The classic image of a Ninja is firmly cemented into popular culture. A black-clad figure stealthily stalks his prey or steals something of value. He’ll then vanish into the night using a range of gadgets from ninja stars to smoke bombs to assist in his escape. How much, if any of this, is true?
Ninja, or shinobi, existed in feudal Japan, and they performed the roles of mercenary or covert agent. They were often tasked with sabotage, assassination, espionage, and using guerrilla warfare tactics. Any method of warfare which was deemed as dishonorable by the Samurai caste fell firmly into the realms of acceptable tactics to be utilized to their full effect by ninja. Traditionally speaking, shinobi were specially-trained mercenaries and spies who appeared in records of the 15th century, however, there is some anecdotal evidence that they may have existed as early as the 12th century.
The rise of the Ninja can be largely attributed to a period of great unrest in Japan during the 15th to 17th centuries. This was a time where anyone willing to be a spy or assassin would readily find their services in need; therefore, demand for such underhand tactics fueled the rise of a type of warrior polar opposite to the Samurai.
By the time of the unification of Japan during the 17th century, the demand for ninja services was waning, and the now famous shinobi started to disappear into obscurity.
It was not until around 1868 that stories about shinobi started to gain traction in Japan. The legends and folklore associated with Ninja during this time were fanciful and attributed mythical abilities to Ninja, such as walking on water, invisibility, control of the weather, and flight. As such, today's pop culture is largely based on folklore rather than firm facts.
There is little in the way of firm historical records about the ninja. This is likely because of the underhand tactics and the nature of the services the Ninja performed - the function of the Ninja was to remain unnoticed. The ninjutsu techniques used by the shinobi are the skills associated with ensuring your opponent or target does not know of your existence (shinobi-no-jutsu, shinobijutsu). Any literary scholars during the time of the ninja would also much rather have documented the deeds and battles won by the Samurai rather than the lower-caste shinobi.
There are, fortunately, some facts that are considered accurate which allows us to build up a picture of who the shinobi really were and what they actually did.
What did Ninja do?
Villages dedicated to training and housing ninja were part of the landscape of 15th century Japan. The most successful were those of the Iga and Koga clans, which produced highly skilled and professional ninja. There is certainly a distinction to be made between the professional ninja clans, which included a hierarchy and specialized training, and the Ronin or Samurai hired as spies or assassins
Records exist indicating that ninja were used as special forces troops at times, with one account describing how a troop of 80 specialized ninjas was used to stealthily infiltrate a castle, set fires, and subdue the 200-strong garrison stationed within.
The ninja's main purpose was espionage through which, with the aid of disguises, they would infiltrate enemy camps and fortresses, steal plans, passwords, and seed confusion amongst the enemy troops. It was a sort of psychological warfare used to great effect.
How Effective Were Ninja?
The effectiveness of the ninja during this period can probably be best demonstrated by the countermeasures employed to combat their methods. For example, weapons began to be concealed in bathrooms and under floorboards to allow for quick access in case of an assassination attempt. Buildings began to be designed with traps and trip wires to alert guards of intruders. Castle designs also changed, increasing the complexity of layouts to confuse would-be intruders and using hinged floors that would intentionally squeak when walked upon. Courtyards also changed, with gravel introduced to create noise when walked upon and buildings placed further apart to better contain fires.
Professional ninja were subjected to a variety of specialized training, with a focus on guerrilla and covert warfare, assassination, and espionage techniques. In some ways similar to Samurai, ninjas were often born into the profession, learning methods and traditions that were passed down through the family. Ninjas were obviously trained in martial arts, but they were also taught survival methods, how to scout enemy movements, as well as the subtle arts of poisons and using explosives effectively. Physical training consisted of increasing stamina, swimming, climbing, and moving stealthily. In order to assume an effective disguise, a working knowledge was required of several professions in order to effectively create a believable masquerade.
Modern training in the art of ninjutsu is somewhat controversial, with little documentation or in-depth information on the methods used during the golden age of the ninja. Most modern-day ninjutsu training is based on documents written as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ninja Tools, Gadgets, and Clothes
Ninja are well known for the large arsenal of tools and weapons they used during their missions. Some are based on fact, while others are closer to fantasy. A range of specialist tools was described and illustrated in the 17th Century Bansenshukai, which mentions extending spears, rocket-powered arrows, climbing apparatus, and small foldable boats. How often these were used, and in what circumstances, is largely unknown.
Japanese and western cinema might have you believe that the standard ninja uniform was an all-black affair; however, there is little evidence to support this claim. A ninja was more likely to be dressed as a civilian or enemy soldier in order to blend in and infiltrate a target. It’s been proposed that the notion of the black outfit was inspired by illustrators attempting to depict ninja as something which is invisible. This theory has its roots based in puppet theater, where puppeteers would dress entirely in black clothes in order to appear invisible to the audience. There is, however, a contradictory theory which claims black garments were better for disguising blood stains and gore, making them an ideal choice for infiltration. The truth is probably a mixture of the two theories depending on a mission's requirements.
Today, some of the most abundant ninja artefacts are related to espionage and infiltration. The classic grappling hook-and-rope combination was a real thing, and is relatively common today. Other such items include spiked ladders - climbing gear with hooks and spikes to assist in climbing as well as combat - plus more mundane items such as hammers, picks, and chisels which were all used to assist in scaling objects.
An episode of mythbusters dismissed the notion that shinobi possessed wooden shoes that would allow them to walk on water - any success a ninja would have from ungainly walking on water would be heavily outweighed by the practicality of it. It’s arguably far more practical to use a tried-and-tested low-profile boat than using a set of large, unstable shoes. There is some evidence of breathing tubes and bags being used by Ninja in order to stay submerged in water for large periods of time.
The ninja's primary weapon is the Katana. Forget about ninja swords or ninjato - these are modern inventions and have little basis in historical fact. However, how the ninja may have used the katana beyond regular combat may have been slightly unorthodox. It’s theorized that the Katana may have been used as sort of step-up which allowed the ninja to get higher handholds - the swords could then be retrieved by way of the sageo (cord). With a few small modifications, the Katana could be used to stun enemies before attack, by way of putting chilli powder, dirt, and iron fillings into the top of the scabbard, so that when the sword is drawn the concoction would fly into the face of the enemy, which would give the ninja a distinct advantage in the critical few seconds at the start of an engagement.
A collective group of items called shuriken which include darts, spikes, throwing knives, and the legendary ninja star could be used by ninja to disable or injure opponents at a distance. Bows were also used to target enemies at a distance, with some ninja favoring smaller bows for portability and disguise purposes. A combination of chain and sickle was commonly utilized by ninja. The weighted end of the chain would be used to disable or injure the opponent while the sickle would be used for close-up combat. It was not uncommon for every-day regular farmer tools to be used as weapons, which undoubtedly better suited disguises and blending in with regular civilians.
The shinobi weapons toolkit also encompassed explosives, with soft-shelled grenades used to release smoke and caustic gases while harder-cased grenades would be used as fragmentation devices.
More exotic weapons consisted of poisoned darts, caltrops, mines, acid spurting tubes, cane swords, and early forms of firearms. The mythical happo, an eggshell-filled powder capable of blinding the enemy, was used to aid escape attempts.
The physical weapons used by ninja were also supplemented by more subtle psychological arms. Although the mythical abilities of ninja such as flight and invisibility are nonsense by today's standards, it’s probable that such tales may have originated from the ninja directly as a form of misdirection and psychological warfare. What better way to seed doubt in the enemy than for them to believe they are being stalked by a being capable of flying and turning into a rat?
The story of Ninja is equal parts fact and fiction, with elements of both proving to be both fantastic and nigh-believable. Whatever parts you choose to believe, the fact remains that shinobi are part of the fascinating and violent history of Japan.