The ninja, we all know them, we all love them. Born into assassin clans, brought up in secret and dark ways to help them fight their arch-rivals, the samurai. They are the shadow in the night, the peasant warriors, who are hired out to the highest bidder, to do the dirty deeds that the honorable samurai will not do. But what if that was all totally wrong? What if the modern image of the ancient ninja was all based on 20th century comics and fantasy literature? Today you will discover 25 fascinating facts about the real ninja of history where you will learn the truth behind their story. Watch and enjoy as an image of a more accurate and fascinating Japanese warrior emerges.
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Ninja were not called ninja
Documents show that the ideograms for ninja were correctly read as shinobi no mono in the medieval period, “ninja” which is the mock-Chinese reading of the same ideograms became popular in the 20th century.
The first mention of ninja
The first historical record of ninja comes from the Taiheiki war chronicle written around 1375. It states that ninja were sent out on a stormy night to infiltrate and burn down enemy buildings.
The ninja golden age
The ninja thrived during the 15th and 16th centuries when Japan was torn apart by wars. After the year 1600, peace arrived in Japan and so began the decline of the ninja.
The historical record
There are very scant records for the ninja in the warring periods and it is only after peace arrived in the 1600’s that some peacetime ninja began to record their skills. The most famous of these is the colossal “ninja bible” known as the Bansenshukai which was written in 1676. There are an estimated 400 – 500 ninja manuals spread across Japan, many of which are still kept secret.
The enemy of the samurai was not the ninja
Popular media often portrays the samurai and ninja to be enemies. In fact the term ninja often refers to a warrior of any class within a samurai army and the position of ninja was akin to modern day Special Forces attached to the main force. Many samurai were trained in ninjutsu – the skills of the ninja – and a lord would keep his ninja close.
Ninja were not peasants
Popular media also portrays the ninja to be from the peasant class. In truth, ninja could be from any class both samurai and non-samurai. It was only after 1600 when peace spread over Japan that the official position of ninja inside a clan was reduced from full samurai to a new social position called doshin – half samurai. As time progressed the ninja became lower in status, however they still held a higher social position than most peasants.
Ninjutsu is not a form of hand to hand combat
Popular belief holds that ninjutsu is a form of hand to hand combat, a system of martial arts that is still taught around the world today. However, the idea of a specialised form of hand to hand combat practiced by the ninja was invented by a single man in Japan between the 1950’s and 60’s. This new combat system was imported to America during the ninja boom of the 1980’s and has become one of the most popular misconceptions about the ninja. To date not a single medieval account of this form of combat has ever been found.
Ninja throwing stars
“Ninja throwing stars” have almost no historical connection to the ninja. Throwing stars were a secret weapon used in many samurai schools and they only became attached to the ninja in the 20th century through comic books and animation.
The ninja mask
The ninja are never without their mask. Well, actually there is not a single reference to a ninja wearing a mask anywhere in history. Surprisingly, ancient ninja manuals show us that ninja did not wear masks. They had to cover their faces with their long sleeves when the enemy was near and when working in groups they wore white headbands so they could see each other in the moonlight.
The ninja suit
The popular image of the ninja is of the iconic ninja suit. This is a bit of a misnomer as the ninja “suit” only appears to be a uniform to the western eye. In truth it is just traditional Japanese clothes with a mask attached. Black Japanese clothes would be comparable to a black suit in modern London. People in medieval Japan could wear masks in the street to hide their identity, it is only the modern ‘off the shelf’ ninja suit that looks out of place.
“Ninja wear black, oh no they do not, they wear blue”
A popular argument today is that ninja did not wear black as it was too dark at night time and in fact they wore blue. This is a misunderstanding which originated from a ninja manual called the Shoninki (True Path of the Ninja) written in 1681. It states that a ninja can wear blue to blend in with crowds as this colour was popular, meaning that a ninja would not stand out in a city or town if people were looking for them, it was used to blend in with the masses. In fact ninja documents say to wear black on a moonless night and white on a full moon.
Ninja did not use straight swords
The now famous “ninja-to” or ninja sword is a straight bladed sword with a square handguard. The origin of this myth is hard to trace. Swords which were almost straight – only having a 1mm curve – existed in medieval Japan, as did square handguards, but their association with the ninja appears to come about in the 20th century. Ninja manuals point to the use of ordinary swords.
Secret hand spells
The ninja are famous for their secret spells with hand gestures. This is called kuji, and has no real connection to the ninja. Kuji as it is called by the Japanese was most likely started in India and moved to China and to Japan. It is a series of gestures to ward off evil in certain situations, as one would use the sign of a cross to aid you or the sign of the horns to ward off the evil eye. Again their connection comes in the 20th century
Ninja do not use smoke bombs
The image of the ninja using a smoke bomb is universal. While not wholly incorrect it is misleading. Ninja manuals do not really contain smoke bombs but they do contain hundreds of recipes for fire tools such as; land mines, hand grenades, waterproof torches, forms of Greek fire, fire arrows, explosives and poisoned gas.
No one knows the identity of a ninja
This is a half-truth. Ninja agents were divided into those who could be seen Yang-ninja and those who remain hidden Yin-ninja. Hidden ninja were those whose identity was kept secret so that they could move out on missions without anyone knowing who they were. On the other hand, a group of ninja would be hired in the open, they moved with an army, had their own barracks, were exempt from day time camp duties and were well known among their peers. In the later years of peace they even had their own jacket and crest that they wore around the castle.
Ninja are black wizards
Before the image of the ninja assassin came the image of the ninja wizard, a warrior magician. Old Japanese movies show the ninja using magic to outwit his enemies. Interestingly, ninja skills do hold a certain amount of ritual magic, from magical hairpins that give invisibility to dog sacrifice to obtain the aid of the gods. However, standard samurai skills also hold an element of magic. This was common for the time.
Ninja were not assassins
This is more of a semantic argument, simply put, the ninja were not brought up from a young age studying the ways of assassination so that they could be hired out to other clans. Most ninja were trained in covert operations, propaganda, spy-craft, infiltration and explosives, the ninja were only used as assassins as secondary and ninja manuals rarely talk about the subject.
Hattori Hanzo was real
Hattori Hanzo was made famous through the Kill Bill movies but Hattori Hanzo was a real samurai and trained ninja. He became a famous general and was known as “Devil Hanzo” he is thought to have led ninja teams when younger and rose to power under Japan’s then future shogun. It is believed that he wrote or inherited one of the oldest ninja scrolls in existence. Recently the author Sean Michael Wilson in association with a Japanese illustrator wrote a comic based on these historical teachings called Secrets of the Ninja.
Most mistakes about the ninja were made in the 20th century
The real ninja ended with the samurai period in the late 19th century when japan moved to modernisation. While ninja fiction existed even in the time of the ninja, the first major ninja boom in Japan came in the early part of the 1900’s when not much was known about the historical agents. Books on the subject became popular and between the 1910’s and the 1970’s and many books were published by amateurs and enthusiasts, these were littered with mistakes and fabrications. These mistakes were then transferred to the English during the 1980’s ninja boom.
Academic research on the ninja
The subject of the ninja was a laughing matter in Japanese academic circles and for decades the study of their ways was frowned upon as a quaint fantasy. Dr Stephen Turnbull of Leeds University England did produce some books in the 1990’s but in a recent article he has withdrawn that research due to the errors transported as described above, he is now researching the subject with an aim to publish the truth. It is only in the last 2 to 3 years that research in Japan has started. Associate professor Yuji Yamada is heading a team at Mie University who are dedicated to the subject of the ninja.
Ninja scrolls are written in code
It has been said that ninja scrolls were written in code to keep them secret. This is a misunderstanding of the Japanese way of writing a list of skills. Many scrolls in Japan, in many subjects simply are lists of skill names. For example the Skill of the Fox or the Skill of the Invisible Cloak, without the proper teachings being past down, their true meanings are lost, but they were never intended to be in code.
A ninja will kill himself if he fails a mission
This is a Hollywood myth. There is no evidence to show that failure in a mission led to suicide. In fact some manuals teach that it is better to fail the mission that do it with haste and cause problems. It was better to wait for another opportunity. There is historical evidence to show that ninja may have killed themselves and burned their own bodies in the process to hide their identity if they were to be captured.
Super human powers
It is thought that ninja have more physical prowess than ordinary warriors, but it was only a certain amount of the ninja that were trained in Special Forces style warfare. Many ninja were those who lived hidden lives in the enemy province, just going about normal everyday business or travelling to spread rumours. Recommended abilities for the ninja were; resilience to illness, high intellect, quick speech and a stupid look (because people ignore those who look stupid). Interestingly, one ninja retired because of backache.
Ninja do not still exist
There are a selection of individuals in japan who claim to be masters of ninja schools that have an unbroken lineage back to samurai times. This subject is controversial and sensitive with high emotional involvement. To date all those who claim to be real ninja have never supplied proof of any kind to verify their claims. This means that there is not a single provable ninja left alive. The world is still waiting for evidence to surface for all claims.
Real ninja are cooler than fictional ninja
While the fictional ninja have controlled the hearts of people for almost 100 years, the new emerging historical truth is proving to be much more impressive and interesting. With historical ninja manuals now being published in the English language, a more realistic and surprising image is coming to light. Ninja can now be seen as a part of the samurai war machine, each with a specific skill set, trained in areas such as: spy tradecraft, covert operations, single operators working behind enemy lines, surveillance agents, explosive and demolition specialists and experts in psychology. This new and improved image of the ninja of Japan is bringing about more respect for the depth and complexities of samurai warfare.
About the author: Antony Cummins is a historical researcher from the UK, he has put together a small Japanese team whose aim is to translate and publish historical ninja and samurai scrolls and bring about the truth of the ninja. If these real ninja facts have sparked your interest in the historical ninja then connect with Antony on YouTube, his website, or Facebook.