In your mind picture a ninja. Got that image? Good. Listen to the light breeze of the night, smell the lotus blossoms in the trees. Watch as the living shadow moves ever closer to the guards, slipping past them and listening at the windows of the shogun. See him slip inside, bringing swift, efficient death to the house and then vanishing like the morning dew with no one the wiser. About what you had in mind? Good... only problem is none of that ever happened.
For those who don't have the basic background, let's begin at the beginning of what ninja were. These men and women were warriors, and often times mercenaries, that were schooled in the art of war known as ninjutsu; what people in the modern day would refer to as sound strategy that utilized a number of dishonorable guerilla tactics. Mountain fighters that trained vigorously, ninja were used as spies and scouts to gather information for the various noble houses, governments, and warlords that had begun at the earliest around the 6th century in Japan. These are the basic facts, but from here there are a lot of myths that have made their way into the collective image of what a ninja is. So, let's debunk some of those, shall we?
Why Are They Called Ninja?
Let's start by debunking the name. Today these men and women are collectively referred to as ninja because they were practitioners of ninjutsu. At the time though these individuals would be called by different names in different provices or in different years. One of the most common names was Shinobi, but other names over the years were Rappa, Ukami, Onmitsu, and others. Once history was written after the passing of the ninja era, the title of ninja was officially put on the whole mess.
There was even a name for female ninja; Kunoichi. Check out this article for more information about them!
Where Did Ninja Come From?
As with any great martial art there are a dozen myths and legends about where the fighting style and tactics of the ninja came from. The earliest it's been traced reliably to is India. Don't picture what ninjas doing the bidding of Kali would look like; you could accidentally blow your mind. These philosophies began in 4000 B.C., came through mainland China and then in the 6th century made their way to Japan via Korea. Given Japan's hilly terrain the war philosophy of the guerilla mixed with training called shugendo was handily adopted to the landscape in the form of ninjutsu. For those paying attention, this means that the ninja predate the samurai by quite a number of years.
As to where the ninja came from in Japan itself, that requires a bit of tracking. Or visiting a Japanese museum. It's said in histories of Japan that the earliest use of ninja was by a man named Otomono Sahito, what some might call a spy master and what others would call an intelligence officer. It was around this time that the famous (or infamous) regions of Iga and Koga developed into major centers of ninja training activity. These provinces developed their own internal representative government that more or less ignored orders from the outside, and they remained their own miniature ninja state well into the 1500s.
But Weren't Ninja Deadly Assassins and Ruthless Killers?
This one is sort of a loaded question, but the general answer is no. Ninja were the Japanese precursor to the CIA. Their main job was to be a network of eyes on the ground, spying and passing along information through handlers so that the head ninja could look nearly omnipotent. While ninja did kill, and there certainly were occasions where they acted as assassins, these jobs were not the norm. Ninja would be trained to fight and to kill, but generally they would instead use stealth, blend in with the populace, and refrain from any truly direct or bloody action. It would, as the saying goes, sort of blow their cover to go around killing people everywhere they went.
But Ninja Did Wear All Black and Fight With Throwing Stars, Right?
Here again we find history has taken some odd twists and turns. Ninja did not in fact wear all black or typically skulk around leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Though when they did do this they would wear dark blue. Black will actually make you show up as a silhouette, which sort of defeats the purpose. And ninja would often wear chain armor beneath their clothes as a way to try and protect themselves. Light, concealed armor probably played into the idea that ninja were demons who couldn't be killed by a single thrust of a sword. When garbed for battle they went in like a stealthy SWAT team; armed to the teeth and ready for precision strikes. Most of the time however ninja would look like everyone else. They had day jobs, cover stories and a whole false life to keep them from looking suspicious. Monks, peasants, farmers, blacksmiths, dancers, performers... ninja could be anyone! Like terrorists, or members of the Tea Party.
Actually, the story of how the stereotypical image of ninjas in full black got started is pretty amusing; you can blame Japanese theater. In the Edo period, about 100 years after ninjas just weren't a thing in Japan anymore, playwrights were looking for a good trick to show off how sneaky the ninja was. Audiences had already been conditioned to ignore stage hands, who wore all black. So the idea was that a ninja would simply look like a stage hand. Thus when you realized he was part of the play and not just moving the background, it came as a complete surprise.
As to a ninja's weapons, we do know a good deal about them. And yes, ninja did have shuriken, including small throwing stars. These weapons, such as they were, were a distraction at best. They would be flung back at pursuers, making anyone chasing a ninja wary of further attacks, or the shuriken would be flung into the ground so that those following would step on them and lame themselves. This was just one of many dirty tricks in the arsenal of the Shinobi. Ninja also carried a sword as well as whatever tools (like climbing spikes, brass knuckles, daggers or garrotes) could be used to gain an advantage. Ninja were also some of the first snipers, using guns, explosives, and precision archery when necessary to kill from a distance, or to set a home on fire as a way to create panic and sow chaos.
So Why Do We Have All These Myths About Ninja?
Why do we have myths about the CIA, the green berets or Russia's Spetsnaz? Part of it is because the idea of covert operatives carrying out dangerous missions (fighting pirates and such according to the Internet), is something that really put the ninja into the mind of the common people. The mystery and secrecy meant they were romanticized in fiction and theater, becoming part of pop culture. Add to that all of the movies and television series, and it's amazing we know anything factual about Shinobi today.
The rest of it comes from the ninja themselves. We all know that ninja don't have magic death spells, the ability to fly or to vanish in a puff of smoke. But people in the 7th to 16th centuries didn't know that many times. And when the "monk" or "peasant" that was the ninja's cover identity came into town and told everyone that he'd seen the ninja whisked away on the wings of a devil, or vanishing in a pall of shadow, word got around. Thus did the ninja build reputations that made them seem superhuman, adding to the fear and mystique around them. Unfortunately once you have the option to print the fact or the myth, most people will print the myth because it's easier to accept. At that point it becomes nigh on impossible to blow away the smoke, kick over the mirrors, and get to the heart of the matter.