The True History of the Ninjas
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 what is a tricky topic.
Let’s get started.
Did Ninjas Really Exist?
Luckily for all those who love medieval Japan, 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 Ninjas 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.
What Did Ninjas Do in Feudal Japan?
The real activities of the Shinobis have been the subject of speculation. 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 did on a daily basis.
Other activities of the ninjas, 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. However, certain missions required more drastic actions, such as kidnapping or eliminating targets.
That’s why when people ask us if ninjas really existed, we usually reply that yes, ninjas were real, but not the way everyone imagines them.
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.
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 blend 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 enemies suspected of any of them, they would find a totally ordinary person.
While it is true that they wore the famous dark clothing for night missions, a ninja would spend most of his time in the service dressed as an ordinary person rather than in this manner.
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.
If you love Shinobis as much as we do and you’d like to have your own ninja sword, take a look at our collection of ninjatos.