The Ninja—Beyond Cartoons and Comics

Knowing the Ninja

Text and Photos by Vivienne Mackie

Like Sushi, Sony and Samurai, Japan has also given the world Ninja. “Ninja” and “Ninjutsu” are internationally-known words that convey an impression of Japan all over the world. They conjure up images of comic book characters, movies, and kids’ games. You see these legendary, cult-like figures in martial-arts action films, on TV, and in cartoons and computer games. They seem to cut through the air, attack, and then disappear without a trace.

But, I wonder how many people realize that this modern phenomenon is based on real people, real activities and events? That these are only the modern derivatives based on real people and a real organization in history? Beyond a fuzzy idea that they were based on some reality, I certainly didn’t know any details.

Who were the real ninja? What is the reality behind these mysterious warriors who display such prowess? Where did they come from, and what purpose did they serve? We find some answers in the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum in Iga-Ueno City, Mie Prefecture, Japan.

Why here? Among the various schools of Ninjutsu that were developed throughout history, only two were ever considered to be leading in their field: Iga-ryu and Koga-ryu. The Koga-ryu, or Koga style of Ninjutsu, was developed in the Koga region of the Shiga prefecture, while the Iga-ryu, or Iga-style, was developed in Iga City, Mie prefecture, so it is fitting that this unusual museum is here.

In a large park on a hill in Iga City stands the Iga Ueno Castle, or Hakuhojo White Phoenix Castle; a museum to Matsuo Basho, often considered the world’s most eminent haiku master; and the Ninja Museum.

This museum in Iga is a fascinating glimpse into the ninja world. If you want to learn about Ninja, this is where you need to go. For information on the museum, its opening hours, special events etc., go to their web site

The front section of the museum is an unassuming-looking building, as it is an original Ninja house that was moved here in 1964 from its original site in Ueno City. It had been inhabited by a ninja named Taroujirou. From outside it looks just like a normal farmer’s house, because the ninjas didn’t want to arouse the suspicions of the local people. But, the ninjas were spies and the house was adapted accordingly. In each room there are hidden devices in case the residence came under attack, and it’s riddled with traps and secret passages to fool intruders. A modern female ninja in purple guides us around the house and demonstrates revolving walls, hidden doors, a safe compartment to hide valuables and weapons, and a secret look-out place. She’s quick and slick and it’s all pretty impressive.

In a separate building we learn much more about the ninja, their lives, and history, as the museum houses the largest collection of Ninja documents and artefacts in Japan. It’s all displayed very nicely, with information boards in both Japanese and English. A video shows the story behind the covert infiltration by ninjas of Ueno Castle, and visitors can even try out some of the devices they used to get in and out undetected, such as projectiles with ropes, throwing stars, and knives. We were totally absorbed for a long time, as we discovered the previously-guarded secrets of the Iga-ryu Ninjutsu.

I’ll attempt a summary of the information.

During the feudal period of Japan’s history, beginning about the 15th century, civil war was rife. In this time, the Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth hired by warring factions to gain intelligence about the activities of their enemies. However, the Ninja were also called on to disrupt and even assassinate enemies from time to time. A “Ninja” was the name applied to those who used the martial arts of Ninjutsu to achieve these aims.

The art of Ninjutsu emphasizes stealth and intellectual solutions to combat, rather than force of arms. But it was not limited to combat. One area of Ninjutsu used divination, psychology and parapsychology to manipulate the enemy’s perception while others called upon disciplines such as astrology and medical horticulture to advance their standards of living.

Although ninja were almost always Japanese, the history and culture of Ninjutsu can be traced as far back as 4000BC from ancient Indian culture into continental China. Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War” in the 5th or 6th century, B.C. (See Wikipedia ). “The Art of War” is a guide for military commanders that is still recommended today. One section describes the advantages of spreading disinformation amongst one’s enemies, and creating confusion in their ranks through deception and sabotage. It also recommends that generals find out as much as possible about their enemy by using spies.

From China these ideas were introduced into Japan through the Korean peninsula. At first much of this philosophy was converse to the Japanese way of waging war, in which armies of foot soldiers and samurai would line up and call each other out to do honorable, one-on-one battle. But many Japanese warriors came to grudgingly accept the wisdom of using deception and espionage to win wars.

The mixed feelings that the Japanese had toward the deceptive ways of the ninja, combined with the ninja’s inherent secretiveness, makes studying the history of these shadowy warriors difficult. Japanese historians often simply left all mention of ninja out of historical documents. If they were mentioned, ninja were either elevated to the status of terrifying, supernatural beings, or were described with contempt and disgust. That’s why all this information collected in this museum is so important.

Ninja Reputation

The men who belonged to the clans around Iga and Koga that ruled the area hired themselves out as mercenaries, spies, and scouts, fighting for whichever daimyo, or lord, paid them the most. The Iga and Koga ninja often worked for daimyo that they had been hired to attack just a few years earlier. This reputation as disloyal mercenaries became a hallmark of the ninja, in direct opposition to the bushido code of the loyal samurai.

However, the Iga ninja had another reputation that made them very useful: They were known as experts at infiltrating castles. With their stealthy skills, they could obtain secret information, sabotage enemy supplies, or steal food and weapons. These skills were passed on from father to son. For generations, warring daimyo knew that the best ninja in Japan could be hired in Iga and Koga. Ninja were particularly useful when a castle was under siege. Then, the ninja were often the only people who could sneak out of the castle. In one story, a ninja left a castle at night, entered the enemy camp, and stole their flag. The next morning, the enemy’s army saw their own flag waving in the breeze from the castle wall. This type of moral victory by humiliating their enemies could be very important for the residents of a castle who were waiting out a long siege.

Within the castle, a daimyo would often go to great lengths to protect himself from ninja. Many castles had “nightingale floors”, wooden floors that were specially crafted so that anyone walking on them made a loud squeaking noise. Some castles are approached over a wide expanse of gravel, making it impossible to walk quietly. Some daimyo kept guards in the same room with them at all times, even when they were asleep.

Ninja Gear and Weapons

We tend to think that all ninja wore black costumes. While some did, especially when moving at night, most wore disguises of various sorts, from the garb of priests, to farmers, to musicians, and itinerant peddlers. The most common tools were those for infiltration and espionage, such as ropes and grappling hooks, collapsible ladders, and spiked or hooked climbing gear. They used swords and daggers, but their weapon of choice was the “katana”, a type of sword that had many uses. They also had an array of darts, spikes, knives, and sharp, star-shaped discs known collectively as “shuriken”.

Over the centuries, the ninja’s reputation grew, eventually taking on supernatural qualities, which of course they did little to discourage. It is probably these powers that spawned the current ninja craze.

Japan rediscovered the ninja in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, ninja have appeared everywhere. The G.I. Joe character Snake Eyes and his archenemy Storm Shadow were ninja. Martial arts star Chuck Norris fought off hordes of ninja in many of his popular action movies. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were pop icons in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Some martial arts schools have also taken up ninja training as a separate discipline.

Modern equivalents of true ninja can be found in the special operatives and espionage agents used by military forces around the world. These elite troops combine combat skills, stealth, and technology to infiltrate enemy strongholds, gather secret information, and spread disinformation—just like the ninja hundreds of years ago.

Spying, often called the second oldest profession, has been around for thousands of years. It has captured the public imagination for its secret agents—from Nathan Hale to Mata Hari to James Bond—and their cloak-and-dagger exploits. Witness many best-selling spy books/novels/stories and movies with such heroic figures as James Bond, for example.

Today espionage is a global enterprise and evidence of spy activity can be found in capitals around the world. You can tour this parallel universe in spy museums, such as the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, or The House of Terror in Budapest.

Lots more information about ninjas on Wikipedia here

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