A Comprehensive Guide to the Japanese Ninja
The Rise of the Ninja
Although hotly debated, ninjas are believed to have first emerged during early feudal Japan (somewhere between the 12th and 15th century), a time when aristocratic rule had collapsed and chaos overcame the country. Unlike samurai, who were known to fight honourably, ninjas were free from rules, using unorthodox tactics such as disguise, sabotage and assassination to defeat their enemies.
Who Were the Ninjas?
Due to their skills in espionage and stealth, sources surrounding the ninja are scarce. We do know, however, that their ranks were predominantly made up of rejected samurai and the lower classes from the Japanese towns Iga and Koga.
The role of the ninja was not just restricted to men: female ninjas, known as kunoichi, were also trained in combat and tasked to assassinate their victims. Unlike their male counterparts, female Japanese ninjas used their womanly wiles to achieve their objectives: disguising themselves as non-threatening performers, courtesans and servants to infiltrate all manners of impenetrable fortresses and gain the trust of their unsuspecting enemy. Once near their victim, the female ninja, using smaller, close-combat weapons such as bladed fans, daggers and garrottes, completed their assignment and assassinated their enemy.
Tactics and Weaponry
Ninjas adopted several different tactics to trick and destroy their enemies, including:
- Dressing like their enemies to cause confusion during battle.
- Planting spurious letters to ensure that their target gets convicted.
- Feeding false information back into the enemy camp.
- Employing double agents to retrieve information.
From the famous shuriken star to the discreet spiked ring (kakute), the weaponry used by ninjas was incredibly diverse. Among the most common ninja weaponry was:
This weapon, similar to nun chucks, comprised of a sickle and a weight held together by a chain. During combat, the weighted end of the kusarigama would be thrown to disarm the enemy and draw them closer before dealing the finishing blow using the sickle.
Watch this video to see ninjas demonstrating how the kusarigama was used.
Shuriken stars come in all shapes and sizes from a simple cross shape to an eight-pointed star. Commonly laced with poison, shuriken throwing stars could kill an enemy in a single blow.
A Japanese ninja’s sword is built for stealth, with a short, straight(ish) blade and a multi-functional leather strap (ideal for scaling walls and tripping up unsuspecting enemies). Predominantly black in colour and nondescript in decoration, this sword is discreet and untraceable.
A kakute was a spiked ring adopted by ninjas during close combat. The spikes on this ring were either turned inward to pierce an enemy’s flesh, or turned outward and used as a type of knuckle duster.
Japanese Ninja Warrior Clothing
As masters of stealth, ninjas often wore specific clothing to help conceal their identity, keep them hidden from view and allow ease of movement.
The colour of a ninja’s clothing is up for debate. Generally, ninjas are thought to have dressed in black. However, others argue that ninjas opted to wear dark blue, red or brown to decrease visibility and mask the colour of blood should they get injured.
Two pieces of cloth covered a ninja’s head and face, leaving only the eyes visible. This ensured anonymity, persevering the safety of them and their family.
Short and loose-fitting, a ninja’s jacket was specifically designed to not get caught on anything while allowing flexibility of movement. This jacket was securely fastened at the waist with a belt.
Similar to the jacket, a ninja’s trousers were loose fitting to ensure a full range of movement and secured tightly with leg wraps at the bottom to avoid snagging.
The boots worn by ninjas separated the big toe from the other toes of the foot for extra grip and were tied up at the back to provide a close-fitted feel.
To keep their hands warm and concealed during missions, ninjas tended to wear gloves.
The Modern Day Ninja
The modern-day ninja depicted in cartoons, games and films is a far cry from the deadly assassins we know from Japanese history. On the contrary, the 21st century ninja is commonly portrayed as a crime-fighting hero. Take the films ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and ‘Beverly Hills Ninja’ as examples. Both of these westernised films trivialise the brutal beginnings of the ninja, opting instead, to transform them into friendly, loveable and at times laughable characters.
Where to go to have the Traditional Ninja Experience
With the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympic Games just around the corner, Japan’s secret warriors are swapping the shadows for the spotlight. So, if you’re looking to have an authentic ninja experience, stop by the Japanese town of Iga-Ueno, the birthplace of the ninja. During your visit, you will see images of cartoon ninjas adorning the trains, shuttling people dressed in traditional ninja costumes to the local railway station where tourists can take part in ninja house tours and enjoy live combat demonstrations.
If you, or someone you know loves ninjas, treat them to a ninja kokeshi doll. True to tradition, this masterfully made kokeshi doll comes complete with shuriken throwing star and katana.