The gleaming swords flashed in the rays of midsummer light, a playful wind brushing the legs of dozens of spectators held in suspense. The annual Osaka Garden Festival had arrived once again, attracting artists, vendors and teachers determined to share the culture of Japan with Chicago. That year, this lofty goal was realized in a demonstration of martial prowess by a local school of ninja practitioners. I watched, as one by one, the black clad warriors dove and rolled over an upturned Japanese katana sword. Their execution of technique and bodily movement was impressive and I clapped along with the audience, until they changed to self-defense drills. That was when one young man made a hasty move that sent the tip of a sharp blade into his cheek. Blood dripped onto the training mat and his instructors hurried him off of the stage while the show continued. Evidently, getting poked in the face with a sword comes with ninja territory.
Although the warrior was not, in fact, seriously injured, that moment didn’t help sell the mythical ninja, as indeed, fact. Due to over-saturation in the media and even fantastical folk tales from Japan, many think that these mysterious pop culture icons never existed. Though historical records are in short supply, we do know that ninja definitely walked this earth and played an important, albeit grisly, part in Japanese history. We just need to separate fact from fantasy.
The word ninja is a relatively modern reading of shinobi, 忍者, which can mean “to steal away”. The ideogram 者, or mono, means person. It was not so prevalent back in the 8th century, when the word first began to appear in ancient writings, and the assassins were known by many other names such as the aforementioned shinobi, rappa (“ruffian), kusa (“grass”) and nokizaru (“macaque on the roof”). Some accounts say that military leaders fleeing China during a time of political upheaval, settled in Japan and spread their stealth oriented wartime strategies. It would not be until the 15th century that the term shinobi began to more closely identify with spies and assassins well versed in the Chinese influenced methods of espionage.
Ninja were originally made up of lower caste society; peasants, farmers, and the homeless. As time went on however, Japan entered an era of war between states, the Sengoku period, and large families began to form that were solely dedicated to training up agents as ninja mercenaries. Two exceptional examples were the Iga and Koga, powerful clans that produced the most well-known shinobi whose exploits continue to appear on film and printed page today. Due to their remote locations in the mountains of Mie and Shiga prefecture, the two clans were able to perfect their methods in secrecy. Unlike some samurai or villagers who opted to become ninja, Iga and Koga shinobi were trained from birth in techniques handed down through their blood lines. They were used extensively by opposing military factions until their decline at the end of the 16th century, when the infamous military governor, Oda Nobunaga, wiped them out. As for the ninja as a whole, the last account of any activity in war came during the Shimabara rebellion, a conflict in which ninja were deployed against Japanese Christian rebels from 1637-1638. From that point, they faded into legend.
It is widely known that ninja did not fight with honor as their foils, the samurai. Noble graces like open combat and sparing of the enemy meant very little to them. Shinobi were sent in to do the job and in the ruthless, deceptive manner that the upper class warriors weren’t willing to carry out yet knew was necessary to the success of the mission. Still, though mercenaries, ninja were known for their spiritual training in the mountains, striving to balance thought and duty. They were not mindless killers, and had to convince themselves that their chosen course was a lesser evil.
Service in the military meant a variety of clandestine roles for the ninja; intelligence gathering, infiltration, sabotage/terrorism and finally, assassination. The agents accomplished these tasks through a variety of well-developed disguises, which interestingly, may not have included the classic black outfit we’ve come to identify them with. This misconception stemmed from various paintings by the great artist Hokusai and the practice of Bunraku puppeteers, who dressed completely in black to hide their presence from the audience.
Most ninja wore civilian clothes or dressed as whatever role that they were using as spies; traveling monks, doctors, and high-ranking samurai. Female ninja, or kunoichi, often traveled as dancers, entered temples as shrine maidens or taverns as prostitutes. They also went through great lengths to learn the knowledge and skills of these people so as to better perform on assignment. Study of certain poisons, antidotes, music and terminology entered their rigorous training. As for their legendary skill set, while they were not actually known to vanish into thin air or shoot fireballs, they did learn how to walk over rough surfaces quietly, operate in total darkness and construct various explosives from a young age. The ninja star, or more correctly named shuriken, was a common tool in their arsenal, as well as caltrops, sharp spikes left on the ground behind them as they fled to discourage pursuers.
May I steal your attention away from buying that, totally authentic, Chinatown ninja sword for a moment? There is a shinobi museum in modern-day Iga where many archaeological artifacts can be explored, including a well-preserved, genuine ninja home complete with trap doors and revolving walls. I hear they even have performers showcasing authentic ninja skills. Lets hope for a better outcome than in Chicago.
– Iga Ninja Museum:
– John Man, travel writer and historian: