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Who is That Masked Man? The Legend of the Ninja

By Edited Aug 11, 2016 2 4

When hearing the word “ninja” most people immediately envision a stealthy Asian warrior clothed in black with only the eyes showing and perhaps carrying a sword or wicked looking metal star shaped weapons.  The vision might then quickly transition to one of the many ninja games (if the person is a gamer). The black clad warrior is sheathed in mystery and perhaps that is why many find him (or her) so intriguing.  Movies have romanticized him as a silent, agile assassin with uncanny and unlimited skills.   What is the true story of the ninjas?

Western View of Ninja; Source: layout sparks.com

Ancient History of Japan

The country of Japan is comprised of many islands with four (from north to south) Hokkaidō, HonshÅ« (the "mainland"), Shikoku and KyÅ«shÅ« considered the “home islands” or the major islands. Over two thousand tiny islands, including Okinawa, make up the archipelago Japanese islands.  Still, with all of these islands included in its territory, Japan is slightly smaller than the U.S. State of Montana in terms of square miles.[18]

The first signs of civilization of the islands began the Jōmon period.  This period was the “hunter-gather” period with clothes made mostly from fur and the beginning of the use of clay pottery.  It is of this period archeologists have uncovered elaborately decorated pottery figurines called dogÅ«.

Around 400 BC the Yayoi period ushered in weaving, growing rice and using metals such as bronze for ritual and ceremonial artifacts and iron for farming tools.  Peoples from the Asian continent brought raw materials and also introduced Shamanism and Shintō (practices which involve reaching altered states of consciousness to interact with the spirit world).[5]

The final period of what is considered ancient Japan started around 250 AD and is called the Kofun period.  It is during this time, the people of Japan (or Wa as Japan was called by the Chinese) established military states focused around powerful clans.[5]  By the sixth century, the chieftain of Yamoto was dominate and established the lineage of imperial rulers with  the government centered in the provinces of Yamoto and K Kawachi in Western Japan.  The polity (generally meaning a geographic area with a corresponding government) suppressed the clans and acquired much of the agricultural lands.  The sixth century ushered in the classic periods of Japanese history.

Classic History of Japan

From 538-710 AD Japanese history is referred to as the Asuka period.  The Yamato polity became a centralized government, creating and enforcing governing laws such as the Taika Reforms (based on Confucian ideas and Chinese philosophies, the laws were meant to further centralize and enhance the Imperial Court’s power) and the Taihō Code.  Also during this period, the Japanese developed economic ties with the Baekje people of the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula who introduced Buddhism to Japan.  China and its culture and ideals continued to heavily influence the Imperial heads during this period.

In 710, Japan moved into the Nara period, often considered the “golden age” of Japan.  Government was much more organized and the different classes began to take shape.  The government built offices, temples, an irrigation and infrastructure system.  Land ownership was established through allotments through the rural areas and with it a system of taxation.

The Nara period also saw great struggle between the imperial family and the clergy of the Buddhist religion.  At the same time, the imperial family was in conflict with the Fujiwara clan which was a powerful family of regents descended from the Nakatomi clan. (the Nakatomi clan was one of two priestly clans who oversaw some of the national rites and claimed to be descendants from the divine clan ancestors "only a degree less sublime than the imperial ancestors.”[5])

The final period of the classic history of Japan was the Heian period which lasted from 794 to 1185.  During this time art was prominent and the imperial court was at its peak.  Differences in the culture between Japan and China began to emerge and the influence of China began to wane.  The powerful aristocratic families held political power in the imperial court; the most powerful was the Fujiwara clan (who ruled as imperial regents).  The Fujiwara clan had direct link to the imperial court through marriages with some of the emperors being born from Fujiwara mothers.

During the late 1100s, dissatisfaction with the imperial court and the government in general, spilled over to include the Fujiwara Regents since they had such close ties to the imperial family.  The clans began to wage wars against each other. The Hōgen Rebellion  (1156–1158) was significant in that it started the mechanisms which led to feudalism.  This civil war was fought to resolve a dispute about the succession of imperial power and the degree of power held by the Fujiwara clan due to their intermarriage with the imperial family.  During this conflict Fujiwara no Yorimaga was killed and the heads of two other clans, Minamoto no Tameyoshi and Taira no Tadamasa were executed. Minamoto no Yoshitomo became the new head of his clan and he and Taira no Kiyomoro established their two samurai clans as prominent political powers in Kyoto.

The military clans rose up by the end of this period with the the Minamoto clan, the Taira clan, the Fujiwara clan, and the Tachibana clan as the most powerful.  A second civil war followed in 1160, the Heiji Rebellion; and the Gempei War (1180-1185) followed as the third civil conflict in Japan.  The Gempei War ended when the Minamoto clan defeated the Taira clan and subsequently the Imperial Court appointed Minamoto no Yoritomo to several high positions in the government.  Yoritomo became the first designated  Seii-tai-shōgun or "Shōgun" and effectively ended the influence of the Fujiwara clan over the government. This firmly established feudal Japan with the samurai clans leading the society under the rule of the Shogun.  Along with feudalism, the ninjas came to the Japanese society.

Feudal Japan

Hierarchy of Feudal Japan; phtoto by Cheryl Weldon

Feudal Japan lasted from 1185 to 1868 and is generally divided by the Shogun’s reigning family.  During this time the hierarchy of the social structure changed.  Looking at the structure like a pyramid, the emperor was at the tip, but again, a mere figurehead in actual power of rule.  This was the royal class in the social hierarchy.  It included the emperor (or king), his family and  royal priests (priests who had much authority and performed national rites and rituals).  The second class in the feudal system was the noble class.  This included:

  • Shoguns: These were the warlords and it is the shoguns who held the true power, though they ruled in the name of the emperor. They set up shogunates which were governments for specific regions.  Generally, the most powerful daimyo was the Shogun.
  • Daimyos: These were the large land owners.  They had great wealth and did not pay taxes.  They hired samurai for protection and built small armies of the warriors.
  • Samurai: These were the armies of the daimyos.  The majority was men but there were some women.  They were considered warriors and were afforded many privileges. (similar to knights in medieval times).  They lived by a code of ethics called the Bushido Code.

The nobles made up only about ten percent of the population. This is often called the Samurai class and the other noble classes are considered “above the class system.”[11] 

The third class was the commoners and within it, were several sub-class of peoples.

  • Peasants: These were the farmers who grew the foods for the people of Japan. Some owned small lots of land and were more respected than those who farmed but did not own the land.  The farmers paid heavy taxes to the Shoguns and daimyos.  Under the rule of Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, the farmers were required to give all of their rice to their daimyos who in term would give some back as charity.[8]  They would pledge loyalty to specific daimyos in exchange for protection (like the mafia of more modern times).
  • Artisans:  These were the craftsmen of the population.  These people included blacksmiths and those who forged the swords and other weapons for the Samurai.
  • Merchants:  These were the shopkeepers and salesmen of the population.  They were considered the lowest class because they made money from the work of others, thus according to Confucian principles, they were looked down on by the other classes.  However, the more wealth a merchant accumulated, the more powerful he became.[14]  Still, even the wealthiest merchant was still considered “low-class;” a parasite on the other classes.

Those below the class system were the ainu (the descendants of slaves); eta (butchers, executioners, and tanners who were considered “unclean”);  hinin which included actors, convicted criminals and wandering bards; prostitutes and courtesans (which included the geisha).[8]

The class system remained until 1868 when the emperor regained power and dissolved the shoguns, daimyos and samurais.  By now one may wonder what all of this has to do with the ninja.  It is during the feudal system period, the ninja emerged.

Origins of the Ninjas

Unlike the Samurai, the ninjas have little recorded history.  This is not surprising as the nature of their work was stealth.  The ninjas were the spies of early Japan.  Though claims are made

Black Clad Ninja; photo courtesy of Otto Normalverbraucher, Source: Wikimedia Commons
the ninja were present in early Japanese history, there is no confirmation until possibly the twelfth century during the Heian period.  In Japan the ninja were also called shinobi.  The missions of the ninja warrior were covert and included infiltration, assassination, espionage and sabotage; however in some situations they were drawn into open combat.  These tactics of war were in stark contrast to the techniques of the samurai.   The ninja did not live or behave by the Bushido Code, their code of ethic was influenced by Chinese military philosophy, especially the  Bansenshukai (“a culmination of philosophy, military strategy, astrology, and weapons beliefs of the times.”[1])

Though espionage tactics were used in early history, it wasn’t until the fifteenth century, during the Sengoku period (warring states), soldiers were specifically trained in the tactics used by the ninjas.   Initially considered along the lines of mercenaries, the ninja were recruited as raiders, arsonists and spies.  Because the samurai followed the Bushido Code where warriors were expected to fight openly, there was a demand for men who were willing to conduct missions deemed “not respectable” for the samurai.[1]

During the Sengoku period, the ninja took on the roles of spy (kanchō), agitator (konran), scout (teisatsu) and surprise attacker (kishu).  Ninja families formed into larger groups with each having their territories.  The highest rank in each family was the jōnin who represented the group and hired the mercenaries.  The chÅ«nin who was the assistant to the jōnin, and at the bottom of the ranks was the genin who was the field agent who carried out the missions.  These were usually hired from the lower class of the social hierarchy.[1]

Historical documents record the ninja were trained in the mountainous regions of Iga and Kōka (later written as Kōga).[1]  The Iga and Kōga clans were from these two regions, respectively and the elite mercenaries they trained were unlike the commoners or samurai hired as mercenaries or spies.   From these two regions, the agents were specifically trained for their roles and were considered professionals.  In the years between 1485 and 1581, the daimyos hired these professionals.  When Oda Nobunaga attacked the Iga and Kōga regions, the bases of the ninja were destroyed and the stealthy warriors scattered.

Historical records reveal the ninjas were involved in open combat during the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638). [1]This battle was fought between Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu and Christian rebels led by Amakusa Shirō.   The rebels made a final stand at Hara Castle and ninjas were assigned to infiltrate and sabotage.   Eventually, supplies dwindled and the Christians were defeated, forcing them underground.  No further records of ninjas in war are found.[1]  The Edo Period (1603-1868) brought the end of warring in Japan and with it, the end of the ninja.

Training and Tactics of the Ninja

The most prominent schools of the ninja were established in the Iga and Kōga regions and thus called Iga-ryu and Koga-ryu.  After the fall of the Iga and Koga clans, daimyos had to train their shinobui and these were considered professionals.  The warriors learned many skills which included mastery over any kind of weapon, ability to run long distances and climb mountains as well as proficiency in ninjutsu ( modern name for ninpo, a type of martial arts).[16]  Ninjutsu was based on the person’s interaction with nature.  It balanced all features of nature and featured speed, precision and the application of the least effort to achieve op

Ninja May Use Disguise of Monk;  Source: Wikimedia Commons
timal effect.

Most of the tactics used by the ninja were focused on concealment and escape. The techniques of ninpo were basically grouped under the four elements of nature:[1]

  1. Fire techniques (katon-no-jutsu)  
  2. Wood techniques (mokuton-no-jutsu)
  3. Water techiniques (suiton-no-jutsu)
  4. Earth techniques (doton-no-jutsu)

One of the most common tactics used by the ninja was the use of disguises.  They would not hesitate to dress as a priest, a monk, a fortune teller, or any other disguise to suit their purpose.  Like the Delta Force of today, the ninja’s main objective was to fit into their surroundings to achieve their goals.

Tools of the Trade

One of the myths is the ninja completely clad in black with only the eyes showing.  In reality,

Ninja Assassin; Source: Wikimedia Commons
there is no documented evidence the ninjas ever dressed in that manner.[1][16]  As previously stated, the norm was the dress of whatever environment they were infiltrating.  When not in disguise, the typical dress consisted of loose clothing tucked into pants or held by belts and a piece of cloth tucked in which had many uses including for climbing, as a belt or to cover the face.  Capes and other loose clothing enabled the spy to conceal weapons.  Any armor used was lightweight and minimal.

Besides the hands, the weapons used were varied. To infiltrate, the spies often carried ropes and grappling hooks attached to their belts.  Also used for climbing were spikes for the hands and feet and collapsible ladders with spiked ends.  Hammers, picks, drills, chisels, small knives and saws and the like, as well as a pointed tool called a kunai were used to punch holes as well as in some cases, used as weapons.  These were only a small sampling of the vast array of tools at the ninja’s disposal; however, the professional did not carry a large abundance of tools, relying on one or a few with multiple purposes so as not be laden down too heavily.

Weapons of the Ninja

Like the Samurai, the katana was the preferred weapon of the ninja.  Small swords and daggers

Ninja’s Shuriken; Source: Wikimedia Commons
were also commonly used.  In addition, the arsenal of the professional Japanese spy included an array of sharp star-shaped discs, darts, knives and spikes which are called shuriken as a group.  Bows were used but were usually smaller than the longbow used by the Samurai.

Always creative, the ninja included the kusarigama in his weaponry.  This was a chain with a weight on one end and a sickle

A Ninja’s Kusarigama; Source: Wikimedia Commons

on the other.  These types of weapons were used so if caught, the ninja could claim they were tools and not weapons.[1]  After China introduced explosives to Japan, small grenades and similar types of explosives were adapted by the ninjas.  Some bombs were designed to release gases or shrapnel, much like todays improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  These crafty spies were not above using blinding powders, poisoned darts, blowguns, tubes that squired acid, firearms or land mines to complete their mission and make a swift and secure escape.

Myths and Legends of the Ninja Warrior

Possibly because of the stealth of the ninjas, they were endowed with many abilities of superhuman and supernatural origin.  Legends have them walking on water (promoted by their practice of wearing wooden shoes that were purported to allow this ability), abilities to shapeshift or become invisible, and even fly.

The ability to interact with nature in a way ordinary people did not, or could not, helped support the legends.  In addition, the ninja themselves were not opposed to spreading tales and stories to create mystery and intrigue.  Japanese art later enshrined the notion of these supernatural feats, especially during the Edo period when novels were written and performed in kabuki plays (classical Japanese dance-drama known for the elaborate make-up worn by some of the performers).

In modern years, Hollywood has helped to keep the myth and legends of these silent assassins

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Photo by NickHotel, licensed under GFDL 1.2 and CCA-3.0 Unported, Source: Wikimedia Commons
alive.  They are depicted in books, film, comic books and video games in a multitude of renditions (remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?).  Regardless of the media type, it appears the image of the black clad figure with barely showing eyes, will be the lasting picture of the ninja warrior.  Sometimes, the fantasy has the staying power over the reality.


The copyright of the article Who is That Masked Man? The Legend of the Ninja is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to publish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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Jul 16, 2013 6:43am
I read something at some point that left me with the idea that the black-clad ninja actually came from the Japanese theatrical tradition. In the theater, the stagehands wore all black so they wouldn't distract from the actors as they placed props or moved set pieces. So when they had ninja characters, they dressed them like stagehands -- ignored pieces of the background -- so people would overlook them.

I don't remember where I read it now, or whether it's true, but I thought it was really cool, and it's stuck with me.
Jul 16, 2013 10:27am
That's interesting. I never came across that information. Thanks for the read and the comment.
Jul 17, 2013 9:30am
Nice read and thank you for researching and writing it.
Jul 18, 2013 2:55pm
Thank you for the kind words; I'm glad you enjoyed it.
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