Ninja (忍者) - An Introduction

Ninja (忍者) - An Introduction

An actor playing a farmer; this might have been a very common disguised utilized by Ninja. From "A
ctor Playing a Farmer - Utagawa Toyokuni III"

Ninja (忍者), also known as Shinobi () or Shinobi no mono (忍びの者) are among the most iconic characters in world culture, in a military history context as well inside a pop-cultural ones. There is no escape, everyone is aware of Ninja; but very few people know what Ninja actually were and were not.
Today my aim is to introduce this "figure" with a lot of emphasis on debunking some common misconceptions that, despite the efforts of many historians and amateur history buff like me, still exist nowadays.

It is not a novelty that such a mystique character as the Ninja would have developed a strong impact on people's imagination; Ninja were supposed to be magical even inside Japanese folklore. However, there are a lot of facts (that facts are not) which people believe to be true, even if there is plenty of literature that easily shows how wrong most of these facts are.

So without further introductions words, let's get to the topic.

What was a Ninja?

A Ninja, first and foremost, was a profession. As the name suggest, the kanji "-
者" used as suffix could be translated as someone practicing something, like a musha ( 武者 - warrior) or gyousha (業者 - merchant).
In fact, a Ninja is neither a social class or a member of some sort of secret society. A Ninja could be a farmer, a merchant or indeed a samurai.
Beside this little linguistic note, a Ninja was a professional spy.
The key role of these people was spying, gather information for their "employers" and eventually perform sabotages on a large scale, scouting, working as body guards or mercenaries and sometimes even killing or assassinate important enemies.
Among the wide aforementioned actions a Ninja was supposed to perform, the assassination was likely the less practiced.

In fact Ninja were not specialized assassins in the first place as many people seems to believe nowadays; a Ninja could and would eventually kill but they were valued for their intelligence service.
A Ninja was supposed to be able to disguise himself among other people, scout the territory and survive behind enemy's line rather than learn sword fighting (unless the Ninja in question was also a samurai), which would have been incredibly useful to came back home in one piece, but it shouldn't have been used since a Ninja wasn't supposed to be caught in the first place.

A Ninja was also a highly trained commando especially when working inside an army; there were in fact famous warriors throughout Japanese history which worked as special troops well versed in the used of guerrilla tactics and asymmetric warfare, like Hattori Hanzou (
服部半蔵), which often included the use of explosive devices.
So you could actually have specialized Samurai, trained in Ninjutsu (
忍術), and this bring us to the next paragraph.

What was Ninjutsu (
忍術) ?

This is an highly debated topic, especially in the modern days martial art community; it is also hard to pin point what kind of misconceptions the word ninjutsu could generate. A lot of people think that Ninjutsu is a martial art developed around the usage of exotic weapons or empty hands, others thinks that it was some sort of magic.

In reality Ninjutsu is an umbrella term to identify a big number of "arts", from martial ones like taijutsu (
体術) but also espionage techniques, stealth, medical and chemistry concepts as well as explosive making.
It was a series of skill a Ninja was supposed to master to work effectively as a spy, a scout, a saboteur and a trained assassin as well.
A lot of this technique involved being able to disguise oneself inside a city.
There are many manuals, the majority of them written in the 17th century on these various skills that could be called Ninjutsu.
It is inside those old manuals that one could find many references to traditional Japanese magic called On'myo (
陰陽); this is probably why and where the myth of Ninja being supernatural entities came from, even if there is no trace of "magic" inside ninjutsu manual before the mid Edo Period.
Although these techniques were surely practiced in some way, they
were far from being effective.

A Ninja depicted while performing some form of  witchcraft to turn himself into a gigantic rat. From an ukiyo e of Utagawa Kunisada (歌川 国貞)

Ninjatou, Shuriken and Black suit

Since there is an entire section of my blog dedicated to weapons, you won't be disappointed to see in the near future articles dedicated to weapons also used by Ninja; but in this article, I want to specifically address these three things.

First and foremost, there was anything like the Ninja Sword (
忍者刀). They didn't exist.As many as already pointed out, if the whole concept of being a Ninja is being anonymous, how can wearing something called Ninja sword being helpful? Is like having a big badge saying that the wearer is associated with espionage, stealing and sabotage.
The ninjatou is simply a fabrication of the modern Ninja figure.
There were straight Japanese swords, even in the feudal period, squared tsuba also existed but this is another topic; a Ninja would have likely worn small and easy to conceal blades like a wakizashi, a tantou or an uchigatana hidden inside a walking stick.

Beside that, the Ninja were quite famous of using tools as weapons, like a Kama ( - a sickle) or indeed a Kunai (
苦内), which were two agricultural tools.
This bring us to the next (in)famous Ninja weapon, the Shuriken (手裏剣).
Most likely this iconic throwing star was not developed to be used as a weapon; it was a tool used to
cut, to distract and also to wound an unarmored opponent, but were never really meant to be used to fight, let alone kill someone.
There were several types of Shuriken which would be discussed in a dedicated articles, but what is important to highlight here is the usage of this tool.
The iconic black suit of Ninja is also an highly misunderstood characteristic of these spies; it should be clarified that Ninja also worn black clothes or at least extremely dark color. It is quite useful in the night, especially if the main task is to sneak inside the enemy camp and set something on fire. It is not a modern fabrication; the oldest depiction of a black ninja came from an Hokusai Manga and is quite famous.
That being said, the Ninja didn't wear only black suits; among the colors suggested there were navy blue, dark brown and also green.
The same goes for the famous Ninja mask; these types of head wear were quite common in Japan.
The same arguments could be used for the so called Ninja armor; there wasn't such a thing especially if it's meant to be opposed as something like samurai armor. The armors often associated with Ninja areof the Tatami types ( I hope to release an article on this topic as well), made of kusari, kikko or a combination of the two,which are light, easy to store and also easy to conceal under ordinary clothes; this last trait is the most important for someone who is meant to be undercover.
It is highly probable that the Ninja used this types of armors, yet they weren't the only ones.
Tatami armor were worn by Samurai too, especially policeman during the Edo period.
It is also fair to notice that if we are talking about a Samurai who is also a Ninja in the sengoku, he would have likely worn regular armors on the battlefield.

This is the aforementioned Black Ninja depicted by Hokusai; note the sword on the back: definitely the most iconic Ninja representation.

Ninja vs Samurai?

As I have already pointed out, a Samurai can be a Ninja as well as a farmer can be. A Ninja is not a social class, however it is a common thought that Ninja were the natural enemies of the Samurai, just like cat and dogs.
However, as it is with cat and dogs, this wasn't the case, since we have examples like the aforementioned Hattori Hanzou.
Although there is a bit of reality in this whole myth; in fact, the so called Ninja vs Samurai is a reference to a real historical fact: the Tenshou-Iga war.

In this particular war, the province of Iga was invaded by the warlord Oda Nobunaga (
織田信長) and thanks to the nature of the terrain which was heavily mountainous and covered by forests, the people of Iga were able to repel the invasion thanks to guerrilla tactics often associated with the Ninja. In fact Iga, like Koga, was one of the richest provinces in terms of Ninja.
Again it is fair to notice that the Ninja in Iga who fought the war were also Samurai as well, but the way in which they fought was so striking for the troops of Nobunaga that the idea of Samurai against Ninja stand still even nowdays.

The Tensho Iga no ran (
天正伊賀の乱), from an ukiyo-e made by an unknown artist.

I hope that this brief introduction dedicated to explain the most common myth (and their links with reality) around Ninja was interesting enough!
If you liked the article please feel free to share it, and for any questions there is a comment section below.
Thank you for your time!



  1. Finally, an article for Ninja!

    During the Edo period there was a merger of Iga and Kuga clan, and the ninja became a formal agency known as Oniwaban, I believe?

    1. Yes! I think that I'm going to write even more in the future!

      The Oniwaban was the secret police of the Tokugawa shogunate; many people from Iga and Koga were recruited, and although there was no formal affiliation with ninja, they were surely trained in ninjutsu

  2. I am quite interested in both groups actually. Did oniwaban got into conflicts with other ninja?

    1. If you are interested, I will write about them! (I'm still working on Sengoku tactics, soon there will be an article!).

      I have still a lot of material to study on Ninja, but I would say that oniwaban didn't go into actual conflicts; there were some rivalries during the Sengoku period among Ninja, Hattori Hanzo and Fuma Kotaro are the best example (even if it might be a legend). However, it is hard to say if this translated into groups of different schools against each others.

      The main problem with the oniwaban is that they started to be a thing during the 18th century, a relative peaceful period for Japan. If they actually get into some sort of spy conflicts, they were so good at it that I'm not able to find any references! I may look further, maybe there is something during the Bakumatsu period although my Japanese history from the 19th century onward is fairly lacking!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. @Attila thank you! I'm glad that you find my blog interesting!

      As far as this article is concerned, there are actual evidences about the existence of Ninja across many sources; they simply were not what people nowadays believe them to be.

      I haven't read the entire article due to time issues but I will do it in these days. What I feel about it is that Turnbull is trying to "debunk" all the folklore associated with Iga and Koga clan rather than questioning the existence of Ninja itself. It is true that Ninja didn't exist only in Koga and Iga, but there are some references about those provinces having good Ninja. The tradition might have been inflated over the years but there is at least a little bit of evidences in claiming it.

      As for Turnball as "historian", he is only good when uses actual references so you can double check what he says; for example, I use him to write articles since he is a good link towards other Japanese books/sources and so on. However, there are some really bad statements in his works which severely undermine his whole attitude.
      For example he was one of the first to actually romanticize the Samurai Katana and wrote many senseless things that brought a ton of people in bashing against the sword.

  4. I'm not the author but if I may say something Stephen Turnbull is not is good source,historians do not very much like him

    I've been looking into Ninjas for a long time and there's more than enough evidence for their existence

    I read that article before and it honestly it came across as "well these guys say I romanticize Japanese history so I well do the opposite that will show them"

    Cherry-picking information and down playing Iga and koga, so yeah I wouldn't recommend him

  5. Good article but if I may say something, ninjas using On'myo as well being associated with magic including the famous hand signs their often doing in Media from my book "there is no evidence to say this associated or practice with magic or religion came any earlier then mid-to-late edo period" it doesn't say exactly like that but you get the idea

    That image of an all black ninja is not an ninja that's a depiction of a thief in manuals the writers actually make an effort to say there are some similarities but there is a difference between a ninja and a thief as the actually they looked down upon thieves

    Well yes depiction of a all black ninja is technically not a modern invention as to how how ninja got associated with it, I'm not sure

    1. @Kevin thank you for your comment!

      I wasn't aware of that actually, I might check again those manuals you send me; however, for the sake of this article which cover more or less the whole period of Ninja activity, I thought that it was worth mentioning it, especially to explain the "aura" of magic often associated with these warriors.

      I also didn't know the history behind that picture, only that came from an Hokusai work; it might be a thief indeed, but I think that many thieves shares a lot of Ninja's skills: if I recall correctly in the Ninpiden there are pages that describe how to unlock doors and such. Still, as you said to me, black was a color suggested for Ninja action ;)

    2. Well after going over ninja again,I find a interesting connection to ninja and thieves. from this article

      "the Kōka ninja are thought to have developed from earlier groups opposing the establishment of private shōen estates. The Iga ninja are also believed to have their origins in the akutō outlaw warrior bands that skirmished with landowners." and this one.

      "The Akutō are thought to have been precursors to the Shinobi."

      One comment I found on a video concerning Ninja something interesting I didn't think of.

      "Corporate shinobi were organized like the modern Yakuza. There was a 'top man', a 'second man' and a 'third man'. These were CLASSES, not titles. Only the top man was a person, and they never did missions."

      And that is true at least concerning Iga, they did have a kind of class thing Jonin,chunin and genie.

    3. Some other things like from one of videos I shared whit you.

      "ninpo is almost same as of a thief. "

      "Bandit or pirate is the occupation of Hattori of iga. "

      Hojo Godaiki(1697)
      "Rappa(ninja)were bandits, pirates doing robberies. "

      The fuma clan are believed to have originated from Bandits and Ronin actually they're battle disrupters", divided into four groups: brigands, pirates, burglars and thieves.

    4. Thank you for your references Kevin!

      I agree with you and I like this thesis; after all, infiltrating and lockpicking are found into Ninjutsu manuals and are very useful to thieves... and during the Sengoku period, the line in between an army and a gang of bandits was very thin!

    5. Your Welcome,I did found some information on the Akuto bandits, they also did night raids and arson 2 things associated with Ninja and Iga does have a connection to the bandits as well,
      if you like I could share it.

      Also if you don't mind me asking could you do me a favor, I found out Stephen Turnbull did a new book on ninja not a fan of him really but I thought about maybe getting it I wanted to hear your opinion if it's okay perhaps you could check out the free sample on Google store if you don't mind of course it's no problem if you don't want to here's a link to it.

      I did read the free sample and a few pages on Google Books so far alright but he seems to not mention a few things,I guess he's unaware of them.

      Wanted to hear your thoughts though.

    6. Yes I would appreciate a lot if you share them!

      I have given that sample a quick reading and honestly I think that is a book that might deserve a reading; Turnbull's books are useful to get access to other sources and if you are able to analyze them critically, you could get some value from them.
      Maybe the man itself has learned from the past errors!
      I have to say that as far as I can tell, you seem to know a lot about ninja so you might end finding anything new, but if you are interested I am considering buying that book too, although I have a very low estimate of his works (like the previous one about ninja)


      Here you go, thanks I might buy it I'll message you if I do perhaps we can discuss the book oh apparently the book is maybe 40% talk about the history of actual ninja the rest is talking about how the ninja as we seem today in movies and stuff came to be.

    8. Whoops accidentally gave you two unrelated links just forget about the last two here are the ones I need to getō+bandits+iga&source=bl&ots=-U1WS1xAaY&sig=O6I2ufNJME1lVFOhJ1biZ61K0zk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjA4qeO2PzcAhXjw1kKHW9LBK8Q6AEwAXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=akutō%20bandits%20iga&f=false

      First one is actually more about the Iga Providence in general better than the bandits.

    9. Sorry for leaving so many comments but I have to make sure all of the links I left work and the first one didn't so well leaving it again a working one this time,sorry.

    10. Don't worry about the comments;
      As far as Turnbull book is concerned, if the history part is about 40% of the book, it's a true shame... Honestly I'm not interested in knowing how and why such popculturalization of the Ninja happened, which in my opinion is fairly obvious.

      Thanks a lot for the references! New sources are always welcomed!

    11. Well I think I made a mistake the video I watched for the book mentions it's a summary of ninja of the 20th century, history of the Ninja open till 1580s,1600 and how we got stuff like blenders with the name ninja, I don't know okay if you like you could check out Anthony's book review and he's actually has an interview with Stephen( he's not the guy doing the interview) which is the only, only, only time I would recommend videos of Anthony ever mainly because there's not a lot of reviews of the book except for on Amazon you can check those out too.

      Also have you checked out mie University book that you can get on Google Store as well

    12. I'll look for that interview, thank you!
      Actually I want to buy the Mie university book; I was looking for something that dealt with all the primary ninjutsu sources in details and I think that this is the book to go, and I am confident that the university background is solid enough. What do you think about it?

    13. Well I like to give you this article from this cool little ninja website another interview with Turnbull honestly think it's a better interview let me know what you think like to hear your opinion

      As for the book yeah it's a pretty good decent book with some information I didn't know about of course I always liked to triple check these things cross reference sources and all that but yeah pretty good, pretty detailed( though I do wish they went into more detail on certain things) a nice thing about it is some photos of actual places and some primary sources of course.

    14. As far as Turnbull is concerned, reading through that interview I think that this time he might have achieved something good with his efforts to pursuit historical accuracy, but after all the things he have wrote about the Katana, it's very hard for me to thrust him.
      Still, if I have to say, the fact that he is going to re-use again his 30 years old illustrations in his next book is very bad imho.

      I will check the Mie university book out then!

    15. Cool I may check out Turnbull's book so I'll let you know what I think about it if I do.

      forgot I should share what I dislike about the book, I don't like the they use the term "ninja clans" I somewhat get it but the same time it's like not really accurate they do mention however the people of Iga and koga were Jizamurai so not too bad and calling The Akuto, Villains was kind of cartoonish but not that big a deal.

      I don't like that they only focus on Iga and Koga
      but then again those two are the most famous for Ninjutsu so I can understand in some ways.

      Calling the bansenshukai the definitive Source on ninja I feel it's wrong saying that with the manual having its can of worms still pretty good source but there's some discussion to be had also I kind of wished they would have talked about the 'Gunpo Jiyoshu' I think that's manual is a bit more worthy of that title.

      The discussion about shugehdo or onmyodo felt like it went on a little too long and I don't like they kinda entertain the Theory / myth of the monks who practice is kind of stuff being Originators of ninjutsu which that's a romantic story wish the book would have gone on with it just mentioned it briefly and move on, actually my book has something interesting to say on this matter if you'd like I could share it.

      The chapter called
      Japanese military manuals/ content( I can't remember which one it was) there was something off about it I can't remember what it was I may be thinking of another chapter.

      There's a chapter called 'Naruto and one piece' which is really just talking about the kind of "ninja elements" in popular media and some other stuff which goes on to page 194-201 which is such a waste could have made better use of that, I don't know maybe it was some kind of sponsorship or something.

      Finally it just seems too short only 207 pages they'll probably come with more books in the future I'm willing to cut them some slack because it's their first book but still I wish there were some more contents and details

    16. Well I guess that there isn't a perfect book; anyways, thank you for your points! I'll consider them while I will go through the book!

  6. Throwing stars are also known as Shurikens and are one of the smartest creations of the Ninjas. They were designed like stars and were generally made up of metal, however, historically, people used to make them out of coins. The Ninjas used the throwing stars to evade their enemies or to make them run away, that is why throwing stars were of great use to them.

  7. Ninja weapons are among the most famous and smart weapons. Even though it had been centuries since these people lived in Japan, yet people are still obsessed with their craftsmanship and smart inventions. Smart? Yes, because Ninjas weapons were designed in a way to carry assassinations and to distract enemies and attackers. The stealthy nature of the Ninjas made their enemies hate them as they thought that Ninjas have no code of conduct and manners.

  8. Cool blog. I love your weaponry posts. It's been very informative.
    Gotta say though that last part about the ninja war is something I disagree with. The whole Oda Nobunaga ninja war being seen as such a big deal is because of modern media (well, if you can consider the 1950s and 60s as "modern") that already played into ninja mysticism tropes. The writers wanted to create dramatic tension, and so they made such a big fuss about how unusual this is. It also helps amp up the drama that Oda Nobunaga is a great famous samurai, and the Iga folks are often depicted as this little village of ragtag warriors.

    Historically this was just one lost battle that I believe was not that a big deal. Iga was not the only battle Oda Nobunaga lost due to terrain difficulties.


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