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Most everyone’s initial exposure to ninja comes from anything but a legitimate source. The first time many of us see a ninja, it’s either in a movie or an anime or a video game. However, most all popular media doesn’t really depict ninja in a realistic manner. So how much do you actually know about these secret spies and assassins of Japan’s past? Let’s find out.

What is a Ninja?

These are not ninja.

The ninja was a covert agent in feudal Japanese times who specialized in unorthodox warfare including espionage, sabotage, infiltration, and assassination. Compared to the samurai who were very upfront and honorable with their tactics, the ninja proved a stark contrast.

It is unsure as to exactly when the ninja started popping up in Japan, but it is widely believed to be sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries. Some even postulate that the Japanese ninja had ties back to ancient China. The Sengoku period (15th-17th century) however, was definitely the golden age of the ninja in Japan. This was when the famous Iga and Koga ninja started to form and ninja were widely hired for their unique skill set.

By the Meiji era, the ninja were famous throughout Japan with most of the knowledge surrounding them being based on mystery and folklore. Ninja could supposedly turn invisible, control the elements, and walk on water. Basically they were like Jesus.

Despite these many folktales surrounding ninja, legitimate historical accounts are scarce. This is not really a surprise as they are in fact ninja, masters of stealth and secrecy. Many ninja were recruited from the lower class, or rejected samurai, and most of the historical focus was on the upper class and noble samurai during the time.

The Rise of the Ninja

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In the 15th century, ninja were recruited as spies, raiders, arsonists, and terrorists. The samurai were expected to fight properly and with decorum. Ninja, however, didn’t have to adhere to these ritualistic formalities. Ninja were free to work in the shadows and do as they pleased to achieve their results.

The Sengoku period was rife with conflict, and the ninja became particularly useful during this time. Ninja families were organized into guilds, many with their own individual territories throughout Japan. They were even ranked into three classes depending on their role and function within the guild.

The Iga and Koga Ninja

Unlike the commoners that were hired as makeshift spies and mercenaries, the ninja from Iga and Koga were the real deal. They were professional, full-time ninja. They were actively hired by the Japanese ruling class between 1485 and 1581 to carry out their dirty deeds. That is until Oda Nobunaga came in and wiped them all out, scattering them all over Japan. No one messes with Nobunaga and gets away with it.

The ninja that managed to escape Nobunaga went on to become specialized bodyguards and hired guns. During the 18th century, some ninja were brought together to form Japan’s first secret service and intelligence agency. These ninja were assigned as bodyguards and secret police, with many disguised as common workers and gardeners to discreetly infiltrate, observe, and protect.

Main Roles and Countermeasures

“lol, no one knows I’m a ninja.”

Espionage was the main role of the ninja. Armed with an array of disguises, the ninja gathered information on enemy terrain, building specifications, and secret passwords. They also practiced sabotage, most often in the form of arson, targeting castles and camps. But ninja are perhaps most well known and infamous for their assassinations. Even Oda Nobunaga himself had several attempts made on his life by ninja. No wonder he wanted to have them destroyed.

To prevent these ninja from running amok, a series of countermeasures were implemented. To prevent potential ninja victims from being caught unprepared, weapons were often concealed in bathrooms and under floorboards. Buildings were also constructed to include traps and trip wires attached to alarm bells.

By design, Japanese castles were difficult to navigate, with winding paths abound. See for yourself with the Japanese Castle Explorer. Holes in the walls also allowed those on watch to have a great view of pretty much everything going on along the pathways.

There were even hallway floors specifically designed to squeak loudly when walked over. Many grounds were also covered with gravel which is pretty hard to traverse silently. Buildings were also segregated in such a way to help in contain and extinguish any fires.

Tactics, Weapons, and Other Junk

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Ninja did not always work alone and often worked in teams. Some ninja would even dress in the same garb as their enemies during attacks, causing great confusion. Often they would disguise themselves as priests, street performers, fortune tellers, merchants, ronin, and monks.

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As far as equipment, the ninja employed a wide variety of tools, many of which have been popularized in movies, comics, and video games. Many of these specialized tools and equipment were responsible for starting the legends of the ninja having supernatural powers. Under the cover of night, many of these unfamiliar tools seemed like magic to their victims.

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And for even more on the ninja, I recommend checking out the above video which is the first part of a four part documentary on ninja. It’s pretty good.


So as one can see, there’s much more to ninja than just swords, shuriken, and shinobi magic. They were not just assassins, and played a large part in Japan’s history. Over time, they’ve been dramaticized in popular media and their image warped. But all in all, ninja are pretty darn cool.

So tell me, what do you think of ninja? How do you think they stack up to other fighters such as samurai? Have you ever taken any ninjutsu or ninpo martial arts classes? Let us know in the comments!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cody-Buchanon/1830834538 Cody Buchanon

    “Ninja could supposedly turn invisible, control the elements, and walk on water. Basically they were like Jesus.” Yes, or perhaps Jesus himself was a ninja of righteousness XD

  • NihongoCake

    “Compared to the samurai who were very upfront and honorable with their tactics, the ninja proved a stark contrast.” Ninja had a certain view of life as well, called ninniku :D ‘Cultivating a pure and compassionate heart’ was the big idea… Don’t really now if you mentioned this somewhere, ’cause I didn’t read the whole article :)

  • John

    Yeah, the ninja had a certain code, but it was more about not doing anything for personal gain. Everything was for the greater good (their guild, region, ruler, etc) but they would still use sneaky and underhanded tactics to accomplish things.

  • ZXNova

    Thank you for this article. It truely gives a realistic view of ninja.

  • Dirty

    My understanding (limited as it is) is that many ninja were “born” out of necessity in the farming communities to help stop raids against their town’s farms. Simple farmers trained in martial arts and using any farming tools available as weapons. Some going to the extreme of hiding and ambushing their attackers from the rice fields as they toiled away dressed as simple farmers. Great little article, I totally enjoyed it.

  • Edo

    私は忍者ですし、私の魂は、日本の忍者です! http://www.facebook.com/edo.nin.7

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristina.rosano Kristina Rosano

    1: Do NOT compare Jesus Christ to a Ninja — It is an insult to Ninja everywhere (Hanzo Hattori is rolling in his grave) — Jesus wishes he was half as cool as a Ninja
    2: Ninja FTW — we need ninja here in the new age — a single well trained ninja squad of three could have ended this “war on terror” in less than a week, and saved the country billions.
    3: it is my understanding that ninja did not lack ethics, but rather, saw the world as more than just black and white, and understood that sometimes it is better for the world if you just take the headshot from behind and call it a day. Only samurai and Black Star are going to jump in front of you and scream “I’M HERE TO ASSASSINATE YOU~! XD”

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryo.uchinomiya Ryo Uchinomiya

    I have weird experiences while I was In Denver attending university. (I am born and raised in Japan.) That was my first time know the word “Shintoism,” first time I learned how to maintain Samurai Sword, and first time I know Japanese people are so ignorant to Japanese Culture…
    You told me a lot about Ninja. Japanese people has “twisted” image and knowledge toward Ninja, too, by watching “NARUTO” or other Ninja TV’s. This is pure. Thank you.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I like how you managed to hide 17 different ninjas in the header image. Very sneaky!

  • lychalis

    I remember reading somewhere that samurai thought ninja had no honour, and that ninja though samurai clumsy. Can’t remember where, though.

  • DAVIDPD

    Go Ninja, Go Ninja, GO!!!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    The last two were the hardest to find!

  • Tora.Silver

    I spent 5 minutes trying to find them until I realized you were probably kidding.

    (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻

  • 実は、僕はも忍者です

    素晴らしい話、お兄さん。

  • Tora.Silver

    Love.

  • drxmd

    Navy Seals and CIA ops are the modern day equivalent.

  • luscher

    of Jesus ?

  • luscher

    thanks for reminding us that ”the ninja was a _covert_ agent” because to me Ninja are two people who face off in a boxing ring ( i saw ”Enter the Ninja” more than once back in the 80s )

  • drxmd

    No, the united states

  • Alessa

    I can’t watch the last video in my country, does anyone know if there is another chance to watch the documentary?

  • yudha satya

    yey , i want tob be a ninja

  • Not as much of an idiot as you

    This is a terrible article. I am amazed that no one has noticed how this is practically the exact same thing as the Wikipedia page on ninjas. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninja) This is the first of your posts that I have read, but unfortunately, it is also the last. Rephrasing a sentence here and there does not give you the right to pass off others’ work as your own. Everyone gawk and stare at plagiarism at its finest.

  • kevin

    Really interesting

  • ninjarock123

    How cool is this history i love it