16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas

Trista - October 26, 2018

Nothing stirs the imagination quite like ninjas. If you grew up watching Power Rangers, pretending to be James Bond, and playing Mortal Kombat video games, you probably developed a love for ninjas. In fact, if you appreciate virtually any aspect of pop culture, you are bound to be somewhat enamored with the legendary warriors. They specialized in stealth and unarmed combat during the feudal period of Japanese history, yet today, the popular imagination envisions ninjas as being entirely different than what they indeed were.

For example, when you consider that ninjas were very skilled spies, it makes no sense that they would dress in all-black catsuits and carry nun-chucks. They were trained as assassins, but most of their work was carried out in full daylight, with the cleverly disguised as peasants carrying out their day jobs, not unlike Clark Kent working as a newspaper reporter. Their weapons resembled farm tools and could actually be dissembled to show that they were composed of things like sickles and shears.

Ninjas were feared warriors, yet they came mostly from the lower classes, effectively turning Japan’s rigid social hierarchy upside-down. They fought against the samurai and warlords, yet some samurai doubled as ninjas. When their forces were destroyed mainly in the 16th century, many of them went on to serve the shogun in Tokyo and became the first “secret service.” They wrote down their craft to preserve it for the future, yet it has been primarily misrepresented, both in Japanese folklore and Western pop culture. The continued importance of ninjas in the Western media, though, demands that we take a closer look at these legendary warriors of feudal Japan.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Portrait of Oda Nobunaga, by Jesuit painter Giovanni Niccolò, 1583-1590. Wikipedia/Public Domain.

16. Shinobis and Ninjas Are the Same Things

Today, the favorite way of talking about the stealthy warriors who rivaled the shogunate is to refer to them as “ninjas.” What many people do not realize is that “ninja” is a Chinese word and itself serves as a testament to the Chinese roots of the ninjas. It literally translates as “the one who endures,” a rather appropriate appellation for someone trained in this particular fighting style. It is spelled in the Kanji script with two letters, which, in Chinese, are pronounced “nin sha.”

In Japanese, the same two Kanji letters that are pronounced “nin sha” are pronounced “shinobi no mono.” “Shinobi” refers to quietness and stealth, essential qualities in a ninja fighter. The ninja fighters were referred to by the Japanese as shinobi. However, foreign languages sometimes take on a sense of status; consider how when someone is speaking in English and then uses a French phrase, he or she may come across as being more educated, learned, or important. The same idea was held in Japan, with Chinese being a “superior” language that indicated greater status. Referring to the fighters as “ninjas” instead of as “shinobi” indicated a higher status and level of respect for them. However, in modern Japan, they are still primarily referred to as shinobi.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie scene. commonsensemedia.org.

15. The Ninja’s Origins Are Chinese

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may have originated in the underground netherworld of New York City, but real ninjas actually have their origin in imperial China, with fighting practices having been imported from places like Tibet and India. In the seventh century CE, Japan was undergoing rapid changes that consolidated power and wealth among the Japanese elite in a feudal system, not unlike that of Medieval Europe. Wealthy European lords had knights to protect their manors and holdings; the Japanese had the samurai. After a period of revolt and political instability, the samurai amassed enough power for themselves to establish the shogunate or military state.

In response to the oppression of the samurai, the ninja began to evolve. In the 10th century in China, the Tang dynasty in China collapsed, and many elites fled to Japan. They brought with them fighting styles from people like Sun Tzu, the famous military general who authored The Art of War. A century later saw the arrival of Chinese monks in Japan, who also brought their own fighting philosophies. The emerging class of ninja fighters adopted many of these ideas. This notion stands in contradiction to the Japanese folklore that ninjas descended from a half-man, half-cow demon.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Waterfalls were perfect spots for stealth training. thewowstyle.com.

14. Ninjas Trained by Sitting Under Waterfalls

Being a ninja was more than being skilled in martial arts and being a great fighter. Though ninjas were not fighting for a religious cause, as were the hashashim (assassins) who fought against the Christians in the Crusades, the practice was actually more spiritual than martial. As such, the training to become a ninja involved learning a form of spiritual asceticism known as shugendo. The people who were training would exert their bodies by trekking long distances through harsh terrain or sitting under waterfalls for extended amounts of time.

The idea was that the stealth required as a ninja was more of a mind over matter issue, so the fighters’ thoughts had to be more disciplined than their bodies. Often, they were trained in martial arts from childhood on, so additional fighter training was not necessary; however, they did need the ability to endure tremendous amounts of physical strain, so the long treks did have a full-body benefit. One thing that set the ninjas apart from the samurai was their incredibly disciplined minds that enabled them to wait in the dark of night in inhospitable places, rather than engaging in open battle. That said, not all people who practiced shugendo asceticism were ninjas, and not all ninjas trained in shugendo.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
A Hokusai climber. Pinterest.

13. Ninjutsu Allowed For Social Mobility

Feudal civilizations have little to no room for social mobility, as peasants are bound to the land that they work, which is owned by the nobility, whose families have been steeped in money for generations. The Samurai were from a distinct social class and were often relatives of the nobility for whom they fought, and they were well-compensated for their mercenary-type work. Ninjas often came from lower social levels; they were frequently commoners or even peasants. This social status may have served in their favor, as they knew how to fight and even kill – by any means necessary – as a means of self-preservation.

The ninja order itself had a social order, through which commands could be given, much as in a spy network. The jonin, or “high man,” would receive orders from whoever had hired the ninja clan, which he would pass on to the chunin, or “middle man.” From there, it would be assigned to the genin, the ordinary ninja. Usually, the genin came from the lower social classes, and the chunin and jonin came from higher ranks. However, the skilled genin had the opportunity to ascend the social ladder and become a chunin or even a jonin.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
The plains of Iga, nested in secluded mountains, gave rise to villages specialized in the training of ninja. Outside147/Wikipedia.

12. Iga And Koga Were Ninja Strongholds

The mountainous regions of Iga and Koga, located in what is now respectively the Mie prefecture and the Shiga prefecture in the modern-day southern part of Honshu, were the central place for ninja activity. The mountains allowed for this area to be decentralized rather than connected to a central daimyo (a form of imperial administration) under the shogunate, so the towns were run by local councils, which were mostly democratic. In this political and geographic landscape, the ninjas were able to rise to power by practicing the arts of stealth, deception, weaponless combat, poison, and use of explosives. They protected the people from the nearby Samurai wars.

However, this means of self-governing and self-defense was anathema to the daimyo, to whom the distinction between rich and poor was an essential means of seeing the world and interacting with it. The warlord Oda Nobunaga, who lived in the sixteenth century, set about to create a united Japan, one state under the shogunate. This movement led to the Iga Revolt when Nobunaga attacked the Iga and Koga clans with a force of 40,000 men. He forced the ninja to engage in open warfare in fields, something that they were not trained to do. The ninja power bases of Iga and Koga were destroyed, and the fighters had to flee to the mountains. However, their abilities were so indispensable that they continued to be hired by nobility and some were even in the service of the shogun.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Ninja Mission, a popular image of a ninja. Primitive Gallery/world.time.com.

11. The Sengoku Period Was Also Known As the Ninja Golden Age

The Sengoku era, which lasted from the 1467-1477 Onin War until Japan’s reunification in 1598, was a period of lawlessness and political upheaval that is often referred to as the “Warring States Period.” Daimyo warlords constantly fought each other for control of different areas of Japan, creating a ripe atmosphere for the fighting style that the ninja had developed to become widely employed. They were regularly used in the service of the warlords or their opponents and were hired to serve as spies. They became especially adept at breaching castles.

The ninjas of the Warring States Period are typically memorialized in popular culture, such as in manga and anime. Some of the figures that are remembered today are actually based on real-life ninjas of this time who, despite the stealth and secrecy required by their work, rose to achieve a degree of prominence. For example, Fujibayashi Nagato was a leader of the Iga ninjas in the sixteenth century. Following the defeat of the ninjas at Iga, some of his descendants, who were forced to go into hiding, were the ones to compile the Ninja Encyclopedia, which preserved the fighting style for posterity. Other ninjas who survived the Battle of Iga, which spelled the beginning of the end for the Sengoku era, helped write down the art to preserve it.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Depiction of Oda Nobunaga. Static Flickr.

10. Oda Nobunaga Was the Ninjas’ Greatest Enemy

As previously mentioned, Oda Nobunaga was a Japanese warlord who lived during the sixteenth century. His mission was to unify Japan and bring about an end to the Warring States Period. While there was a lot of warfare and bloodshed, the Warring States Period had allowed the ninja to flourish because their services were in high demand. Moreover, the fact that they stood in Nobunaga’s way was precisely why he was determined to defeat them, particularly in the mountainous regions of Iga and Koga, which were effectively Ninja HQ.

The Koga ninjas quickly lost to Nobunaga’s forces, but the Iga proved much more tenacious. When Nobunaga’s son decided to fortify a strategic castle, many of the Iga ninjas got jobs as construction workers so that they could spy on what he was doing. With the inside information that they gained, they attacked the castle and set it on fire. He continued to assault them in their villages, and the ninjas defeated him. Nobunaga went on to recruit many of the Koga ninjas for his own forces and advanced at the infamous Iga Revolt, which led to the demise of the ninjas. He ended the Warring States Period and brought in an era of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Yamato Takeru dressed as a maidservant, preparing to kill the Kumaso leaders. Woodblock print on paper. Yoshitoshi, 1886. Wikipedia.

9. Women Could Be Ninjas

The fact that ninjas often came from lower classes and held everyone in equal esteem, despite their wealth (notwithstanding those who hired them and paid them for their work), meant that the art was open to anyone, including women. Ninjas were masters of disguise, and they quickly realized that the best masters of disguise were women, just because no one expected that the ladies were actually highly skilled fighters. These female ninjas were known as kunoichi, and they often easily invaded enemy strongholds disguised as dancers, servants, or even concubines. They could act as a type of Trojan horse and then enable a more significant force of ninjas to enter the stronghold.

The most famous of the kunoichi was Mochizuki Chiyome, a Japanese noblewoman who lived in the sixteenth century. Her husband was a samurai lord who died in battle, leaving her in the care of the nearby daimyo. She was then recruited by the daimyo himself to recruit and train a force of female ninjas to engage in battle against the neighboring warlord. Many of the women that she contracted were orphaned girls or prostitutes, who were in vulnerable positions and could, therefore, be more easily trained to act as seductresses and assassins.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Ninjas tried not to stand out. char.txa.cornell.edu.

8. Ninjas Didn’t Wear Black Catsuits

James Bond, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan would all have you believe that ninjas sneak around wearing an all-black catsuit, whose plentiful folds enabled the ninja to hide his or her weaponry and loose-fitting fabric enabled martial arts. However, if you are a spy, the last thing that you want to do is stand out. So if real-life ninjas really wore those outfits, they might cause a note of dread to rise in their opponents’ throats, but they would lose their secrecy and stealth. No, true ninjas often dressed as farmers, merchants, pretty much true to what they would wear to their day jobs. People couldn’t tell who they were, or at least what their alter ego was.

In fact, the whole idea of wearing black in order to sneak around at night is counter-intuitive, as black actually stands out when you are hiding in the shadows. Ninjas who worked at night often wore dark, navy blue. If you go to the ninja museums of places like Iga and Koka, you will see navy outfits, not black. The black catsuit was popularized in Japanese kabuki theatre, where ninjas were depicted as terrifying but easily discernible assassins. The idea, however, has proved captivating to pop culture.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Ninja star. Kaliostro/Wikimedia Commons.

7. Ninjas Didn’t Have Samurai Swords

No movie featuring ninjas would be complete without shuriken, the dreaded throwing stars that can be unleashed with deadly force from many yards away, or a man in black pajamas wielding a samurai sword. First off, while throwing stars did exist, they were probably used in hand-to-hand combat, to slash the enemy, rather than to kill from a distance. Also, if anyone other than a samurai carried a samurai sword, he or she could be put to death; it was akin to impersonating a police officer, which today is a serious offense.

That said, some ninjas did have what we would recognize as weaponry. Some of them carried shinobigatana, or mid-length swords, which were smaller than samurai swords and could do some severe damage in close combat. They also used shuko, metal claws that could help them climb, and tessen, metal fans. However, all of these weapons were very conspicuous and would tell any would-be captor that the bearer of said weaponry was a ninja. They would have to be very carefully concealed so that they could not be discovered, even upon capture. For that reason, they tended to carry more concealed weapons, like blowguns that were cleverly disguised as flutes.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Japanese farmer. media.economist.com.

6. Ninja Weapons Were Farm Tools

Imagine that you are the star of your favorite spy movie. You sleuth your way into getting your name on the guest list to a party at a wealthy criminal’s chateau in the Alps and dance your way across the floor, winning the hearts of the women and the envy of the men. You steal away to the secret room where the diamond you are after is hidden when you find that you are surrounded by a fighting force of a dozen armed bodyguards. They handcuff you and search you, leading to them finding throwing stars, nun-chucks, and other paraphernalia that is weaponry. You can’t talk your way out of this one.

The thing is that to be a master of disguise, ninjas couldn’t carry around conspicuous weapons, even if they were hidden under layers of modest clothing. Seeing as many ninjas were farmers, they had tools like sickles, shears, and saws. Unsuspecting samurai and their bodyguards couldn’t anticipate that these were actually weapons, which the ninjas were trained to use on their missions. Thus, if they were captured, all that they had was farming equipment. They could easily play the “poor farmer” card and get off scot-free.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Japanese castle. i.pinimg.com.

5. People Had Ninja-Proof Homes

For a modern super spy in a movie like James Bond or Chuck, nothing could be more cliché or, for Chuck, exciting than infiltrating a castle. Even Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) made a show of sneaking into a fortress as the infamous Johnny English. When you consider that Johnny English had to go through a sewer and get covered in, well, sewage before making his appearance at the dance, you get the impression that infiltrating castles isn’t as fun as it may sound.

In fact, ninjas had a hard time of it. They had to navigate winding paths and turrets that were designed so guards could see anyone from a long distance off. People wizened up pretty quickly to the fact that anyone – the person who had become a good friend, the prostitute brought in to dance at a party – could actually be a ninja. As such, they built floors to squeak loudly and stashed weapons underneath the floorboards. The grounds were covered in gravel so that sneaking around without being detected was much more difficult. Tripwires were installed so that an alarm would be sounded. All of these served to make the process of castle infiltration a headache more than anything.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Armored samurai with sword and dagger c. 1860. Britannica/Wikimedia.

4. Samurai Sometimes Doubled As Ninjas

One of the people to formalize the art of ninjutsu was himself a disgraced samurai. Daisuke had been forced to surrender his lands and title as a samurai when he found himself on the losing side of a feudal battle. Usually, a disgraced samurai would commit suicide, a practice called seppuku, but Daisuke instead wandered through the mountainous countryside until he met the Chinese warrior-monk Kain Doshi. Daisuke renounced his samurai ways and worked with Kain Doshi to develop a new, comprehensive style of guerrilla warfare that would become known as ninjutsu.

That said, during the shogunate, the samurai were of the ruling class. Though bound by a code of honor called Bushido, similar to the European knight’s code of chivalry, samurai were often lazy drunkards who were only dependable for collecting taxes from their subjects. They couldn’t always be relied upon to win open battles, so they often hired ninjas, as did their opponents. They would serve as spies and assassins, causing the samurai to both disgrace them and fear them. However, if samurai were forced to commit suicide because their honor was disgraced, they would often choose to become a stealthy ninja instead.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
The Remains of Hara Castle. Wikimedia Commons.

3. The Last Ninjas Became Japan’s Original Secret Service

After the fall of the ninjas at Iga, many of them escaped and continued in the craft that had helped preserve their mountainous abode for centuries. However, the end of feudal warfare of the Warring States Period meant that their services were, for the most part, no longer needed. Like a super spy who for a criminal warlord suddenly finds that his employer no longer needs him, they had to get new jobs that required the use of their ninja skills. Many of them relocated from Iga and Koga and went on to work for the shogun as Japan’s first secret service.

They continued to work as spies, but as circumstances changed, they had to hone their fighting style so that they could effectively engage in open combat. They were called upon to quell a peasant uprising known as the Shimbarara Rebellion, which brought in a period of peace known as the Edo Period. Following the rebellion, their services were no longer necessary, so they were given jobs at Edo Castle, in what is now Tokyo. Many of them worked as the shogun’s personal police force until a later shogun, Tokugawa VIII, decided to source his police from the province of Kii.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Kanji writing. quoteko/Pinterest/QuotesGram.

2. Ninjas Wrote Down Their Craft to Preserve It For Posterity

Before the Tokugawa Shogunate, which brought an end to the Warring States Period and was the beginning of the end for the ninjas, they had to be so secretive that nothing could be written down. Not to mention that as members of the lower strata of society, not many of them were literate. Everything that ninjas needed to know was transmitted first hand, through arduous training by masters of the craft. However, when they were able to come out of the shadows, they began to write down the different aspects of their art so that it could be preserved for future generations.

This practice became particularly crucial as the ninja craft began to change to open fighting rather than stealth, and even more so as the ninjas severely declined under Tokugawa VIII. Some of their manuals include the Ninpiden, the Bansenshukai, and the Shoninki, which provide information about ninja weaponry and strategies. Of course, much was saved – or misrepresented – in Japanese folklore. Ninjas were often popularly described as descending from a demonic figure and being able to control animals, even being able to become invisible. Enter James Bond and the revival of ninjas in pop culture, which equally misrepresented them.

16 Things You Didn’t Know About the Origins of Ninjas
Roald Dahl in 1971. CORBIS/The Telegraph.

1. Roald Dahl Helped Bring Ninjas Into Western Pop Culture

The first known Western usage of the ninja in pop culture was in the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. Like the first four Bond movies, You Only Live Twice is based on the stories written by Ian Fleming. However, the screenwriter of the first movies was unavailable to write the fifth, so the famed children’s writer Roald Dahl, who specialized in dark morality tales in which children and their parents were depicted as either good or bad, was hired to do the screenwriting. He dispensed with much of the material in the novel and turned the movie into a racy, patriarchal scheme of bikinis, massages, and, of course, ninjas.

The ninja part is based somewhat on the book, as Ian Fleming’s Bond did have to battle a ninja force. However, Dahl took the ninjas to new levels and helped introduce the idea into pop culture. At the same time, Japanese culture was taking off in the Western world, with the art of judo being submitted as a sport in the 1964 Olympics and 1970s martial arts movies starring the likes of Bruce Lee becoming popular. Today, manga and anime have immeasurably increased the popularity of Japanese ideas like the samurai, warlords, and ninjas. The irony of the whole ninja pop-culture phenomenon is that Roald Dahl hated writing the script to You Only Live Twice.


Where Did We Get This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

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Owlcation – 15 Facts About Feudalism

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“The History of the Samurai,” by Kallie Szczepanski. ThoughtCo. July 23, 2018.

“You Don’t Know the Ninja: Eight New Revelations About the Shadow Warrior,” by Ishaan Tharoor. Time Magazine. February 4, 2013.

“Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Pery, and Nationalism: Crash Course World History #34.”

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“Mochizuki Chiyome.” Wikipedia.

“What Was the Sengoku Period?” by Kallie Szczepanski. ThoughtCo. November 1, 2017.

“The BFG Author Roald Dahl Also Wrote the James Bond Movie You Only Live Twice, and Hated It,” by Kevin Lincoln. Vulture. November 12, 2015.

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