Monday, May 14, 2012

Apple #582: The Truth about Ninjas

I have a new pair of shoes that are black, slip-on, with fabric uppers and soft soles. They're very comfortable and quiet when I walk around in them, so I've taken to thinking of them as my ninja shoes.  I've said such phrases to myself as, "Where are my ninja shoes?" and "I'll wear my ninja shoes today," often enough that I started to think about ninjas.

There are of course all the very fun but exaggerated depictions of ninjas as stealthy, black-clothed, face-masked, sword-carrying fighters who drop in, slice an enemy to ribbons, and vanish immediately. It's all very mythical and tall-tale.  But those depictions must have come from somewhere.  Were there real ninjas once upon a time?  Were they anything like the way we think of them today?

Ninjas as we think of them today: black-suited, faceless, armed with throwing stars, and so full of secret mysterious powers, they're not really real. Except to be really awesome!
(Image from Alt World)

  • Yes, ninjas really did exist.  But the information we have about them is sketchy because (a) it was a long time ago and (b) they were secretive by design, so they didn't exactly keep a whole lot of records about themselves.
  • As a result, there is quite a bit of disagreement and uncertainty about what was actually true about ninjas back in the day. So what follows represents people's best guesses today about ninja history.

  • Ninjas were hired spies or assassins in Japan between the 11th and 16th centuries.  So while Europe was having its monks and Middle Ages, Japan was having its ninjas and samurai.
  • They were kind of always outsiders from the get-go.  The story goes that as dynasties were falling in China and rulers and monks were fleeing from China into Japan, they brought their fighting tactics with them.
  • In the meantime, Japan was controlled by a ruling class of warriors who followed strict codes of fighting. In a battle, a samurai would select a single opponent to challenge, recite his family lineage, and then attack.  Samurai wore armor and bright colors and were very much full of family pride and loyalty. 

Samurai warriors in their armor. I bet they made a lot of clanking and banging when they walked around. What does the Wizard of Oz call the Tin Man?  You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caligenous junk! That's probably what ninjas thought of samurais.
(Photo from Music Lovers)

  • Some of the people whom the samurai had defeated were pretty ticked off at them.  They wanted to fight and defeat the samurai, but they needed help. So they turned to the ninjas. 
  • Ninjas (shinobi or shonobi) had become a group living in the mountainous Iga province and in a smaller area called Koga, in the southern part of the Omi province.  

The box in red shows the Iga province and part of the Omi province where the Ninjas lived.
(Map from Iga & Koga)

  • Nobody is really sure who the first ninja was or how there came to be enough of them that they formed a community -- two communities actually -- except that it didn't take long before ninja parents were teaching their children how to be ninjas too. The techniques they used to fight have been traced back to China (and before that, India), so it seems that the Chinese monks trained various villagers and farmers in the ninjas' art of ninjutsu.
  • Ninjutsu is, like karate or tae kwan do, the name of a fighting technique which encompasses methods and skills for fighting, as well as all sorts of philosophies about enemies and allies and ways of living and so on.  Ninjutsu is still taught and practiced around the world today.  I'll get into the details of ninjutsu in a bit, but the short version is that it's about being stealthy, blending into the background, and doing the unexpected.
  • So some samurais hired some ninjas to be spies and assassins on their behalf.  With the ninjas' help, the samurais could employ all sorts of shady techniques without ever doing such dirty work themselves.  The ninjas were very effective, so the samurai boss would win the fight thanks to the work of the ninjas.
  • After witnessing the prowess of the ninjas, other samurais hired ninjas to fight their battles, and back and forth and so on.  This went on for years. Decades. Centuries, even, through all sorts of wars and political upheavals and changes in emperors.
Ishikawa Goemon is a cult hero, thanks to Kabuki plays and more current anime tales. Some people say he was a ninja. Others say he was simply an ex-samurai turned thief with a band of robbers who stole from the  rich and wound up getting boiled to death.
(Image from Iga & Koga)

  • Through all of that, even though the ninjas were hired by the rich guys, the ninjas retained their status as lower class common people, and as outsiders.  While a few ninjas came to be known for their abilities, for the most part, they remained largely not-famous.  Since they would fight for any side, and so potently, in time, the samurai and the warlords came to fear the ninjas as much as they were helped by them.

Hattori Hanzo is another figure who is said to have been a ninja. Actually, he was born a samurai, and he enlisted the help of ninjas from the Iga province. His legacy today is that he became a master ninja, but that's probably myth-making after the fact.
(Image from Wikipedia)

  • Finally, after a prolonged civil war in Japan, in the late 1500s a warlord who sought to unify the country saw the ninjas as a threat to that unity and stability.  He attacked them openly at their stronghold at Iga. Fighting out in the open in one huge group was not the ninjas' strong suit, and they were routed. Some survivors stayed in the service of the warlords, but others fled to the mountains where they continued to practice and teach ninjutsu, though in far smaller numbers.
  • Ninjas pretty much faded out of the historical picture, but they never left the memories and imaginations of many Japanese. So their mystique has persisted into our culture today.

How They Fought
  • The details get especially fuzzy here because, in addition to all the other reasons why ninja history is unclear, ninjutsu is still practiced. There is a lot of disagreement over whether certain techniques or implements were really used back then, or if x and y are things that have been added since.
  • For sure, ninjas were trained to move and walk quietly and without being observed. They used secret codes and aliases. They did not want to reveal themselves when they were on a mission, or at any other time if they could help it.
  • So they wore, not black suits with masks which would have made them very conspicuous (that's actually a costume from Kabuki theater), but rather the clothes like the peasants they moved among. If they were to be operating at night, they wore dark blue, not black.  Sometimes they posed as Buddhist priests, or flute players whose flutes held poisoned darts, or -- I kid you not, one site says this -- candy salesmen.
  • A few ninjas were women. Sources disagree about how common it was for women to be ninjas, but there were female ninjas. 
  • Sidenote: Ninjutsu classes for women are now huge in Iran.It's estimated there are some 3,500 women trained in ninjutsu. Some people interpret this to mean that Iran's government now has all these potential female spies they can put to use. To me, it looks like this is a rare opportunity for women in Iran to feel like they have some power and control in their life.

Women in Iran studying Ninjutsu say they like it for the way it balances body and mind, strength and agility.
(Photo from the Daily Mail)

  • OK, back to the history.
  • The ninja's primary emphasis was on infiltrating enemy territory. Most often they did this to gain information, to understand who and what they would be facing, and then from their position inside the castle or stronghold, to let in more warriors who would attack. Occasionally their purpose would be to assassinate a particular leader.
  • So the principles of ninjutsu emphasized how to be really good at sneaking around enemy places without being noticed.  There are various walking techniques which train you to move silently through leaves or shadowed areas or over wooden planks. 
  • They were instructed not to eat garlic or beans so they could not be detected by smell.
  • They knew how to pick locks, climb trees and walls, and subsist on little food even though they traveled long distances.
  • Ninjutsu also identified five weaknesses (laziness, anger, fear, sympathy, and vanity) and five needs (security, sex, wealth, pride, and pleasure).  Practitioners were taught to spot these in others so that they could exploit such weaknesses or needs for their own purposes.
  • Finally, of course, ninjutsu covered various methods of combat, armed and unarmed, including several "striking techniques."
  • Ninjutsu includes training in the art of using pressure points to weaken and gain control over an enemy very quickly. A fierce nipple pinch -- seriously! -- can put a person at your mercy.
  • There's a lot of dispute over what weapons they used. The most famous weapon, the throwing star, some people say they only tossed as a distraction, like in the movies where a cowboy throws a rock in one direction to get his enemy to shoot at it and reveal his position.
An array of ninja weapons. Some say this many weapons is a more recent attribution. Others say ninjas did use some weapons like these, but mainly for distraction or catching the enemy off-guard. Since most of these are small and easily concealed, and since concealment is practically a ninja's middle name, I'm guessing they did use weapons like these.
(Image from Only HD Wallpapers)

  • Ninjas also used poisons and smoke.  There's some dispute about whether the smoke was used in combination with poison -- like tear gas, for example -- or if the smoke was used for disguise, to cloak the ninja's departure so that enemies could not follow. But for sure ninjas did use smoke.
Smoke was one of the ninja's tools. But whether it was used as a disguise as shown here is up for debate.
(Photo from The Art of Ninjutsu)

  • Where they could, they even built structures to snare the enemy.  There are diagrams from their original manuscripts showing trap doors, passageways that led to dead ends where an enemy could be quietly offed, and even a covered pit whose floor is riddled with spikes.
  • One of the rules of ninjutsu was, essentially, don't be a slave to the rules. They taught, if it's practical, do it. If your senses are telling you one thing and the rules say another, don't be an idiot, follow your senses.
OK, now that I've given you the historical facts, I can't resist. I have to share with you some of the ninja lore that's out there.

Ninjas can kill anyone they want! Ninjas cut off heads ALL the time and don't even think twice about it. These guys are so crazy and awesome that they flip out ALL the time. I heard that there was this ninja who was eating at a diner. And when some dude dropped a spoon the ninja killed the whole town.
--RealUltimatePower: The Official Ninja Webpage

  • Ninja don't sweat. Ever.
  • Bullets can't kill a ninja. Even 1 million bullets can not kill a ninja.
  • The Fart of a Ninja is a million times deadlier than the venom of a rattlesnake. With the right wind conditions, a single fart could wipe out a small village.
  • Ninja invented skateboarding. Not even to do tricks, just to kill time in between killing.
  • --Enter the Ninja

    A room full of ninjas. hint: one is hiding behind the wallpaper. Four are hiding behind the desks. One hypnotized you to not see him. Three are hiding behind the camera. One is dressed as a teacher who is also a ninja so you can't find her. At least six are hanging outside the window.
    --Ucyclopedia definition of Ninja (cut-throatius ninjutsu-useis head-rippus-offis assassinus Japanensis)

    There is also a long-standing debate raging online about who would win, ninjas or pirates.  Since ninjas invented the internet, this is pretty much a no-brainer.  Obviously the whole thing was created by ninjas only to show their dominance over the weak one-eyed pirates. Duh.

    Kallie Szczepanski, History of the Ninja,
    WestLORD, The Art of Ninjutsu
    Facts and Details, Ninjas in Japan: History, Training, Technology and Tactics
    The Smoking Jacket, Stuff You Should Know: Ninjas
    Listverse, Top 10 Myths About Ninjas, April 23, 2009
    Ninpo/Ninjutsu History
    Shinbukan, A Brief History of Ninjutsu

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