From Academic Kids

In feudal Japan, ninja or shinobi (literally, "one who is concealed," or "one that endures") were sometimes assassins and agents of espionage. Ninja, like samurai, followed their own special code of conduct, called ninpō. Some modern practitioners of budo ninjutsu argue that ninja were hardly ever used as assassins, but rather for espionage. Ninja originally formed in the hills of Japan to escape brutal samurai law. They hid from the law studying ninjutsu to protect their friends and family from ruthless rulers.

It is popularly believed that the ancient ninja were peasants, who were forbidden under law from studying the samurai swordplay techniques because of the caste structure of their society. This was not necessarily true as most ninja were also samurai, operating as spies in an underground intelligence network.

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



The word ninja is derived from the Japanese phrase shinobi no mono. This phrase is written with two Kanji (Chinese) characters, pronounced ren-zhe (忍者) in Mandarin. The first character, the same one used for ninjutsu, means endurance. The second character means person, though this meaning has dropped from modern usage. The ninja are sometimes referred to in another Chinese term "Lin Kuei" meaning "demons of the forests" for the beliefs of possessing mystical powers.


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 era. 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 and until then ninpō was not well separated from bushido.

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.

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 involved in servicing these ambassadors. With this, almost all 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) lit. middle ninja. Under chūnin would be several genin (下忍) lit. 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 often 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) lit. "laws of ninja", or simply okite (掟) lit. "rule", is the law that ninja followed. It had many rules and the most important rule is of keeping the secret of ninja themselves and of the daimyō who gave them the order. The severest crime is leaving a ninja family without authorization and never 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.

Common disguises of ninja included but were not limited to monks, yamabushi, waiter and waitress, traveling salesman, artist, 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 deadly poison so the victim would die slowly. Occasionally, makibishi would be loaded with gunpowder to explode upon impact, further damaging a pursuer's foot. Ninja weapons could also be used cleverly as tools such as using the cord of their sword scabbard to construct a hammock between tree branches.

Ninja also employed a variety of weapons and tricks using gunpowder. Smoke bombs and firecrackers were widely used to aid an escape. 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 of ninja's tools were everyday tools that would not be conspicuous even when confiscated. It was through intelligence that ninja gained advantages. 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 beliefs, nunchaku were never used by the ninja, or indeed any mainland Japanese traditional martial art. 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 many were of 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.

Ninja in fiction

Ninja in fiction are divisible into two large categories, those based on realistic accounts and those based largely on imaginative accounts. Purely fictional accounts of ninja are often the image many Japanese have of an assassin in a fantasy.

Ryotaro Shiba wrote two fictional works, 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 movie which also was a hit. Shinobi no Mono is another movie about ninja.

Eric Van Lustbader has written a series of closely ninja-related thriller books, the first one being The Ninja (1980). The series tells the story of half-Japanese, half-Caucasian Nicholas Linnear who received nearly full-scale ninjutsu training in his youth.

Ninja appears in many games and their characters are loosely based on historical facts. In a fighting game, a ninja are typically quick to strike but lacking in power or defense. Many a computer role-playing game had a ninja as its character. In the Final Fantasy series, the ninja made its initial appearance in the first Final Fantasy as an upgrade from the Thief character class, adept at equipping an array of weapons and armor and casting black magic. Typical of ninja in Final Fantasy is the ability to simultaneously equip two weapons and throw weapons at the enemy, inflicting great damage at the cost of extremely low defense. Several Wizardry series had an odd twist, because wearing an armor reduced ninja's advantage of evading an enemy attack, ninja were typically unadorned by players.

Ninja have long been a popular subject in anime and manga. The popular anime and manga series Naruto is a recent example of a ninja-based series.

In western popular culture, the ninja are often depicted as supremely well-trained martial artists who use many kinds of exotic equipment and skills to accomplish their missions. This, combined with the popular image of the ninja's legendary costume, often makes up the western take on the ninja as a popular foe of fictional spies (especially on missions in East Asia), superheroes and supervillains.

Ninja in western popular culture, though predominantly Asian, are not monolithically so—westerners have been depicted as ninja and as martial artists generally, as in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon.

By the late 1980s, many popular culture items were spoofs (Beverly Hills Ninja) or inaccurate (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). However, "serious" depictions of the ninja continued to coexist with these exaggerations. Perhaps the most-evolved ninja parodies can be found on Real Ultimate Power, a website featuring ninja wailing on guitars and fighting pirates, and Ninja Burger, which features ninja delivering fast food. In the former, ninja have Real Ultimate Power, which means they are 1) mammals, 2) fighters who fight out ALL the time, and 3) prone to flip out and kill people. They are self-contradictions, being reckless while also careful and precise. In the latter, ninja are descendants of a long line of honorable ninja devoted to serving others, and the best way to serve in the 21st Century is to deliver fast food in 30 minutes or less.

A recent Internet theme has pirates being the hated enemies of the ninja. Not only are the two ripe for stereotyping in a humorous fashion, but their antithetical outlooks on life make them obvious opponents (even if there is no basis in reality for such opposition); pirates are loud, flashy, rude, crude extroverts who clash swords on the high seas, and ninja are quiet, reserved, polite, refined introverts who work from the shadows.

Myths of Ninja

There are many myths and legends concerning ninja, who were most prevalent during Japan's feudal era and often served daimyō, 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.

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.

External links

de:Ninja fr:Ninja ia:Ninja ja:忍者 ms:Ninja nl:ninja pl:Ninja sv:ninja zh:忍者


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