The role of Ninja in Feudal Japan
The ninjas were most active in the 1600s and 1700s being hired as spies and assassins for the daimyos. Although their image is usually associated with the assassination, most of the time they were spies who could walk very silently, run very fast, and make poisons and simple explosives. They usually worked as individuals or small groups.
In Japanese, ninjas are usually called “shinobi” which means spy. Spies always existed in the history of Japan. In the 12th century two clans in the central Japan area, Iga, and Koga, were a little different from the other samurai clans. They did not have a typical samurai system and they had more communal lifestyles. Some families in Iga and Koga (e.g. The Mochizuki family) were in close contact with the Yamabushi (mountain hermits) who practiced shuugendo and some families in Iga and Koga practiced distinct martial arts, the most well known was Tokagure Ryu. These two societies emerged as the first ninja clans but they usually did not fight for or against the other samurai clans in battles except for defending their territories against Oda Nobunaga’s forces in 1579 and 1581. They won in 1579 but lost in 1581.
The History of Ninja
Japanese people believe that ninja have some supernatural powers such as controlling others’ minds or walking on the river. This is perhaps because people in the Iga and Koga regions had long been practicing hypnosis and Botanics that arrived from China in the 6th century when Buddhism was introduced to Japan.
• Prince Shotoku (574 ~ 622) reportedly had a famous spy named Otomono Sahito who is considered to be the first ninja in history.
Despite the fact that the Iga and Koka towns are very close to Nara and Kyoto, the residents were not ruled by any samurai clan and commonly practiced shuugendo (esoteric Buddhism that promoted mountain training).
During the Nara period (710~794) the yamabushi (back-cap wearing mountain monks) emerged. They abstained from pleasurable things, maintained simple lives in the mountains and they were good fighters.
When the Tang Dynasty in China fell in 907, many monks and generals came to Japan and shared their knowledge of warfare and the eastern philosophy mostly around Central Japan including the towns of Iga and Koga.
In 1162, a samurai from the Genji clan moved to Iga after losing a battle against the Taira clan and renounced his samurai status. He changed his name to Daisuke Tokagure. He later met with Kain Doshi, a Chinese monk who was exiled from China to Iga. Together they developed Tokagure-ryu, the first organized practice of defense and stealth techniques. These techniques are also called ninpo-taijitsu.
Historical records indicate the existence of shinobi during the Muromachi Period. There are references to ninjas who secretly burned the Hachimanyama castle and infiltrated the Ototsu Castle during the Nanbukochu wars (1336~1392).
During the Sengoku period (1477~1615) everyone was aware of the guerrilla fighters in Iga and Koka who maintained a communal life different from other towns in feudal Japan. Oda Nobunaga’s son tried to invade the town of Iga in 1579 but got defeated badly.
In 1581, Oda Nobunaga attacked the town again with the army of 40,000 men, The ninja were vastly outnumbered and lost against the army. Oda Nobunaga reportedly killed most of the Ninja back then during the Tensha-Iga battle.
It is said that Hattori Hanzo from Iga, saved the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu in two occasions and was given the task of guarding the Shogunate in Tokyo. The district known as Hanzo-mon in Tokyo refers to the area where Hanzo’s ninja guards used to live.
During the Edo period (1603 ~ 1868) the need for ninja gradually decreased because of the peaceful political environment and the Kogi-Onmitsu, 3000 strong intelligence agents working for the shogunate.
Today there are dozens of Tokagure-ryu ninpo and ninjutsu dojos in and outside of Japan. The leader of Tokagure-ryu of Japan is Masaaki Hatsumi who is in his late 70s and the name of his organization is Bujinkan. Genbukan Dojo which also teaches ninpo techniques has been popular all around the world.
-Although some people consider ninjas as sneaky disloyal assassins, there are not many cases where ninjas were not loyal to their master while a number of times some samurai betrayed their masters (e.g. Akechi Mitsuhide).
-Since the ninja could not own horses and did not carry swords unlike the samurai, they had to run so fast in order to survive. Some ninjas could run more than 50km in one day. They trained up in the mountains to have larger lungs.
-Not being detected was one of the most important things for the ninja. That’s why they did not smoke and eat spicy stuff before the missions. They always took herbal showers in order to not to have any bad body odor that can alert the enemy.
-Ninjas mostly ate red beans and black rice believing that black food made them healthier. Ninjas ate lots of vegetables and carried cookies that are made of dried red bean paste.
-Most of what is known about ninja and ninjutsu are criticized for being fiction because the ninjas were spies who did not leave written records behind them. While there are hundreds of black and white photos of samurais from the 1800s, there is no verified ninja photo from the 1800s. What we know about the ninjas today are mostly the word of mouth.
-The concept of ninja became popular in the Western World when James Bond fought against a group of ninja in the 1967 movie titled you only live twice.
-Ninjas usually did not wear a black outfit in order to not stand out. Their preferred color was navy blue, the least visible color in the dark.
-Ninjas were mostly farmers, the influence of farming can be seen on most of their weapons, particularly the sickle and chain and the ninja knife kunai.
-Ninjas were expected to weigh less than 60 kgs, not because they may cause the roofs they are running on to collapse but being lighter and nimble helped them spend less time looking for the food and run faster.
-The shuriken (ninja star) were rarely used as the ninja cannot carry many of them (heavy and makes noise) and it makes more sense to keep it and use it as a knife. Occasionally the ninja threw them in opposing directions to distract the enemy.
-Many Japanese castles and temples have a kind of floor called nightingale floor, the ones that squeak one someone steps on. Those floors were made to hear the silent ninjas who raided castles in the middle of the night. No matter how light the intruder is, the nightingale floor makes the chirping sound (e.g. the floors at the Nijo Castle).
-For silent walking the ninja trained by walking on a large piece of rice paper and they were not sent on a mission if they could not walk without any sound.
-One of the less known weapons of the ninja is the egg-shells. After making a hole underneath, they filled them with either gunpowder and ash or irritating chemicals. The ninja threw the chemical-filled at their targets to either distract attention or gain time to escape.
Hiroo Onoda, the Last Ninja (1922 ~ 2014)
Onoda was trained in the Nagano Spy school which is considered as a modern-day ninja school in Japan. He was dispatched to Lubang Island in the Philippines on December 26, 1944. The Island was taken by the US forces in August, 1945 and they announced the end of the war by leaving thousands of leaflets in the mountains for commandos to turn themselves in.
Onoda and his three friends thought the leaflets were a trick and did not surrender. Over the years, Onoda’s friends died and he managed to survive on the hills of the remote Pilipino Island. He was found by a Japanese traveler who told him the war was over. He did not believe him and refused to surrender. Finally the Japanese government found the man who was the commanding officer of Onoda. The officer, who back then was a bookseller in Tokyo, ordered him to surrender. Onoda returned his weapons including a samurai sword and a dagger that he should have used if he was to be captured. Being trained as an intelligence officer at a spy school and surviving 29 years in the wild perhaps gives him the title of the last ninja.
The Ninja Training Techniques
Nyudaki no-jutsu – Locating the weakest staff
Yogi Gakure – Using an object for distraction
Joei-on jutsu – The way of concealing the sounds
Bajutsu – Horsemanship
Sui-ren – Water skills
Bo-ryaku – Strategy. The ninja were trained to think strategically. Not only defeating one enemy but also how to overcome a group and sometimes how to defeat the enemy without fighting (acting politically etc.).
Choho – Espionage. The ninja studied the techniques of how to gain trust and how not to look or act suspicious.
Inton-jutsu – Escape techniques
Ten-mon – Meteorology
Chi-mon – Geography
Seizon-jutsu – Survival skills. Surviving in the wild, hunting and gathering skills, tracking skills.
Spiritual training – Seishin teki kyoyo
Know yourself, your needs and desires
Know the nature, environment, and the universe
Understand the importance of destiny
Be in harmony with nature and society (harmony)
Understand others and have empathy (heart)
See and observe your environment (eye)
Love yourself and others (love)
Tai Jutsu – Combat Training. Fighting with no weapons
Daken-taijutsu – Punching, kicking, blocking
Jutai-jatsu – Close fighting, grappling, submission holds, and escape holds
Taihen-jutsu – Silent movement, leaping, falling, rolling, and tumbling
Kenjutsu – Swordsmanship
Bojutsu– Staff fighting (Using Bo (Long stick))
Shurikenjutsu– Throwing blades- Throwing shuriken stars
Yarijutsu – Spear fighting. The ninja trained with the spears commonly used by the samurai as follow:
Te-yari – A short spear
Naga-yari – A long spear
Tetsu-yari – A metal spear
Sanbon-yari – A three-bladed spear
Kama-yari – A spear with an additional half-moon blade
Naginatajutsu (Spear with a katana ending/Polearm)
Kusarigamajutsu – Chain and sickle weapon
Kayakujutsu – Fire and explosives
Hensojutsu – Disguise Techniques. The ninja were trained to be able to impersonate at least 7 different characters as a monk, a samurai, a merchant, a craftsman, a farmer, a performer, and an ordinary peasant. The ninja used to carry at least 2 costumes with them and the colors of their outfit was different inside and outside (so that they can reverse their clothes after the mission).
Shinobi-iri – Sneaking in and stealth techniques
Nyukyo no-jutsu – The correct timing
Monomi no-jutsu – Locating the weakest point
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