Ninjas. Pop culture is infested with them. Wrapped head to toe in black cloth, yet cunning and agile. Silent, sword-swinging, shuriken slinging, speeding ninjas. But the true ninja has been warped by society and the media. What exactly is a true ninja?
The height of ninja (properly called shinobi) activity took place in medieval Japan from the late 1400’s to the late 1500’s in the provinces of Iga and Koga. Shinobi were spies, assassins, and, if need be, warriors. Quite the opposite of the wealthy, honorable samurai warriors (comparable to knights and noblemen of medieval England), the shinobi were often lower-class farmers and were looked down upon by the samurai for their anything-goes fighting style. Even though the samurai disapproved of the shinobi, they sometimes hired shinobi to do their dirty work. An honorable samurai would loudly challenge you to a fight and announce that they were going to kill you before they were even close enough to do so in the heat of battle. A true shinobi would not kill but merely injure their opponent, allowing just enough time to melt back in to the darkness. Contrary to popular belief, Shinobi wore dark blue instead of black on night missions but dressed as farmers, dancers, monks, and other professions during missions in public areas and in the day time.
One of the most legendary aspects of the shinobi are their weapons. Since most shinobi were peasants, most of their weapons were modified agricultural instruments (i.e. staffs, knives, scythes, saws, and other tools commonly found around a farm). The kama, was a small scythe, the shinobi would hold one in each hand and swing them around in wide arcs. The kusari-gama was essentially a kama attached to a long chain. With all the sharp, stabbing aspects of a kama, plus a long chain for longer ranged attacks and entangling enemies, the kusari-gama was one of the most infamous members of the shinobi arsenal. The shuriken, the icon of the modern, pop-culture shinobi, was the name for an assortment of small, sharp objects used for throwing or slashing. Two other very important shinobi weapons were long, hollow staffs or bo, and short, low-quality swords called ninja-to.
Along with all their weapons, shinobi were trained in ninjutsu, their martial art and way of life. Ninjutsu originated in Japan, but has roots in Chinese military strategy. With the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907 C.E. some Chinese generals fled to Japan, and continued their teachings. eventually this was incorporated into the foundations of ninjutsu. Ninjutsu is very practical and efficient. It was also heavily meditative, as well as spiritual, and involved deep concentration on one’s surroundings. Low-class villagers would learn ninjutsu for self defense, this included men and women. Female Shinobi were called kunoichi, and made very good spies.
Movies may exaggerate nearly every quality of the shinobi, but they were still lethal Japanese assassins. Swift, silent, undetected, the only thing that wasn’t mysterious about shinobi was that some believed they were demons or supernatural beings. It’s a shame they faded into legend hundreds of years ago (or is that just what they want us to think?).