The Birth, History, and Weapons of the Ninja
The year is 1562 in Central Japan. A warlord named Imagawa Ujizane has taken hostage the wife and son of his rival, Tokugawa Ieyasu. To get them back, Ieyasu needs hostages of his own. The warlord expects an attack on his castle, but feels secure with his defenses. Ieyasu seeks a mercenary that is known for his stealth and covert operations.
In Ieyasu’s day, hundreds of warlords and thousands of samurai were embroiled in a fight for power in Japan. For four centuries they had been locked in warfare. Along with the samurai, another kind of warrior stalks Japan, the ninja. This is a warrior that is cunning, courageous, and cutthroat. A coded request has been left in the forest, carved into a tree. It is Ieyasu’s plee for the services of a ninja. The ninja replies “I will come.”
Ninjutsu, the art of the ninja, has thrived in Japan for centuries. Developed from the teachings of Chinese strategists like the great Sun Tzu, it found eager students among Buddhist monks in Japan. To protect their temples, legend has it that the gentle monks taught others to do their fighting. Simple peasants became their protectors. Soon, the protectors became warriors for hire. In the neighboring province of Iga and Koga, ninjutsu took root. Mountain peaks and valley walls hid farmers by day, and ninja by night. In these hills and forests, in small bands or alone, the ninja thrived. Word of their talents traveled far beyond their sanctuary, and reached men like lord Ieyasu. The ninjas he has summoned are about to be put to the test.
The skills that Ieyasu required were sold for money, but were first paid for in years of sweat and pain. From a skilled master, a son or daughter learns the secrets of the ninja and learns the specific ninja weapons of attack and tools of seige. Such secret treasures are handled like jewels. Lose them and die. One ninja from Koga wrote to his master “These writings of Ninjutsu trusted to me by you will never be shown to others. If by any chance I should disobey then I must receive the punishment of death”. Lessons are grueling, every move is rehearsed precisely and endlessly, all performed as silently as possible.
As the young ninja grows, his lessons become more deadly. Before mastering cold steel he practices with a wooden pike. A sword itself would forgive no mistake. Nature herself becomes an accomplice. Which creatures cause panic when flung at an enemy? How can a box of crickets be used to camouflage sounds? Which plants can treat a wound?
The ninja’s first assignment is assassination, which will be achieved using the three principles of ninjutsu. First, the principle of heaven: Time the attack with care. Months go by before the moment to strike arrives. Second, the principle of earth: Find the enemy’s weak spot. The warlord visits his garden each morning to smell the flowers. Last, the principle of mankind: Manipulating how men behave. The next day, when the lord bends to sniff the blossoms, he collapses and dies. Mixed with the pollen is poison dust.
Somewhere, Ieyasu’s wife and son are held captive. To get them back, Ieyasu will seize the warlord’s sons. The enemy’s castle is too strong to attack. The ninja must slip inside and slip out undetected. If caught, a ninja must safeguard his secrets by taking his own life. A ninja’s life depends on secrecy. If a disguise of a farmer or laborer won’t do, a ninja chooses that of a priest, a minstrel, a merchant, or a wife. The ninja dresses in a brown or black garb and blends into the darkness. Beneath they may wear a layer of light armor. The cloth that hides his face has a more vital use. Impregnated with antiseptic, it can become a bandage when needed.
Traditional ninja outfit
Following the principles of warfare, the ninjas set out to find the warlord’s weak spot. His walls are scaled, his corridors explored. Unseen and unheard, the intruders leave as quietly as they came. They have gotten what they came for, and lay their plan. The guards are weary yet unaware, as the ninja once more cross the moat. Again they are unheard, unseen. Not one word is spoken. In stark contrast to the samurai who proudly shouts his name when he wades into battle, the ninja works in silence.
They breach the inner courtyard, still undetected. Mysteriously, a fire breaks out. The garrison is alarmed, and distracted. In the confusion, the ninja strike. They stun their victims with poison powder and spirit them away. Where the ninja had been, there is only darkness. By dawn the castle is ablaze and lord Ieyasu has his hostages to trade. The ninja have saved his family, and one day they will save his life.
Late in the 16th century, Japan is still racked by civil war. In 1581 the province of Iga, sanctuary of the ninja, is attacked from all sides. The land is devastated and the people are slaughtered, including many of the ninja. The survivors escape to join their old employer, Ieyasu. Lord Ieyasu himself is soon overwhelmed and must flee, guarded by the ninja. They bundle him aboard a ship and hide him among the cargo. His pursuers search for him with their swords by stabbing through crates and bags. One blade pierces his thigh but he makes no sound. As it’s withdrawn, he wipes it clear of his blood.
Invasion of Iga Province
The ship sails, and Ieyasu is free. Ieyasu rewards the ninja well by taking 300 into his service, a wise move. Those employed by him will not be used against him. To deter the ninja who work for his enemies, Ieyasu crafts defenses, hidden doors, false stairs, and the nightingale floorboards which sing at the slightest step. The warriors of the night serve Ieyasu well. So well that within a decade, all of Japan comes under his rule. In 1590, he and his family form the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo, a town later named Tokyo. The nation of Japan is born.
For 250 years, the Tokugawa reined in relative peace. They no longer required the services of the ninja. Some founded schools of ninjutsu and passed on the martial arts of the ninja. Some became body guards. A few became bandits. The masters of invisible warfare disappeared. Slowly absorbed into time and legend, and the night.
The origins of the ninja are disputed, being variously placed between 500 BC and the 6th Century AD. Much of their knowledge may be traced to Chinese expatriates, warriors, scholars, and monks who took refuge in Japan bringing with them the skills of China, India, and Tibet. The cultural ancestors of the ninja lived as warrior mystics in the mountains of south-central Japan, far from the increasing structured and controlled society of the capital cities.
The ninja developed as a secret, illegal counter-culture to the ruling samurai elite, hence the deliberate concealment of their origins and the extreme secrecy of their techniques. ninjas live in a world of lies, subterfuge, and illusion. It’s essential that they have their own concept of reality. This requires great philosophical and spiritual strength, and an understanding of practical psychology which helps with the mastery of certain techniques, including hypnosis, mind control, ability to slow the heartbeat, and keeping still for hours on end. These were the warrior philosophers that may seem mystical to us, but to feudal Japan entirely practical.
For many martial artists, unarmed combat is what it’s all about. For the ninja, it was just a means to an end. They had to be fit and ready for combat in any situation, with or without any ninja weapons. The ninja had no uniform, most wore simple black clothes. They used split-toed boots which were good for climbing and silent movement, and half gloves designed to hide the intentions of the wearer while not obstructing his grip.
A ninja is everything a samurai is not. A samurai was expected to fight openly according to strict rules of honor and behavior, inherent of his high social class. He would never do anything disreputable and he despised those who did. He also expected absolute obedience, that which the ninja never gave him.
Samurai weapons are beautifully made, elegant, and sacred, representing the spirit of the samurai himself. ninja weapons are just tools. They’re entirely practical, often hidden or disguised, and served multiple purposes for escape, survival, or killing. They are undecorated, cheaply made, and had no spiritual significance whatsoever.
The ninja sword had a short, straight blade, single-edged with a razor sharp point. Fighting with this weapon was at close-quarters and at lightning speed. ninja weapons require many of the same techniques as unarmed combat, now applied to the blade. The power of each stroke does not come from the arms or wrists alone, but from the whole body, slamming through the opponent, not just striking at them. Each move is designed as a totally committed killing blow. If they are incorrectly executed, or skillfully avoided, they can result in the ninja being exposed to a fatal counter-attack. The ninja relied on the surprise hit; hard, fast, and final.
Another skill was iajutsu, the fast draw technique. In a violent society, a fight could break out at a moment’s notice. The fast draw and immediate strike was also used by the samurai, but the ninja had an advantage with their shorter sword which could also be drawn from a concealed position. The sword was kept in a scabbard called the saya. The saya was designed a few inches longer than the blade so that it could hold blinding powders, tools, and explosives. The scabbard was wrapped with a cord which could be used to bind their enemies, or as a tripwire. The blade itself can be used to pry open doors and windows, and the tsuba, or handguard, can be used as a step to help the ninja climb. When finished climbing, he would use the cord to pull the sword back up to him.
The bo is a long staff of about six feet. Staves were carried by civilians as walking sticks, but in the hands of the ninja they could be deadly weapons. Staves and clubs are very useful for the ninja because they can be hollowed out to conceal arrows, hooks, chains, poisons, and knives. They also used hollowed-out bamboo sticks as a breathing aid for hiding or swimming under water. Fighting with stick and staff is the basis of the technique for fighting with a whole range of bladed ninja weapons.
The tasks of a ninja, who could be male or female, divide into three. First, Espionage: Infiltration and gathering intelligence. Second, Covert Operations: Sabototage, subversion, arson, and assassination. Third, Combat: Either direct or by ambush. But the emphasis is not on combat, it’s on survival and success using any means necessary. Tactically, poison is better than combat. Assassination is better than confrontation.
The ninja also had some extraordinary weapons which were unique to their own kind. Perhaps the most famous of these is the shuriken, the throwing star. The word shuriken means blade behind the hand, and it can refer to any thrown blade, but the best known are throwing stars that come in many different shapes and sizes and can be concealed in pouches all over the body. These are diversionary weapons and are unlikely to be fatal as opposed to what you see in movies. You throw them at a pursuing enemy to slow them down, or you throw them directly before your main attack with your primary ninja weapon.
Variety of shuriken / throwing stars
There are many ways of throwing. There’s the underhand way which is easier to conceal but is the weakest throw. There’s a side-ways throw, best for tracking moving targets, thrown like a frisbee. Then you have the overhand throw, much more powerful. And finally, the reverse throw, which if you can get it right is the most difficult throw but the strongest. Now there are also throwing spikes. These can also be concealed anywhere around the body and can be thrown in pairs, that way atleast one of them is likely to hit and stick. ninja commonly hid a throwing spike inside the hilt of their sword which was used to throw directly before engaging the enemy.
The kama was originally an agriculture tool, but in skilled hands it could be a fearsome and versatile ninja weapon. A Kusari-fundo is a chain weighted at both ends. It’s simple, easy to conceal, and in the hands of an expert almost invisible in action. Both weapons combined, a sickle with a chain attached, is known as the kusari-gama. This is an unusual weapon, and many opponents would have no idea what it was capable of until it was too late. It’s a very difficult weapon to master, but ninja were usually born into their profession. Their techniques were handed down from father to son and were considered so secret that no capture was acceptable. Rather than surrender and reveal their secrets, wounded ninja committed suicide or were killed by their own colleagues.
Kusari-gama (Sickle and Chain)
We’ve looked at just a few of the ninja weapons available, but there were many other areas of training involving poisons, explosives, fire, mirrors, horse riding, and swimming. Because they were so often used as spies, they learned disguise, impersonation, strategy, geography, even meteorology. They would infiltrate, make an informed assessment, then return to advise their client of how best to attack the enemy; In what area, with what force, even in what conditions of weather.
Ninja have special methods of physical movement. Some allowed rapid travel across the ridge of a roof, some were used for stealthy and swift attack, some when absolute silence was essential. There was a whole level of training devoted to entry, concealment, and escape. Climbing was essential. They had many tools to help them do it including a grappling hook, often improvised out of three or four kamas bound together.
The nin of ninja is a Japanese word meaning endurance and perseverance. It also means stealth and concealment. The ideogram is composed of the two characters of blood and heart. The techniques of the ninja, called ninjutsu, were extremely varied. Even the ability to hide and to keep absolutely still required constant training, both mental and physical.
Despite their aura of mysticism and reputation for existing on a separate plain, ninjas were available to the highest bidder. They gained their notoriety as special forces and mercenaries during the 15th century when Japan was divided between feuding warlords. When peace was finally restored, ninjas were hired as bodyguards, assassins, even secret police. This kind of job would be their bread and butter. The way of the ninja is the way of enduring, surviving, and winning. The ninja needs complete mastery of his skills, the ability to react effectively in any situation, and the absolute will to win at all costs.