The Covert Ninjas of Japan

Ninjas (忍者) or shinobi (忍び) were the secret agents of Japan. These specially trained spies or mercenaries resorted in unorthodox methods in warfare to gain an advantage or to win. The ninja and samurai are iconic Japanese symbols for defense and attack forces. The main difference between a ninja and a samurai is that the latter observes the bushido (way of the warrior) with its strict rules about honor and combat.

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In the 11th century, residents of Iga and Kōga  were reputedly trained in the skills of unconventional warfare. Both cities had rough terrains ideal for hiding. In the 15th and 16th centuries during the warring states period, warlords would specifically seek the aid of ninjas from Iga and Kōga. They were unmatched mercenaries who conquered castles and were victorious in many battles.

Ninja show at Iga Ninja Museum, Ueno. | specialoperations

The training and skills of the ninja, ninjutsu, includes the use of specialized weaponry, armed combat, military strategy, geometry, meteorology, and breathing synthesis. Their unique training is passed down from one generation to another within the family or from a teacher to a selected group of disciples. Very little is known about the ninja but through stories depicted in ancient Japanese art forms such as kabuki, a stereotypical view was formed and the idea travelled to the Western world as well.

In the 18th century, shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune founded the oniwaban. It was an intelligence and secret service agency, and its members were called oniwabanshū (garden keepers). They were responsible for collecting information on government officials and daimyos. The tactics the oniwabanshū used in gathering the information were similar to what the Iga and Kōga clans used so they were described as ninjas. Ninjas assigned as bodyguards and secret police were made to be discreet “gardeners” as stated in popular writings on ninjas such as “Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult” by Stephen Turnbull and “Ninja & Their Secret Fighting Art” by Stephen K. Hayes.

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When visiting Japan, the best places to learn more about the ninja are in Iga and Koka. These are considered the birthplace of the ninja. Togakushi in Nagano has the Togakure School of Ninja. Actual buildings used by ninjas still stand, and museums dedicated to ninjas showcase actual weapons and tools they used. There are ninja mansions with trap doors and secret passages that will take us back in an era long gone yet still keep us fascinated.

Koka ninjutsu training camp. | go.biwako

Interested in knowing more about ninjas? Read more about them here.