Seriously, who hasn’t thought about becoming a ninja? That is something that every kid dreams about! 🙂 As kids we have a very vivid and wild imagination and there are a lot of things that fascinate us. I remember that as a kid, I loved to listen to my grandfather’s stories of times long gone and especially his war stories. I also watched many movies and when I learned to read, I also read a lot of things. Somehow I learned about ninjas. Whether it was through my fascination with the movie “Karate Kid”, or through watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or just trading stories as kids, the subject of ninjas grabbed my attention very early on.
These ancient Japanese warriors could use their hands and other parts of their bodies to defeat much larger and stronger opponents and use their tricks to do all kinds of cool things. They could climb walls, throw shurikens (metal stars), create different potions and disappear in clouds of smoke. I was not the only kid that had this fascination and the ninja sparked the imagination of many a kid. We all wanted to be ninjas, playing games where we pretended to be powerful ninja warriors or spies on a mission. Whether the image of the ninja that we have is accurate or not, it is a powerful image and one that still fascinates me to this day.
The theme of ninjas was reflected in many different things during the 1990s. There were movies, cartoons, books, video games and martial arts classes. For example, characters based on ninjas played main roles in such popular cultural phenomenon as Mortal Kombat (mostly video games, but also movies), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (where the word ninja was even in the name), even G.I. Joe (cartoons, action figures), where several of the characters strongly resemble ninjas.
These characters then sparked our wonder in the real ninjas that they were based on. With ninjas, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Much of what we hear about ninjas is based on legends passed down from generation to generation. Some of the images of the ninja are, on the other hand, based on modern myths invented only recently. Even the term “ninja” is of more recent origin, as older texts usually refer to shinobi. However all these myths and legends are based on real events and real people.
History of Ninjas
There are various versions of how the ninjas got started. Some place the beginning of the ninjas into the 7th and 8th centuries AD when groups of ascetics lived in the mountains around Nara and Kyoto. They were influenced by the Chinese and practiced a blend of esoteric Buddhism and Shintoism. These ascetic mountain warrior monks were called the Yamabushi and they were known for having mystical powers. They fought on different sides of the different wars in Japan, until their order was put to an end during the latter part of the 16th century. It is possible that they heavily influenced the ninjas.
Groups of ninjas (known as shinobi) started springing up around the 12th century and it was the 15th and 16th centuries that could be regarded as the ninja golden era. The ninjas trained in the martial arts and covert techniques of espionage. They would often be hired by rival daimyos to serve as spies, warriors, or assassins. They were divided into two large clans, the Iga and the Koga.
The Iga clan lived in the province of Iga, while the Koga clan lived in the Koka (Koga) region, just north of Iga. These areas were remote and very hard to access, as they were surrounded by mountains. This seclusion was what allowed the ninjas to live in relative isolation and train.
The Iga ninjas had relative independence until the Iga Wars between 1578 and 1581. These wars pitted the ninjas against forces many times larger than their own. However the ninjas succeeded in repulsing these forces several times. These wars however finally ended in a ninja defeat when Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful warlord of that time (and widely considered the unifier of Japan), invaded Iga with an army of 60 thousand men. He managed to conquer the province, slaughtering most of the ninjas in the process. Only a few ninjas managed to escape. After this, Iga ninjas scattered to various areas, but still continued to play a role in the wars and affairs of Japan, although a diminished one. Tokugawa Ieyasu employed several of them as his bodyguards. His grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, used them in his war against Japanese Christian rebels. They ended up raiding Hara Castle, the final defensive point of the rebels, several times. Ninjas could have also been some of the people hired in the Tokugawa intelligence agency and secret service started by Tokugawa Yoshimune.
Having said all this, in discussing the ninjas, it is hard to distinguish between what is fact and what is fiction. Some historians have challenged the historicity of the ninjas, claiming that much of the “tradition” is late Tokugawa or even modern invention. This is really hard to judge. The purported secrecy of the old ninjas means that there are very few written records about them from earlier times. Much of what is written is full of embellishments and I guess, any real ninja of that period would not want to leave an accurate record of what they were, as they depended on people being murky about what they did and how they did it. After all, if your main goal is inflitration and espionage, you are not going to want to spread information about yourself and are very happy when people think you have more powers than you actually have. Given the fact that we have very limited primary information on the ninjas, it is very likely that the image of the ninja that we have is skewed. Modern ninjutsu, even if it is based on ancient traditions, is a product of evolution and reflects as much the modern world as much as it does the ancient world. Things change and evolve and what we sometimes hold as old traditions, are sometimes in fact modern constructs.
Reading about history should always be done with an open mind. We don’t know everything and what we do “know” might not always be accurate. I also wouldn’t dismiss legends right out of hand. They are usually based on a grain of truth. For example, back in the 19th century, most scholars thought that Troy was a myth invented by Homer. This was the scientific consensus until Heinrich Schliemann started digging and discovered its ancient remains. So we will probably never know where the line lies, what is an ancient tradition and what is actually a modern construct. What we can state is that the ninja traditions are based on something that was there back in history and that evolved into the modern age. No matter what the “truth” is, it is still a source of fascination.
Ninja Skills and Ninja Training
Ninjas trained from childhood and became experts at many skills. They could fight unarmed, but also armed, and had the ability to turn almost anything into a weapon. They were also masters of disguises and good at making all types of bombs. Their abilities were honed through years of training in a variety of discipline. They were well-rounded, physically strong and agile, good actors and skilled chemists.
They could spend hours training their senses. For example their senses were so acute, that they could hear a needle drop in the next room. There were also other skills that the ninjas spent countless hours practicing. Ninjas worked as spies and even assassins and so had to learn ways of how to move around stealthily without being heard or seen. The learning of all these different skills was incorporated in the wider education of a ninja, which started from very early childhood. This education encompassed a wide variety of different skills and knowledge. A grown ninja was not only a good fighter, but also a smart man with the ability to do many awesome things!
The total body of skill of the ninjas is known as ninjutsu. Some people associate ninjutsu just with a certain style of fighting, however unarmed combat was just one of the things that was included in the ancient art of ninjutsu. There are different ninjutsu styles which have evolved over the years to become what is being taught today. One ninja style is called Togakure-ryu. It is named after its founder, Daisuke Nishina, who later changed his name to Togakure. He lived in the 12th century. So according to tradition, this style has been around for more than 800 years. It is from this style that comes the list of 18 skills of a ninja:
– Seishin Teki Kyoyo (Spiritual Refinement)
– Tai Jutsu (Unarmed Combat)
– Ken Jutsu (Sword Techniques)
– Bo-Jutsu (Stick and Staff Fighting)
– Shuriken-Jutsu (Throwing Blades)
– Yari-Jutsu(Spear Fighting)
– Naginata Jutsu (Naginata Fighting)
– Kusari-Gama (Chain and Sickle Weapon)
– Kayaku-Jutsu (Fire and Explosives)
– Henso-Jutsu (Disguise and Impersonation)
– Shinobi-Iri (Stealth and Entering Methods)
– Ba-Jutsu (Horsemanship)
– Sui-Ren (Water Training)
– Bo-Ryaku (Strategy)
– Cho Ho (Espionage)
– Inton-Jutsu (Escape and Concealment)
– Ten-Mon (Meteorology)
– Chi-Mon (Geography)
All these different skills were needed in order for a ninja to carry out his work. In order to be able to undergo many hardships and get in touch with himself, a ninja would practice spiritual refinement. This would give him the mental ability and will to carry out his duties. He would be able to fight his way through any situation, either unarmed, or armed with a different variety of weapons, from swords, knives, spears and different types of throwing weapons. He could also skillfully ride a horse and swim underwater. His ability in espionage was aided by being able to do many things. He could disguise himself in a variety of ways. He was good at being able to judge the weather and knew nature very well. When he needed it, he could enter almost anywhere without being seen or heard.
I bet many would love to have these abilities and be able to stealthily climb walls, defeat bigger opponents in hand to hand combats and when all is said and done, disappear in a cloud of smoke! 🙂
Eating ninja style isn’t going to help you to gain weight (so it is instead good for people who are trying to maintain or lose weight), however it is healthy and ninjas were strong, so it can help you to get strong. The ninja diet consisted of things like brown rice, tofu, seaweed, quail eggs, sesame and a lot of vegetables. You can see that they ate for example things like brown rice, which is a recommended source of carbohydrates for people trying to bulk up and get strong. They avoided food that could get them smelly, like onions, garlic and also many types of meat.
Ninjas in Modern Culture
As I mentioned before, ninjas are a phenomenon in modern Western culture. They symbolize something powerful and mysterious at the same time. Most kids have wanted to be a ninja at one point in their lives and ninja themes in movies and games have been very popular. Even now, there are many popular ninja-themed shows, for example Ninja Warrior, a show which started in Japan, but was also picked up in North America. In this show, contestants try to pass through an obstacle course and achieve total victory by climbing Mt. Midoriyama (using a rope).
A ninja was not only a powerful warrior and spy, but could perform a variety of tricks. They were sort of ancient MacGyvers. 🙂 There are actually several schools of ninjutsu around the world, which teach martial arts based on the old ninja tradition (however the tradition has most likely added a lot of modern elements), so if you have one in your area and want to learn some ninja fighting styles, then join. There is also hope for guys who don’t have a ninjutsu school close to them and don’t want to travel to Japan. Ninjas were all around jacks of all trades and very practical in their approach. Just a take a look at the 18 skills of a ninja and pick some that you want to learn. Then practice them. For example pick a Japanese martial art that is taught in your area (preferably based on grappling) and attend classes. Go around the forest and learn things about nature. Study chemistry and other sciences. Or just start improving your swimming and diving abilities. Maybe start doing parkour and free running. Once you get to a high level in some of these skills, then add new ones. In that way, you can become an all around better and smarter person and also come closer to your dream of becoming a ninja.
Everybody wants to be a ninja! Even this guy…