Literally, ninja means "in stealth". The Ninja were a class of fighters/spies that mainly existed during the 6th to 17th century in Japan. A lot of myth and bullshit ideas exist about the ninja, but to say that they were mere spies, or a pure fiction would be a critical error.

Originally, due to Japan's strict caste system, samurai, the bushi class of warrior-gentleman were (and still are) honour-bound by the strict code of bushido, which subsequently meant they could not perform dishonourable acts such as espionage.

Because they were so limited, a new warrior class came into prominence - the ninja. These people came from the hinin - literally "not human" - class, the lowest in the Japanese caste system. They were merciless warriors, often but not necessarily mercenaries, who committed acts of espionage - among them spying, sabotage, assasination and terrorism. Although not honour-bound - far from it, ninja were considered totally ruthless - they also followed their own code, which included the samurai concept of fighting to the death. Ninja were as tightly bound to their code as the samurai were to theirs. Being a ninja encompassed one's life, not just the profession.

Ninjas practised ninjutsu - not just an art of fighting, but of espionage. As spies, they employed a wide variety of weapons, but they are probably most well-known for their shaken (or ninja stars - a common labels these as shuriken, but that term refers to either their entire collection of sharp pointy death devices, or the actual art of throwing said ouchies). They were also skilled in chemistry - the use of poisons and other drugs was very commonplace.

Ninjas were organised into ryu - schools, much like the other martial arts. Each school was the latterday equivalent of a clan to the individual ninja. Often each ryu would specialise in a different forms of their profession - for instance different styles of combat, espionage, assasination, lore. It was virtually impossible to infiltrate a ninja ryu - you were either born into it, or not in it.

They were first employed by Prince Regent Shotoku in the 6th century, and their success rose dramatically during the Heian and Kamakura periods in Japanese history, and the last major use of them was in the Shimibara war in 1637 when they quelled a Christian uprising. (I believe the bad anime Ninja Resurrection was based on this). Today they are believed to have faded from existence, but - not being melodramatic - you never know

However as always a lot of Western media - movies and novels alike - have totally fucked up the concept of the ninja - along with bujutsu, bushido, the samurai and just about anything else they can sensationalize. That said, skilled authors who know what they're talking about do exist. One such is Eric Lustbader, who's book The Ninja is where much of this information comes from.

Today, especially in geek culture, 'ninja' refers to someone who is especially adept with a particular craft or profession - for instance script ninjas, unix ninjas, quake ninjas, noding for ninjas and ninja kick-ass skills. Generally such 'ninja' practise their skills with a lot of flair and style.

A ninja is one who practices ninjutsu. The existence of the Ninja as being the secret mercenaries that Ads described is folklore. The problem that surrounds us that Japanese history is word of mouth a lot of the time. If a Shogun could convince people he was employing an elite squad of warriors with magical powers, he would. And he certainly wouldn't document the deception for historians to read about later.

The meaning of the symbol pronounced Nin is also often misunderstood. The symbol can be also pronounced shinobi which means "endurance". The word Nin really means to be in control of one's mind and body - and to know one's perception of right and wrong.

Another problem lies in generalising the ninjutsu warriors as one group. Most of the ryu of what is now known as ninjutsu were seperate schools. Both in thought and in fighting technique. There was no "Ninja code of honour" for the ninja belonged to different ryu with different philosophies. It is only recently (since Takamatsu Toshitsugu) that ninjutsu has been grouped together to make one distinct marital art.

Also, the history of the ninja started in 1161 and continues to modern day. That is almost 1,000 years of history to generalise by saying the ninja did this or they did that. For example what did a knight of England do 1,000 years ago? Probably a lot different to what Sir Paul McCartney is doing 1,000 years later. There was probably a time when there was a lot of mercenary espionage ninjas, and these are what we think of when we look back on them (much as we think of knights as being plate mailed horsebacked heroes). When we think of such ninjas we are probaly thinking the secretive Gyokushin Ryu, of which there is still precious little known.

So you see, the history of the Ninja is written in hindsight and is based on scant historical records, folktales and spook stories. The Japanese are sometimes confused by the West's obsession with history. The term "History is written by the victors" is very true of Japan's history. Since espionage was an art form for much of Japan's past, we know that they probably would value that "information is power". As much, they wouldn't write how they defeated their enemies down, so that somebody could use those same techniques against them later.

The title of Samurai is not mutually exclusive to the title of ninja either. Samurai often practiced (what is now known as) ninjutsu, and indeed some found their own schools. In fact, Daisuke Nishina, the founder of the first Ryu, Togakure Ryu was from a highly ranked Samurai Family. His father was Samurai for Daimyo Yoshinaka Minamoto, the cousin of the first Shogun of Japan.

A lot has been written of the ninja which is plain wrong. Some ninja may have been ruthless killers dressed in black who specialised in infiltration and had a strict code of honour and fought to the death. But not all. Some schools loathed violence, and others abhored death.

NINJUTSU AND TRADITION By Sensei Masaaki Hatsumi
History of Bushido, by Paul Richardson


Ninja, as almost everyone knows, are the legendary assassins, spies, and saboteurs of Medieval Japan. However, almost nothing that is said or claimed about ninja is actually true.

We can start with the word "ninja" itself. The word "ninja" is made up of two Chinese characters and literally means "stealthy one" or "one who endures." The first character, pronounced shinobi when it occurs in isolation, originally meant "to endure" in Chinese, but later acquired a secondary meaning of "stealth" in Japanese, while the second character, pronounced mono when it occurs by itself, is an extremely common character meaning "person," "thing," or "one". But the odd thing about the word "ninja" is that it doesn't really appear in Japanese written documents of any kind until the 20th century. Before the early 1900s, if there were any such thing as ninja, they must have had some other name.

Next we can move on to the so-called martial art of "ninjutsu" which was supposedly practiced by the ninja in olden times. While there is certainly a collection of martial arts techniques today known as "ninjutsu," as expounded by well known Japanese martial artist Hatsumi Masaaki, these techniques were not known as "ninjutsu" until they were given that name by Hatsumi's teacher Takamatsu Toshitsugu in the mid-20th century, long after the ninja had become a well-known figure in popular culture. So while Takamatsu's techniques were real martial arts with real historical lineages, they had not previously been associated with the ninja until Takamatsu cagily decided to capitalize on the popularity of ninja and call his techniques "ninjutsu."

Finally, we can look at historical records. Once again we find very little to support the legend of the ninja. The fact is that there are simply no historical documents attesting to the existence of the ninja in medieval times. The classic counterargument to this statement is of course that the ninja were SOOPER SEKRIT, so why would they leave any documents or evidence of their existence? Nevertheless, it seems somewhat unlikely that even a group of people as secretive as the ninja are supposed to have been could have left no trace whatever of their activities or even a single mention of their existence. Given this complete lack of evidence, the burden of proof would seem to fall on those who wish to claim that the ninja really existed rather than on those who suggest they might not have.

Defenders of the ninja are quick to point out that we know of several actual historical ninja. Three of the names most commonly mentioned are Hattori Hanzo, Momochi Sandayu, and Ishikawa Goemon, but each of these examples fails to yield a verifiable ninja under closer scrutiny.

Hattori Hanzo, whose real name was Hattori Masanari, was real enough. A well-known retainer of Tokugawa Ieyasu, his family had served the Tokugawa family for several generations. But he was clearly a samurai, and was documented to have fought in over a dozen samurai battles before dying in 1596 at the age of 55.

As for Momochi Sandayu, it is impossible to say if he ever even existed, as his name does not appear in any records from the time was said to have lived according to later stories. While there was a Momochi family in Iga province during the Sengoku Period, they were simply a minor warrior family allied with a local war band, and there is no record of any members of that family possessing special martial arts techniques of any kind.

Ishikawa Goemon was an actual person who was caught sneaking into Osaka Castle by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who punished him by boiling him in a giant kettle. But although later tales speculated that he must have been some sort of ninja, records indicate that he was executed for being a thief, rather than a spy.

So what can we really say about the ninja, in the final analysis? One thing we can say for sure is that there were certainly techniques and tactics which had been developed in Medieval Japan for infiltrating enemy territory. We can also say with confidence that there were assassinations, espionage, and sabotage. But what we lack any historical evidence of is special groups of people who practiced these techniques as a secretive martial art and hired themselves out to the highest bidder. It is clear that if we want to find ninja, we would need to conceive of "ninja" as a function rather than a special kind of warrior. If there were any ninja at all, they were samurai performing "ninja" type assignments (and even "samurai" was not an official social class during this period - it was merely an occupation).

But if all this is true, where did the whole idea of ninja come from in the first place? Well, what we do know is that in the peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868), long after the samurai had ceased to fight battles, there was an explosion of ninja-type characters in the thriving popular culture of the era. Traveling ninja shows, ninja houses, ninja novels, and ninja plays were all popular by the mid Edo period (although the term "ninja" was not used - rather, these characters were known as "oniwaban" - 御庭番 - or "shinobi" -志能備. Whether these tales were invented out of whole cloth or at least loosely based on some sort of actual secret tradition is very difficult to say, but it is clear that the image of the ninja as we know it in popular tradition today was created in the fertile minds of entrepreneuring Edo-period entertainers.

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