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A ninja on the cover of Black Belt magazine.
A ninja on the cover of Black Belt magazine.

Ninja (忍者) or shinobi (忍び) (literally, "one who endures") were said to be agents of espionage and assassination in feudal Japan. Some modern practitioners of budo ninjutsu argue that ninja were used primarily as spies, not assassins. It is popularly believed that the ancient ninja were peasants, forbidden under law from studying the samurai swordplay techniques because of feudal Japan's caste structure. Others contend that many ninja were also samurai, operating as spies in the service of their daimyo. The latter is more likely as there aren't any records of peasant ninja, while there are many samurai families who are recorded as being ninja. Ninja may also be samurias who lost their master either through disgrace or warfare.

Ninja are said to have made use of weapons that could be easily concealed or disguised as common tools. Weapons commonly attributed to them included shuriken and bo. In popular folklore, ninja also used special short swords called ninja-ken (or ninja-to see below for explanation). Ninja-ken are smaller than katana but larger than wakizashi, and were supposedly created by grinding down broken samurai katana found on battlefields.

For references to ninja in popular Western culture, including film and comic appearances and the recent spate of websites devoted to neo-ninja and other ninja-centric parody, see Ninja in fiction, below.



The word ninja originated 800 years ago in the mountains of Japan to mean someone who practiced ninjutsu (which is sometimes referred to in the west as Ninjitsu), a kind of martial art often called "the art of stealth" or "the art of invisibility". It derives from the Japanese phrase shinobi no mono. This phrase is written with two Kanji (Chinese characters), pronounced rěnzhě (忍者) in Mandarin. The first character, the same one used for ninjutsu, means endurance or persevere, however the meaning was later extended to mean conceal and move stealthily. The second character means person. The ninja are sometimes referred to by another Chinese term 林鬼 lín gǔi, "forest devils". They were Chinese counterparts of the Japanese ninja or shinobi, and were believed to be one of the many aspects that helped influenced art of ninjutsu in Japan.


Due to the fact that ninja rarely left anything in writing or boasted of their achievements, the history of the ninja is shrouded in secrecy, so the great majority of stories circulating about them are difficult to prove. Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who employed surprise as a major weapon in his victories, is said in a popular folktale to have been educated by a tengu to learn the tactic and became a ninja. In truth, he was taught by Buddhist monks who educated him with Chinese books like The Art of War.

One of the earliest roots of ninja, Togakure Ryū, reportedly originated in the late Heian Period. Iga and Kōga are two of the most famous ninja styles, and are often pitted against each other in fiction. In reality, they were allies and worked together in mutual defense pacts. Both of these claim that they originate in the Heian period.

Only a few records remain from the Kamakura period. Kusunoki Masashige used some clever tactics against enemies that remotely resemble ninja tactics. From the Muromachi period there are even fewer records. Both of these times were generally peaceful, and many battles had tournament-like aspects that barred a surprise attack. Somewhere in these time periods, bushido began to form as the proper and honorable way a samurai must follow. It would be well into Edo period that bushido was finally formalized; ninpō was not well separated from bushido until this time.

In the Sengoku Period, also known as the Warring States period, ninja flourished as a war was often determined by how well warlords collected information. Almost all famous daimyō had ninja, or a ninja-like group under his control and they served as their eyes and ears, sometimes as their hands. Some daimyō were reportedly ninja themselves. The clan of Sanada, the most famous member being Sanada Yukimura, was reportedly a ninja clan. This is widely agreed due to the successful defense of their castle with only around 3,000 against an overwhelming force of 50,000 led by Tokugawa Hidetada. Their amazing tactics, complete with splitting the house in two, each supporting Toyotomi and Tokugawa in order to survive no matter which side finally won, has given them a legendary status. Later, they would come to be called Sanada Jū Yushi, lit. Ten heroes under Sanada, in fictions where they used ninja skills to defeat everything but their jealous wives who would, of course, be ninja themselves.

Tokugawa Ieyasu used ninja well, controlling both Iga and Koga in unifying and ultimately rising to the rank of Shogun. In his dramatic escape through the mountainous landscape of Nara after Oda's assassination, Iga ninja led by Hattori Hanzō helped Ieyasu escape, gaining his favor. The last battle where ninja reportedly fought is in the Siege of Shimabara under the Tokugawa shogunate. As the shogunate became stable, ninja were effectively unemployed. Some became Oniwabanshū, a semi-secret group of bodyguards and intelligence officers who worked tending gardens of the Edo castle and eavesdropping on unaware daimyō. A ninja master Fujibayashi Sabuji wrote Bansenshukai (万川集海) as collections of ninja knowledge. Yet most knowledge was still passed on by the oral method and by training as most ninja believed that their service would soon be needed once again. The peace of the Edo period would continue for over 200 years.

In the Edo period, ninja became popular heroes in books and plays. Many mythical ninja powers such as becoming invisible, jumping over tall fences, casting spells and calling up a giant toad larger than a human, were all invented in these fictitious accounts of ninja. Ninja did not correct these misconstructions and some may have even written these stories themselves to increase their value should their services have become needed. One of the lesser known contributions made by ninja is their involvement in furthering the research of fireworks as a result of their development of pyrotechnic weaponry.

At the end of the Edo period, the ninja's service was once again needed. Ninja were called up to accompany delegates that met ambassadors from abroad. Some of them may have secretly been serving these ambassadors. With this, almost all historical records end.

Culture of Ninja

A ninja organization would be headed by a jōnin (上忍), literally "high ninja". Under jōnin would be several chūnin (中忍, "middle ninja"). Under chūnin would be several genin (下忍, "low ninja"). Upon receiving a mission from daimyō, the jōnin would use the chūnin to select necessary personnel from among the genin. Some ninja groups would be smaller and may have been less structured. Other groups may have been structured more like an army and the leader may instead have been called shō or "general".

While ninja are often depicted as male, females were sometimes, but rarely, ninja as well. A female ninja may be called kunoichi (くノ一); the characters are supposedly derived from the strokes that make up the kanji for woman (女). Though sometimes depicted as experienced prostitutes who learned the secrets of an enemy by seduction, they rarely used that method. Most prostitutes in medieval Japan were in brothels and few would take their chance with a freelance prostitute; in many places, it was illegal to do so.

The ninpō (忍法), literally "methods of ninja", refers to various skills used by ninja, but mostly supernatural and fictional.

Ninja had many rules and the most important rule is of keeping the secret of ninja themselves and of the daimyo who gave them the order. The most severe crime is leaving a ninja family without authorization, and with no intention of coming back. He or she would be called nukenin (抜け忍) and his or her family members would be tasked to bring him back, dead or alive.

Disguises, tools and weapons

Most of the time, a ninja did not, for obvious reasons, dress in an all black suit (shinobishōzoku (忍び装束)). Ninja rarely dressed as such, since an important aspect of their work was in espionage. Some parallel to this over-dramatization can be drawn by comparing movie series of James Bond and actual works of a spy. In actual practice, ninja did not wear the commonly depicted all black suit. It was actually a shade of dark red, dark green, dark blue, or dark brown as it offered a better camouflage. The idea of the all black suit may come from the clothes stage hands wore at the shadow theatre.

Common disguises of ninja included monks, yamabushi, waiters and waitresses, traveling salesmen, artists, and rōnin. Disguises were selected on the basis of their unobtrusiveness in a given environment. When disguised as a traveling salesman, a popular choice of product was herbal medicine. This let ninja have weapons like a dagger or a sickle for the self defense without revealing that they were ninja. Because they were well disguised, some have even suggested Matsuo Bashō, a traveling poet, was actually a ninja employed by the shōgun to keep a watch over daimyō, and that haiku he published were really secret codes telling other ninja some unknown secrets. This is a view dismissed by almost all historians.

Ninja used several special weapons against their enemies, the shuriken (throwing stars) and handclaws (shuko, tekagi) probably being the most famous. Kunai was also a popular weapon as they could be hidden easily. The makibishi, a type of caltrop made of iron spikes, is also famous. It could be thrown on the ground to injure the chaser's feet or laid down on an enemy's escape path so that the targets could be cut down or shot down with bows and arrows while they looked for another escape route, but it could also be covered with poison so the victim would die slowly. Occasionally, makibishi would be loaded with gunpowder to explode upon impact, further damaging a pursuer's foot.

Some ninjas disguised themself as Fuke monks and used the traditional flute of the zen sect, the Shakuhachi, as a powerful blunt weapon. Many government agents and ninja disguised themselves as komuso, since one could travel about in complete anonymity and gather information. There were even short pieces that were supposed to be played by one komuso greeting another. These suizen melodies tended to be very difficult to outsiders of the sect. If the second komuso did not respond, the first would know that the other was probably a spy.

Ninja also employed a variety of weapons and tricks using gunpowder. They used timed fuses that would burn down on the target after they left. Ōzutsu (cannons) they constructed could be used to fire fiery sparks as well as projectiles at a target. Even land mines were constructed that used a mechanical fuse or a lighted oil soaked string. These techniques were used to make fireworks in peacetime of Edo. Secrets of making desirable mixes of gunpowder were strictly guarded secrets in many ninja clans.

Many ninja tools were everyday tools that would not be conspicuous even when confiscated. One known tool used by ninja is irogome, lit. "colored rice". Irogome was uncooked rice seeds colored in five or six different colors, red, black, white, yellow, blue, and sometimes brown. They would be placed on the ground or handed to a ninja from a ninja. Each combination carried certain meanings like "all clear" or "an enemy check point is ahead".

Contrary to popular belief, nunchaku were never used by the ninja, nor indeed any mainland Japanese traditional martial artist. Karate, judo, kendo, and most other martial arts were never practiced as well, as they were mostly formalized in late Edo period to Meiji period. Ninja practiced a variant of jujutsu and kenjutsu that could be summed up as ninjutsu.

Contrary to the marketing of sword manufacturers, there was no such thing as a ninjatō or a sword that only ninja used. Typically "ninjatō" is confused with the ancient chokutō. Using a sword with inferior strength, blade geometry, and cutting ability would not have been useful to a ninja's purpose. Even more baffling would be a ninja carrying a sword that could have automatically identified him as a spy. To be less conspicuous, ninja carried daishō since such weapons were commonly carried by the samurai class. For deception, some ninja would carry a wakizashi in a katana saya to allow faster drawing of the sword and cause the opponent to miscalculate.

On assassination missions, ninja were more likely to use cheaper weapons. There was always the possibility that weapons would need to be disposed of if something went wrong, so expensive swords were naturally poor choices. Ninja techniques extended to the use of ordinary objects as lethal weapons. A ninja assassin was much more likely to pose as a tradesman and kill his target with a hammer than to dress in camouflage and use a sword.

Myths of Ninja

There are many myths and legends concerning ninja, who were most prevalent during Japan's feudal era and often served daimyo, or feudal lords, for secret missions. Their special abilities are also often exaggerated, such as becoming invisible, turning into animals, jumping over buildings, and the ability to fly and foresee the future. These myths were caused by secretive natures of ninja and confusion with Tengu and yamabushi.

Ninja in fiction

Ninja appear in both Japanese and Western fiction. Depictions range from realistic to the fantastically exaggerated.

Ninja have long been a popular subject in tokusatsu, anime and manga, such as the manga series Naruto. The Japanese novelist, Ryotaro Shiba wrote a novel and a collection of short stories, based on ninja, Fukuro no Shiro and Saigo no Igamono. Fukuro no Shiro was made into a hit movie, as was Shinobi no Mono.

Ninja-based films and books became a popular culture craze in Japan during the 1950s and early 1960s and as a result a TV series called The Samurai was created in 1962 to cash in on the fad. Although only seen in Japan and a few other countries, the series was notably screened in Australia in 1964-65. It was the first Japanese TV show ever broadcast there, and The Samurai rapidly became one of most popular programs ever screened on Australian TV, gaining a huge audience among pre-teen children; its success even led to star Ose Koichi and a troupe of performers touring there in a specially-produced show in 1966. The series introduced the ninja concept to Australian audiences and the ninja soon became a cult favourite, with children dressing up as ninjas and making their own toy ninja weapons, notably the shuriken or "star knife".

Western popular culture generally depicts the ninja as supremely well-trained martial artists, clad in a head-to-toe black or dark blue suit, using many kinds of exotic equipment and skills to accomplish their missions. The idea of a Westerner being granted entry to the secret ranks of the ninja has long been a subject of fascination for Western writers. The Ninja (1980) series of thriller books by Eric Van Lustbader features a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian character who received ninjutsu training in his youth. In the movie Batman Begins (2005), Bruce Wayne also receives ninja training.

When G.I. Joe, a traditional American series of military action figures, was relaunched in the 1980s, the collection included a few ninja characters such as Snake Eyes, a Vietnam war veteran who studied the ninja arts after the death of his family. The massive popularity of the ninja characters completely overtook the more conventional army characters, and creator Larry Hama was pressured by Hasbro to create more ninja for the series.

In fighting games, ninja are typically quick to strike but lacking in power or defense. One of the most succesful games ever on the Commodore 64 computer was The Last Ninja. In the Nintendo Entertainment System and Xbox games titled Ninja Gaiden, the player takes the role of Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja whose clan has been savagely murdered. Mortal Kombat, one of the most popular fighting games ever created, included several ninja-like characters with supernatural powers which seem to have been exaggerated from ninjutsu-related techniques or literature.

The Tenchu series of games on the PlayStation, PS2, and Xbox also feature ninja characters. The games' developer, Activision, used Sho Koshugi and his son, Kane Koshugi, as ninjutsuka references, claiming that Tenchu was the most realistic ninja series. The explosives and exaggerated violence of the games, however, would lead to exposure for any ninja who used them, and therefore a likely defeat.

The ninja appeared in the first Final Fantasy as an upgrade from the Thief character class, adept at using an array of weapons and armor and casting black magic. The character's speciality was the ability to use two weapons simultaneously and throw weapons at the enemy, inflicting great damage at the cost of extremely low defense. Shadow, Edge, and Yuffie are the only dedicated ninja characters in the series.

The Wizardry series also included ninja characters. The ninja class had the abilities of a Thief as well as the ability to use Fighter and some Samurai weapons, but the ninja characters also had the ability to snap enemy necks and dodge physical attacks outright, abilities that were hampered by equipping any weapons or armor, respectively. Therefore, most ninja characters were better off if they had no such equipment.

The word ninja is also used colloquially in multiplayer online role-playing games's (MMORPG) to describe a player who unfairly takes items from the corpses of dead enemies without allowing other players a chance to take the equipment. These "ninja looters" loot items swiftly and with minimal attention being drawn to themselves (hence the name) and are generally shunned by other characters for their nefarious deeds.

There have been many spoofs of the ninja, such as Beverly Hills Ninja, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Ninja Burger and Real Ultimate Power (which includes a website and subsequent book).

List of teaching styles or "ryū" of ninja

Each teaching style is gathered according to where they would be located under current prefectures and may not be completely accurate. They may or may not still be practised.

See also


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