Created | Updated May 1, 2012
The word 'Ninja' tends to conjure up images either of black-clad assassins, moving silently through the night to bring pointy death to their unsuspecting victims, or of anthropomorphic turtles beating the tar out of confused villains, who can't tell a reptile from an amphibian. Leaving the latter aside for a moment, the former image is perhaps the most common, having been spread in a slew of movies, cartoons, comics, and computer games, especially in the late 1980s and early '90s.
But what, in fact, is a Ninja? Aside from the alleged 'art of concealment' mentioned in the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, the martial arts skills and pizza-scarfing exploits of those damned turtles or the balaclava-wearing (and thus faceless) villains of the martial arts scene, what is there to understanding this enigmatic and compelling group?
Historical and Legendary Origins of Ninjutsu
The Roots of Ninjutsu
Probably around 500-700AD, Nonuse was developed in Japan. Translated as 'the art of stealth', Nonuse was first practised in mystic form as a system of enlightenment and self-improvement. The roots of this practice are often placed in the mountains of central Honshu, and attributed to a unique take on a combination of Shinto religious philosophy with Mikkyo spiritual practices and the influence of Chinese warriors, philosophers, and strategists left outcast by the rise of the T'ang Dynasty. Another reputed influence were the Shugenja, another group dwelling in the mountains. This was a sect of spiritual survivalists who sought enlightenment and self improvement by exposing themselves to the ravages of the elements. Most sources consider the Nonuse of this period to have been a strictly non-violent movement.
The lives of the Japanese peasantry were probably never all that pleasant, but over time the imbalance of power between lord and vassal grew, and the feudal aristocracy became more and more oppressive. Peasant resistance to such oppression would have of necessity been a furtive affair, since the common folk lacked the training and equipment of their enemies. As a part of such resistance, practitioners of Nonuse began to use their spiritual training to more practical ends. For some, in particular the modern schools of reconstructed Ninjutsu, this Robin Hood-type image is the one true perception of the Ninja.
The word Ninja only came into use later, and is based on the root nin, which is translated variously as 'perseverance', 'stealth', or 'patience', depending on context; and the Japanese kanji (ideographic character) is also transliterated 'shinobi'. Ninjutsu was the collective term for the Ninja fighting arts, the equivalent of the Samurai Kenjutsu or sword arts, while Ninpo is a term used for their philosophy.
The Rise of the Ninja
It was with the rise of the military class in the Heian period (794-1185) that the true Ninja first began to appear. Following the Taika reforms in the preceding Nara period (710-794) a radical restructuring of Japanese government and administration, which included the purchase and redistribution of all land by the state - high taxation forced many farmers to sell their land and become tenants to wealthier landowners. These landowners then began to hire Samurai1 to protect their property, enforce their rule, and increase their power, while the lot of the peasantry grew ever worse.
This is the time of the Ninja, as perceived by the modern western mind, in as much as such a creature ever existed. From their peasant resistance roots, the Ninja at some stage became organised into families. Ninja lore insists that the members of these families trained in all manner of martial arts and survival skills from childhood; but, although this may be an exaggeration, what seems certain is that they became an effective counterculture to the Samurai families, who ruled the feudal system, employing their 'art of stealth' along with effective guerilla tactics to combat the better equipped adversary.
These methods were considered cowardly by the Samurai, as they flew in the face of the Bushido (warrior code), by which the Samurai lived, fought, and died. This accusation of cowardice, however, is one levelled against almost every guerilla fighting force ever created, including American skirmishers in the War of Independence2. For the Ninja, as for all these others, such accusations were as water off a duck's back when the alternative was having to confront a superior enemy face to face. Even if the Ninja did train from childhood, so too did the Samurai, whose place in society was not only predestined by birth, but supported by the entire feudal system. The Samurai of the Heian period were, if not so mighty as reported in later legend, certainly the finest warriors Japan had to offer. For the Ninja, a stand-up fight would have meant slaughter.
This is also the period of history in which the employment of Ninja as spies, informants, and assassins is first recorded, not merely as a form of resistance against the ruling elite, but also as their agents in inter-clan disputes and warfare. Some claim that this is propaganda, that the official histories go to great lengths to make the Ninja out to be mercenary killers rather than noble peasant heroes. The reconstructed school also blames 'renegade' Ninja for bringing the art into disrepute by selling their skills in this way. It is generally accepted however, even by Ninja apologists, that the Ninja clans of this period became involved in power politics; and that they did on occasion side with one or another of the various Samurai clans.
The Fall of the Ninja
The Ninja arose with the Samurai, but it would seem that they rose too high. Pro-Ninja accounts tell that the Ninja families attained a power as great as the Samurai; but, as the Ninja clans gained in political power, they were increasingly perceived as being more dangerous than they were useful. Modern Ninja lore tells that in the 17th Century the Ninja were all but annihilated by their frightened rivals at great cost, the few survivors going underground to keep their arts alive in secret, as countercultures and secret societies are wont to do. A European comparison could be drawn to The Templars.
Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the privileges of the Samurai class were extended to all Japanese and the carrying of swords was outlawed, effectively marking the end of the military class as a body distinct from the rest of the nation. With the reality a thing of the past, the Meiji period saw the emergence of the romanticized version of the Samurai. As in Europe, the Age of Chivalry occurred some time after the armoured knight had ceased to be the ultimate form of warrior. The Ninja, already ill-recorded in contemporary, official (Samurai) histories, became further marginalised, as all things Samurai - and especially Bushido - became admirable. Many histories are said to refer to Ninja as Samurai whenever they have achieved something good.
The Tools and Methods of the Ninja
Ninjutsu is a fairly vague, catch-all term for the arts of the Ninja. In addition to the various mystical powers attributed to them, the Ninja are said to have practised not only combat skills, armed and unarmed, but also tai-jutsu (a hand fighting technique using pressure points to paralyse and kill an enemy), kuji-in mystical hand signs, astronomy, meditation, navigation, survival, climbing and athletics, herbology, toxicology, and escapology. To hear the modern Ninjutsu schools talk, any adult Ninja was a master of all of these and more.
While it is likely that the Ninja studied many or even all of these skills, it is unlikely that any given individual would have had so wide a knowledge. In their beginnings, at least, they would have had to divide training with farming or hunting just for their own subsistence; and, while there may have been a few 'Renaissance' Ninja, so to speak, most would more likely be specialists; one a poison maker, one a navigator and astronomer, one an infiltrator, and so forth.
It seems also that the most important Ninja skill, and the one most suggested by their name, would have been the 'art of fighting without fighting'3. Stealth is not used in combat, but rather to avoid combat. Guerilla fighters, spies, saboteurs, and assassins are not shock troops; and for such individuals fighting is often a sign of failure. Despite the insistence of modern Ninja lore that the Ninja were devastating warriors, there is still an acceptance that they did not operate in open warfare. Evasion, obfuscation, and surprise are the weapons of an assassin; and it is fair to assume that the Ninja in the field would have used all of them well.
Likewise, one of the Ninja's most powerful weapons against the Samurai would have been their rejection of Bushido. The Samurai's adherence to the warrior code constrained them, and left them ill-equipped to deal with sneak attacks, sabotage, poisonings, and infiltration, as these were things that a Samurai enemy would not do. Samurai would be expected to meet each other face to face, but a Ninja would be a fool to do so. Therefore, they used any method, strategy, or trick that would work, and so made for themselves a niche which the Samurai could never fill without them.
A great deal is made of 'Ninja honour' these days, but the idea of a code similar to Bushido sits ill with the picture we are given. If such a thing as Ninja honour existed then it would likely be in a form more akin to the Mafia code of silence. A Ninja would have to be loyal to his family (unlike the Samurai, whose loyalty was to liege lord first and clan second) and be prepared to do whatever needed to be done to protect the family, its holdings, or its interests. It would have to be an honour that was not infringed by attacking from hiding or from using poisons and guerilla tactics.
Weapons and Equipment
A great deal is said of Ninja weapons. But one thing is certain; they lacked the sophistication, precision, and quality of the swords of the Samurai4. The Samurai sword has been the subject of countless essays on its form, function, and composition; a Samurai's blade was his life, his very soul. He lived by the sword, he died by the sword. A Ninja's sword - or any other weapon he might carry - was just another tool.
The Ninjato was a short sword, crafted with far less care than the Samurai katana or tachi. The Samurai sword art, Kenjutsu, focused almost exclusively on attack, especially in its more advanced forms, but the Ninja sword was more used in defence. It was often straight, and, although some did possess a curve to make them more effective slashing weapons, overall there was more emphasis on the thrust. Additionally, the short blade would be quicker to draw than a longer one, and it has been suggested that, in the event of an unavoidable confrontation, this would allow the Ninja to incapacitate a Samurai's sword arm before he could draw his katana and slice the Ninja into Ninja-sukiyaki.
It was said of Arthur's blade, Excalibur, that the scabbard was worth ten of the sword, and such is also said of the Ninjato. Ninjato scabbards were longer than the swords, allowing the tip to be used as a storage compartment for various small tools, almost like a Swiss army knife. Some also mention detachable tips, turning the scabbard into a blowgun (highly unlikely) or a snorkel. The sword itself may also have been used as a climbing tool (certainly an action unthinkable to a Samurai), suggesting that the Ninjato might be forged for durability rather than to hold a perfect cutting edge.
The Ninjato was built for speed, but other Ninja weapons tried to gain an edge in reach, especially those based around chains and chords. The kusarigama was a sickle attached to a length of chain, while the ever-popular nunchaku consists of two wooden bars connected by a short chain. Both weapons would be used as much to entangle and pin an adversary as to strike. The kyoketsu-shogei was a knife on a chord, probably used more to keep an enemy at bay than to entangle.
Sickles and knives and other common agricultural tools were popular, as purpose-built weapons were unavailable to the majority of the peasantry. The Kusarigama also shows these roots in peasant equipment and the nunchaku were in fact rice threshers. Likewise, the tonfa, an L-shaped wooden baton that could be held along the arm to assist blocks, was a mill handle in its civilian role. The common staff was also a popular weapon.
The 'signature' weapon of the Ninja is surely the shuriken, the throwing star. The shuriken, in the form of a pronged metal disc with sharpened edges, is a common image associated with Ninja (both in human and turtle form), but is in itself not the most deadly of weapons. Although sharp and vicious, the size of a shuriken limits the power and accuracy with which it can be thrown5, such that it is of most use as a means of distraction rather than as a lethal weapon. The edges could be poisoned, although this would be a risky proposition with a weapon that is sharp all around, and would still not be the most efficient way either to fight or to poison someone. One suggested use for the shuriken is in the promotion of the Ninja mythology. The lightweight star is as likely to deflect from the skin or clothing, leaving a shallow cut, as it is to lodge in the flesh of its target. This would be useful as a psychological weapon, creating an impression of an invisible, taunting assailant.
Other Ninja weapons claimed by various sources include poison darts, caltrops (small spiked devices designed to stick into the feet of the unwary, and in particular to hurt and frighten horses), grappling hooks, blinding mixtures of sand, metal filings, and pepper, magic Ninja powders and steel claws, worn on the hands and feet. These last were also said to be used to aid in climbing and were but part of the vast array of special gadgets claimed as Ninja tools. Shoes with animal tracks carved on the bottom to confuse trackers, folding boats, and special floating shoes for walking on water are all a part of the Ninja legend, if not the Ninja fact.
Once again, some sources suggest that a fully equipped Ninja would have been too heavily burdened to walk easily, let alone move stealthily.
A final note should be made about the Ninja costume. The shinobi shozoko seen in the movies, covering the Ninja from head to foot save for a slit about the eyes, was probably invented by Dr Masaaki Hatsumi, who is essentially the creator of modern Ninjutsu.
Legends, Rumours and Propaganda
The Wow Factor
The 'wow factor' is something inherent in any esoteric study, such as the martial arts, that involve dramatic displays inexplicable to the uninitiated. This is best summed up by Arthur C Clarke's famous statement, known as Clarke's Law, that says that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. To a man who has never seen a television, it might seem magical; but to us it is mundane, because we know roughly how it works, and because we are used to it. Likewise what to David Copperfield is a clever trick is to his audience an act of magic, or at least of spectacular illusion. It is also worth mentioning that the vast majority of people don't know how most of their toys and gadgets work. Their faith in technology is rather closer to a belief that they work 'by magic' than most of them might be comfortable with.
The martial arts possess a similar 'wow factor', in that they can seem to allow people to do seemingly impossible things such as break thick wooden planks or even bricks with their bare hands. In fact, such things are quite simple; during a demonstration of karate, the American television talk show host Jerry Springer was taught to punch through a plank in less than a minute. However, even knowing that most martial arts are about the careful application of forces, it does not stop it from being amazing that someone like Bruce Lee could punch a man from a distance of just one inch and send him flying over six feet backwards. It is incredible, and with no understanding of its principles, it seems almost magical.
Ninjustu had - and has - a similar effect, although in the case of the Ninja the 'wow factor' it is almost as much about what is not seen as what is seen. For example, a Samurai fortress might be seen as invulnerable to attack, because of the strength and height of its walls, the skill and numbers of its defenders and so on. And to a Samurai, such a fortress would be impregnable, because the only way that they could conceive of taking it would be to assault it with their own armies. Thus, if a Ninja or group of Ninja were to enter the fortress by stealth and kill the lord who commanded it, or destroy the defenders by poisoning their water supply, this might seem incredible, even miraculous to the Samurai.
Reputation and Reality
Sherlock Holmes said that if you eliminate the impossible then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Such is the human condition however, that the mind will tend to swiftly eliminate the improbable and complicated, leaving nothing but the impossible yet elegant under consideration. Consequently, if you knew that the walls were guarded, the windows closed, the doors locked to start with, and find them so again, yet with evidence that someone has entered the building, the simple mental trap is to eliminate the possibility of someone having crossed the wall, or entered by the door or window without breaking it.
If a Ninja has stolen something from within your guarded chambers, then the Ninja must be able to become invisible. Or perhaps he can pass through walls, or fly, or he simply spirited the item away by his magic. If your son drops dead from no apparent cause, despite your best efforts to protect him, then it must be an evil spell. If your enemies know your plans they must have access to some powerful magic. The idea that perhaps the Ninja simply outwitted your guards, or bribed them, or put poison in your son's food, or was listening, unobserved, to your planning sessions, might not occur to you, being outside your experience.
Such stories about the Ninja abound in the Samurai histories, and it is unlikely that the Ninja would have done anything to disabuse outsiders of any misconception. Quite aside from the fact that Ninpo contained a potent, mystical element which might well have considered the skills of Ninjutsu to be in part magical, a counterculture unable to survive a direct conflict with their opposite numbers could only benefit from a fearsome reputation. If a single Ninja was seen to be able to slay a hundred enemies, kill a man with a touch or a breath, leap nine feet straight up, become invisible, walk through walls and across water, and cut a Samurai down with his sword at a hundred paces, it would certainly dissuade their enemies from trying to tackle a whole family of them.
Of course, such exaggerated tales might also have contributed to the Ninja's downfall, as fear of their skills became too great to allow them to live. Reputations are double-edged swords after all.
Modern Ninjutsu and the Ninja Reconstruction
Dr Masaaki Hatsumi
Soke Masaaki Hatsumi, 34th Grand Master of the Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu tradition and 'eight other Budo traditions' is probably the man best regarded as responsible for bringing serious Ninjutsu to the wider audience. Born in 1931 in Noda city in the Chiba Prefecture of Japan, Hatsumi studied many martial arts but supposedly he became disillusioned by their emphasis on set forms, called kata, over more fundamental principles. Similarly, the martial artist and actor Bruce Lee developed his own style, Jeet Kun Do, as a means of transcending the formalism of traditional Chinese martial arts.
Studying ancient martial arts in an attempt to get back to basics, Hatsumi heard of a sensei ('teacher') named Toshitsugu Takamatsu. Travelling to Takamatsu's home, Hatsumi (by his own account) proceeded to get clobbered like he had never been clobbered before, but the old man nonetheless agreed to teach him, apparently seeing some true potential inside him. Given the Togakure Ryu Ninpo Taijutsu scrolls, Hatsumi set about training himself, travelling at regular intervals to practice with his sensei. He founded a school called Bujinkan Dojo ('Divine Warrior Training Hall') to teach what he saw as the root of all Japanese martial arts.
The first foreigners were taught at Bujinkan Dojo in the early 1970s, and in the 1980s, during the Ninja craze in the USA, Hatsumi's annual seminar tours came to be regarded as one of a handful of genuine wheat grains amid the chaff of ancient Ninja schools. Whether or not - as per Hatsumi's claims - the school has existed in pure and perfect form for over eight centuries, it seems generally held that his teachings are, if not genuine, then certainly extremely valid.
At the time of writing, Hatsumi still gives his annual tours, still teaches and continues in his aim to spread the word of Togakure Ryu Bujinkan Taijutsu. He uses the word Bujinkan instead of Ninpo these days to try and demystify his art and lead it away from the evil assassin image. Much of the received history of Ninjutsu is drawn from the Togakure Ryu scrolls, including much of that recounted above. Like most modern Ninjutsu teachers, Soke Hatsumi suggests a very noble image of the Ninja, defending their lands from harm above all else. However, he does not deny that they operated outside the law and in opposition to received ideas of honour and proper behaviour.
Perhaps the least likely aspect of Togakure Ryu Bujinkan Taijutsu is its 'warrior creed'. This snappy little motto states,
Wherever I am, anyone in need has a friend;
Whenever I return home, everyone is glad I am there.
While there are others like Hatsumi who teach a respectable philosophy and accept a somewhat shady past for the Ninja (from which they attempt to divorce themselves and their schools, either by blaming 'renegade Ninja', stating that what was acceptable and needful then is not acceptable and needful now, or simply by separating the art from the practitioner) there are still a fair few who offer training in the secret Ninja arts of stealth and the 37 touches of instant death, or some such rubbish. These are also among the worst for claiming that the Ninja were really just like the Samurai, universally wielding high status (and high cost) katanas and engaging in endless honourable duels. This is part of the mystique that these people try to evoke around Ninjutsu, selling - unlike Soke Hatsumi - a complete, if totally unrealistic, lifestyle instead of a system of unarmed combat and a basic philosophy.
While the Occident's interest has waned somewhat and a lot of this sort have gone back to teaching judo to inner city youths or selling famous monuments to tourists, Hollywood (and the rest of the film industry) does retain many of the trappings of the 1980s Ninja fever. As central characters, Ninja are rarer now, but from time to time a squadron of slightly inept martial arts assassins in black pyjama's will turn up and start creating mayhem, or a lone warrior will have to battle for survival in the savage urban jungle armed only with his wits, fists, Ninja lore, and an arsenal of bizarre or improvised weapons.
The diametric opposites of evil assassin and noble hero still appear (you can always tell which type a movie character is; if he has a name and takes his hood off he's a hero, if not then he's a villain), if with reduced frequency, and we live now under the constant threat of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV or the latest instalment in the epic Three Ninja Kids saga. As a general rule, Ninja are no longer the heroes of choice in Hollywood, but they still make occasional appearances as evil henchlings.
Ninjas, Turtles and Superhumans
It was ten years ago now that four rubber faced heroes burst onto the cinema screen, becoming as notorious for their cries of 'Cowabunga' and craving for pizza as for their Ninja skills. The Ninja craze was actually coming to an end by then, but the 1980s saw Hollywood go Ninja mad.
The Internet Movie Database lists 219 films and TV series with Ninja in the title (115 of them dating from the 1980s), including those darn turtles about five times over, the three Ninjas/Ninja Kids more times than one can shake a Ninjato at, and the sadly inaccurate The Last Ninja. Unless they were a cute kid or a mutated reptile, very few of these Ninja even wore hoods or masks, but they kicked really high. Ninjutsu basically became a fashionable replacement for karate or kung fu in a lot of films, having the great strength that someone who did it could be called a Ninja, which was catchier than 'bloke who does karate'... Which is not to say that other martial arts don't have such catchy terms for their practitioners, or that Ninja doesn't mean something much more than just 'bloke who does ninjutsu', just that they aren't as well known.
A popular element in these films is the Ninja code of honour. In Hollywood terms, this was usually more akin to Bushido than to whatever internal code the Ninja families may have practised. A great many Hollywood Ninja also carry a Samurai sword, or even the daisho, the paired katana (long sword) and wakizashi (short sword), the bearing of which was the unique prerogative of late period Samurai. To compound the error, they usually wear the katana with the cutting edge down, like an Occidental sabre, which is patently incorrect. In short, Hollywood Ninja were like Samurai in black pyjamas.
The pop culture Ninja - if he is not a faceless bad guy - is typically a heroic sort. In stark contrast to the grim necessity which spawned their namesakes, these Ninja selflessly battle crime, usually in the Batman mould. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a case in point, at least in their cartoon incarnation.
From their comic book origins to their cinematic grave, the Turtles straddle the complete range of modern Ninja representations. Spawned as gritty, violent, isolated creatures, battling a gang of organised criminals, led by their sensei's old nemesis, they become a bunch of goody-two-shoes martial arts crime fighters, who seem quite unwilling to put in the extra distance to make sure their foes do not just come back next week and try to kill them again. In fairness, this is perhaps because you can't have the heroes chase down and kill the fleeing villain for a children's cartoon, let alone poison his food and water without being seen. Likewise, from being brutal and devious warriors, they adopted the hampering, sweeping Hollywood honour code.
Perhaps the main thing that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their ilk show us was that the 'real' Ninja does not have a heroic place in mainstream culture. The brutal ethos which served them in the harsh feudal society of medieval Japan sits uneasily in the context of a modern world.
For more information about Ninja and the art of Ninjutsu read Sensei Masaaki Hatsumi's book, Ninjutsu and Tradition.