Ancient Ninja: Separating the Men from the Myth

The following is an article from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

You've seen these men in black everywhere, usually in a group, threatening a movie hero. But how much do you really know about the dark warriors of feudal Japan? It's time to separate the men from the myth.

1. The ninja were a clan of evil assassins for hire.

Myth! In the movies, ninja are portrayed as evil mercenaries crawling out of the woodwork to make sashimi out of the good guy. In reality, they were mountain people of Japan who were systematically harassed by the samurai ruling class 400 years ago. Mostly they farmed. For self-defense when outnumbered, the ninja created a fighting system call Ninjutsu, "the art of stealth". When money got tight the occasional ninja would sell his skills. These few renegades created the stereotype of ninja as the warrior killer.

2. One ninja could sometimes defeat five soldiers.

Fact! Ninja specifically trained to fight more than one opponent. But they considered escape a victory. Their big-city oppressors outnumbered them, so training involved "dirty" fighting tactics that would scare or injure adversaries just long enough for ninja to get away. The samurai were trained in one-on-one fighting against an opponent who actively engages, not a slippery man in black who kicks you in the toe and disappears. Ninja learned to get the job done quickly. A ninja boxing match wouldn't make a good spectator sport: one pokes the other in the eye and climbs a tree.

(Image from the film Sengoku Yaro. Source: Vintage Ninjas)

3. All ninja were male.

Myth! Lady ninja were called kunoichi. Occasionally, some wielded swords like the men, but most often, they were trained as spies and messengers to help gather information that would help their clan. Kunoichi used the illusion of helplessness to their advantage, wielding secret weapons like sashes, fans, combs, and umbrellas when forced to fight. n occasion, they assassinated unsuspecting "suitors". They even carried a bag of little, bladed finger gloves that gave them the equivalent of iron press-on nails of death!

(Image from the film Kaze no Bushi. Source: Vintage Ninjas)

4. Ninja practiced black magic and had supernatural powers.

Myth! While ninja may have appeared magical, they put their pajamas on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. In battle, though, they used this legend to frighten their enemies. The height of ninja activities was during the 1600s; but by the 1800s, most ninja action involved farming or looking for work. Yet ninja buzz kept growing through art, theater, and word of mouth. By the 1900s, ninja were portrayed as practically superhuman.

(Image credit: Flickr user Jérôme Sadou)

5. Ninjas always wore black.

Myth! In real life, ninja dressed for the job at hand; they usually looked like everyone else. When sneaking into an enemy lair, they wore the uniforms of their adversaries to trick them. By the Edo Period (1603-1867), their exploits were famous enough to hit the Kabuki theater. Taking the stealthy reputation of the ninja into consideration, Kabuki troupes decided to portray ninja the same as stagehands-dressed all in black so as not to be seen by the audience. Henceforth, all ninja were portrayed in black.

6. Ninja in training walked through fire, stood under freezing waterfalls, and dangled themelves over cliffs.

Fact! As Japan's Edo Period wore on, the ninja became less secretive. There were no more feudal wars left to fight. Ninja masters wrote books, opened schools to teach others, and became scholars. And their fighting became world famous. In the 1980s, the American film Enter the Ninja set off a brief ninja craze in the United States, and lots of schools opened (some more authentic than others). There are thousands of practicing ninja in the United States today.

(Image credit: Flickr user RodrigoFavera)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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I have studied Ninpo Tai Jutsu (Ninjutsu)for years and I suppose am technically 'A Ninja', however, I have never been able to climb trees, sneek into anywhere or disappear in a flash of smoke, mores the pity. The actual martial art of Bujunkai Budo, as it now known, is great if you find an club affiliated to the 9 schools of Dr Matashi Haatsumi, the current Grand Master.

Aargh trained asassin, my butt
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The word Samurai means "To Serve", and lives by a code of rules, where a ninja is a mostly freelance operative who does anything to get the job done.
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