The silent, black-clad ninja who spies, sabotages, and commits murder (without leaving a trace) remains a popular Japanese character in modern books and films.
It has somewhat inspired pop culture phenomena ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to American Ninja Warrior. But the facts about ninja history can be as elusive as the iconic fighters themselves.
The history of the ninja is shrouded in mythology
Some modern scholars question whether ninjas actually existed – or were simply a mythical invention.
This skepticism stems in part from the fact that ninjas are often described as martial arts experts with supernatural abilities, or as sorcerers who can create fire with their fingertips, control the wind, and move objects without touching them with their hands. In many stories, they fly and even split into multiple bodies to thwart those in hot pursuit.
Most scholars believe that historical accounts of ninjas, like many underworld characters, have been greatly embellished while retaining a grain of truth.
Ninjas have been active since the 14th century, when they were hired by daimyos, or feudal Japanese warlords, primarily for intelligence and counterintelligence. But their secretive nature has left few mentions of them in the historical record. Much of what is known comes from texts written in the 1600s and later, well after the Shogun Wars when ninjas flourished.
Ninjas served mainly as spies
Because they served as mercenaries and spies, ninjas had to be especially skilled at disguise and subterfuge. And while they were popularly portrayed as trained assassins, they were more likely skilled at stealth, diversion, and counterintelligence than assassination. Their main duty was to secretly collect useful information for their master.
The word “ninja” does not appear in historical texts or accounts until the 19th century. Most likely, in early texts these fighters were most often referred to as “shinobi,” which shares a common character with ninja in Japanese hieroglyphic writing.
The “Yapam Dictionary of the Japanese Language,” a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary published by the Jesuit mission to Nagasaki in 1603, defines a shinobi as “a spy who, in times of war, enters a castle at night or secretly, or infiltrates the enemy’s ranks to obtain intelligence.”
The origins of the art of ninja
As mercenaries, ninjas fought alongside warlords throughout Japan. But according to Gunpo Samurai Yushu, a dictionary of samurai military law, the best shinobi of the feudal era came from the neighboring provinces of Iga and Koka, located in the mountainous region southeast of Japan’s then capital Kyoto. By the 14th century, about two dozen ninja schools appeared throughout Japan. According to the 17th century Bansenshukai, a 22-volume encyclopedia on the art of ninja, the discipline of ninjutsu drew inspiration from the guerrilla tactics of the brilliant Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.
The Bansenshukai describes ninja arts as social skills, conversational techniques, mnemonics (memory aids), methods of communicating information, medicine, astronomy, and even witchcraft. Ninjas were trained to use their intelligence and vast knowledge to infiltrate any social environment, gain knowledge, and escape safely to report their findings to their patron.
Being masters of camouflage, ninjas often infiltrated their targets not under the cover of darkness, but in broad daylight, masquerading as a merchant or Buddhist priest. They used many common tools such as sickle and sword as weapons to blend in with the peasants. But they were also famous for carrying shuriken, the star of the ninja, because these pocket-sized hand-throwing blades could be easily concealed and used to disarm an opponent.
Defining Moments in Ninja History
Although their origins may date back to the 12th century or earlier, shinobi were active when Japan was filled with territorial skirmishes between warlords. Shinobi played an important role in, among other things, the Nanbokucho Wars (1336-1392) and the Warring States Period (1467-1568).
The Honno-ji Incident of 1582 shows how ninjas could even influence the course of Japanese history. After the samurai general killed Oda Nobunaga, one of the three powerful shoguns who sought to unify Japan, at the Honno-ji Temple in Kyoto, he then proceeded to murder Nobunaga’s loyalists and allies.
But his target, Tokugawa Ieyasu, another of the “great unifiers of Japan,” was fortunate to have the ninja Hattori Hanzo of Iga as a friend and general. It is believed that swordsman Hanzō (or perhaps another anonymous ninja) smuggled Ieyasu out of enemy territory and brought him home safely.
If Ieyasu had been killed, Japanese history might have taken a significantly different direction. In 1603, Emperor Go-Ezei elevated him to the rank of shogun. The Tokugawa Ieyasu shogunate, the last of the shogun era, is credited with ushering in two centuries of peace and prosperity known as the Edo period.
However, the transition to peace was messy and marred by huge inequality of wealth. It is said that one ninja, Iga native Ishikawa Goemon, tried to make life more bearable for the peasants by using ninjutsu to steal gold from the rich and give it to the needy. To some, Goemon represents the ninja gone rogue. However, authorities such as the Japanese Ninja Council consider him to be a legendary outlaw hero who most likely emerged from someone’s imagination rather than an actual historical figure.
Real or fictional, Goemon’s story ends tragically. After he failed in his attempt to kill Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful warlord, Hideyoshi’s men executed Goemon by boiling him alive. In many silkscreens and woodcuts, Goemon’s infant son is also thrown into the bathtub and his father heroically holds him over boiling oil, saving his son’s life while he himself dies.