These superheroes of martial arts lore may not be exactly what you thought they were.
by Brian Dunning
March 8, 2016
You're guarding your lord's castle one warm summer night during a period of unrest, keeping a sharp eye on the trees beyond the wall. Suddenly a tiny razor-steel grappling hook snatches a beam overhead, and you whirl just in time to see a black-clad figure running up the wall as if by magic. You reach for a weapon when other dark warriors drop from places of concealment; flames erupt in the courtyard, and before you can act, a throwing star buries itself in your throat. As you stagger toward the wall, blood coursing down your armor, you meet the eyes of the man who just threw it: a steely gaze peering through a slit in a black mask. As he springs away, you topple off the wall and fall toward oblivion. You've just had an encounter with a ninja. Or, rather, a purely fictional ninja.
This vision of the ninja as a masked, black-robed commando had appeared in a number of 20th century movies and books, but what really made it popular was the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which informed virtually every depiction of ninja in today's pop culture. In it, Bond trains at a martial arts fighting academy to become a ninja, and joins a battalion of them to storm SPECTRE's rocket launch facility hidden inside a mountain, in open warfare. Everything about the ninja depicted in this scene is accurate, except for a few details: Real ninja didn't wear black, they didn't fight in open battle, they didn't work in large teams, they weren't trained in any special fighting techniques, and they weren't called ninja. Other than that, it was spot on.
Ninja fascinate us with their seemingly magical abilities; they can do just about anything, according to legend, while unseen; and they are — so far as most of us know — virtually undefeatable in combat. They are the superpowered superheroes of martial arts. So our fascination draws us to want to learn more. Who were they, and what could they really do? If the popular James Bond version of a ninja is not true, then what version is? And, let's be honest, the question we all really want to know is "Can I have those superpowers too?"
First we'll turn to the history books to see if we can nail down exactly what a ninja was. Throughout the history of Japan — as in other countries — there have been people who engaged in activities like combat and espionage and skullduggery, both legally and illegally, working for the government, or for masters, or independently. So in point of fact, there isn't really a dividing line between who was a ninja and who wasn't; but for the purpose of this discussion, we'll focus on the specific historical group with whom the term is most closely associated.
We're going to the Sengoku period, 1467 to 1603.This was a time when the Emperor, who was the true head of state, vested most of his power in the Shogun, who was the actual military ruler. During the Sengoku period, the Shogun had failed to win the loyalty of many lords nationwide. Large scale civil warfare centered in the capital city Kyoto, triggered by a controversial Shogun succession, crumbled into a lengthy period of small local wars, until three warlords finally managed to reunite Japan in 1615. It was during this 150-year period that the need for ninja arose, and when they accordingly flourished.
Every local town and faction needed its own security and miniature military infrastructure. Open warfare was too dangerous and expensive and destructive, so it was avoided whenever possible. Much better was quiet warfare. Spreading propaganda, spreading rumors. The theft of documents. Gathering of intelligence. Agitation. Sabotage. Infiltration. Turning a lord's commanders against one another. Breeding dissent. Raiding enemy supplies. The occasional act of arson. And, rarely, stealthy assassinations. And, even more rarely, combat, usually limited to a single household or compound. This was sustainable warfare, better fitting the scale of individual villages and tribes.
Samurai were available, but were entirely unsuited for this kind of quiet war. The samurai were about ostentatious display, fancy costumes, great famous names, loudly trumpeted honor. But in these tenuous times, the Japanese needed the opposite of all of those things. And so there came to be a skill set called shinobi no jutsu, the skills of stealth and perseverance. Those practiced in this art were known as shinobi no mono, man of stealth and perseverance, or just shinobi in common usage. The shinobi were what we today call the ninja, based on the modern pronunciation of the ideograms. In their day, they were the shinobi.
Over the years, these specialists came to be in increasing demand from lords throughout the region. It began to be a profession, and many of the best came from the regions of Iga and Kōga where shinobi were actually trained. A guild system soon emerged. Lords would hire senior shinobi called jōnin, and the jōnin would hire the rank and file. Normal soldiers were always available to handle fighting duties, but the shinobi provided a very different kind of resource to the lords. Samurai might have been the public face of a lord's forces, but his shinobi may well have been his busiest, and most effective, tools.
There were female shinobi too, in yet another break from the samurai. Called kunoichi, they were uniquely valuable because they were rarely suspected. They were recruited from positions such as prostitutes, which gave them unique opportunities for espionage.
We do know a lot about the shinobi, because the schools in Iga and Kōga where so many of them were trained kept good records and wrote down their methods. Eventually, authors compiled these documents, and today there are three primary great masterworks that encompass the skills and training of the shinobi trade. They are the Shōninki written in 1681, the Bansenshukai written in 1676, and the Ninpiden written in 1655. All of these are available in translated form. Note that they were all written after the Sengoku period, and together are considered by Japanese historians to be fairly complete.
From these works and the other documents that preceded them, we can now give a pretty thorough and reliable verdict on each of the many ninja myths. So let's go through a few of the most popular ones and see if you can tell fact from fiction, now that we have a pretty good grasp on the true history of the shinobi:
Myth: Ninjas wore black robes and masks.
False. Most ninjas rolled around dressed as priests or merchants or farmers. They would never, ever signal their presence by wearing some kind of identifying uniform or obvious crime-costume like a black mask.
For covert operations, shinobi typically went at night to most easily avoid detection. But even then they had to be prepared to walk through a gate or greet passersby, so were trained to wear passable civilian clothes that would not attract attention. If it was a night with a full moon, these clothes would be mostly white. If it was a dark night, dark blue was suggested, but never black.
Records of the black robes and mask that represent today's stereotype do appear in historical accounts, but only beginning in the peaceful period after 1615, after the Sengoku period.
Myth: Ninjas used throwing stars.
False, at least never to any large degree. Throwing stars, or shuriken, are terrible weapons. With luck they can give a nasty cut, but no way are they ever going to kill or disable someone. The last thing a shinobi wanted was an injured man shouting or raising the alarm. Even when used by the samurai, with which shuriken were actually most closely associated, they were used for distraction and not direct attack. When a shinobi wanted to distract someone, he'd be far more likely to toss a pebble or something that wouldn't give him away.
True shuriken were disposable, and were crudely made. They bore little resemblance to today's finely cut, polished steel examples.
In all of the shinobi documentation, there is only one reference to a throwing star, and it comes from peacetime.
Myth: Ninjas had superpowers like invisibility and walking on water.
False, obviously. Claims like these have no historical basis, and arise entirely from 20th century fiction. But it does present a good opportunity to look at the skills they actually were trained in. For that, we'll look at our fourth ninja myth:
Myth: Ninja employed the deadliest martial art of them all: Ninjutsu.
True and false; true they used this, false, it was not a martial art nor a fighting technique at all. It also wasn't called this. Ninjutsu is the modern word for shinobi no jutsu. Although many shinobi were also trained fighters, it was not a part of shinobi no jutsu. To understand all the lessons of shinobi no jutsu, you should read one of the three masterworks. But we can give a summary here. Much of it is quite interesting, but you will be disappointed if you think you will learn any applicable superpowers.
Shinobi training included a lot about traveling incognito or in disguise, getting along with people of varying dialects and cultures, and dressing and grooming in the right style. It covered secret communications like signaling and writing in code. There was a lot about the relevant points of geography, like estimating distances and river depths, and counting people and the sizes of enemy forces. Much of it focused on observational skills, teaching shinobi to be almost like Sherlock Holmes inasmuch as what could be learned by looking at people and towns. Shinobi should then be able to infiltrate, either in plain view by blending in, or even unseen by using what they've learned. There were extensive lessons on burglar tools that could be used for gaining entrance to just about anything. And my favorite section is found in two volumes of the Bansenshukai called "Opportunities Bestowed by Heaven", which just as it sounds, was recognizing and taking advantage of chances afforded by the natural progression of things in the town or in nature. Training also included a signficant amount of tactics and strategies from Sun Tzu's famous Chinese book The Art of War. A lot of it was pretty clever stuff which reads like common sense, but things you and I might never have thought of in our daily lives.
The shinobi were best known for their stealth. When you think about it, it is exquisitely appropriate that today, pretty much everything we know about them is wrong. We call them by the wrong name, we have a 100% wrong impression of what we think they looked like, and our understanding of who they were and what they did is informed almost entirely by fiction rather than by their actual history. So it appears that their primary mission, limited action through secrecy, was accomplished, and accomplished in spades. They got away with it, and even managed to leave us a spectral perpetrator to pursue who never existed. So join me in raising your masu with a hearty kanpai to — not the ninja — but the shinobi.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Ninjas Unmasked." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
8 Mar 2016. Web.
20 May 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4509>
References & Further Reading
Cummins, A. Samurai and Ninja: The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2015.
Fujibayashi, Y., Cummins, A., Minami, Y. The Book of Ninja: The First Complete Translation of the Bensenshukai, Japan's Premier Ninja Manual. London: Watkins Publishing, 2013.
Lorimer, M. Sengokujidai: Autonomy, Division and Unity in Later Medieval Japan. London: Olympia Publishers, 2008.
Masatake, N., Cummins, A., Minami, Y. True Path of the Ninja: The Definitive Translation of the Shoninki. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
Sansom, G. A History of Japan: 1334-1615. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961.
Turnbull, S. The Samurai: A Military History. London: Routledge, 1996.
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