Remember the intro fighting scene from Ninja Assassin where a Ninja from the Ozunu clan morbidly killed the goons with his sword and shurikens without being seen, all while they helplessly and aimlessly fire their guns? I hate to say this, but Ninjas were not like that. At all.

Ninjas were (are) real, for sure. Feudal lords hired them to carry out espionage, sabotage, and assassinations. Take Hattori Hanzō a famous Ninja who served the Tokugawa clan as a samurai and helped them rise to power. Although it might not be like how you imagined them or what the movies made you think so.  You may think you know about Hanzō from the movie “Kill Bill” but the real guy died in the 16th century.

They were not called “ninjas”

The “Ninjas” of Japan were called Shinobis, and they lived in Japan between the 15th and 17th Centuries. The two areas in Japan, Iga and Koga, were two villages surrounded by samurai. They needed to make sure that they’d be free from these warriors, so they trained hard to hone stealth, intelligence gathering, and assassination skills. The term “Ninja” was a misreading for “Shinobi no Mono” of the Kanji, which was later on reduced to “Shinobi,” which means “the hidden.” After WWII, the term was popularized when Westerners found out the word was easier to pronounce. 

They didn’t really wear masks and all-black outfits

If you think of a Ninja, perhaps the first thing that comes into your mind is stealthy spies wearing an all-black uniform with a black face mask carrying a long sword. It doesn’t make sense because if you’re a spy, you might want to blend in and not stand out, right? Imagine spying on the monks, for instance, and walking in their midst and hoping no one would notice you? Instead, they wore common clothing that helped them blend in wherever they were. The idea of the all-black outfit was inspired by the puppet handlers of bunraku theater.  Japan had its own version of Hollywood make-believe six hundred years ago. They dressed the puppets in all black to be “invisible” and make it look like the props were moving independently of their controls, more like an ancient version of CGI.

 

How ninjas were perceived to look like. Photo from outfit4events.com

They don’t throw stars

I know throwing stars look cool and all, but it’s not what Ninjas used to eliminate their enemies. The thing is, it could do some damages, but it’s not a lethal weapon. It’s hard to aim and throw it accurately and is commonly used to divert attention and distract the enemies. If you had one sticking out of your chest you might stop to pluck it out and decide that this particular Ninja might be better left alone. Do you know what’s lethal? Bows, poisons, explosives, katanas, and knives.

A shuriken. ©Kaliostro/Wikimedia Commons

They’re more of a scout than a killer

You know, in the movies, when a Ninja finds his enemy, he’ll make gravity-defying moves to infiltrate, attack, and eliminate them? The real Ninjas are not quite like that. They were indeed skillful in fighting, but their job was gathering information to use against adversaries. They would sneak into meetings and eavesdrop on important conversations. Obviously in a group that prized stealth and concealment overall, if a Ninja found himself in a hand-to-hand battle, he had screwed up.

The Ninjas disappeared in the 17th Century when Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate or the military government of Japan. However, in Japan, there is a guy known to be the “Last Ninja.” He is Jinichi Kawakami, who says he is the 21st head of the Koga Ban family, and he has a school called “Banke Shinobi no Den Kenshujo.”

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