The origins of ninjutsu, placed approximately between 500
and 300 B.C., are commonly linked (as are most Oriental arts of combat) to
Chinese sources. Mention is often made of the interesting section on methods of
espionage which is embodied in the ancient treatise The Art of War, written by
the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu. There is no single English term that can
be used to define with precision this art or science, nor to accurately
describe its practitioners, the notorious ninja. One translation of ninjutsu
might be “the art of stealth,” which is a term commonly employed in the
doctrine of bujutsu. This definition, however, identifies only one of the many
characteristics and functions of ninjutsu—concealment, or the creating and
perpetuating of an aura of mystery. The functions of the ninja may be
represented in general as having been those of infiltration into hostile
environments, performance of various acts of sabotage or assassination, and
management of a successful escape once a mission had been accomplished.
Infiltration of enemy centers and castles, in fact, gave rise to a particular
subspecialization of ninjutsu which was known as toiri-no-jutsu, while slipping
through enemy lines in time of open warfare or military alert became a
specialty referred to as chikairi-no-jutsu. The various deeds to be performed
once infiltration had been successfully accomplished were as varied as the
military or strategic circumstances themselves. We can divide these deeds or
acts into three main categories: first, the gathering of intelligence by
espionage, and all of its correlated activities; second, assassination,
subversion, destruction of enemy defenses; and third, action on the
battlefield, including combat operations in almost every form, ranging from an
open encounter to an ambush (whether against a defenseless victim or a
Ninja, then, were often raiders who hired themselves out as
spies, assassins, arsonists, terrorists, to the great and small lords of the
Japanese feudal age. When certain “disreputable” tasks had to be undertaken,
the honor-bound warrior (who was expected to fight openly against his foe in
accordance with the rules of his profession) was not usually the one asked to
perform them. Large organizations of ninja families, specializing in such
tasks, were generally available to the highest bidder.
As spies, the ninja reportedly made their first notable
appearance in the sixth century, with an employer of royal blood, Prince Regent
Shotoku (A.D. 574–622). They were frequently hired by the fighting monks of the
mountains, the redoubtable yama-bushi, who battled against both the imperial
forces at the end of the Heian period and those of the rising military class
(buke). Strong ninja guilds became firmly entrenched in Kyoto (which was
virtually ruled by them at night), and their schools proliferated until there
were at least twenty-five major centers during the Kamakura period. Most of
these centers were located in the Iga and Koga provinces, and the concentration
of these dangerous fighters had to be smashed time and time again by various
leaders seeking to gain control of the central government. Oda Nobunaga is
reported to have employed forty-six thousand troops against Sandayu at Ueno,
destroying four thousand ninja in the process. The last impressive employment
of these fighters on the battlefield seems to have been in the Shimabara war
(1637), against forty thousand rebellious Christians on the island of Kyushu.
With the ascendancy of the Tokugawa and their heavily
policed state, smaller groups of ninja were employed by practically every class
against members of other classes, and even within a class by certain
individuals against any clansmen who opposed them. Ninja were also used in the
espionage network constructed by the shogun to control the imperial court and
the powerful provincial lords. The ninja of Koga province, for example, were
notorious throughout Japan as secret agents of the Tokugawa; and roaming bands
of ninja are said to have engaged groups of warriors in local battles, either
to suppress attempted sedition or to enlarge the ninja’s own territorial
control. Individual lords and powerful members of other classes such as the
merchants, for example, also employed the ninja, who left behind them an
unbroken record of more than five hundred years of intrigues, disruptions,
assassinations, and other assorted forms of disorder.
By the beginning of their teenage years, young ninja boys in
the ninja villages of Iga and Koga will have internalized the basics of
- Ninja kid learning the principles of balance,
supervised by his dad, his primary instructor throughout his life.
- Young ninja learning underwater breathing
techniques utilizing a bamboo tube. Later in life he might have to hide for
hours under the surface of a lake or river to avoid detection by enemies.
- Vital swordsmanship training. Ninja kid taking his
first lesson in how to deal with a ring of attackers. He has to anticipate how
each bamboo rods will swing back and forth in order to avoid contact with them.
- Ninja boy in extensive missile practice,
learning how to spin the shuriken and hit the target accurately.
- Young ninja learning survival skills traveling
into the mountains and catering for himself. He is cooking a bag of rice buried
under a campfire, with the rice wrapped in a cloth and soaked in water.
- Ninja child interviewed by the shonin, or head
of the ninja settlement. He is assessing the child’s progress.
- 2-, 3- and 4-man techniques for jumping over
tall obstacles like walls:
- Ninja teamwork with excellent acrobatic skills.
On the other side of the wall the vigilant observer might conclude that the
ninja has the ability of flying. In this technique one ninja runs forward
carrying his mate on his shoulders, who then leaps from this lifted position.
- Two ninja assisting a third to maneuver over a
wall by giving him a powerful ‘leg up’.
- Four men forming a human pyramid.
- Ninja utilizing an ashigaru’s yari, or long
spear, to pole-vault over a ditch.
Reconnaissance became a primary concern during the Warring
States period (Sengoku jidai, 1467– 1568) and centered on the famed spies known
as ninja, whose activities were called ninjutsu (ninja arts and training). The
widespread internecine warfare of the mid- to late-Muromachi period made
infiltration and information-gathering a focus of military operations. Training
in ninja techniques like those described below in “Dagger Throwing” and “Needle
Spitting” have relatively recent origins in Japan, despite having developed out
of espionage tactics that were fairly common in the medieval era. As with
legends praising brave and virtuous samurai, modern (and medieval)
misconceptions about ninja traditions have enhanced the ninja mystique. Clothed
in notorious secrecy and black garments, and endowed with famed accuracy,
acrobatic skills, and awe-inspiring weapons, these figures have played
prominent roles in film and literature concerning the martial arts. Most ninja
missions supplied little such drama, although concealing the identity of
successful ninja was considered paramount.
Famed ninja bands, such as the Iga school (originating in
present-day Mie Prefecture) and the Koga school (part of Shiga Prefecture
today), were identified with the regions in which they began. Villages in these
areas were entirely devoted to instruction and mastery of ninja techniques.
Ninja who trained in such regional bands served as scouts, penetrating enemy
territory to gather information, conduct assassinations, or simply to distract
and confuse the enemy at nighttime. Daimyo relied upon legions of these figures
beginning in the 15th century as domains competed for dwindling land and other
Ninja techniques, known as shinobu in Japanese, included
strategies of artifice, camouflage, and deception, as well as an array of
weapons and tools designed especially for espionage and covert use. In the
Warring States period, clandestine missions were critical to military tactics,
and thus ninja practices were transmitted orally to maintain secrecy. While
medieval samurai enjoyed a somewhat undeserved reputation for noble intentions
and valor, ninja temperament was compared to that of a trickster who eschewed
the forthright bravery of military retainers, preferring the advantages offered
by ambush and sleight of hand. Opportunistic ninja offered themselves as
assassins for hire and pirates during the nearly continuous unrest of the 15th
to 16th centuries. They became a significant threat in the 16th century. For
example, Oda Nobunaga sent 46,000 troops to Iga province in 1581, although
tales recount that 4,000 were killed by the Iga ninja.
In the Edo period, threatened with extinction under the
enforced Tokugawa peace, ninjutsu became a formal martial art which may have
attracted followers simply because of the general fascination with these
mysterious, elusive, seemingly magical figures. As ninjutsu became one of the
most alluring of the standard 18 military arts (bugeijuhappan), samurai
enthusiasts organized ninja teachers, classes, skill requirements, tools,
weapons, and techniques systematically in manuals designed for instruction. One
of the primary ninja manuals, the Mansen shukai, was compiled in 1676 by
Fujibayashi Samuji. This important text detailed the traditions and techniques of
the Iga and Koga schools of ninjutsu.
The ninja families were tightly-knit microcosms well
integrated into larger groups (in accordance with the ancient clan pattern).
There were leaders (jonin) who formulated plans, negotiated alliances,
stipulated contracts, and so forth, which subleaders (chunin) and agents
(genin) then carried out faithfully. These groups formed larger guilds with
individual territories and specialized duties—all jealously guarded. A man
seldom joined a group in order to become a ninja; he usually had to be born
into the profession. The arts, techniques, and weapons of each family, of each
group, were kept strictly secret, being transmitted usually only from father to
son and even then with the utmost circumspection. Disclosure of ninjutsu
secrets to unauthorized persons meant death at the hands of other ninja of the
same group. Death usually also followed capture, either at one’s own hand or
that of another ninja, who would leave behind only a corpse for the captor to
Books and documents (torimaki) related to the heritage,
arts, and techniques of ninjutsu, therefore, were considered secret family
treasures which it was the responsibility of each generation to preserve and
transmit to the next. They contained instructions concerning those techniques
of combat with which the ninja had to familiarize himself and which he had to
master (including the traditional martial arts of the country: archery,
spearmanship, and swordsmanship). In turn, the ninja cleverly adapted the use
of these arts to suit his own devious purposes. He used an easily assembled
short bow, for example, instead of the warrior’s long bow, and he also devised
methods of telescopically reducing a spear—with astonishing results when it
suddenly sprang into full extension. Members of the Kyushin ryu, a school of
ninjutsu, became noted for their unorthodox methods of using a spear (bisento).
Swords and other assorted blades, finally, were also used on the ends of
various collapsible poles to which chains were attached for quick retrieval;
often blades were projected by hidden springs, or they were simply thrown by
hand according to the techniques of shurikenjutsu. The ninja were also masters
of the techniques of iaijutsu, which enabled them to draw swords or daggers
with blinding speed. The Fudo ryu, another school of ninjutsu in feudal Japan,
was considered vastly superior in the development of this particular kind of
dexterity with blades.
The ninja, however, also had a full array of specialized
weapons for his exclusive use, each with its particular and fully developed
method of employment. Blow-guns, roped knives and hooks, garrotes, various
spikes (toniki), brass knuckles (shuko), an extensive assortment of small
blades (shuriken), including dirks, darts, star-shaped discs, and so forth,
were all included in his arsenal. The shuriken or “needles” were usually kept
in a band containing up to five deadly missiles, and they could be thrown in
rapid succession from any position, in any light, and from varying distances.
The ways of throwing the shuriken seem to have been grouped together, attaining
the status of a full-fledged art (shurikenjutsu). Even members of the warrior
class reportedly studied its techniques in order to be able to use their short
swords (wakizashi), daggers (tanto), and knives (such as the ko-gatana and
kozuka) with greater accuracy and effectiveness at long distances. Shuriken
could also be forged into a star-shaped disc with many sharp points radiating
from a solid center. Sometimes called shaken, these sharp stars were usually
thrown with a whipping movement of the wrist which sent them spinning toward
their target—often unnoticed until it was too late. Especially famous were the
chains or cords with a whirling weight on one end and a double-edged blade on
the other (kyotetsu-shoge), which the ninja knew how to use with merciless
precision; there was also the innocent-looking bamboo staff carried by an
apparently unarmed pilgrim—the staff concealing, however, a chain with a weight
at one end and a lead block at the other.
The ninja’s skill in penetrating enemy strongholds (houses,
castles, military camps, individual rooms, etc.) was based upon his knowledge
of practical psychology, as well as upon his mastery of a most impressive array
of climbing devices (roped hooks, flexible ladders, special shoes, hand spikes,
etc.), which he could also use as weapons. In addition, he usually carried
breathing tubes and inflatable skins so that he could stay underwater for long
periods of time or cross castle moats, lakes, or swamps with comparative ease.
A skilled chemist (yogen) in his own right, the ninja often used poisoned
darts, acid-spurting tubes, flash-powder grenades, smoke bombs, and so forth,
cleverly adapting ancient Chinese discoveries in chemistry and inventions in
explosives to his particular requirements. After the arrival of the Portuguese,
he even used firearms. These weapons, in addition to the spiky caltrops which
he dropped behind him as he made his escape, all contributed to his skill in
evading capture by slowing down, blinding, killing, crippling, or merely
surprising his pursuers.
Among the unarmed methods of combat which he mastered,
jujutsu, in its most utilitarian and practical form, predominated. Schools of
ninjutsu, however, also specialized in particular systems of violence seldom
found elsewhere. The ninja of the Gyokku ryu, for example, were expert in the
deadly use of the thumb and ringers against vital centers in the human body.
This method became known as yubijutsu. The students of the Koto ryu were
particularly proficient in breaking bones (koppo).
From the above, it appears obvious that a ninja was a truly
dangerous foe, skilled and prepared to cope efficiently and ruthlessly with
almost all the possible dimensions of armed and unarmed combat. His overall
bodily control and range of muscular possibilities was often astounding. In
addition to training in the various arts mentioned above, he is said to have
been able to climb sheer walls and cliffs (with the help of certain equipment),
control his breathing under water and his heartbeat under enemy scrutiny, leap
from great heights (walls, etc.), disengage himself from knots and chains, walk
or run for long distances, remain still for hours (even days, some authors
claim), blend with shadows, trees, statues, and so forth, as well as
impersonate people of every class, thus being able to move about freely even in
areas which were under strict surveillance. In this context, his knowledge and
command of practical psychology, as indicated earlier, appears to have been
highly developed and is said to have included sleight of hand and hypnosis
(saiminjutsu)—skills which may have formed the basis for a number of the
ninja’s more startling exploits.