The Real History of the Ninjas

Ninja with katana black background

The True History of the Ninjas

Experts have had a bad time when it comes to researching about ninja history.

Ninjas, also known as shinobis, have always found themselves in the middle of a fine line. Films and novels have helped romanticize the figure of Japanese shinobi to the point where it becomes difficult to discern between truth and fantasy. Even making people wonder: were ninjas real?

A problem heightened by the secrecy that is logical in an occupation where deception and betrayal are the order of the day.

Today we set out to expose real facts about the ninjas, separating reality from fiction and casting light on complicated issues.

Let’s get started.

 

Did Ninjas Really Exist?

Luckily for all those who love medieval Japan, the Ninjas really existed.

Even Oda Nobunaga went out to hunt them down, as their dark activities opposed his goal of achieving unification— we will explore this further below.

There is not as much information about them today as there is about other kinds of Japanese warriors. Of course, that’s expected due to the very nature of the ninja’s work.

Only once the conflicts and civil wars had subsided and the ninja’s profession had become expendable, the outlook changed. Then, some of them decide that it was time for the world to know what they had been doing for a long time in the shadows.

The scrolls were the ideal means to record the wanderings of the ninja clans.

After all, no one wants to die without leaving a legacy.

Ninja scroll

By: Motokoka / CC BY-SA

 

What Did Ninjas Do in Feudal Japan?

The real activities of the shinobis have been the subject of speculation. The facts commonly accepted about ninja history can turn a bit blurry. These warriors are often seen as cold-blooded killers; mercenaries who would quietly kill for a handful of coins. But their activities were somewhat more complicated than that.

The ninjas’ main task was to gather information. Espionage missions that consisted of following or persuading certain targets in order to get information on a specific subject were what a Shinobi normally did on a daily basis.

Other activities of the ninja, a little riskier, could consist of just the opposite; misinformation, deception, spreading rumors, supplanting identities, inciting revolts in the population.

They acted more like spies than assassins.

That’s why when people ask us “were ninjas real?” we usually reply: yes, ninjas were real, but not the way you imagine them.

However, certain missions required more drastic actions, such as kidnapping or eliminating targets.

 

Custom-Ninjato

 

The Two Most Important Ninja Clans

There were several clans throughout the history of ninjas of ancient Japan. The two most famous were Iga and Koga.

The Iga shinobi clan originated near Mie Prefecture. Shinobis growing up in the clan learned the complex arts of ninjutsu at an early age. Their masters used the nearby mountains and forests to teach them how to take advantage of all kinds of terrain.

At the base of operations of this ninja clan, researchers found a lot of interesting things. Just to mention a few: secret passages, quick escape routes, dark hiding places from which it was possible to observe without being observed, and even false floors that were unlocked with special locks— under which all kinds of weapons could be stored.

The most famous samurai of this clan was Hattori Hanzo.

Of the other clan, Koga, a little less is known. Their base of operations was located in Shiga Prefecture. It is believed that they had dozens of ninja villages there. Today, it is possible to visit some of them and see their gadgets.

 

Koga ninja clan base

By: z tanuki / CC BY

 

The Real Ninja Dressing

Contrary to popular belief, the most characteristic clothing of the ninjas was not the all-black suits, but the clothes that a villager would wear in his daily life.

Much of the shinobi’s work took place not on the roofs of the houses, but in the streets and crowded places.

Therefore, the best option for these warriors was to mingle with the crowd; whether as farmers, fishermen, or companions.

Ninjas from the lower classes —mostly those who weren’t raised within a ninja clan— were common people. Many of them were living on the edge of poverty.

This meant that if researchers suspected of any of them, they would find a totally ordinary person.

While it is true that they wore the famous dark clothing for the night missions, a ninja would spend most of his time in the service dressed as an ordinary person rather than in this manner.

Ninja with kunai

 

 

What Happened to the Ninjas?

As mentioned above, Oda Nobunaga maintained a deadly rivalry with the shinobi clans. So much so that he used every resource at his disposal to hunt them down, destroying these secret organizations.

But that was not the end of the ninja clans.

In the 18th century, Yoshimune Tokugawa hired the surviving ninjas to form the first Japanese secret intelligence service: oniwaban.

The work of its members consisted almost exclusively of collecting information for the daimios and various government agents. They were often hired as bodyguards disguised as gardeners.

Would you like to have your own Ninja sword? Take a look at our collection of ninjato swords.

Hamon in Katanas & Other Japanese Swords

Samurai training in a traditional dojo in Tokyo

Hamon in Katanas & Other Japanese Swords

 

When it comes to katanas as works of art, the Hamon is one of the main focuses. But to talk about these patterns we first need to take a look at the process that gives rise to it.

In feudal Japan, swords were everything.

Originally forged with techniques learned from the Chinese, swords evolved in the hands of skillful Japanese blacksmiths into what today is a symbol of ancient weapons engineering: the katana.

But that was just the beginning.

Once the perfect weapon for the elite Japanese troops was found, the next step was to improve that weapon.

That’s how we came to, among other processes, the clay tempering.

And, more specifically, its artistic implications: the elegant, longed-for hamon lines left along the blade.

In this post we will talk about hamon in swords, how they originate, their patterns, and more.

Let’s begin!

 

 

What is Hamon?

The word “hamon” means literally “blade pattern”, and most of the time, that’s exactly what it is.

The hamon is a visual effect that runs along the blade. It borders the sharp edge (ha) and describes different shapes that are attractive to the naked eye.

It’s a whitish line or wake whose shape depends on the artistic skills of the blacksmith. As such, it makes the blade of a sword unique and distinguishable.

The hamon, with its elegant and shining curves, is desired by both Japanese sword lovers and experts. Actually, by anyone that can recognize in them the small subtleties of the blacksmith.

Experts in swords even used the hamon pattern to determine the veracity of some ancient blades attributed to the alleged hands of famous blacksmiths.

What makes the hamon especially famous is that it acquires an almost mythical status thanks to its translucent appearance; as if it were the soul of the blade.

This is not surprising considering that a reverential cloud of mysticism surrounds the traditional process of forging a samurai sword.

In addition to this, an original hamon is often synonymous with a good sword, as it is the result of the very important process of clay tempering.

 

Samurai katana sword with hamon

Click on the picture to see the sword

 

Clay Tempering: The Science of a Good Blade

Clay tempering is the ideal hardening method for all types of swords.

It is a complex process in which there is always a possibility that the sword will not hold and break.

Unlike heat hardening, during clay tempering, the sword blade is covered with a special mixture of clay that helps it to better contain the heat; a thicker layer on the body and a thinner one on the edge.

Every blacksmith has his special clay mixture, composed of different components that help it to do a more effective job.

After this, the sword is subjected to high temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius, and is then immersed in a container filled with water (or oil).

In doing so, the fire burns brightly. The flames rise as the steel dives into the liquid; they struggle to survive. On a microscopic level, the metal begins to mutate and acquire new properties.

Once removed from the water, the part covered with clay acquires a slightly more flexible consistency (perlite) than the cutting edge (martensite). This allows it to absorb shocks better without breaking.

In short, two metal end up composing the blade of the swords instead of just one.

A strong metal on the border of the blade to allow a sharp edge for longer, and a more flexible metal on the body of the blade, which helps it resist all kinds of impacts that might otherwise break it.

An almost collateral effect of this important process is the formation of the hamon, which is nothing more than the visible difference between the two types of metal found in the blade.

 

Samurai with sword practicing

 

Learn How to Know If the Hamon Is Fake

Learning to differentiate between authentic hamon and a fake one is crucial when acquiring a clay-tempered sword.

In fact, it is the only way to be sure at first glance that the sword you are buying is of good quality, and not a simple imitation.

For this you must know that, first of all, a fake hamon almost never will look like an original hamon. So if you sharpen your eye by seeing what real clay-tempered swords look like, then in time the difference will be obvious.

Take a look at our catalogue of clay-tempered swords to see authentic swords hardened by this procedure.

If you want the theory, here it goes:

What you should look for in a sword hamon is a crystalline aspect that shines especially when you examine it under the light – except for the cases where the sword has a special treatment.

Even if you don’t have it in your hand, you can easily tell from the pictures when the hamon is crystalline and when it looks engraved.

Some types of fake hamon can be really difficult to identify. However, this method will help you in most cases, because usually the fake reproductions are made with simple methods to lower costs.

 

Fake Hamon

Fake hamon katana

Real Hamon

Real hamon katana

Can you notice the slight differences in glow, transparency, and composition?

 

History of the Process

The tempering process has been used since ancient Japan to create strong and durable swords.

It began as a purely functional process. Little attention was paid to the hamon that emerged almost as a side effect.

With the passage of time, katanas and other samurai swords became more refined. Hamon design eventually became a central piece in the creation of swords.

Gradually, a paradigm shift changed the focus from the functionality of the tempering to the design of the hamon itself.

Although this did not guarantee an ideal distribution of the clay, hamon designs began to appear in the form of flowers, trees, islands, mountains, rivers, etc.

The hamon became a status symbol of the samurai. But also, a way for the blacksmith to express his own artistic sensibility.

 

The blacksmith manually forging the molten metal on the anvil in smithy with spark fireworks

 

Types of Hamon

Just as there are different types of art, there are also different types of hamon.

When distributing the clay, the swordmaker is responsible for giving the mixture special shapes. Still, it is important to set a good structure for the clay so as to not distribute it in a very uneven way. In this way, the hard and flexible steel balance properly at the end of the process.

Nowadays it is not usual to resort to such striking hamon lines as islands, trees, rat’s feet, etc. These types of designs could endanger the sword’s structure— making some of these peculiar designs would imply an ineffective distribution of the clay. However, it is possible to find a variety of attractive and functional designs.

Below are some of the most popular:

 

Hamon Notare (Wave Hamon)

This hamon pattern, as its name suggests, has an attractive shape reminiscent of waves. It is one of the most loved hamon types, both for its classic design and its harmonious aesthetics.

Katana hamon Notare

 

Hamon Gunome (Semicircular)

This is a semi-circular type of hamon that has medium sized wave patterns, similar to small mountains.

Gunome Hamon

Hamon Choji

The choji hamon has a catchy irregular design. Its pointed tips give the sword a wilder touch, which breaks with the conventional harmonic patterns of the hamon. It’s beauty in chaos.

Hamon Choji

Hamon Sugu (Straight)

This is one of the most humble hamon. No patterns or drawings; a straight and elegant line that starts at one end of the blade and ends at the other without deviating in the slightest.

Sugu Hamon

 

 

Polishing the Hamon

Sometimes, the hamon is polished to make it stand out and thus enhance the aesthetic values of the sword.

This process, hadori polishing, more than polishing itself it is a stage in the overall polishing process.

During this stage, the polisher uses hadori stones, which are a little more abrasive than normal. With them, he rubs the hamon area carefully, giving it a whitish appearance.

In this way, the line ends up contrasting more with the rest of the steel, standing out at first sight.

This aesthetic process is highly appreciated, and it has a variant called feather hadori.

What makes the feather hadori special is that, in addition to highlighting the hamon, it leaves a pattern of fine lines that seem to come off it and that resemble the feathers of a bird. That’s where its name comes from.

 

 

What about Popular Culture?— Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure

Being such an important part of Japanese history, the hamon has also found a place in popular culture.

One of the most recent cases is that of Jojo Bizarre Adventures. This is an anime in which, at first, the characters use their skills by channeling energy called hamon.

They controlled the hamon with the breath, so it was necessary the complete concentration of the character to use it.

Later, this hamon mechanics in Jojo is replaced with the stands. They are physical representations of this energy.

Samurai Death Poems That Will Take Your Breath Away

Samurai with katana

Samurai Death Poems

 

In this post, we’ll take a look at the fascinating art of Samurai death poems.

In ancient Japan, the arts were highly valued.

Writing, poetry, music, and theater were the ideal way for Japanese people to marvel at their surroundings. To look for meaning in things, and find their own place in the world.

From a samurai, for example, great artistic sensitivity was expected.

Thus, despite training all his life to fight, one of these warriors was immersed in all kinds of arts from an early age.

And when the time came for the end, what better way to honor a life than with a poem?

In this post we present some famous death poems made by Japanese people; from samurai to imperial nationalists; from noblemen to monks.

 

What is a death poem?

Samurai death poems

Yoshitoshi / Public domain

A death poem is one written by a person in the last moments of his life.

It is understood that this poem is the culmination of a life of events and emotions. And that, as such, it is the essence of the person.

This is what makes them so valuable.

What is it that a person thinks about before they die?

What do they consider most important in their final moments?

These poems are not only a form of appreciation of Japanese culture, but a way to appreciate life and gain new perspectives on the world.

 

 

Minamoto No Yorimasa (1106-1180)

Minamoto was a samurai who fought in the Genpei Wars and who defended a temple, helped by monks, from the Taira troops.

However, the defense ended up failing and when Minamoto was captured, he was forced to commit seppuku with his own wakizashi. That was possibly the first seppuku in history to incorporate a poem before death.

His death poem says:

 

Like a fossil tree

from which we gather no flowers,

sad has been my life

fated no fruit to produce.

 

Minamoto’s biggest regret in his final moments was never having had a child.

 

 

Ouchi Yoshitaka (1507-1551)

Ouchi was a samurai general who ruled the island of Kyushu for years. He was a cunning man who established strong business relations with China and Korea. In addition, he provided refuge for warriors and nobles from other regions.

In 1551 one of his generals rebelled against him, capturing him and forcing him to commit seppuku.

This was his death poem:

 

Both the victor

and the vanquished are

but drops of dew,

but bolts of lightning

Thus should we view the world.

 

Ouchi was a thoughtful person, with his philosophical foundations in Buddhism. His death poem talks about an essential teaching of Buddhism: the only truth is the void.

 

Samurai kneeling with katana

Shiaku Sho’on

Shiaku was a Japanese monk who, at the time of his death, maintained that his roots were samurai. And so he wanted to die alongside his master instead of retiring as any monk would have done.

Before he died, he wrote this poem:

 

The Sharp-edged sword, unsheathed,

cuts through the void.

Within the raging fire

a cool wind blows.

 

Asano Naganori (1667-1701)

Asano is especially known to every lover of Japanese culture as the master the 47 ronin entrusted themselves to avenge.

On the day of his death, Asano committed the crime of drawing a wakizashi in the shogun’s castle to murder Kira, who had provoked him with insults.

The assassination attempt failed. Asano was caught in the act and sentenced to commit seppuku.

This was his poem:

 

More than cherry blossoms,

inviting a wind to take them away.

I wonder what to do

with the rest of spring.

 

Asano Naganori from 47 ronin

Unknown author / Public domain

 

 

Kakinomoto-no-Hitomaro

Kakinomoto was considered one of the best poets of his time.

He was a nobleman who served two emperors. His main role was that of court poet, accompanying the emperor on his travels and composing poems in his honour.

It is said that his last poem was dedicated to his wife Yosami-no-Otome, who was also a poet.

 

Not knowing

that my body lies

on Mount Kamo’s rocks,

my love

awaits me.

 

Prince Otsu (663-686)

Otsu was the third son of Emperor Temmu. When his father died, he was accused of treason —unjustly, it seems— and sentenced to death.

He ended up committing seppuku whit his wakizashi.

His last words were:

 

This is the last day

I shall see the mallards

crying over Lake Iware.

Then shall I disappear

into the clouds.

 

Yoshida Shoin (1830-1859)

Yoshida was a nationalist at heart. He grew up in a samurai family, but he completely hated the dictatorial figure of the shogun. For him, the country should be in the hands of the emperor.

At the age of 29, motivated by his nationalist ideas, he plotted a conspiracy to murder a high-ranking samurai officer.

His plans, however, were discovered, and he was sentenced to death.

Although before his death he wrote a letter to his parents thanking them for his education, his death poem was dedicated to the emperor:

 

Though my corpse rot

beneath the ground

of Musashi,

my soul remains forever

Japanese.

 

A beautiful poem that culminates a life of deep nationalist convictions.

 

 

How Much Do You Know About Shuriken?

Shuriken Not much documentation is available concerning Shuriken because it was a secretive art. The skill of throwing employed independent exponents. Its integration with other weapons might have caused some confusion as well. Moreover, instructions by main schools were heavily engrossed into deception. Hence, only information from scrolls, trusted students, and commoners appeared. These commoners […]

The Golden Era of the Samurai History

The Golden Era Samurai has gone a long way in Japanese history. Meanwhile, their existence had a golden era. What was this period called? What events took place? Why was this even special? Samurai were members of Japan’s warrior class. They emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries. During this time, the imperial family and […]

Five Remarkable Lady Samurai and their Samurai Journey

Onna-bugeisha The depiction of Samurai warriors is usually male-oriented but female warriors also existed. Known as Onna-bugeisha, these women fought and perform the same duties as their male counterparts. They are as powerful, deadly, capable, courageous, just, and fearsome too. These female warriors trained the same way men did. They trained to use weapons and […]

The Bloody Campaign of Ishiyama Hongan-Ji

Ishiyama Hongan-Ji One of the famous and deadliest Japanese wars of history is the Ishiyama Hongan-Ji War. Known also as the Ishiyama Kassen, the battle took place from the years 1570 to 1580 in the Sengoku Era. It was an 11-year war led by Oda Nobunaga against the Ikko Ikki. The Ikko Ikki was a […]

Rise of the Royal Warriors: The Taira Heishi

The Taira clan The Taira clan, who were also called the Heike, was a warrior family of influence and power during the 12th century. Their family history goes all the way back to 825 when they acquired the name Taira from Prince Takamune. He was the grandson of the 50th emperor of Japan, Kanmu. In […]

Are Seppuku and Harakiri the Same?

Seppuku and Harakiri Undoubtedly, the term Harakiri is very familiar to us. We encounter it in our history classes. We even witness it in some Japanese movies that feature Samurai and their history. We also sometimes hear it from our playmates, friends, and other people. Still, we may have once seen it on the internet. […]