Hattori Hanzo, The Greatest Ninja (1542 ~ 1596)

  • Hattori Hanzo's family was from Iga, a place known for ninjas where no samurai clan had any dominance.
  • He started training in the northern part of Kyoto when he was only 8. He was a great spikeman who used a spear longer than 4 meters.
  • His fame started spreading when when he was 20 years old after saving the daughters of Tokugawa Ieyasu from the Kaminogo castle with a small group of ninja and also capturing many high ranking members of Imagawa clan.
  • He defended the town of Iga with only a few hundred men and won a victory against the son of Oda Nobunaga in 1579.
  • He is most famous for saving Tokugawa Ieyasu’s life when Akechi Mitsuhide was chasing him after the death of Oda Nobunaga in 1582.
  • Hattori Hanzo also strategically contributed to the siege of Odawara castle in 1590 and was one of the most well paid fighters of his time. His stipend was over 8 million USD in today’s value.
  • Tokugawa chose him and his men to guard the doors of the shogunate in Edo (Tokyo). The “Hanzomon” line in Tokyo ends by the doors Hanzo guarded.
  • He was known as “Demon Shinobi Hanzo” because of his strategic thinking. At the same time, he was very soft-hearted. When one day Ieyasu asked his son Nobuyasu to commit seppuku and Hattori Hanzo was designated as kannushi* , he simply refused and started shedding tears thinking about killing his master’s son. Tokugawa Ieyasu was very impressed and said “even demons can shed tears.”
  • There are many Hattori Hanzo because in the past it was common to use similar names for the same family members. Hattori Hanzo’s father and nephew have also been known as Hattori Hanzo. The real Hattori Hanzo is the one who protected Ieyasu’s life in 1582 and who died in 1596. He is also known as Hattori Masanori and Hattori Masashige.
  • Toward the end of his life he built a buddhist temple and became a monk. He changed his name to “sainen.” The Sainen-Ji temple still operates today and is not far from Akasaka and Shinjuku. His grave is in the same temple.

*Kannushi: The 2nd person standing behind during harakiri. If harakiri is unsuccessful, the kannushi cuts the head and finishes the job.

Criticism: Stephen Turnbull who is the biggest authority in ninja and samurai studies also claim that some of the Hattori Hanzo's achievements may be overstated and the Iga town of ninja may be a chaotic town after the 1580s.

".....The second reason for the non-existence of ninja in post-1581 Iga is its well-recorded state of lawlessness. Banditry, once repressed by the Iga ikki, now flourished anew as is implied by the circumstances surrounding the well-known episode whereby Tokugawa Ieyasu chose Iga as the route for his escape when Oda Nobunaga was murdered in 1582. The usurper Akechi Mitsuhide had moved rapidly to eliminate Nobunaga’s family and close allies, killing Nobunaga’s heir and almost trapping Ieyasu in Sakai with a small defensive retinue. Ieyasu, however, made his way safely back to Mikawa Province by taking a devious route through Iga on the advice of his loyal retainer Hattori Hanzō, a man born in Mikawa from an Iga family. Ieyasu had provided refuge in Mikawa for those fleeing from Nobunaga’s assault in 1581 so he was highly regarded in Iga, but far from confirming the popular interpretation of an orderly province ruled by a network of ninja families this celebrated episode shows only chaos in a place infested by bandits. (Kuwata & Utagawa, 1976, p.191)."

Ninja AD 1460~1650 by Stephen Turnbull 
Hattori Hanzo by Antony Cummins
The ninja: An invented Tradition?

Video Supplement: Japanology plus: Ninja (by NHK, Japan National Broadcasting Company)