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What Martial Art did the Ninjas Use?

Updated on August 1, 2017
NateB11 profile image

I've been training in martial arts since the 80s, consistently since the 90s. I am a 2nd degree black belt in Kenpo Karate.

The Myth of the Ninja

Much of what you hear and see of "Ninja" is pure myth. Stories including ninjas began to appear in popular books and plays in Japan around the 1700s. These mythical depictions of ninjas had them walking on water and literally becoming invisible. Eventually, this idea that they could become invisible got translated into the fictional black suit with the mask to justify the legend. Actually there's no proof ninja wore such garb, it is entirely a concoction of storytellers and artists, first used in imagery by an artist named Hokusai and thought to have been based on the uniform worn by theatrical stagehands known as kuroko. Fact is, ninja used disguises and the mythical black suit was not one of them.

So who were the ninja, really?

The fictional depictions of ninja in outfits and masks does not reflect the reality of the shinobi in 15th and 16th century Japan; they wore disguises but they tried to blend in so they could spy and infiltrate.
The fictional depictions of ninja in outfits and masks does not reflect the reality of the shinobi in 15th and 16th century Japan; they wore disguises but they tried to blend in so they could spy and infiltrate. | Source

Did you know the ninjas were spies?

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Who were the ninjas?

Actually, ninjas were spies. They engaged in sabotage, assassinations and infiltrations. They existed in clans in feudal Japan and were hired by powerful aristocratic landlords to help fight wars using their expertise in espionage. To this end, they had no uniform, such as the fictional black suit, but, rather, tried to blend in; so they used disguises. They might appear as farmers, servants, priests, entertainers, etc. The point was to spy and infiltrate, sabotage and assassinate. They couldn't do that very well by being the center of attention wearing a conspicuous outfit.

Ninja could be likened to modern-day CIA agents or special forces. They were trained in arts of intelligence gathering and sabotage, and in arts of fighting and weaponry. Men and women in special forces and intelligence agencies today have training in firearms, hand-to-hand combat and explosives, and ninjas had training in the equivalent for their era. This included training in and use of firearms (flintlock rifles that existed during their time), poisons and explosives.

Though the ninja, actually called shinobi, were originally a caste group who inherited their position as professional spies, eventually the daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) began training their own shinobi.

And, as the story goes, shinobi eventually made their way into folklore. By the time you start seeing ninjas in the West, the image is tainted by James Bond movies and other films, and even comic books, that further perpetuate legends of the ninja.

At any rate, shinobi (what we now often call ninja) were a real group that underwent real training for their profession. So, what were they trained in and how was their training used?

Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws
Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws

This book dispels much of the myths surrounding ninjas and tells the true stories of ninjas and their lords, beautifully illustrated with manga-style drawings. Educational and entertaining!

 
The kusarigama
The kusarigama

Ninja Training and What they Actually Did

Today, the martial art of the ninja is referred to as ninjutsu. There is some debate as to whether the martial art known as ninjutsu is authentic and actual documentation and historical accounts of the training of shinobi is scarce. What is generally accepted is that they were well-trained in espionage, both striking and grappling martial arts, weapon arts, poisons, explosives, horse-back riding, the bow and arrow, and had extensive training for improving endurance and conditioning. They could use sword, spear and flexible weapons. They did carry and use the shuriken, often called throwing stars or ninja stars, but it has been up for debate how these weapons were used; it's been suggested that they weren't used as projectiles but held in the hand and used for striking.

The shinobi also used caltrops, which are 4-pointed spikes that could be dropped in their path so that anyone trying to track them could step and fall on the spikes and get a horror of a painful injury. Caltrops were certainly meant to aid an escape.

Espionage training included the arts of:

  • toiri-no-jutsu: the art of sneaking into the enemy camp. This would include planning and preparation for a maneuver and indirect and undercover work.
  • chikairi-no-jutsu: the art of infiltrating enemy lines after the outbreak of hostilities. This would include commando-type tactics and sabotage.
  • ongyo-jutsu: the art of escape and deception.

The striking art of the ninja would have been an old form of fighting in Japan known as taijutsu and their grappling art was the forerunner of jujutsu, known as kumi-uchi. Their sword art would have been the old art of kenjutsu and they also had training in the use of the spear, known as sojutsu and also naginata-do. They had bo staff skills from their practice of the art of bojutsu and practiced a form of archery called kyudo.

The ninja carried small weapons that could be concealed, called tonki. These included the shuriken and caltrops. They also had darts and daggers. In addition, they used the shuko, a device that fit over the hand, was plated on the knuckle-side and had 4 spikes on the palm-side; it could be used as a weapon or for climbing. They also used a weapon that could masquerade as a farming implement, called a kusarigama, which is a sickle on a chain which could be hidden. Obviously a foe would be quite surprised to see a farmer's sickle suddenly projected and swinging at them.

So, the ninja's striking art was taijutsu, their grappling art was kumi-uchi, and they practiced the weapon arts of kenjutsu, sojutsu, naginata-do and kyudo.

Caltrop
Caltrop
The naginata, used by the ninja.
The naginata, used by the ninja. | Source

So, as you can imagine, the ninja had to have a diversity of knowledge. Just as special forces today train in the use of a variety of equipment and know hand to hand combat--including grappling and striking arts--and must understand the use of hand held weapons and firearms, the ninja had to have knowledge of anything that would help them in their dangerous line of work.

Pair of shuko, used by the ninja.
Pair of shuko, used by the ninja. | Source
The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai - Japan's Premier Ninja Manual
The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai - Japan's Premier Ninja Manual

Manual for ninja, written in 1676 by a real ninja, now translated into English. Learn about espionage and infiltration, the ninja way.

 

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    • NateB11 profile image
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      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      Yes, they are very interesting indeed. Glad you stopped by.

    • adevwriting profile image

      Arun Dev 2 years ago from United Countries of the World

      Nice to know about ninjas! They are fascinating.

    • NateB11 profile image
      Author

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      Believe it or not, there is considerable debate about what kind of sword the ninja used. It has generally been thought that they used a straight sword, not a samurai sword which is curved. However, there is no actual evidence that they used a straight blade and many people believe they did not.

      Since the ninja were trained in fighting and needed weapons, they probably used a sword. But even more likely they relied on concealed weapons since they were spies and assassins.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      good question, i thought they use samurai sword, right?

    • NateB11 profile image
      Author

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      Thanks, Writer Fox! The Ninjas definitely have an interesting history.

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 2 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      Interesting article! I never knew Ninjas had an historical basis.

    • NateB11 profile image
      Author

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      Thanks, Jean, I'm glad you liked it. It's a fascinating subject, for sure. Thanks for the vote too!

    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Really interesting hub; I really thought that ninjas wore those black outfits. Now I know that they are called Shinobi and were even better trained than the film/comic strip variety.

      Voted up.

    • NateB11 profile image
      Author

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      That's what I thought happen, Arachnea. I've done that too. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Arachnea profile image

      Tanya Jones 2 years ago from Texas USA

      I seem to remember this was on the Q&A boards. Wow! I must have been up way past my bedtime. Must have replied to it in the feed and not noticed the hub tag. A very informative hub, however.

    • NateB11 profile image
      Author

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      I'm glad you liked it, Kevin. Thanks for sharing and voting.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      Very interesting Nate. I remember finding out a while ago that their true nature was spies. I used to be a big fan of Bruce Lee and the martial arts but that was years ago. I voted this up, shared and pinned it.

      Kevin

    • NateB11 profile image
      Author

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      That is certainly true. Shinobi had to be unconventional and use guerrilla tactics, considering they were conducting covert operations.

    • Arachnea profile image

      Tanya Jones 2 years ago from Texas USA

      Ninjutsu or ninpō. It has a focus on unconventional and guerrilla warfare.