The Ninja: Fact vs. Fiction

 The black clad assassin stealing through the night towards his victim, dealing death through underhand and dishonourable tactics is one of the most romanticised and yet most common images of the ninja, pervasive in modern society. This image however is one that is perpetuated by the media and popular culture and, if reprninja 2esentative at all of the reality of the secret agents of feudal Japan, it only represents a very small proportion of their work. The very existence of the ninja is not in and of itself remarkable. All over the world, wherever there are wars, at any time and in any place, there are secret agents that are used in order to gain an advantage of one sort or another over one’s enemy. Before we come to discuss this proposition, we must first dispel the romanticised image of the ninja and set the backdrop for their rise to fame and power.

In 1180 there were two main families which held power in Japan, the Taira and the Minamoto. After a diplomatic insensitivity from the head of the Taira, the Minamoto declared war. After five years the Minamoto family had defeated the Taira and established the first Shogunate, or military dictatorship, under the rule of Minamoto no Yoritomo as the Shogun or military dictator. This was known as the Genpei war. It was out of this war that the Samurai[1] arose, the famous ruling warrior class of medieval japan who lived by a strict ethical code and had the power of life and death over the common peasantry. The samurai was a gentleman warrior, not only expected to be the very best soldier, but a poet, musician, philosopher and so on. This was the world in which the Ninja flourished.

The image of the black clad assassin captures only a relatively small part of what the job of the ninja actually was. They were, for the most part, either mercenaries or enfeoffed Samurai, hired or called on by their Lord to gather intelligence on enemy troop movements, sabotage supply lines, or commit acts of arson. It is probably also true, however, that on rare occasions they were used as assassins. It is also important to point out that the clotKusarigamahing and equipment that we regularly associate with the ninja was for the most part common to much of Japan including the Samurai class. Black or dark clothing was common among peasants, and a face covering was worn by many whilst travelling. Even the weapons that we distinctly associate with the ninja, such as the blow-gun, Shuriken (thrown weapons that either took the form of bladed discs or darts) and the infamous kusarigama (a sickle with a weight on a three foot chain attached to the hilt) were first invented, perfected, and codified into martial arts by the Samurai.

Many today believe that the Ninja originated from the lower social classes of Japanese society. It is true that the separate classes of were very distinct at the time, and were indeed codified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after he assumed power, forbidding the movement of people between classes. The samurai ruled over everything, the free men and women attempted to make a living in the world from a craft or service, and the peasantry were rice farmers, who owned almost nothing for themselves and were given all of their basic living requirements by their feudal lord or Daimyo. Many argue that being a part of the lowest rank of Japanese society, abhorred and, for the most part, ignored by the upper echelons provided the perfect cover for families to hire out their services as ninja. Which samurai would, after all, come to the underfed and unintelligent peasants in search of highly skillful assassins and saboteurs? This however leaves an obvious question outstanding. How did such peasants receive the knowledge of the various skills that are required in order to be an effective ninja? One suggestion is that they were taught by the yamabushi, literally translated as mountain warriors, the yamabushi were ascetics that lived in the central mountainous regions of Japan, often alone, and sought to become one with the gods that were present in all nature. This often incorporated some training in martial arts (meant here in the much broader sense of the word, therefore including military strategy and logistics, not simply fighting techniques) which some suggest were passed on to certain peasant families who then developed them further, turning farming equipment into deadly weapons and eventually evolving into the ninja clans. These were highly sophisticated groups that functioned together almost like a modern corporation.

There are however, several flaws in this argument. Not least among them is the practicality of using peasants as spies. Even assuming that the yamabushi did teach some families some forms of martial arts, the fact is that the peasants would not have had traditional schooling in any of the traditional martial arts schools of the time. Already this would put the ninja on the back foot against any Samurai adversaries. Secondly we know from a ninja manual that was created at the end of the 17th century called the Shoninki[2] that broadly speaking there are two main branches of skills that a ninja has to leninjaarn. These are termed in-nin and yo-nin. The difference between the two was simple. In-nin took place at night and required a ninja to go completely unseen. These skills are the ones that they ninja are the most famous for: arson, sabotage, magic, assassination and the like. The other branch of the ninja arts however, was likely the more frequently used. Yo-nin skills involved such things as disguise, seduction, how to read people’s faces and emotions, how to tell when someone is lying, basic mathematics in order to work out the strength of various military formations and so on.

There are many situations in which a ninja of peasant stock simply wouldn’t be able to carry out many of the yo-nin skills. For a start, peasants would have no experience of the meticulous and often horrendously complicated samurai customs that they would undoubtedly have to know intimately in order to infiltrate a samurai court. Further to this is the evidence that there are ninja manuals at all. For the very large majority, the samurai and some of those in monastic orders were the only literate people in Japan right up until the fall of the last shogun in the 19th century. This would mean that the only ninja capable of writing or indeed interpreting and using the manuals must have been of the samurai class, as in the case of Natori Sanjuro Masazumi, author of the shoninki.

The second proposition that is often made is that the secretive methods of the ninja were the antithesis to those of the samurai. As evidence for this, many make reference to the Tensho-iga war. This took place during a period of Japanese history known as the Sengoku Jidai[3] or age of the warring states. The warlord Oda Nobunaga invaded and conquered the province of Iga. His son, Nobukatsu had tried and failed to conquer Iga a few years beforehand. The men of Iga were unique in Japan (with the exception of some particularly militant bands of warrior monks, but that is a discussion for another time), being subservient to no feudal overlord or daimyo, they were effectively a republic in the heart of a feudal country. Decisions were made by a council with a representative from each of the families of the province. In each of the invasions, the men of Iga used an extensive knowledge of guerrilla tactics and explosive traps to fight back. The combination of both their independence from the established feudal state as ruled by the samurai, as well as their fighting methods, have led many to assume that the men of Iga were in fact a ninja clan. It is well documented by Nobunaga’s biographer that the warlord despised the men of Iga. This has been used to establish the idea that the ninja were despised by the samurai in general for their lack of honor and their failure to conform to the samurai warrior ideal of bushido[4].

It is clear from historical sources however, that many samurai failed to follow bushido to the letter or even at all. For example stealing and claiming false honors were two of the things that were most contrary to way of the warrior. Both however were rife on samurai battlefields. In order to be promoted, one often had to prove that you had killed an important warrior of the enemy or a general. This proof came in the form of the collection of heads. When a samurai killed a man on the battlefield, he would decapitate his foe and bring the head back to his army’s general. If the head was of a noble or great warrior then the samurai who had killed him would be rewarded with lands and power. Peasant soldiers could even be elevated to the rank of samurai by such process. However stealing heads was common practice, soldiers doing so in order to claim the honors that came with them. It is also documented that some samurai even killed members of their own side and tried to pass their heads off as those of enemy samurai. Many Samurai would’ve felt no scruples over this, as many fought for purely mercenary reasons rather than being tied to a particular cause. It is the case, therefore, that the image of “the noble samurai facing squarely onto his enemy” is a romantic image no doubt upheld by a few legendary warriors of the time but for the large part unrealistic in its outlook.

Furthermore it is well documented that some famous ninja were elevated in court of their masters, as samurai themselves, receiving honors for their actions. The prime example of this is a man named Hattori Hanzo[5]. Hanzo was present in Iga during both of the Tensho-Iga wars, and his skills as a ninja really came to the fore, first when he played a pivotal role in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s defence of Hamamatsu castle, sowing confusion among the TakedHanzoa ranks, and secondly when he smuggled the soon to be shogun from the imperial palace in Edo on foot back to his home province of Mikawa without being noticed. He also later kidnapped one of Ieyasu’s daughter’s from a family who was holding her as a hostage[6], allowing Ieyasu to attack the lands of that family without risking his daughter’s life. As a result of his actions Hattori Hanzo and his family were given the hereditary title of warden of edo castle, one of the most strategically important castles in the whole of Japan. Even if the tactics of the ninja were contrary to the bushido ideal, they were hugely valuable to the samurai, and ninja who were also samurai were given huge honours as a result, as in the case of Hattori Hanzo.

What I present you with then are two different images of a ninja. This first is that of a peasant farmer, unhappy with his lot in life and deciding to do something about it. Trained by the mountain ascetics, or yamabushi in fighting arts, he fashions weapons out of farming tools, and, though unable to stand toe to toe with a samurai on the battlefield due to his lack of armour, does battle in the shadows, becoming a silent assassin for hire equipped with unique equipment and skills. He is despised by the samurai for his underhand tactics and hunted and persecuted, always evading capture due to his superior skills.

I hope that from the evidence that I have given, this image now seems hopelessly romantic, a good story but far from the historical truth. In contrast the true ninja was a samurai with an extra set of skills called ninjutsu. Warriors and tacticians, they were invaluable assets to their daimyo. They could fit in anywhere, convince people that they were part of a castles guard detail, or that they were a travelling monk just passing through. They could survive in the wild on their own for weeks at a time and could track people across the land. They knew the intimacies of explosives and fire for the destruction of infrastructure and much more. This was on top of the consummate training that they already had as samurai warriors. The ninja were not peasants with ideals entirely opposite to the samurai, they were an integral part of the samurai class and samurai armies and were highly valued and rewarded because of it.

samurai with yari

[1] N.B. when discussing the names of samurai the family name or surname comes before the given name. Thus Tokugawa Ieyasu is actually Ieyasu from the Tokugawa family and Miyamoto Musashi is Musashi from the Miyamoto clan.
[2] The shoninki is a 17th century ninja manual written by a man called Natori Sanjuro Masazumi. It covers various different aspects of the ninja arts. It is thought to have been a part of a larger text that was a cornerstone of a gungaku or a school of war and military tactics. The techniques covered range from survival skills to navigation and from how to disguise oneself to phycology. It also makes meticulous account of many of the different types of magic employed by samurai on the battlefield. This is not magic in the sense that we might understand it but a product of superstition. For example one spell requires the practitioner to find a pair of dogs mating and kill them in the act, then, burying the female, he must bleed then eat the meat of the male, using the blood to write the words of the spell on a sheet of paper. As long as the sheet of paper is kept under the man’s armour, he will be protected from arrows. These superstitious traditions provide great insight for historians as to the state of religious practice at the time and thus the shoninki is a valuable reference for those studying the traditions of Shinto, the traditional spirit worship religions of Japan, as well as those studying the ninja.
[3] The sengoku jidai is the most famous period in Japanese history, truly the golden age of the samurai. When looking at feudal japan, from 1180 to 1869, we divide into three Shogunates, military dictatorships. Each of these three shogunates was under the rule of a different dynasty of warriors. The sengoku jidai was the bloody overthrow of the second shogunate, the ashikaga shogunate, and its eventual replacement by the tokugawa shogunate under the tokugawa family. In the sengoku period all of the different provinces of japan entered into a sort of free-for-all for power, eventually this was won by toyotomi hideyoshi who died before he could assume the title of shogun, military dictator. His son Hideyori, who was only 4 years old at the time became heir apparent. A council of the toyotomi family’s
[4] Bushido literally translates as way of the warrior, and was the martial and civil code by which samurai were expected to conduct themselves on and off the battlefield. This included everything from the duties of samurai to uphold the peace of his lands, to how it was considered rude to have his hands in the pockets of his trousers. It also included the practice of seppuku or hara-kiri, the infamous ritual suicide practiced by the samurai in order to regain his honour under extreme circumstances.
[5] Several people of the period actually share this name, to clarify I refer to the son of Hattori Yasunaga. A minor samurai in the service of the Tokugawa clan.
[6] The exchange of hostages was an integral part of the Japanese political landscape during the sengoku jidai. To secure a deal between two samurai one might give a child to the other to ensure the security of the agreement. The child would live with his captors as if he were one of their sons or daughters. The child would receive a Samurai upbringing, being taught martial arts, military strategy and so on until such a time as the agreement was no longer needed and he would be returned to his family, or he came of age and became an independent samurai.

Jack Horatio Buckley Sharp 2013

This entry was posted in Azuchi-Momoyama Period, Japanese History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Ninja: Fact vs. Fiction

  1. N.B. I wrote this article about three or four years ago and thought I may as well put it up here. There may well be some minor grammatical or historical errors in here that I have failed to notice! if you notice such a mistake then please to let me know!


  2. Pingback: 18-Year Old "Samurai" Martial Artist - Jack Sharp [Interview]

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