People all over the world know the ninja. You can go to almost any country and ask someone to describe a ninja and you will get a similar description, “a guy dressed in black with a sharp sword and throwing stars”. Ninja have made it into nearly every form of media; video games, movies, comic books, novels, and even radio plays. Even Batman was a ninja!
The common perception of the ninja is so pervasive that there are some scholars who believe that they never really existed. They are merely a really interesting part of Japanese mythology that has been adapted and adopted by American culture. But, they are wrong. Ninja were real, and the truth behind the ninja is far more interesting than the myth.
Ninja became well known for their exploits during the 100-year period of Japanese history known as the Sengoku Jidai or Warring States Period. During this time, the central government in Japan had basically fallen apart and the different warlords throughout the country began fighting each other for land, resources, and power. Ninja served as an asymmetrical force to the warlord’s samurai and peasant troops. They were skilled in spycraft, assassination, and spread of misinformation. But the ninja go back much farther than that.
The origins of the ninja can be found in the yama bushi (this means “mountain warriors”) and as sweet as that sounds, yama bushi were not actually warriors. They were a branch of priests that lived in the mountains and worshiped nature by cutting themselves off nearly entirely from civilization. In other words, they were ultra-survivalists. The yama bushi were more common in the mountainous and difficult terrain of the Iga and Koka areas. The earliest ninja would be trained in survival techniques by the yama bushi, and would adapt those teachings for espionage and assassination.
To understand why the ninja formed in the first place, one has to understand Japanese society at the time. The samurai were the ruling class. They were the top of the cultural pyramid. We have very romantic conceptions of samurai today, but daily life under a samurai lord was no fun. The strict codes of honor, and treating others with compassion were limited to other samurai.
Two groups of peasants decided that they didn’t like this lifestyle, so they broke off and formed their own mini-societies. Those two villages: Iga and Koka. They set up a democratic society where your place in society was not based entirely on your birthright. They knew that they would be attacked by the various warlords around them, so they set up their villages in very mountainous areas with lots of defensive advantages. Knowing that they would never be able to stand up to the larger, highly trained samurai armies, they learned from the yama bushi and formed the ninja.
Yes, the ninja set up democratic systems hundreds of years before the Japanese government. As I said before, living under the samurai as peasants was a nasty, brutish, and short life. The ninja wanted personal freedom, and to live independent of an all-powerful local lord, or daimyo.
Your position in a ninja village was based on your personal skill, in the Iga village, for example, there were three levels; jonin (上忍), chunin (中忍), and genin (下忍), basically advanced, intermediate, and beginner. As I said, you were not born into this rank, you have to prove yourself and advance through your skills, obedience, and intelligence.
Each of the villages were led by a group of 12 or 15 of the village elders who were chosen by the village body as a whole. Any rules or important decisions were decided after all of the elders took conciliation with each other. This may not seem impressive to us now, but for Japan at this time, it was absolutely radical. The Koka and Iga villages were generally cooperative with each other, and would often exchange information.
Sadly, that same attitude of justice and freedom would make the ninja one particularly great enemy: Oda Nobunaga. He would declare war on the ninja. His first attack against ninja villages would fail epically. This small group of ninja would decimate a much larger army, but the wrath of Nobunaga would not be erased so easily. A second much larger army would finally run the ninja out of their homes.
The ninja would be protected by the Tokugawa clan and shogunate, and would last for a couple of generations longer, but eventually, they would be defeated by their most virulent nemesis; peace. As the Tokugawa government enforced peace throughout the land, the purpose of the ninja would be lost, and eventually forgotten.
Many popular aspects of the ninja are, in fact, wrong. For example, what color did ninja wear when they were on sneaking missions? If you said black, you are wrong. Believe it or not, black does not camouflage you very well at night. Dark blue or purple is a much better color to hide you in the night sky. Ninja did not seem to use their traditional costume often. They would use disguises more often than camouflage. They would dress as peasants, priests, actors, or sometimes even prostitutes. To me this makes them much more terrifying, a guy dressed in purple stands out much more than a guy dressed as a peasant that can mix in flawlessly, and disappear.
Furthermore, one of the ninja’s most famous weapons, the throwing star was probably never used. Most scholars and modern day ninja practitioners say that the ninja star lacks any real power and is too difficult to practically use. Also, it seems that ninja did not even use swords much. Swords are heavy and loud. If you are running around, the sword is going to clank around and give your position away. They used more common weapons. Scythes could double as a weapon, and no samurai would blink an eye if he saw a poor pitiful peasant carrying a scythe on his belt, that is until that scythe was firmly planted in his head.
To me, the truth of the ninja is so much cooler than any legend. You can find legends of ninjas flying on kites, dropping bombs on troops below, and then turning invisible. While these are great stories, the truth of a group of men and women who fled the unfair and unjust society that surrounded them, and who, through blood sweat and tears, built their own democratic society, and were prepared to defend it with their lives? That is so much more impressive and moving to me.