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Who were the Ninja?

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The idea of “the Ninja” has received a lot of attention since the ninja craze in the 1980’s. Titles such as Enter the Ninja, American Ninja, Ninja Fist of Fire, Beverley Hills Ninja, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles popularized the ninja as notorious mask-donning martial arts experts trained to kill.Were the ninjas real? Absolutely they were. But they weren’t quite what pop culture may claim. Let’s start with the word Ninja in Japanese.

Japanese Meaning for Ninja

The Japanese characters for “ninja” (Shinobi) are shown above. The character on the right simply means “person”. The character on the left is usually translated to scout or spy. There is a lot of discussion and debate about the specifics of this, but it is widely agreed-on that it certainly does not translate to “assassin”, “warrior” or “fighter”. Really nothing to do with martial arts, combat or any of the things we generally associate ninjas with.

In fact, the word “ninja” didn’t refer to a class of person in the way that, for instance, a Samurai or a Knight referred to a specific type of occupation/person/class. Samurai, peasants and wealthy people alike could be “ninja” – all that is required is that the person acted as a spy.

When Did Ninjas Exist?

The ninjas arose around the 15th century as warfare in Japan created demand more subtle skills. Around the 16th century, there was peace and the country had no need for ninjas. This was around the time that the Samurai began to dwindle and take up other occupations as well.

Ninjustu

Ninjutsu is one of the fastest-growing martial arts practices in the world. Despite its popularity now-a-days, Togakure Ryu and other schools do not teach authentic “ninja combat” techniques. That is simply because there IS NO SUCH THING as “ninja combat”. This says nothing about the effectiveness of Ninjustu as a hand-to-hand and weapon-based combat technique.

According to the scrolls and historical records that we have recovered, Ninjutsu refers to espionage skills such as infiltration, gathering information, disguise, burning down a building, sneaking around, and so forth.

How Did Ninjas Dress

Now that we’ve thrown out the popular image of black-clad masked assassins, it will be easier to explain how, and more importantly, WHY ninjas dressed the way they did. There was no particular way that a ninja dressed. This should be clear from the very nature of what a ninja was. If you were a spy, you wouldn’t wear a mask and a cool black suit, you would wear clothing that would best allow you to fit in and be undetected.

Japanese citizens of the 15th century when ninjas were around often dressed very similar to the way we see ninjas commonly depicted today which could have been one of the historical sources of the misconception.

At night, ninjas would wear black, or dark red or blue to blend in. In the day-time, they would choose their attire so as not to draw attention to themselves. Masks were fairly common at this time in Japanese culture, though the infamous “ninja mask” was likely never seen around that time.

What Weapons did Ninjas Use?

There are famous examples of ninja weapons (prepare to have more of your beliefs shattered). Nunchucks, sais, bo staves, smoke bombs, throwing stars, and such weapons were probably never used by ninjas – at least there is no good historical evidence to suggest that they did. In popular culture, a ninja’s diverse arsenal of weapons made for interesting weapon-based combat and was a good way to show off martial arts prowess.

In reality, ninjas would use whatever weapons everyone else used at the time. This would certainly include the katana (curved single-edged sword), wakizashi (short sword) and tanto (knife). But may also extend to other less popular weapons used around the 15th century such as the straight sword.

In fact, there is some good evidence that ninjatos straight swords with the square tsuba very similar to the Kouga Ninjato and the Iga Ninjato would have been used by some ninjas.

It is important to re-state ninjas did not necessarily have any special training in martial arts or combat, so they as a whole did not have any preferred weapons or fighting tactics specific to them.

Conclusion

The ninjas played an important role in history and in Japanese warfare. They were pioneers in art of espionage and the various skills involved with being a spy. 

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