Ninja Training (Ninjutsu)

Ninja recruitment

Ninja were born, not made. Let me explain how.

In fifteenth-century Japan, a number of samurai families, the ninja families, started developing certain skills in intelligence collection, camouflage warfare and assassination. These skills and techniques were passed down from father to son, and from sensei to student.

Ninja recruitment, therefore, referred not so much to the selection of candidates to be trained as ninja, but rather to negotiations between warlords, known as daimyo, and ninja clans for the use of ninja services.

At least, this was the case in the beginning of the ninjutsu tradition. However, when the first shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, siphoned into his care all the ninja of the Iga and Koga houses in 1581, and trained ninja warrior supply began to dwindle down, other warlords were left with no options, but to produce their own home-grown ninja.

There was no one in Japan to officially outlaw this practice, but in 1649, in the shogunate's laws for military service, we find that only daimyo with incomes of over 10,000 koku were permitted to keep shinobi in the ranks of their troops.

Ishibayashi castle, home to the Nakagawa Ninjutsu School
Ishibayashi castle, home to the Nakagawa Ninjutsu School

Nakagawa Shoshunjin and his Ninjutsu School

A good example of the warlords' practice of private ninjutsu training is seen in the Nakagawa school, under the daimyo Tsugaru in Mutsu Province in seventeenth-century Japan. Nakagawa Shoshunjin, founder of the school and an expert in the art of ninjutsu, commanded a group of 10 young samurai whom he initiated into the secrets of the art.

In the meantime, he forbade anyone else from entering the proximity of their training grounds at the southern corner of the Ishibayashi castle. In the Okufuji monogatari, the account of Shoshunjin's life we read that he could turn into a rat, a spider, or a bird, which illustrates well how ninja warriors were thought to have been in the possession of superhuman powers.

The number of students training at the Nakagawa school soon rose up to 20. They were called the Hayamichi no mono, or the short-cut people and their duties included carrying out spy operations and the assassination of enemy leaders. The Hayamichi no mono were dispatched and revoked at the will of the daimyo alone, and their practices were kept secret.

Ninja selection

During Nakagawa Shoshunjin's first visit to the Tsugaru castle, his interviewer, the karo, or retainer, Tsugaru Gemban challenged him to prove his ninjutsu skills by taking the pillow from under his head while he was asleep. When later that night Gemban lay sleepless on his futon, he began to hear the pitter-patter of a passing shower outside the house. All of a sudden he felt rain-drops on his face.

Raising his eye-brow, he realized there was a leak in the ceiling. When he lowered his head again to rest it on the pillow, it was missing. Turning his head in shock, he noticed Shoshunjin standing beside him with the pillow in his hands and a grin on his face. After that he immediately took him into the service of the lord.

Ninjutsu training starts early
Ninjutsu training starts early

Ninja training (Ninjutsu)

The samurai of Iga and Koga began their training for their future life as soon as they could stand. The samurai leaders of the province were small landowners and laid great emphasis on family ties and hereditary loyalty.

A boy born into an acclaimed samurai family would be raised to become a warrior, - no other carrier options were available. Our boy would spend most of his childhood learning the martial disciplines. Swordsmanship, spear skills, bow and arrow skills, later even guns were part of the curriculum for any would-be samurai warrior. Riding and swimming were, of course, part of the curriculum, too.

For a young ninja boy, of course, the curriculum would be a bit tougher than that. Our ninja boy would also have to acquire some understanding of explosives, poisons, and become acquainted with field-craft and survival skills. Survival skills would consist of such matters as how to purify water, and cook rice in camp by folding it in a wet piece of cloth and burying it underneath the campfire.

Our ninja boy would have to keep physically fit above average, as his favourite pastime activities in future would include the scaling of walls of fortresses, enduring the strikes of martial arts opponents on various parts of the body, etc.

Our ninja boy's basic ninja training would include the development of some basic drawing skills as he might be, later in life, expected to draw a map of what he observes on enemy terrain. He would be expected to read and write like a literate person. If he was also to adopt to the disguises of other professions, he would need an in-depth knowledge of them to be convincing.

Ninja training illustrated. Click to enlarge.
Ninja training illustrated. Click to enlarge.

By the beginning of their teenage years, young ninja boys in the ninja villages of Iga and Koga will have internalized the the basics of ninjutsu.

  1. Ninja kid learning the principles of balance, supervised by his dad, his primary instructor throughout his life.
  2. Young ninja learning underwater breathing techniques utilizing a bamboo tube. Later in life he might have to hide for hours under the surface of a lake or river to avoid detection by enemies.
  3. Vital swordsmanship training. Ninja kid taking his first lesson in how to deal with a ring of attackers. He has to anticipate how each bamboo rods will swing back and forth in order to avoid contact with them.
  4. Ninja boy in extensive missile practice, learning how to spin the shuriken and hit the target accurately.
  5. Young ninja learning survival skills traveling into the mountains and catering for himself. He is cooking a bag of rice buried under a campfire, with the rice wrapped in a cloth and soaked in water.
  6. Ninja child interviewed by the shonin, or head of the ninja settlement. He is assessing the child's progress.

    2-, 3- and 4-man techniques for jumping over tall obstacles like walls:

  7. Ninja teamwork with excellent acrobatic skills. On the other side of the wall the vigilant observer might conclude that the ninja has the ability of flying. In this technique one ninja runs forward carrying his mate on his shoulders, who then leaps from this lifted position.
  8. Two ninja assisting a third to maneuver over a wall by giving him a powerful 'leg up'.
  9. Four men forming a human pyramid.
  10. Ninja utilizing an ashigaru's yari, or long spear, to pole-vault over a ditch.

Ninja vs. Samurai; rarely on the same page
Ninja vs. Samurai; rarely on the same page

Ninja training vs. Samurai training

Mental training for a ninja involved developing a non-attachment to the pleasures of life as well as eradicating in himself the fear of death. His primary goal in life was to serve his lord with unflinching zeal to the bitter end. Should he fail his lord or suffer defeat, he would be expected to commit ritualistic suicide to avoid disgrace by releasing his spirit into the unlife by the honourable act of seppuku (also hara kiri).

The way of the ninja contradicts the way of the samurai, in that in ninjutsu practitioners were taught techniques of stealth, distraction, disguise, assassination and so on, most of which were often seen by the samurai, who fought in an idealistic and open way, as treacherous and unacceptable. The samurai tradition demanded complete visibility.

Such concepts as the supreme honour of charging first into battle or scaling the wall of a fortress first during an assault had great value in the world-view of the samurai with respect to determining the honour of a person. Sometimes, the samurai even wore a flag on the back of their suit of armour, an open display of their affiliations. In battle, the samurai sought out a worthy opponent and cut off his head, a trophy presented later to the daimyo, who would note the names of both victor and victim, and grant his rewards accordingly.

Dressed in a pitch black attire to blend in with the dark of night, a ninja's his role in a siege would be to steal into the castle days before the assault began and seek a hiding place to later, at the right moment, emerge and cause mayhem by murdering guards, opening gates from the inside, setting fire to towers, or assassinating enemy leaders. After the battle, the ninja would not be seen again, until needed, and leave the glory of victory to the samurai in the assault party.

In view of this, it is fair to say that the ninja were cast out from among the ranks of the samurai. Their attitude was totally different from that of the samurai, who depended on the ninja's activities and despised them at the same time for the mischief they were doing.

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Comments 10 comments

Travis_S_Music 5 years ago

Very well written! I like it (:


Haunty profile image

Haunty 5 years ago from Hungary Author

Thanks Travis. :)


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

The Samurai saw stealth as dis-honorable,very interesting,Haunty.;)


Haunty profile image

Haunty 5 years ago from Hungary Author

Hey Mentalis, you keep me going with this series. Honestly.

Nevermind the camel-mannered Samurai. :)


cceerpp profile image

cceerpp 5 years ago from Ghana

This is a fine piece on Ninja vs Samurai.


Haunty profile image

Haunty 5 years ago from Hungary Author

Thanks cceerpp.


frogdropping profile image

frogdropping 5 years ago

What a brilliant (and educational) hub. I can understand why it's been rated in the Class Of The Week Contest. It's full of info - I always wondered what Ninjas really were and how they got to be one. This stems from having two sons.

When they were about 13 and 14 respectively (they're a year apart) they went through a phase of wanting to be Ninjas. Both bought (unbeknown to me) a pair of SAS style masks - the ones that are full woolen hats with just a space for the eyes.

I found out about it when they got in trouble for sneaking around wearing them. They looked like (for want of a better word) terrorists - it didn't sit well with village life and the village policeman apparently :)


Haunty profile image

Haunty 5 years ago from Hungary Author

That's even remotely familiar to me. You see, it's easier to tend towards trouble when you have a brother at your side. We are only 3 years apart and I've been silly now for much longer than he ever was.

Your boys were sneaking around, because they were ninja. How could that policeman not know that? Bad kids wearing masks are terrorists, good kids wearing masks are ninja! This should be taught. lol :)


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Very well written and very informative. Especially the training schedule for the ninjas to be. I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for posting.


kiki loves luka 5 years ago

could any one please tells me all the jutsus

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