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The Ninja: Historical Reality versus Popular Fantasy

Updated on September 17, 2012

The Ninja Clans of Medieval Japan Differed Greatly From Their Portrayal in Today's Popular Media

While the popular media has embraced the ninja as a dark assassin bent on murder and mayhem, the historical reality of Japan’s shadow warrior is far more complex. Although it is impossible to trace the exact year ninjutsu (the art of the ninja) came into being, historical sources suggest it originated in the late 11th century during the Heian period (794 – 1185), a period in Japanese history marked not only by great political change, but, also, the introduction of new cultural and religious influences from China such as Confucianism and Tantric Buddhism.

Historians today draw most heavily upon three source documents to ascertain the true facts regarding the ninja. The first of these documents is named Ninpiden, consisting of four volumes written by Hattori Hanzo Yasukiyo in 1653. Shoniki was the another set of scrolls written in 1681 by Fujibayashi Masatake, which roughly translates “Correct ninja Memories”. It is Basenshukai, however, that provides the most detailed information about the ninja. Authored by Fujibayashi Yasutake in 1676, and spanning ten volumes, it focuses on the traditions of Iga ninjutsu. In medieval Japan, the ninjutsu tradition resided primarily in the mountainous Iga and Koga regions of south central Japan. Thus, those versed in the history of ninjutsu, refer to the two branches of ninjutsu as Iga ninjutsu, and Koga ninjutsu, respectively.

In addition to the three primary source documents listed above, a great deal of the current history of ninjutsu is preserved through the oral history of the last remaining authorities on the subject. Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi,the 34th Grandmaster of the Togakure ( trans. Hidden Door School) ninjutsu tradition, and a well respected scholar and artist, resides in Chiba, Japan. Hatsumi sensei, as he is referred to by his students, is the only legitimate soke (lineage head) for the nine acknowledged ninja ryu (school or tradition) of Iga ninjutsu. He was granted this title by the late Toshitsugo Takamatsu, who was the previous Togakure Grandmaster. Unfortunately for scholars, the Koga ninjutsu tradition has no known legitimate soke living today, and their ways and traditions are lost in the mists of time.

Woodblock Print of Historical Ninja
Woodblock Print of Historical Ninja

According to the historical records of the Togakure, as passed down to Hatsumi sensei by his predecessor, the roots of ninjutsu lead back to China. According to Hatsumi sensei much of their philosophy drew upon the Tantric lore of China and Tibet, prevalent during the T’ang dynasty period in China. These spiritual beliefs which revolved strongly on the relationship between man and nature, strove for individual enlightenment and personal harmony. However, in order to survive in the hostile environment of the times, the ninja were forced to develop a variety of skills to preserve their way of life. Taijutsu was the unarmed system of fighting employed by the ninja incorporating strikes, holds, throws, and escapes. Movement by stealth, leaping, climbing, and jumping were also essential aspects of Taijutsu. Ken-po, or “Sword technique” was another critical skill in the ninja’s repertoire. Unlike the Samurai katana which was one of the finest swords ever forged, a true work of art, the ninja sword in contrast was a short, straight, unremarkable blade. Like most tools in the ninja arsenal, their sword was utilitarian in nature, and had multiple uses, some of which had nothing to do with combat.

In terms of organization, the original ninja developed as clans, or family units, and were highly secretive in their aims and methodology. Due to the fact that membership to a ninja clan was restricted to family members only, it was virtually impossible to infiltrate their organizations.

According to Stephen K. Hayes, one of the few Westerners ever accepted as a student by the Togakure ryu, and who earned the esteemed rank of shidoshi (teacher), the ninja’s main political goal was to “maintain balance and harmony in society in the most effective manner possible.” Unlike the Samurai, who were bound by bushido―the rigid code of honor that defined the Japanese warrior class, the ninja operated with an open, fluid, perspective that defied categorization, and facilitated optimal effectiveness in an every-changing world. The popular depiction of the samurai as “good” and “honorable”, and the ninja as “evil” and “dishonorable”, creates a false polarity between these two groups, when the historical evidence indicates that the difference between the two was primarily interpretive. Similar to Confucian ideals which place great importance upon harmony and peace in society, the ninja, likewise, shared this ultimate goal, and formed their alliances accordingly. In contrast, the daimyo (samurai lords) perpetually bred conflict in order to attain power and dominance, and looked down upon the ninja as having no honor. The irony of this situation exists in the fact that in order for the daimyo to achieve their ends, they relied heavily upon the ninja for their intelligence gathering networks, espionage, and infiltration skills. This would be tantamount in modern terms, to the military refusing to credit the intelligence community for their role in a war, and, instead, depicting them as treacherous cowards. The fact that the media embraces this simplistic paradigm, only serves to perpetuate the misconception.

The portrayal of ninja as superhuman is, perhaps, the most common fallacy in regard to the actual historical record. Though it is true that the ninja were masters of stealth, combat, and a host of other skills, including ka-jutsu, knowledge of explosives, and shuriken-jutsu, the use of throwing blades, much of the ninja’s effectiveness had nothing to do with combat. The mastery of Yu-gei, traditional cultural arts, and Kyo-mon, practical education, empowered the ninja with the ability to blend in and adapt, as well as to achieve their aims through alternate means. For the ninja, physical combat, was only one of a host of methods to attain an objective. Only by analyzing the situation correctly, and then employing the most effective strategy, could victory be achieved. The “supernatural” aspect of ninja feats, was more likely the result of the ninja’s complete mastery of their craft, and the deception and shock value inherent in many of their techniques.

Even the tight fitted black garb commonly attributed to the ninja in movies and television differs from the historical reality. The Shoniki notes that the colors worn by the various ninja clans were maroon, grey, brown and blue. In a recent interview, Hatsumi sensei, recalled that even as recently as when he took over as Grandmaster, “the ninja didn’t have the type of black clothes that they wear now, and they used a montsuki (formal kimono) with a hakama (split skirt) so that they looked a bit over-dressed.” However, he noted, with some amusement, this didn’t prevent them from climbing up in trees.

In retrospect, while it is true that ninjas of old did possess many of the skills attributed to them, particularly in regard to their martial arts prowess, it is critical that we recognize just as we do with the knights of the middle ages, or characters from the Wild West, that popular conceptions of historical entities often bear little resemblance to the genuine article. And while our true understanding of the ninja will always be problematic at best due to the scarcity of legitimate source documents, it is clear that popular conceptions of the ninja as a sinister villain, differ greatly from the historical record.


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