Few groups in history are as iconic as the Ninja of Japan. The word itself conjures images of black clad silent assassins that seem capable of impossible feats. Their mystery adds to their intrigue, even 500 years later.
It’s part of what drew me to study the art of the Ninja: Ninjutsu. And after a decade of training and numerous trips to Japan, my understanding of who the Ninja were and what they did is vastly different than when I started.
So today, we’re going to go over the most popular perceptions of the Ninja, and establish what is fact and what’s not.
Ninja Myth #1: Ninja Were Called…Ninja
The term Ninja is a modern term, and is the current reading of the kanji for Shinobi. However, Shinobi also didn’t come into fashion until after the height of Ninja activity.
So what were the Ninja actually called during their time? They were referred to by their village. For example, an Iga Ninja would have been called “Iga no mono” or “Iga person”. Similar names would have been used for Ninja from Koka – the other region known for producing professional Ninja.
Ninja Myth #2: They were assassins
The word Ninja and Assassin have almost become synonymous in modern day pop-culture. And the Ninja have been portrayed in countless mediums as the hit-men of feudal Japan. However, this is mostly fiction.
There has never been a recorded or documented (successful) assassination by a Ninja in Japanese history. Although there is the possibility they did occur, without documentation we can’t say for certain. It’s more likely the Ninja simply started this rumor for psychological warfare and instill fear in their rivals.
They were, however, well documented as masters of sabotage and ambushing opponents.
Ninja Myth #3: They wore black
When we think of a Ninja, we immediately picture the iconic black mask and outfit. We even wear black Keikogi for training in our dojo. However, it’s highly unlikely Ninja wore black.
The color black was expensive at the time. And pure black is actually easier to see at night. If camouflage was the point, they likely wore more neutral earth tones or even dark blue.
So where did the black outfit come from? Kabuki theatre.
Stage hands in Kabuki wear all black so they can blend in with the black backdrop. The audience then ignores them as they watch the colorful characters. So to depict a Ninja, they had the character wear the same outfit and then interact with the characters – giving the impression they were “invisible”.
So what did Ninja really wear? Disguises or regular clothes. They wanted to blend in, and wearing something so specific would immediately give them away.
Ninja Myth #4: They were masters of stealth
Most of the Ninja’s job was espionage. And sometimes that required them to sneak into enemy territory. Out of necessity they developed skills and tactics for slipping in and out undetected. The best example would be their methods of walking silently.
This was such a concern at the time that castles and temples developed Uguisubari – or “Nightingale Floors” – named for the sound they make when walked upon. The wood boards of the floor and joists are designed to “chirp” when someone steps on it. These floors can still be found in various temples and castles in Japan.
Ninja Myth #5: They could disappear
Since Ninja often engaged in espionage and sabotage, they had to learn to escape quickly. Being caught not only would compromise their mission, but they were certain to face brutal torture and death.
So…they learned how to “disappear”.
There were two fairly popular methods for this.
If attacked at home, a Ninja would often outfit the house with secret doors and tunnels to escape. To the invader it would seem that everyone in the house simply disappeared.
If a Ninja was cornered, they might employ blinding powder – like an ancient type of pepper spray. They would cast a cloud of the eye irritant (containing things like peppers and iron shavings) towards the face of the attacker. They then would use this as an opportunity to escape. Again, once the “smoke” cleared, it would appear that the person simply vanished.
Ninja Myth #6: They were the mortal enemy of the Samurai
While Ninja fought Samurai of different clans on the battlefield, the Ninja were themselves considered Samurai.
Possibly the most famous Iga Ninja, Hattori Hanzo, rose through the Samurai class through his victories on the battlefield.
And sometimes Ninja fought other Ninja.
Koka often contracted out Ninja to neighboring lords, and there were even occasions where Koka had to fight members of their own clan.
Ninja Myth #7: They carried their sword on their back
Mostly FalseMost films depict Ninja as carrying and drawing their swords from their backs. This gives a clear visual distinction to the classical Samurai wearing it on their hip. In truth, Ninja would have carried their sword the same way a Samurai would since it is the most advantageous position for drawing the blade. However, if they needed to climb an obstacle, they would wear the sword on their back to help get it out of the way. In Togakure Ryu there is an unorthodox draw where the weapon is moved around the back to the right side where it can be drawn over the shoulder. However, this is very situational and is not the default method of drawing.
Ninja Myth #8: They used straight blade swords
If you visit a touristy area of Japan, you may see a straight sword marketed as a “Ninjato” or Ninja sword.
These have little in common with the swords the Ninja actually used.
It’s unclear where the idea of the straight Ninja sword came from, but it might have been due to some of the Ninja movies in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Prop teams on some of these movies may have opted for making swords from straight pieces of steel. This would have drastically reduced production cost and time.
Then the popularity of the movies made people assume that Ninja used a straight blade.
Seeing an opportunity, replica sword producers jumped on the band-wagon and created the straight blade variant marketed as a “Ninja Sword”, reinforcing the perception.
So is there such a thing as a Ninja sword?
Weapons in Feudal Japan weren’t as standardized as we imagine them. There was a lot of experimentation in making unorthodox weapons, such as those with hidden blades or devices. And with swords, each clan likely had their own preferred specifications.
For example, Togakure Ryu specifies that the sword should be slightly shorter that your average Katana, but carry a standard or even long handle. It also specifies it should be carried in a standard length sheath or saya. This would give the illusion of it being a much longer sword.
The space in the bottom of the saya could be used to store blinding powder or secret messages. And the shorter blade meant the sword could be drawn much faster than a longer sword (which would help for fighting indoors).
However, the blades themselves weren’t that much different from any other katana during the time.
And they definitely weren’t straight.
Ninja Myth #9: They were the only one’s to use Shuriken
The most iconic weapon of the Ninja is the “throwing star” or shuriken. However, the Ninja weren’t the only ones to use Shuriken.
Shuriken were a widely used tool of Samurai as well. The purpose of shuriken were to distract the opponent enough to create an opening for a lethal attack. While shuriken could be deadly if thrown in just the right place with enough force, they were really intended to make an opponent flinch.
As with swords, every clan likely had their own unique design for shuriken. And not just star patterns: throwing spikes were also a popular weapon as well.
The Ninja’s secretive nature and their use of propaganda and misinformation can make it difficult to discern fact from fiction. Add into that the the depictions of Ninja in pop-culture, and things become even murkier.
But the Ninja wouldn’t necessarily mind; they utilized misinformation and likely would have preferred it this way.
If you’d like to study Ninjutsu, stop by and try a class!