THE WORD NINJA is used worldwide as shorthand for anyone (or anything) that’s quick and stealthy. Ever since entering the western lexicon in the past 40 years, the term has been applied to everything from mutant turtles and house cats to kitchen blenders and motorcycles. In actuality, the ninja were professional operatives and warriors that first gained notoriety during Japan’s feudal “warring states” period of the 15th and 16th centuries. Hired as mercenaries, special operatives and spies, ninjas favoured covert warfare not unlike modern-day special forces and relied on an intriguing array of equipment, such as land mines, hand grenades, poison gases and devices of espionage. But just how does our understanding of the word square with the historical record? Let’s explore some of the facts (and myths) behind the ninja.
The weren’t called ninjas
The term ninja 忍者does not actually appear until the 20th Century, meaning that in Japan’s Medieval period, it’s likely that no one even used the word. The two ideograms that describe the ninja have been in use since at least late 1500s. Their proper pronunciation is shinobi no mono. This is often translated as man of the shadows — a romantic idea at best. Shinobu 忍 means “stealth” and “perseverance” while mono 者 means “person”, which makes the ninja – a man of perseverance and stealth. This is how contemporaries likely refereed to what we now call ninjas.
Shinobi was a job title
Contrary to what many think, the shinobi were not poor peasants that were trained in the mountains and then hired to perform the sorts of missions no samurai would. The term shinobi no mono is in fact a job title, little different from “pikeman”, “carpenter”, “accountant” or “archer”. Shinobi were typically of samurai level but at minimum they were ashigaru or foot soldiers who specialized in covert operations, commando skills and spying. The shinobi should been seen as samurai or professional warriors hired by a lord to act as a covert operators team or spies.
No black suits or throwing stars
The black masked suit of the ninja enters the historical record in the period of peace after 1600. There is no historical evidence to show that ninja ever wore this garb; most documents point to shinobi wearing standard Japanese clothes of the time: white uniforms for full moons, black for darker nights and no mask or sword on the back. A ninja might use disguise when walking among the enemy, strong clothes and solid footwear when performing night raids and lighter less restricting attire when infiltrating houses – none of which would have included a mask. Furthermore, in all the shinobi documents left behind only one “ninja throwing star” is mentioned and even then it’s in reference to shinobi working in peacetime to apprehend criminals.
The ninja never wrote down their secrets
It is often reported that the shinobi were so mysterious that they never committed their secret knowledge to paper. This is erroneous at best. After the warring states period in the 15th and 16th centuries, peace came to Japan and a torrent of military documents suddenly became available, including ninja scrolls. Today the exact amount of shinobi writings that survive is unknown, but an educated guess would put it at about 500 original documents. Many of these works are kept in Iga Ueno Museum in Iga province, the homeland of the shinobi. Some are part of family collections, others have been snapped up by collectors. The rest are in public library collections. To date, ten ninja scrolls have been translated into English. Much of what we do know comes from the massive 500-page Bansenshukai or “Book of Ninja” to less comprehensive works like the Shoninki “True Path of the Ninja”. There are even a number of small single-page scrolls like the Sixteen Shinobi Tools and In Search of the Ninja. These manuals were secret documents passed down through families and schools of war and they captured the skills and the dying arts of the ninja.
What is ninjutsu?
Ninja combat tactics or Ninjutsu, like the word ninja itself was most likely coined long after the Medieval period — Shinobi no jutsu is more accurate. The ideograms used are 忍 “shinobi” and 術 “skills of”, making it skills of stealth and perseverance. It can also be said as shinobi no ho 忍ノ法 – the way of stealth and perseverance. But what is it? Shinobi no jutsu is broad set of skills containing many elements involving covert operations and espionage. In modern terms, the shinobi can be a single operator or team that moves behind enemy lines to infiltrate compounds and sow destruction or collect information and even spread disinformation or propaganda.
Tools of the
So what sort of weapons and equipment did the shinobi carry with them into the field? Swords, bows, knives were certainly employed, but any list of the ninja arsenal might also include:
- Pitons, ropes, ladders and grapples were used to scale walls.
- Saws, chisels and drills for breaking into enemy houses and compounds.
- Floating seats, belts, rafts and portable war-boats for river crossings. Even lightweight floating bridges have been described.
- Ember containers and quick-strike fire tools used for arson and combustion.
- Weatherproof torches, spiked thrown torches and caged fire for illumination.
- Rockets, landmines and hand grenades for use in incendiary attacks.
- Poisons and poison gas.
More information on the shinobi of Japan
Information on historical ninjutsu and the ninja can be found in the following books by Antony Cummins:
In Search of the Ninja
Samurai and Ninja: The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth
Secrets of the Ninja (Comic based on shinobi scrolls)
About Antony Cummins
Antony Cummins (@HistoricalNinja) is an author and historical researcher who is currently reshaping the world’s understanding of Japanese warfare, with particular focus on the shinobi (ninja) of Japan. He has published over ten fully translated historical ninjutsu manuals between various publishers, including other samurai scrolls. He has appeared on several documentaries, such as Ninja Shadow Warriors (2012), Samurai Head-hunters (2013) and Samurai Warrior Queens (2015) all of which were funded by the Smithsonian Channel and distributed by National Geographic. Two more documentaries have been aired worldwide, Ancient Black Ops: Ninja and Ancient Black Ops: 47 Ronin, these were produced by World Media Rights. Antony’s website is www.natori.co.uk