A Shinobi, also commonly known as the ninja, was either a mercenary or a covert agent back in the Feudal Era of Japan. They were highly and specially trained spies who were known to give out surprise attacks. They were also involved in military deception and espionage.
Ninjas appeared around the 15th century Japan, though there are historical records that suggest they date back to the 12th century. The ninjas were most active in the 1600s and 1700s. During these times, they were 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, 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. Some families in Iga and Koga also 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.
Did you know
Prince Shotoku (574 ~ 622) reportedly had a famous spy named Otomono Sahito who is considered to be the first ninja in history.
Japanese people believe that ninja had 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.
Even though the Iga and Koka towns are very close to Nara and Kyoto, the residents were not ruled by any samurai clan and commonly practiced shugendo (esoteric Buddhism that promoted mountain training).
Nara Period (710-794)
During the Nara period, 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. They shared their knowledge in warfare and 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.
Nanbokucho Wars (1336-1392)
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.
Sengoku Period (1477~1615)
During the Sengoku period, 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 was badly defeated.
In 1581, Oda Nobunaga attacked the town again with an 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 on 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.
Edo Period (1603 ~ 1868)
The need for ninja gradually decreased during the Edo Period. The reason was 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.
There are a number of theories on how ninja training went. Until today, most of the information remains a mystery. This was because ninjas were mostly considered spies and did not leave many written records behind them.
The ninjutsu is a concept that was recently put together in the 1900s. There are also dozens of RYU’s (an independent training way or training school) which differ from one another.
The oldest ninja training Ryu is Tokagure Ryu though not all ninjas trained in the Tokagure Ryu way. Almost all ninjas trained on stealth walking, fast running, surviving in the wild, and making poisons and explosives from early childhood.
It is known that ninjas were highly-skilled when it came to physical training, but important things to note are that they also had superb memory and weather forecast.
A ninja had to remember all the detailed information they acquired on a mission for weeks or sometimes months. To achieve these, they developed a few techniques to easily remember things:
- Numbers associated with body parts: Each body part represents a number from 0 to 9 (1 eyes, 2 nose , 3 mouth, 4 throat, 5 elbow, 6 hair, …). This made it easier for ninja to remember any particular number (e.g. 431=throat-mouth-eyes)
- Scars on the body: This may sound painful, but the ninja used to lightly carve the important info on their skin by using sharp objects like shuriken.
- Hidden paper notes in bamboo sandals: To look normal, the ninja often wore sandals made out of bamboo leaves. After writing the notes on tiny pieces of paper, they used to roll it tightly and attach it to their sandal as if it was a bamboo straw.
The ninja knew that successfully forecasting rain and the wind could give them strategic advantages against the enemy. They studied the weather, and this was called “tenmon.” Ninjas believed that:
- If there are dew drops on spider nets, it would be a clear weather
- If there is a large ring around the moon, it is likely to rain
- If the mountains seem close, it is likely to rain
- If the stars are twinkling, the next day will be rainy
- If it is cloudy but not windy, it is not going to rain (fall season only)
- Ninjas also often set a fire to ablaze the enemy territory. It is very important to know when there will be a smooth dry wind called the “foehn effect” to accelerate the fire. The ninjas used kites in the morning to predict the dry wind in the afternoon.
The ninja used to run leaning front, starting with the right foot and right hand. The samurai were also trained to run the same way believing that the weight at the belly, where the sword was, naturally helped them get faster. This was also believed to force them to run faster to keep their balance. The ninja used to train up in the hills to get larger lungs. Some ninja could even run 200km a day.
The ninja had to quietly wait hours and hours on the rooftop or a basement of a house they are trying to sneak in. They had to learn to hold their breath for a long period and to breathe silently. During their practice, the ninja would put a feather on the tip of the nose and make sure it does not fall off when they are breathing with a shut mouth.The ninja also learned how to control their breath by holding it first for short durations (e.g. 15 seconds) and then gradually increasing that duration to 2-3 minutes).
Ninja Walk (Shinobi Aruki)
- Ninjas had to be very quiet when walking and often trained by walking on the sand and gravel to test their silent and trace-less walking skills.
- Ninja lowered the body to the ground by bending their knees. Standing meant they were more likely to be spotted.
- They walked simultaneously. The ninja moved both right foot and arm, followed by the left.
- A ninja stepped on the floor by the outer edges of the feet. It helped reduce the sound. Other major stealth walking techniques required to step first by the tiptoe or heel. The ninja used to step on by the outer sides of the feet first.
Basic Stealth Techniques
- Distracting the enemy (creating sounds in the opposite direction, modern-day phone call)
- Reducing light and visibility for the enemy (active at night without the moonlight, turn the lights off)
- Observing and taking advantage of the weak points of the enemy (pretend seeking help)
- Concealing sounds (animal companion or sounds)
- Concealing traces (walking on a piece of cloth)
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 the nature and society (harmony)
- Understand others and have empathy (heart)
- See and observe your environment (eye)
- Love yourself and others (love)
Spear fighting (Yarijutsu)
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)
- Kenjutsu – Swordmanship
- Bojutsu- Staff fighting (Using Bo (Long stick))
- Shurikenjutsu- Throwing blades- Throwing shuriken stars
- Kusarigamajutsu – Chain and sickle weapon
- Kayakujutsu – Fire and explosives
- Yogi Gakure – Using an object for distraction
- 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
- 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.
- Shinobi-iri – Sneaking in and stealth techniques
- Nyukyo no-jutsu – The correct timing
- Monomi no-jutsu – Locating the weakest point
- Nyudaki no-jutsu – Locating the weakest staff
- 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. Surving in the wild, hunting and gathering skills, tracking skills.
Hiroo Onoda, the Last Ninja (1922 ~ 2014)
Hiroo 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.
Were there female Ninja?
Yes! If a female was born in the Ninja community, there are high chances to become a female ninja. Female ninjas knew how to use ninja weapons.
They also either disguised themselves as a beautiful girl to seduce or pretended to be sick to sneak into the Samurai mansion. The female ninjas were called kunaiichi. Their swords were different from male ninja swords, often appearing in a less straight form and did not have a handguard).
- Although some people consider ninjas as sneaky and 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 food before 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 food and run faster.
- The shuriken (ninja star) were rarely used as the ninja cannot carry many of them as these were heavy and made noises. It made more sense to 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, ash or irritating chemicals. The ninja threw the chemical-filled at their targets to either distract attention or gain time to escape.
Samurai & Ninja Museum
The Samurai & Ninja Museum Kyoto is a leading samurai museum in Japan that offers a variety of experiences that inform and educate visitors on the history and relevance of samurais and ninjas in Japan. Some of these experiences will range from sword cutting, historical tours in Kyoto, and a crash course on ninja training.
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