An investigation into the origins of the ancient ninja give clues to how and why this highly trained assassin came to be.
The ninja figures largely as a mysterious outline throughout history, with records of these dark assassins being as fleeting and obscure as the ninja themselves. This obscurity has helped give rise to notions of ninja magic, where this ancient warrior is thought to fly, walk on water, live underwater and disappear into the shadows at will. Referred to as a shadow themselves, ninjas are shrouded in both myth and legend.
The word ninja comes from two Chinese characters that are pronounced “nin” and “sha”, producing the sound “ninja”. In Japanese, however, the characters mean “shinobi no mono”. Interestingly, both shinobi and nin mean stealth, or quiet action that endures. “Sha” and “mono” both mean person, therefore both character translations mean much the same thing, “a person who is skilled in the art of stealth, or one who endures”.
Various sources abound on the origin of the ninja. Sun Tzu, a paramount Chinese military strategist and author, is thought to have greatly influenced the beginnings of ninja technique through his sixth century book “The Art of War”, a study on shinobi techniques. A more widely accepted theory, however, is that refugees escaping the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in China (tenth century) fled to the Iga and Oka mountains of Japan.
It was here they established themselves as rural samurai, before being hunted down ruthlessly. In order to protect their families, these freedom fighters developed evasion tactics and a unique fighting style. The mountains of Iga and Oka were also closely located to Kyoto, which gave access to foreign techniques, weaponry and esoteric spirituality. All these factors combined and became perfected over time to produce the art of “ninjutsu”.
A Lowly Warrior
Steven Hayes, a leading proponent of ninjutsu, believes the ninja formulated as a counter culture, a reaction to the social and political tradition of the Japanese samurai warrior. Those who helped perfect this new and dynamic art, according to experts, comprised of warriors, migrants and farmers. Although it was the latter who often lead ninja style attacks, as they were rebelling against greedy officials who charged exorbitant amounts of tax.
This association with hardship has often surrounded the ninja, as their roots are firmly planted in poor farming communities in a low social environment. This may have contributed to the ninja ideal of achieving the appointed task by any means possible, with no loyalty to their employer. However, if the ninja could avoid unnecessary conflict, he would. If possessing a sword or blade, it was believed the ninja would find a way to win without staining it.
Skills of the ninja are varied and highly specialised. Ninja training encompasses not only martial arts, but also survival skills, philosophy, meteorology, psychology, geography, acting, espionage and military tactics. Additionally, the ninja used light and concealable weaponry that served a multitude of uses. Such was the claw, which enabled the ninja to scale huge vertical heights, along with various blades, chains, ropes, and the many poisons and powders which the ninja stowed in their apparel.
Yamabushi priests, who dwelt in the mountains of Igor, are believed to have developed unusually skilled defence tactics after escaping a dominant and repressive Chinese regime. It is here that the Yamabushi passed on Omyodo to the mountain fighters. Omyodo is an ancient synthetic art that combines Chinese divination and astrology, which became an integral part of the ninja’s skills.
From the twelfth century onwards, records of the rarely accountable ninja began to appear in warfare. During the Gempei war (12th century) and the Nanbokuchu War (14 century), depictions emerged of warriors engaging in stealth like attacks and masterful fighting techniques. Stories of arcane missions into seemingly impenetrable fortresses also became increasingly common.
While the ninja continued to figure obscurely up until relatively recent times, the last known recorded ninja mission was in 1853. Today, the highly specialised skills of this esoteric assassin remain legendary, so much so that the portrayal of the ninja has infiltrated popular culture the world over.