The Ninja (Shinobi)

, the very name conjures up images of black-clad figures armed with lethal weapons and magical powers stealthily engaged in nefarious misdeeds in the dead of night. But do these mysterious purveyors of mayhem
deserve their fearsome reputation, did they actually exist as an institution and if so when did they come into existence and from where?

That the ninja (shinobi) [1] were active in Japan from the 1100s to the 1600s is a certainty, with the majority of Japanese historians agreeing that they originated in the ethnic melting pots of Iga and Koga on the island of Honshu, a product of the various philosophies, doctrines and fighting skills brought to that island by Chinese immigrants fleeing oppression.

Ninjas were organized into clans each with its own traditions, weapons and style of training; instruction, begining early, becoming increasingly more difficult as the student matured.

The mythology of magical powers attributed to the ninja by their enemies was well earned but not really magical; students were taught the art of illusion, how to blend into the background, how to perform escapes worthy of Houdini by dislocating shoulders or other body parts and how to use special steps in order to walk silently and leave no trace of their passage.
Ninja weapons, many multi-purpose, were also part of the package. The shuriken, a palm size throwing blade came in many shapes all extremely deadly; the tekagi-shuko, comprised of spiked metal bands, slipped over the hands and gave their wearer both catlike climbing ability and the capacity to defend themselves against an opponents weaponry; the shinobi-zue, a hollow cane in the shape of a walking stick, could be used as an underwater breathing device, spear or blowgun, with smaller weapons, darts and poison hidden either inside its central cavity, or alternately in the space provided by the overly long scabbard of the ninjato (ninja short sword); and finally their was the ninja himself, a master of unarmed combat (taijutsu), his body the most formidable weapon of all.

It was a combination of this lethal arsenal plus the skills, abilities and philosophy behind them (ninjutsu) that made a ninja the ultimate spy or assassin. But it was the time, place and politics (of feudal Japan) that provided him or her [2] with employment.

Feudal Japan was ruled by a military leader called a shogun, beneath him were warlords constantly at each other throats competing for land and power. The warrior class, called samurai, were employed by the warlords and used for both defensive and offensive endeavors. The samurai, however, lived by a strict code of honour (Bushido, meaning "the way of the warrior") and refused to become involved in anything disreputable, and it was here that the ninjas entered the picture, they had no such qualms and did whatever their political masters asked. 

Times were changing though and following the Shimabara Rebellion, after centuries of bloody struggle, Japan found itself at peace and the ninja found themselves unemployed their special talents no longer in demand.

The day of the ninja warrior was over.
As the years passed, the ninja (myth) became entrenched in Japanese then western culture their abilities embellished to the point where they transcended reality. With the coming of the twentieth century, movies, cartoons, comic books and video games elevated their status even further to that of magical beings endowed with the powers of flight and invisibility. From ancient Japan to today's modern world it's a compliment to these masters of illusion that they are still relevant, still able to capture our imagination. And though there are some that may scoff, I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere a Ninja of old was smiling.

[1] The word "shinobi" translates to mean "one skilled in the art of ninjutsu (stealth)" and is used both historically and in Japan more often than the westernized term "ninja".

[2] A female ninja is called a kunoichi.

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