Ninjas became a pop culture staple by the late 20th century. Like the Shaolin monks, they were practically able to defy physics with how well-trained and deadly they were. For decades, movies portrayed them as superhuman killers while insisting there was something with spiritual depth about their practices. As a result, all sorts of misconceptions have been mixed in with ninja lore. Not only has this distorted our view of them, it’s covered up some great stories that are at least worth movies.
Since women weren’t allowed to serve as samurai, if a woman in feudal Japan wanted to provide military service to her clan, serving as a ninja was a much better bet. This was particularly true as women were much more likely to be invited into castles and fortresses than unfamiliar men. To make it even more uncomfortable for potential assassination targets, it was their usual practice to wait a bit before the hit.
They tended to receive all the same training that their male counterparts did and actually had a slightly wider array of weapons. Female ninjas often used blades concealed inside fans or a particularly unnerving weapon called the neko-te, or “cat’s claw.” It was a small blade (less than three inches long) attached to a leather ring worn on a finger. If that doesn’t sound that intimidating, consider that the tips of these claws were usually poisoned.
9. Actually Chinese
Although there is inevitably murkiness to the activities and origins of ninjitsu, it appears that it does not come from the country so many of us associate with it. All the core principles that we associate with them were written in China almost a millennium before there is any evidence that ninjas were being used in Japan. Sun Tzu includes information on the five types of spies in his seminal classic The Art of War in the fifth century BC.
As it happens, his thoughts on the matter were much harsher than Japanese ninja doctrine, recommending that anyone who just knew all the active ninja agents for a clan should be put to death, whether or not there was evidence that the person intended to provide the information to the enemy. The most important event as far as spreading the practice to Japan was the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in the tenth century, which caused many military experts and scholars to flee China for the relatively peaceful island nation.
8. Magician Ninja
Many ninjas would disguise themselves as street performers as part of their covert operations. The legend of 16th century shinobi Kato Danzo has him seemingly going about it the opposite way. He began as a street magician performing an act where he would appear to swallow an ox. One time someone called him on how he did it, and Danzo responded by one upping the previous trick, doing one where he made flowers seem to bloom instantly from scattered seeds. This was enough to get him an audience with the Kenshin clan, although you’d think such a public figure would not a very good spy or assassin.
He was given a test to steal a very well-protected and treasured sword. He got through an array of guards and swiped his objective but made the mistake of taking a maid with him, which led to him not getting the job. He then made his final mistake by then trying to get a job with the rival province of Zia. There, he was suspected of being a double agent. After Danzo attempted a burglary to make up for it, he was put to death. Despite his failure to become a government operative, Danzo’s show still contributed to the folklore that ninjas have supernatural powers.
7. Dressed & Armed for Concealment
Despite how often you see it in fiction, ninjas didn’t have special black ninja uniforms that concealed their faces or anything of the kind. Part of the whole point of being a secret agent is to be as subtle, or frankly boring, as possible to avoid attention, so a highly stylized costume is the last thing you want. They much more reasonably dressed like farmers, in no small part because they worked in areas where that all there was to wear.
Also, rather than employing flashy, suspicious swords, they tended to use sickles because that was something a farmer was likely to have. Personally, we here at TopTenz think a sickle actually sounds more intimidating than a sword. Some would use a sickle on a chain to use it as a ranged weapon, again because a chain was something a farmer might viably have. Similarly, ninjas that operated along the coast would also use large fishing hooks on a line and nets.
6. Ninja Were Not Dishonorable Compared to Samurai
There’s a notion that because samurai were supposed to be so honorable with their Bushido Code and all that, ninjas were basically the ones that had to do the dirty fighting so the esteemed samurai could keep their hands clean. Combat doctrine for the two groups was the same. It was more that ninjas needed to maintain a low profile while samurai were the public face of war.
While, naturally, that meant there were slightly fewer chances for advancement when it came to reaching the very highest class of society, since they had to keep at least some of their operations secret, it did not mean that ninja were considered secondary, inherently disgraceful soldiers. In fact, many ninjas were simply esteemed rank and file samurai without a separate designation of any kind. And at the end of the day, it was surely better for the nation of Japan in many cases that a single person be killed in their sleep than hundreds, if not thousands, be killed on the battlefield or in prolonged campaigns.
5. Security Systems
With trained assassins being a fact of life in times of war, the powerful people that were bound to be targets weren’t just going to hire extra guards and leave it at that. Traps were installed that went far beyond mere trip wires. Holes were installed in walls to allow guards to monitor areas faster. Secret weapon compartments were hidden for emergency defense. To make shinobi louder, gravel was spread on the ground outside castles.
Even inside floors were rigged to be extra susceptible to squeaking from the softest footfall. The very design of castles was made more complicated and difficult to traverse in hopes of confusing or at least slowing down potential assassins. Little wonder daimyos like Oda Nobunaga were sometimes able to survive numerous attempts, and you’ll soon understand why he was such a desirable target.
4. Scaffolding, Ferris Wheels, and Gliders
The times that ninjas got to use more elaborate equipment was during sieges on castles and fortresses. You’d imagine that if a ninja needed to scale a wall on a castle at night, he or she would probably rely on a rope and grappling hook. Some opted for much more elaborate setups because they had to bring up groups of ninjas at once (more on an instance of this later). During one siege, ninjas at night silently assembled improvised scaffolding. Other times a device called a yagura was brought out which basically functioned like a crude ferris wheel that bring up ninjas so quickly that it was described as a “stream.”
When they got up on the wall, many used effectively a crude cloth parachute to drop down, a device which they called a “human eagle.” Building on these advancements in gliding, ninjas operating at night would use kite-like devices called yami doko to drop grenades over walls, although the lack of light meant it was invariably highly inaccurate and the small, weak payloads meant these objects were more useful for scaring the enemy than hurting them. During the day these were effectively worthless because archers had little trouble shooting them down.
3. Ninja Purge
In the late 1500s two Japanese lords, Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Oda Nobunaga, began to try and kill off all ninjas in Japan. It was part of a campaign to fully unify the country, as ninjas were likely a voice of dissent as they weren’t as loyal to any specific regime as the samurai were. It wasn’t just the ninjas; Buddhists, Christians, and European immigrants were also targeted. Ninjas were not merely arrested and executed but often tortured.
The culmination of this was a mass slaughter in the town of Iga in 1581, but the conflict went on for decades, including incidents like Ishikawa Goemon being boiled alive for a failed attempt on Toyotomi and two attempts to shoot Nobunaga, which involved three ninjas missing him but killing seven people standing near him. Although they hardly killed off all the ninjas, they definitely were severely weakened as a military force and never really recovered.
2. First Recorded Japanese Ninja was a Thirteen Year-Old
The first person that Japanese records name as being a ninja wasn’t a government or military agent in any way. He certainly wasn’t motivated by philosophy or anything of the kind. He was a child named Hino Kumawaka, and he was motivated to assassinate his target for utterly personal reasons. In 1330 his father had been exiled to the horrible island of Sado and sentenced to death. Kumawaka pleaded with the local governor to see his father, but was told he could not. As soon as his father was killed, Hino vowed to kill the governor and his son and then commit suicide. He couldn’t get near the target with how well the governor lit his room, so Kumawaka was said to have let moths into the room to douse the governor’s light.
When it came time to commit suicide after he’d fled the scene of the murder, he decided it was better “to live a useful life than die a useless death.” He sneaked away while still being hotly pursued and got in contact with a monk, fully confessing his crime. The monk helped smuggle him away from fifty pursuers and from there he joined a ninja group in service to the emperor.
1. Castle Sack
The finest hour for ninjas in medieval Japan took place in 1562. Tokugawa Ieyasu had needed to capture Castle Kaminojo, where members of his family were being held hostage. After besieging the castle for two and a half months, the commanding officer changed his approach and ordered a team of eighty ninjas to sneak in using hooked spears and capture the castle under cover of night. For extra effectiveness, they were dressed in enemy uniforms to cause confusion and give the impression the troops inside were betraying each other.
They distinguished themselves by shouting passwords at each other during the sacking. During the attack, they further created confusion by setting fires around the castle. In the end, the garrison of two hundred soldiers was completely destroyed and the hostages were recovered. Ieyasu would later pay ninjas as a group back by being willing to take them into his army when Nobunaga and Toyotomi were attempting to exterminate them.