Ninja History Lesson The origin of Japan's unseen terrorists

    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?

    2012 ninja turtles costomes on stage
    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.

    jesus fighting a ninja

    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

    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

    costumed ninja standing by a tree

    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

    ninja disguised as a buddhist monk
    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.

    map of a japanese castle

    By design, Japanese castles were difficult to navigate, with winding paths abound. 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

    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.

    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.

    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.

    There’s much more to ninja than just swords, shuriken, and shinobi magic. They were more than assassins, and played a large part in Japan’s history. Over time, they’ve been dramatized in popular media and had their image warped. But none of that erases the true awesomeness that is the ninja.