Ninjas: Who They Really Are Under the Black Outfit

Japan, also known as the Land of the Sun, is known to the world as the land of anime, manga, and the Otaku culture. Also home to the best sushi and sashimi in the world, the country is among the hotspots in Asia to visit by tourists every year. Filled with a rich culture and heritage, there are a lot to be learned about the history of the country. This history is made up of notable groups of people that have made a name for themselves not just in Japan but in the world as well.

An example of a group of people that is especially known to have come from Japan is the ninja. Today, people all over the world recognize ninjas as a group of Japanese people in black outfits that spy and even kill their enemies at the order of their masters. They are known to be great at hiding themselves in the dark and somehow appearing invisible to the public. However, ninjas are not just the common spies. They have a rich history behind them and and their actions played a significant role in shaping the society of Japan today.

All About Ninjas: Facts, History, and Its Name After WW2

Also known as shinobi in Japanese, a ninja was a spy in feudal Japan back in the day. Ninjas were utilized for espionage, infiltration, guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and even assassination. The term “ninja” is an Early Middle Chinese-influenced or on’yomi reading of two basic kanji characters "忍者." On the other hand, it is read as shino-no-mono or 忍の者 in native kun’yomi kanji reading, shinobi for short. There is an underlying connotation in relation to the word “shinobi,” which means “to hide” or “to steal away.” This pertains to ninjas usually being stealthy and training to be invisible in the dark. On the other hand, “mono” pertains to “a person.” As for the Westerners, the word “ninja” is generally used instead of shinobi after the Second World War as it is more comfortable for them to pronounce.

While there are many folktales about ninjas roaming around, actual accounts about them throughout history are actually quite rare, if at all. Due to the fact that ninjas were mostly people recruited from the lower class, not many took interest in documenting about ninjas in general. Not only that but ninjas, in general, were trained to be invisible anyway with their existence to be unknown to anyone aside from their actual peers and masters.   

The very first training for spies especially for the purpose and espionage among others began in the 15th century. Defined as a secretive group of agents, accounts and training of shinobi were documented during the Sengoku period. Ninjas were recruited for many purposes, such as for espionage, raids, and arson. Due to their skills, some were even recruited to act as terrorists.

There were rankings within the group of ninjas. The highest rank that represents the whole group and conducts the hiring out of mercenaries is called the upper man or the jonin in Japanese. The jonin is then followed by his assistants known as the middle man or the chunin in Japanese. The lowest rank then goes to the lower man or the genin in Japanese, who were recruited from the lower class and carried out the actual missions assigned by their superiors.

Certain villages in the province of Iga, now known as Mie Prefecture, and in the region of Koga, now known as Shiga Prefecture, were the first to be documented that were devoted to training ninjas. Due to its location being remote and inaccessible to the masses, the ninjas’ secret roles developed. The governing clans in these regions were the Iga clan and the Koga clan. These clans trained and produced professional ninjas, who catered to specific roles. Hey were hired by daimyos between the year 1485 to the year 1581.

However, this ceased when Oda Nobunaga invaded the province of Iga and disintegrated the organized clans. There were survivors who fled to the mountains of Kii while some came before Tokugawa Ieyasu, who treated them well. This was a good move because came the year 1560, Tokugawa hired a group composed of 80 Koga ninjas to rain an outpost of the clan of Imagawa after the Battle of Okehazama. The group was led by Tomo Sukesada.

Later on, the Koga ninjas also played a role in the Battle of Sekihagawa in the year 1600, where they were victorious. After which, Tokugawa also had Iga ninjas and Koga ninjas protect Edo Castle against the enemy. Through the years, ninjas played different but significant roles in the society of Japan.

Roles of Ninjas and its Comparison to Samurais

Mostly hired by daimyos, ninjas already had many roles. This includes as a scout or teisatsu in Japanese, spy or kancho in Japanese, surprise attacker or kishu in Japanese, and agitator or konran in Japanese. The main role of a ninja is espionage. Their main goal is to gather information from the territory of the enemy, such as passwords, communiqués, and building specifications. Some even disguise themselves as among the enemies in order to befriend and gain the confidence of the latter.  There are other ninjas who are so skilled at this that they are able to infiltrate even the most confidential groups and gather vital information against the enemies.

Another role of a ninja is sabotage. The main form of sabotage used by ninjas is arson with the targets of castles and camps. Lighting them on fire is among the primary forms of sabotage that ninjas use in order to reach their goals. One of the more well-known castles that were set on fire by ninjas was the Sawayama Castle. Under the order to Rokkaku Yoshikata in the year 1558, a group of 48 ninjas infiltrated the castle through deception. Using various techniques, they were able to set the castle on fire and made Yoshikata victorious in this fight.

Ninjas are also known for their role in assassination. Several deaths of famous people have been attributed to the skills in terms of assassination by ninjas. However, due to the secretive ways that ninjas achieve this, it was quite difficult to prove their guilt in this. A more well-known attempted assassination by a ninja was the attempt at Oda Nobunaga’s life, a warlord with a notorious reputation in Japan. Two people were hired in the year 1571 to assassinate Nobunaga, namely a Koga ninja and Sugitani Zenjubo, a sharpshooter. Despite their attempts to kill Nobunaga, they were thwarted and Sugitani was caught just four years later after his escape. On the other hand, it was Nobunaga who attacked the region of Iga and wiped out the clans.

Because of the skills that a ninja possesses, countermeasures were made. Precautions were taken especially by important people such as feudal lords as assassination attempts by ninjas were already then expected. Hence, some of these lords would hide weapons in their lavatories or under a removable floorboard just in case they would be attacked in their homes. Traps and trip wires connected to alarm bells were also incorporate in building designs so as to thwart the attempts of ninjas. Some castles were also constructed with long “nightingale” floors, which were placed on metal hinges, also known as uguisu-bari in Japanese, that would create a loud squeaky sound when the floor is walked over.

Some may confuse what the difference is between ninjas and samurais. There are distinct differences between the two but, generally, the ninjas are from the lower class while samurais are the former’s upper-class contemporary. Both kinds are trained well, however, it is said that samurais are better as they adhere to strict rules when it comes to honor and combat.

Training and Weapons of A Shinobi

Vigorous training was something that every shinobi has to endure and go through in order to be a good ninja. Today, ninja skills are known only as ninjutsu although it is believed that training back in the day consisted of various activities with the goal of attaining espionage and survivals skills. The first specialized training for shinobi started in the middle of the 15th century. It was when a number of samurai families began to operate on covert warfare. Similar to the samurai culture, ninjas were also born into the occupation. Their training begins from early childhood to adulthood and the tradition is passed down to the next generation within the family.

Survival skills and scouting techniques were taught to the youth along with the usual martial arts disciplines. Lessons about the use of poison and explosives were also taught to the ninjas so they would be flexible in how to assassinate their enemy. Physical training was also essential for ninjas as they would have to move stealthily while in the field. This included climbing, swimming, long distance runs, and stealthy walks.

Also, ninjas did not always go undercover unaccompanied. There are teamwork techniques that they incorporate when ninjas would have to work with their peers. Ninjutsu techniques were also taught, such as the hitsuke under the fire techniques or katon-no-jutsu in Japanese, tanuki-gakure under the wood techniques or mokuton-no-jutsu in Japanese, ukigusa-gakure under the water techniques or suiton-no-jutsu in Japanese, and uzura-gakure under the earth techniques of doton-no-jutsu in Japanese. Ninjutsu manuals were also written by descendants of Hattori Hanzo among others to provide a guide on how to train. Another training that they had to go through was how to disguise themselves properly.

On the other hand, ninjas used not only their minds and bodies in order to achieve their missions. There was also a wide range of tools and equipment that they use to aid them in battle. While ninjas are more well-known with a black outfit, there is actually no written evidence to prove this. However, their outfit was believed to be in dark hue to help conceal them in the dark. Either that or they are disguised in a civilian’s clothing.

As for their tools, they are trained with a knife or a sword though this is not a limitation. Ropes and grappling hooks were also among the typical tools that they used back in the day. For gouging holes in walls, ninjas use a kunai. Still, the primary weapon of choice of a ninja would definitely be a katana. The katana had many uses depending on the situation and because of this versatility, it is the primary weapon of a ninja. 

Japanese Ninja Culture: Is It Heading for Extinction?

While there are no more known ninjas at this time, popular culture has yet to forget its existence. There are certain places in Japan that are devoted specifically to the information and culture of ninjas. This includes the Iga Ninja Museum, Koka Ninja Village, and Koka Ninja House, all located in the hometown of ninja culture. There are also other places that incorporate the ninja theme, which keeps the culture alive, such as the Togakure Ninpo Museum in Nagano, Ninjadera or Ninja Temple in Kanazawa, Toei Uzumasa Eigamura in Kyoto, and Ninja Restaurant in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Not only did the ninjas play a huge role in shaping the society and history of Japan, but they also influenced the Japanese culture of today. While their actions may have ended lives, their roles have made a huge impact in Japan throughout its history. Their skills can definitely be considered a work of art. Even though there no known of ninjas under training today, some may still wonder whether they now cease to exist and will only be part of the past or they are still among us, under secretive development. Nonetheless, knowing what they have done or what they had to do under the orders of their masters, it provides us lessons as to how to handle disputes and misunderstandings and how to be more careful with our actions.