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What Martial Art Did the Ninjas Use?

I've been training in martial arts since the 1980s and consistently since the '90s. I am a 2nd-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate.

The fictional depictions of ninja in outfits and masks does not reflect the reality of the shinobi in 15th and 16th century Japan; they wore disguises but they tried to blend in so they could spy and infiltrate.

The fictional depictions of ninja in outfits and masks does not reflect the reality of the shinobi in 15th and 16th century Japan; they wore disguises but they tried to blend in so they could spy and infiltrate.

The Myth of the Ninja

Much of what you hear and see of "Ninja" is pure myth. Stories including ninjas began to appear in popular books and plays in Japan around the 1700s. These mythical depictions of ninjas had them walking on water and literally becoming invisible. Eventually, this idea that they could become invisible got translated into the fictional black suit with the mask to justify the legend. Actually, there's no proof ninjas wore such garb, it is entirely a concoction of storytellers and artists, first used in imagery by an artist named Hokusai and thought to have been based on the uniform worn by theatrical stagehands known as kuroko. Fact is, ninjas used disguises and the mythical black suit was not one of them.

So who were the ninja, really?

Who Were the Ninjas?

Actually, ninjas were spies. They engaged in sabotage, assassinations, and infiltrations. They existed in clans in feudal Japan and were hired by powerful aristocratic landlords to help fight wars using their expertise in espionage. To this end, they had no uniform, such as the fictional black suit, but, rather, tried to blend in; so they used disguises. They might appear as farmers, servants, priests, entertainers, etc. The point was to spy and infiltrate, sabotage, and assassinate. They couldn't do that very well by being the center of attention by wearing a conspicuous outfit.

Ninja could be likened to modern-day CIA agents or special forces. They were trained in the arts of intelligence gathering and sabotage, and in the arts of fighting and weaponry. Men and women in special forces and intelligence agencies today have training in firearms, hand-to-hand combat, and explosives, and ninjas had training in the equivalent for their era. This included training in and use of firearms (flintlock rifles that existed during their time), poisons, and explosives.

Though the ninja, actually called shinobi, were originally a caste group who inherited their position as professional spies, eventually, the daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) began training their own shinobi.

And, as the story goes, shinobi eventually made their way into folklore. By the time you start seeing ninjas in the West, the image is tainted by James Bond movies and other films, and even comic books, that further perpetuate legends of the ninja.

At any rate, shinobi (what we now often call ninja) were a real group that underwent real training for their profession. So, what were they trained in and how was their training used?

The kusarigama

The kusarigama

Ninja Training and What They Actually Did

Today, the martial art of the ninja is referred to as ninjutsu. There is some debate as to whether the martial art known as ninjutsu is authentic and actual documentation and historical accounts of the training of shinobi are scarce. What is generally accepted is that they were well-trained in espionage, both striking and grappling martial arts, weapon arts, poisons, explosives, horseback riding, the bow and arrow, and had extensive training for improving endurance and conditioning. They could use swords, spears, and flexible weapons. They did carry and use the shuriken, often called throwing stars or ninja stars, but it has been up for debate how these weapons were used; it's been suggested that they weren't used as projectiles but held in the hand and used for striking.

The shinobi also used caltrops, which are four-pointed spikes that could be dropped in their path so that anyone trying to track them could step and fall on the spikes and get a horror of a painful injury. Caltrops were certainly meant to aid an escape.

Espionage training included the arts of:

  • toiri-no-jutsu: the art of sneaking into the enemy camp. This would include planning and preparation for a maneuver and indirect and undercover work.
  • chikairi-no-jutsu: the art of infiltrating enemy lines after the outbreak of hostilities. This would include commando-type tactics and sabotage.
  • ongyo-jutsu: the art of escape and deception.

The striking art of the ninja would have been an old form of fighting in Japan known as taijutsu and their grappling art was the forerunner of jujutsu, known as kumi-uchi. Their sword art would have been the old art of kenjutsu and they also had training in the use of the spear, known as sojutsu and also naginata-do. They had bo staff skills from their practice of the art of bojutsu and practiced a form of archery called kyudo.

The ninja carried small weapons that could be concealed, called tonki. These included the shuriken and caltrops. They also had darts and daggers. In addition, they used the shuko, a device that fit over the hand, was plated on the knuckle-side and had 4 spikes on the palm-side; it could be used as a weapon or for climbing. They also used a weapon that could masquerade as a farming implement, called a kusarigama, which is a sickle on a chain which could be hidden. Obviously, a foe would be quite surprised to see a farmer's sickle suddenly projected and swinging at them.

So, the ninja's striking art was taijutsu, their grappling art was kumi-uchi, and they practiced the weapon arts of kenjutsu, sojutsu, naginata-do, and kyudo.

Skilled, Highly-Trained Fighters

So, as you can imagine, the ninja had to have a diversity of knowledge. Just as special forces today train in the use of a variety of equipment and know hand-to-hand combat—including grappling and striking arts—and must understand the use of handheld weapons and firearms, the ninja had to have knowledge of anything that would help them in their dangerous line of work.

Pair of shuko, used by the ninja.

Pair of shuko, used by the ninja.


Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on July 22, 2015:

Yes, they are very interesting indeed. Glad you stopped by.

Arun Dev from United Countries of the World on July 22, 2015:

Nice to know about ninjas! They are fascinating.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on February 05, 2015:

Believe it or not, there is considerable debate about what kind of sword the ninja used. It has generally been thought that they used a straight sword, not a samurai sword which is curved. However, there is no actual evidence that they used a straight blade and many people believe they did not.

Since the ninja were trained in fighting and needed weapons, they probably used a sword. But even more likely they relied on concealed weapons since they were spies and assassins.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 04, 2015:

good question, i thought they use samurai sword, right?

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on January 13, 2015:

Thanks, Writer Fox! The Ninjas definitely have an interesting history.

Writer Fox from the wadi near the little river on January 13, 2015:

Interesting article! I never knew Ninjas had an historical basis.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on October 27, 2014:

Thanks, Jean, I'm glad you liked it. It's a fascinating subject, for sure. Thanks for the vote too!

Snakesmum on October 27, 2014:

Really interesting hub; I really thought that ninjas wore those black outfits. Now I know that they are called Shinobi and were even better trained than the film/comic strip variety.

Voted up.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on October 23, 2014:

That's what I thought happen, Arachnea. I've done that too. Thanks for stopping by.

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on October 23, 2014:

I seem to remember this was on the Q&A boards. Wow! I must have been up way past my bedtime. Must have replied to it in the feed and not noticed the hub tag. A very informative hub, however.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on October 22, 2014:

I'm glad you liked it, Kevin. Thanks for sharing and voting.

The Examiner-1 on October 22, 2014:

Very interesting Nate. I remember finding out a while ago that their true nature was spies. I used to be a big fan of Bruce Lee and the martial arts but that was years ago. I voted this up, shared and pinned it.


Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on October 16, 2014:

That is certainly true. Shinobi had to be unconventional and use guerrilla tactics, considering they were conducting covert operations.

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on October 16, 2014:

Ninjutsu or ninpō. It has a focus on unconventional and guerrilla warfare.