Common Misconception Concerning Ninja

The Ninjas

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Common Misconception Concerning Ninja   忍者(にんじゃ)

By: Nate Ledbetter ( )

Ninja are largely a myth; a product of Edo period drama, adapted to Japanese and then Western cinema. The modern image of the black-pajama clad super warrior, turning invisible and throwing "Chinese stars" and the like is pure, unadulterated. It's a pop image because people keep buying into the Ninja fantasy.

What we know about Ninjas.

In the Sengoku period, they were referred to by a variety of names, but not "Ninja". "Ninja" is an Edo period term. The two characters, "Nin" and "Ja" are the same characaters as "Shinobi" and "mono". One of the original terms was "Shinobo no mono"--literally, person of stealth. Someone in the Edo period decided this was too much of a mouthful, so used the Sinified readings of the two characters and presto, you've got "N". Prior to the Edo period, the word was not used. Shinobi, or Shinobi no mono, was one term. "Kusa" was a very common term also, used to denote stealthy scouts.

"Ninja" activities include all manner of covert activities. Spying, assassination, planting rumors, sabotage...all these can be considered "shinobi" activities. However, being a spy didn't mean you were some sort of secret agent from some clan of secret agents, raised from birth to be a spy.

Common Myth #1: "Ninjas" wore black night uniforms and skulked around in the dark.

Think about it--like no one's going to look at you and guess what you're doing if you go around in a night suit at noontime? Idiocy. Night uniforms were typically blue, anyways--if you care to verify, visit the Iga-Ueno "Ninja" Museum at Iga-Ueno Castle, in Mie Prefecture. Black outlines you on a dark night. It makes you MORE visible, since the sky isn't black, it's blue. Dark blue is much more effective. And of course, just because you wear a night outfit to avoid being seen, doesn't make you a "Ninja" (thieves are also often depicted in similar attire in Japanese theater/paintings), but I think that should be obvious enough that I don't have to say it.

The black "uniform" comes from the Edo stage theater. Prop assistants and others who are supposed to be "unseen" in Kabuki, Bunraku, etc., wear all black uniforms to signify their "invisible" role. When Edo-period playwrights struggled on how to show their "invisible" assassin characters, they hit upon clothing them like the stagehands. The audience of the time KNEW that the character was "invisible", and understood the point. The common image carried over into film, unfortunately, and modern audiences frankly aren't as in tune with the conventions of the theater.

What DID "Ninja" wear? Anything that wouldn't attract attention. Peasant, traveling priest, low-level samurai, merchant--all these were perfect disguises for walking around the countryside, gathering information for your lord. The 3 "N" characters in the Kurosawa film "Kagemusha" are dressed like 2 peasants and a traveling priest--they're actually spies for Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Common Misconception #2: "Ninja" were dishonorable, and used underhanded techniques that samurai would never use, and "Ninja" were a separate, lower class from samurai.

Um, no. Especially pre-Edo, samurai would use whatever techniques/tactics they could to win and survive. Spying, assassination, etc. were just part of the game. Even the Edo period paragon of virtue and loyalty, the 47 Ronin (or 47 loyal retainers of Ako), were a CLASSIC example of supposedly "N" tactics--everything from faking death and dishonor to surprise night attacks, it's all there.

As to being "separate" from samurai, that's bull too. The two most famous "Ninja" in history, Hattori Hanzo and Yagyuu Jubei, were both samurai. Hattori Hanzo, "Devil Hanzo", was Tokugawa Ieyasu's chief of clandestine operations, and was noted for being from Iga, a hotbed of "Ninja" activity. He ran Ieyasu's spying campaigns, and possibly more. As a senior retainer, he held the rank of Hatamoto--now, one couldn't be a hatamoto without being a samurai--so how could he be a samurai if a "Ninja" couldn't be one?

Yagyuu Jubei, of the famous Yagyuu clan (also from Iga, and masters of the afore-mentioned Iga-Ueno Castle) is also famous as a "Ninja". The Yagyuu were from Iga, were well known practitioners of clandestine arts, and were appointed hatamoto and kenjutsu instructors to the Tokugawa Shoguns. Most of the legends around Jubei stem from when he was "dismissed" for several years from the Shogun's service, only to be recalled later. This prompted speculation that he was off conducting missions under cover. No one knows, but again--a "Ninja" who was obviously, and undeniably, a samurai.

Now, does this mean that all "Ninja" or people who conducted "Ninja" activities were samurai? By no means. If Lord Date's wife's maid is passing what she overhears Date saying about his plans in his sleep to an agent of mine, she's most definitely conducting shinobi activity. Does it mean she's trained to kill 37 ways with a chopstick? No.

Common Myth #3: "Ninja" used straight swords, different from samurai swords.

No, no, no, and no. Remember what I said above about the black pajamas? This was another way to tell the bad guy (in black, straight sword) from the good guy. These things DIDN'T exist. And you don't see them in Japanese "Ninja" films. It's pure Hollywood.

Common Myth #4: There are "Modern" "Ninja"

These people are typically martial artists--nothing against them, but they aren't historians. It's really easy to fake some scroll. Generally these people couldn't produce historical accuracy if their lives depended on it. I read one of his books just to see what he was talking about, and it's clear that he simply doesn't know. Any Japanese 2nd grader could have pointed out GAPING holes in his historical "facts", but because Westerners get mesmerized by tales of invisible warriors and walking on water, he's considered an "expert". When it comes to learning about Asia, people in the West are stupid. (The same, sadly, holds true in reverse.)

A corollary to this is that Manga, Anime, Movies, Books (Fiction books, like Shogun) are *NOT* historical sources. "My sensei told me so" likewise does not make it fact.

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