former samurai who abandoned the forces after committing a dishonorable act which obligated them to commit seppuku, or ritualistic suicide; such people fled and became ninja as a means to escape their grim fate.

The outside of the Nina Museum in Iga, Mie Prefecture, Japan. (Picture: Yama / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

This eventually caused a political stir when Oda Nobunaga came to power, seeking to reunite the country under his rulership between 1551 and 1582. He saw the ninja as individuals with no respect for the government or the hierarchy — anarchists, if you will — and therefore a threat and possible hindrance to his grand scheme.

In 1576, Oda Nobuo, the son of Nobunaga, started the attack on the ninja “menace” by launching an attack to reclaim the province of Ise. The former damyo’s family, defeated in battle, joined forces with the Iga ninja, and known enemies of the Oda clan, to fight back. In further retaliation, Nobuo continued on to attempt seizure of Iga next, beginning with the seizing of Maruyama Castle in 1597. However, yet unaware of the sheer intelligence behind the ninja’s defense strategies (such as undertaking jobs in and around the castle disguised as commoners and construction workers, thereby being able to familiarize themselves with layouts, floor plans, etc.), the Iga officials learned of Nobuo’s attack plans and were able to counter before he even had a chance, burning the castle to the ground.

Humiliated by this defeat, Nobuo launched an all-out revenge assault on Iga in 1597, in which he was once again held at bay by informed Iga warriors who stood by and fought back, defending their village. As the leaders soon realized, the main reason these ninja were so difficult to overtake was not because they were super-powerful, but because they were being challenged in their home territories and otherwise familiar locations, giving the ninja the upper-hand. What needed to be done, Nobunaga noted, was to get them to fight away from their comfort zone, which is exactly what he did only two years later.

Nobunaga himself launched an attack on Iga in October of 1581, with an overpowering army of approximately 40,000 to 4,000, surrounding the area on all sides. As if the numbers alone didn’t give him a big enough advantage, such a large-scale attack also forced the ninja out into the open, where they could no longer rely on their stealth skills to defend themselves, resulting in a massacre on the ninja warriors and their families, and the few survivors to flee to surrounding mountain regions. However, those who still wanted to fight sought other forms of revenge.

(JP) Link: Oda Nobunaga’s Attack on Iga

Though the attack by Nobunaga resulted in a massive defeat for the ninja, and the eventual end of independence for the ninja as a whole, some refugees fled not for their lives, but for revenge, in the form of undertaking work for one of Nobunaga’s leading rivals, Tokugawa Ieyasu. They were initially welcomed with open arms by Tokugawa, along with other fleeing ninja of the Koga clan, and employed in and around Edo Castle as guards, police forces, and spies. Ninja tactics still proved useful in subsequent wars, such as the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Siege of Osaka in 1614, and the Shimbara Rebellion in 1637, the last recorded battle that employed the use of the Koga ninja. The ninja would soon see the necessity for their services come to a complete close soon after.

The Tokugawa Shogunate eventually brought peace and stability to Japan in the Edo Period from 1603 to 1868, and under the rule of the eighth Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, the ninja were deemed no longer necessary and dismissed from all governmental services.

After their dismissal from service and the peace brought about with the Edo Period, ninjutsu was made obsolete as a necessary skill, and with no further records indicating the continuation of any activity, this pointed to the official end of the age of ninja. Nonetheless, surviving ninja clans and their families passed down stories of their battles and their teachings, and this is from where we get most of what we know about ninja today.

While there are still places that claim to teach and practice ninjutsu as an art, there is much debate on whether or not it can be considered “real” ninjutsu. It’s difficult to verify blood lineage to ninja clans, and the styles practiced in these school are often more as a form of defensive martial arts at best, and entertainment at least. In fact, there was even a recent incident that blew up social media in which the city of Iga was willing to pay a generous amount to people who wanted to become ninja — a statement that had to be explained in detail by a Japanese official due to the misunderstanding that led it to go viral.

There are a few ninja museums and ninja experience schools around in Japan today where you can see these performances and even try out some ninja moves for yourself. But if you think you’re going to pack your bags, head for the mountains, and immerse yourself in solitary training to become one of Japan’s last remaining ninja practitioners, you might want to reconsider. Ninja as they existed in historical times are now, for the most part, extinct.

Ninja Museums and Attractions:

(EN) Link: Ninja Museum of Iga

(EN) Link: Ninja Experience at Nagoya Castle

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher and translator for several Japanese companies, Krys now works full time as a freelance artist, writer and translator with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture.

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