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Who Were the Ninja?
The place is Feudal Japan, and the time is the sixteenth century—the height of the Sengoku Period, an era of constant conflict and social upheaval as powerful clans fight for control of the shogunate.
Regional lords, known as Daimyo, command armies of samurai—the legendary warriors that form the military backbone of Feudal Japan. Their skill with sword and bow is unmatched, and they live their lives according to Bushido (the way of the warrior), a code that emphasizes honor, courage, and loyalty.
But there is another weapon available to the Daimyo, one just as deadly, but with an entirely different code. For the ninja, "honor" means getting the job done, by whatever means possible.
They operate in the shadows, engaging in assassination and subterfuge rather than face-to-face combat. They are despised by the samurai, such that captured ninjas suffer a horrible fate.
They are feared by the common folk and distrusted even by the Daimyo who employ them, but their services are always in high demand.
Buddhist Assassin Monks: The Origins of the Ninja
Around the 6th century A.D., Buddhism was introduced into Japan, coming into conflict with the state religion of Shintoism.
According to Donn F. Draeger, author of Ninjutsu: The Art of Invisibility, the predecessors of the ninja were Buddhist rebels that fled to the mountains to escape persecution by the Shintoist Imperial Court.
Over time, these Yamabushi (mountain ascetics) developed survival skills to deal with the harsh environment and guerilla tactics to fight back against the imperial armies. They formed clans descended from the various families that had sought refuge in the mountains.
They became so effective that Daimyo eventually decided to hire them rather than hunt them. Training camps for the various clans, each with their own unique techniques and traditions, spread throughout the country. The time of the ninja had come.
How a Ninja Was Forged
Male or female, children born into ninja clans began their training at the age of 5; it was harsh and designed to hone them in five categories: balance, agility, stamina, strength, and what we shall refer to as "special skills."
Young ninja would have to walk across a fallen tree trunk, with the height of the trunk being raised at each new stage of the training. This was designed to stamp out any fear of heights and prepare them for the second-story work they would have to perform when infiltrating enemy fortresses.
Another training method required them to walk on ice while wearing geta (wooden sandals) to develop stealthy movement.
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Exercises in agility included jumping over a rope made of hemp vines covered in thorns that could cause severe lacerations. As the ninja advanced in training, the thorny rope would unexpectedly appear in some of their other exercises to prepare them for potential traps and obstacles.
A famous training method required the ninja to hang suspended and motionless from a tree branch for at least an hour. The branch could be as high as 50 feet.
According to Seiko Fujita, who claimed to be the 14th master of the Koga school of ninjutsu, the ninja could walk 350 miles between Edo (modern Tokyo) and Osaka in three days. They would lean their bodies forward or to one side as they walked to further improve their balance.
Long-distance running was also part of their training. A straw hat was placed on the ninja's chest, and they would have to run fast enough to keep the hat pinned to their chest by the force of the wind alone.
5. Special Skills
Ah yes, the "special skills" category—the one that truly sets the ninja apart from your average athlete.
Ninja learned how to manipulate their joints to the point where they could dislocate them at will. They could contort themselves into all sorts of strange shapes to escape bonds or squeeze through tight spaces.
They practiced medicine so they could treat wounds on the field. They were alchemists, creating poisons and gases while also ingesting them in small amounts to build up their own immunity.
They were survivalists, living off the land and inspecting tracks to determine if there were human settlements nearby. They were powerful swimmers and could hold their breath underwater for around three minutes.
And, of course, they were masters of stealth and disguise. Furthermore, they developed their senses to the point of being seemingly supernatural. A ninja could count the number of people in a room simply by listening to their breathing, footsteps, and the rustling of their garments.
Their training prepared them well for infiltrating fortresses: they could swim through moats, scale walls, leap from rooftop to rooftop, avoid traps, and dispose of any guards who got in their way.
Ninja-yoroi: The Armour of the Ninja
This was the name for the famous ninja outfit, which was black throughout to blend with the shadows. It included several pockets for carrying or concealing objects, such as tools for scaling walls or picking locks.
In truth, ninja hardly ever wore the ninja-yoroi, opting instead for whatever clothing allowed them to hide in plain sight. They could disguise themselves as priests, farmers, merchants—whatever was required to carry out their mission.
Swords and Stars
Ninja trained with various weapons, but the two most iconic examples would be the ninja-to (a short sword, usually worn on the back); and the shuriken (throwing star).
Their arsenal also included the staff, spear, blowgun, bow, kunai knife, Chigriki (Japanese flail), and the Nunchaku. Unarmed ninjas could resort to martial arts, such as karate.
They were armed with katana blades but, unlike the samurai, possessed no spiritual connection to the weapon. The ninja took a more practical approach to weaponry, seeing them merely as tools.
In fact, many of their weapons could double as tools. For example, the hilt of the ninja-to was long enough to be used as a ladder if the sword was thrust into the ground, while the shuriken had a hole in the middle that could be used to pry things open.
Some Important Ninja Weapons
Shuriken (Ninja Star)
Possibly the most famous ninja weapon, this small star-shaped throwing blade was usually employed in medium-distance combat. Poison or feces were sometimes painted onto the the blades to ensure further injury if a one-shot kill was not obtained.
Ninjato (Ninja Sword)
The primary weapon of the ninja. It resembles a katana but is completely straight. It's sheath also held blinding powders used to distract enemies.
A two-part weapon consisting of a sickle and a weight attached together by a chain. It could be anywhere between 3 and 13 feet in length. The weight portion of the kusarigama was used to knock weapons from enemies' hands or coil around their arms. After this movement, a deathblow was dealt by the sickle.
The nunchaku, known widely in the west as "nunchuks," were one of the ninja's simplest and lightest weapons. Originally used to cut rice, the nunchaku were used to disarm enemies and deliver rapid blows to several parts of the body, such as the head, neck, and hands.
Another famous ninja weapon, the kunai consists of a wedge-shaped blade and a circle with a round hole connected by a grip. The kunai was highly versatile and was used to climb fences and walls, to act as a wedge, as a makeshift grappling hook, and as a knife. After tying a rope through the open circle, ninja could stick or wedge the kunai high on a fence or wall and scale the wall.
A blowgun is well-known beyond its use in the ninja's arsenal. This is essentially a long pipe which darts and other projectiles were placed in. Projectiles could sometimes be dipped in poison. The blowgun was often used to misdirect enemies by making noise a good distance from where a ninja wished to infiltrate a wall or building.
The kakute was an extremely close-range weapon that consisted of a ring with sharps spikes facing downward, concealed by the downturned palm. In a close quarters situation, ninja could grab the wrist or neck of an enemy and cause sharp pain and bleeding. This was rarely lethal, but allowed ninja to escape while the enemy reeled from the surprise attack.
The clan hierarchy was structured as follows:
- Jonin: The leader of the clan, who accepted and assigned missions.
- Chunin: The intermediaries between the active ninja and the jonin.
- Genin: Active ninja who carried out the missions they received from the chunin, thus keeping the identity of the jonin secret. According to Donn F. Draeger, "it is doubtful whether any genin ever discovered who his boss was."
Ninja were assassins, spies, and intelligence-gatherers. However, only the most elite ninja were assigned missions that required them to operate in enemy territory.
Unfortunately for the genin, jonin could be quite ruthless. Some ninja were deemed expendable, deliberately being assigned missions that would result in them being captured.
For example, a ninja might be provided with documents containing false information in the hopes that said information would fall into the hands of the enemy, who would then act according to false intel.
The Captured Ninja: A Fate Worse Than Death
The samurai despised ninjas because of their perceived dishonorable ways. The Daimyo tolerated them because their services were so invaluable, or rather, they tolerated the ninja under their employ. A captured enemy ninja was another matter entirely. They could expect to feel the full force of society's hatred for his kind.
Methods of execution included flaying the ninja alive or lowering them into a vat of hot oil. It's no surprise that many ninja chose death over capture: ingesting poison or, if they were restrained, biting their tongue to induce a hemorrhage.
Ninjas may have been masters of disguise, but clever methods were devised to expose them. For example, if someone were suspected of being a ninja, children would be bribed to throw an object at him while pretending to play in the area. The suspect would instinctively dodge the object in a manner that suggested special training, exposing them as a ninja. In this way, their own superior reflexes were used against them.
Legacy of the Ninja
The rise of the Tokugawa shogunate brought an end to the Sengoku period. Without the political intrigue and constant conflict between Daimyo, there was less demand for the services of the ninja. The last recorded military operation in which ninja took part was the brutal suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638.
Some ninja would serve in the Tokugawa shogunate's sinister police force, while others became outlaws. By the mid-1900s, ninjas were few in number, but their legend had begun to take root in the west. Like the samurai, their starring role in many western films established them as one of Japan's greatest contributions to popular culture.
Of course, depictions of the ninja don't do justice to the full extent of their ingenuity. They are usually portrayed as lethal assassins, which they certainly were, but they were also ahead of their time in their scientific knowledge and mastery of the body and mind.
Either way, the ninja, who in their time were suspected of engaging in a kind of sorcery, stand testament to what a human being can achieve through rigorous training and discipline.
History's Most Notorious Ninjas
Blackbelt Magazine. (2014, 4 April). "Ninja History 101: Ninjutsu Training." Retrieved from https://blackbeltmag.com/ninja-history-101-ninjutsu-training.
Draeger, Donn F. (2008). Ninjutsu: The Art of Invisibility. Tuttle Publishing.
HowStuffWorks. (n.d.). "How Ninja Work." Retrieved from https://people.howstuffworks.com/ninja6.htm.
MailOnline. (2013, 29 April). "Japan's last ninja: Engineer, 63, who can hear a needle drop in the next room and kill from 20 paces is last in 500-year line of Japanese assassins." Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2316547/Japans-ninja-Jinichi-Kawakami-63-hear-needle-drop-room-kill-20-paces.html
ThoughtCo. (2019, 10 August). "A Brief History of Japan's Daimyo Lords." Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-japans-daimyo-lords-195308.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.