When you hear the word ninja, you might think ’80s cinema or even ‘American Ninja Warrior’. In reality, a ninja was a scrappy little farmer, fairly poor and from a lower class. But they were cunning. They were stealth. And when these deadly assassins did their job right, their enemies didn’t even see it coming. Today we’re going to unravel some of the secret history of ninjas most people don’t know. Now, cue some eerie fog. We’re going to Japan.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NINJAS
The thing about ninjas is that they seem almost fictional, as if they were imagined, mythical warriors from ancient Japanese folklore. Their covert methods of war were incredibly advanced, almost otherworldly. For the most part, espionage was a ninja’s coup de gras. With a variety of disguises, ninjas would infiltrate enemy territory to learn building layouts, steal secret passwords, and spread misinformation. And they weren’t above sabotage, mainly in the form of arson. They were controversial too. Ninjas were perceived as being shameful, unable to face their enemy, thus being beneath the honor of the samurai. In short, ninjas were guerrilla warriors. They were from poorer, smaller clans who were unable to field large, well-equipped armies. So, these fighters resorted to what we now call asymmetrical warfare, relying on ambush and infiltration just as today’s small guerrilla armies do. And while no one knows for sure when ninjas first started to appear, there are signs that they may have existed as early as the 12th century. They didn’t fully come into their own until the 15th century, also known as the Sengoku period, also known as the Age of Warring States. During this time, the two most famous ninja clans, Iga and Koga, were really enjoying their salad days. But as they say, everything that goes up must come down. And it came down for the ninja warriors. The Meiji Restoration removed the feudal system and propelled Japan into the modern world or attempted to anyway.
EARLY NINJAS, BEFORE THEY WERE CALLED NINJAS
Despite popular folktales, historical accounts of the ninja are scarce. Stephen Turnbull, a Japanese religious historian, claims that ninjas were tough fighters, recruited from the poor lower class. And therefore, not a whole lot of documentation was taken of them. The word ninja has sometimes been attributed to the 4th century Prince, Yamato Takeru. According to the early Japanese chronicle of myths and legends from the Kojiki, Takeru disguised himself as a beautiful maiden and assassinated two Chiefs of the Kumaso people. Of course, it should be noted that these records take place at a very early stage of Japanese history. But the first recorded use of ninja espionage was under the order of Prince Shotoku in the sixth century. Of course, these slippery tactics were considered unsavory, even in early anything goes times when, according to the 10th century Shomonki, the young spy Koharumaru was killed for spying against the insurgent Taira No Masakado.
SHINOBI VS. NINJA
Hollywood made the name ninja a household word, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you called them shinobi. The term ‘shinobi’ appears in written documents as far back as the late 8th century in poems in the Manyoshu, the oldest extant collection of Japanese waka poetry in classical Japanese. It’s a shortened form of the full transcription ‘shinobi no mono’. The root of shinobi means ‘to steal away’ or ‘to hide’ and by extension to forbear, thus its association with being stealth and invisible, ‘mono’, of course, meaning ‘one person’. But if you want to be historically as accurate as possible, the word ninja wasn’t even used much. A variety of regional colloquialisms eventually evolved to describe what would later become what we now think of when we hear the word ninja. So along with shinobi, some other terms of the day included one who sees, acock on the roof, ruffian, grass, one from Iga. Whether you call them a shinobi or a ninja, you’re good.
IGA AND KOGA WERE THE MOST FAMOUS CLANS
We mentioned them earlier– the Iga and Koga clans. These two groups make up the families that lived in the province of Iga and the nearby region of Koka, named after a village in what is now Shiga Prefecture. The remoteness of the surrounding mountains and forests most likely had a role in the ninja’s secretive development. The isolation kept these two budding ninja communities hidden away, allowing them to hone their spy-like skills. That said, there were other ninjas around at that time, but a distinction must be made between the ninja from these areas and commoners or samurai hired as spies or mercenaries. Unlike their counterparts, the Iga and Koga clans produced a professional grade ninja– elite and specifically trained for certain roles and specialties.
THE SENGOKU PERIOD WAS THE NINJA GOLDEN AGE
Ninjas really started to focus their art of war during the Sengoku period from 1467 to 1568. In this era, they functioned as mercenaries, where they were recruited as spies, raiders, arsonists, and even terrorists for the different warring factions and were particularly skilled at sneaking into castles. Conversely, the samurai observed a sense of ritual and decorum in battle, where a soldier was expected to fight or dual face to face. This is why the samurai looked down on the ninjas’ way.
NINJA TRAINING INCLUDED SITTING UNDER WATERFALLS
The strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare, guerrilla warfare, required of the ninja has come to be known in modern times as ninjutsu. Trained from childhood, the first specialized ninja training began in the mid-15th century when certain samurai families started to focus on covert warfare, including espionage and assassination. Like the samurai, ninjas were born into the profession, where traditions were kept in and passed down through the family. Some historians also believe that ninjas, excluding samurai, overachievers, didn’t receive martial arts training in the formal sense. However, the system of shugendo is believed to have been part of their initiation, but not all ninjas took part in this spiritual journey in the mountains. But the ones that did were pushed to their limits. Training included trudging miles through forests and sitting under waterfalls to build up their strength and endurance.
NINJA OUTFITS WEREN’T COOL LIKE IN THE MOVIES
If you go off pop culture, specifically the kitschy ’80s movies, ninjas just look like bad asses– black fitted jumpsuits and face masks with secret compartments for their throwing stars. But in reality, the ninja dressed for function. They didn’t wear black to blend into the night during one of their covert ops. A ninja was far more likely to wear navy blue during their nighttime subterfuge. Contrary to popular belief, dark blue is more conducive to slipping into the shadows than black. To be quite honest, a ninja looked pretty ordinary the majority of time. An important tactic for the ninja was to not stand out, so they dressed as street performers, priests, merchants, and farmers. The root of the reason why we associate a ninja with these cool cat suits is because that’s how they were portrayed in Kabuki theater.
NINJAS DIDN’T THROW STARS
If you’re familiar with how the ninja has been portrayed in modern film and literature, you’re familiar with throwing stars. Their myth became so popular in the ’80s, kids could buy throwing stars from the back of martial arts magazines. In reality, the history of these thin metal disks with sharpened edges has been exaggerated by Hollywood. Yes, the ninja used stars, but they called them ‘shuriken’, which when translated literally means ‘hidden hand blade’. These concealed weapons were really just small daggers used to distract or misdirect. Some shuriken were manufactured, while others were improvised from tools found around a farm. The edges of these tiny blades were sharpened so they could be used to penetrate skin or open arteries. If you really want to peek behind the curtain, what we now call stars weren’t even in a ninja’s arsenal. Modern media portrays ninjas using shuriken. But really, these weapons were mainly used by samurai and Ashigaru soldiers.
TARGETS ‘NINJA PROOFED’ THEIR QUARTERS
Eventually, people started getting wise to the ninja way. Potential targets began implementing a variety of countermeasures in order to prevent the activities of the silent assassins, so, they’d do things like hide weapons in a bathroom, Michael Corleone-style or under removable floorboards. Buildings were also constructed with secret traps and hidden trip wires attached to alarm bells. Japanese castles were designed to be difficult to navigate with winding routes leading into the inner compound. Built-in blind spots and peepholes in walls also provided constant surveillance of these labyrinthine paths as found in the Himeji Castle. Nijo Castle in Kyoto even constructed what was called nightingale floors. Nightingale floors were built to sit on metal hinges purposely designed to squeak when stepped on. These castles’ yards were also covered with pebbles so when a ninja walked on the ground, the noise provided advanced notice. Some castles were also constructed in unconnected segments of structures. So, if the ninja was able to set fire to the estate, the flames could be easily contained.
JAMES BOND INTRODUCED THE NINJA TO THE WESTERN WORLD
The first known Western usage of the ninja in pop culture was in the 1964 James Bond novel ‘You Only Live Twice’, written by Ian Fleming. In the book, 007 battles an elite Japanese ninja force. And by the ’70s, Hollywood was casting martial artists like Bruce Lee and David Carradine into major productions and starring roles. These were the men, along with Chuck Norris, who helped popularize the concept of the ninja. Of course, we must remember that when ‘You Only Live Twice’ was adapted into a movie, the team of ninjas that Bond fought were of the cartoony Hollywood variety. There’s literally a scene where a group of ninjas are shooting revolvers in an underground gun range. Eventually, we got bastardizations of the ninja with such low budget movies like ‘American Ninja’, ‘Diamond Ninja Force’, ‘Mafia Versus Ninja’, and one of our favorites, ‘Zombie Versus Ninja’. But Japan was simultaneously re-emerging as a world power, and people were captivated by the country’s exotic culture. And you also have to remember that in 1964, Japan introduced the rest of the world to judo during the Olympics. The resurgence of the ninja led to a broad cultural phenomenon not only to the United States but in Japan as well, so much so, that Japan has brought them back as living, breathing tourist attractions.
What did you want to be when you were a kid? We wanted to be a ninja. Let us know your choice in the comments below. And while you’re at it, check out some of these other videos from our Weird History.
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