Historical ninja were mostly samurai who doubled as spies from the 15th to 17th centuries. Ninja as fantasy characters now appeal to all generations.

How historical are ninja? They are more apt to appear in old samurai movies, manga and anime, than in history books. There were ninja who came from Iga and Koga, but not all ninja were from those areas of Japan. There were also female ninja called kunoichi, but the historical ones were likely more scarce than kunoichi in anime. One of the most important facts about real ninja is that most were samurai, who doubled as spies. Non-samurai, who had been paid as informants, were not considered ninja.

Ninja Gather Enemy Intelligence

On the Ninja Museum website developed in Iga is the following explanation about ninja: “Most people imagine that ninjas flew through the sky and disappeared, like Superman, waving ninja swords around, sneaking into the enemy ranks and assassinating generals. This is a mistaken image of the ninja introduced by movies and comic books.” The job assignment of ninja was divided into “two main categories of performing espionage and strategy.” That is “similar to the job of modern spies, wherein one carefully gathers intelligence about the enemy and analyzes their military strength.” This sounds familiar, suspenseful and dangerous like the Obama administration’s successful mission by the CIA and Navy Seals to find Osama bin Laden.

Hattori is an Example of a Samurai Working Double as a Ninja

In actuality, real ninja were only prevalent during the late-15th to the early-17th century when the most powerful and ambitious samurai leaders were Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. These men needed ninja as spies to keep track of who might try to assassinate them or attack their castles. In fact, the most well known ninja was Ieyasu’s samurai retainer, Hattori Hanzo.

How Did Ninja Disguise Themselves?

What about the “ninja style”? Is that for real? Probably. They wore subdued kimono most of the time; there were no black pajama bottoms. When ninja had to escape, they often dressed as monks. Also, some ninja were actually known to dress as traveling entertainers with gaudy costumes. The average samurai or townspeople seldom mixed with performers. Therefore, it was a clever way for them to travel because they were allowed to pass through checkpoints without a pass.

Ninja Myths Disclosed

Although real ninja did not use the black pajama style, Japanese novelists and their illustrators began to use it to enhance the mystique of ninja during the late Tokugawa period (1600-1868). This garb may have been inspired by the theatrical styles of Japanese theater such as Bunraku puppet plays because puppeteers (hidarizukai) dressed in black and had hoods to make themselves “invisible” to their audience, along with the additional influence of Kabuki Plays.

Novelists did not use he word “ninja” until the late 1800s. Next, with the age of film, ninja characters were filmed in black and white, so the ninja pajama outfits with scarves around their faces must have made it easier for the audiences to identify the ninja. Finally, in the late 1950s, movies and TV went to color. In 1986, a cartoon called Ninja Hattori-kun, in blue “ninja style,” appeared on Japanese TV, and video games and anime followed later.

The Cultural Mindset of Anime

Now the colorful clothes of the protagonists and antagonists in Shonen Jump’s Naruto and other anime are fresh, quirky and alluring on film as well as manga. It looks like anime ninja and kunoichi dress more like historical ninja in disguise. According to Donald Richie in A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Sato Kenji points out that manga and anime’s “inherent lack of realism is their unique ability to exploit the appeal and fascination of the unreal…. These are the only two media capable of portraying reality the way Japanese feel it should be.” Anime has most certainly changed the way modern Japanese and their culture are seen worldwide.

The fantastical ninja in the media arts, fantasy novels or old samurai films for movies and TV, are most likely to appeal to different ages of people. Thus, authors, screenwriters, cartoonists, manga and anime artists all write for certain audiences. International ninja enthusiasts, who are interested in an Internet site for online debates and resources on accurate samurai history, including ninja, can use the Samurai Archives Citadel.

Today, I talked to Brandon, an American college student, about his fashion of wearing a wool scarf over part of his face. “Were you inspired by ninja?” I asked. Immediately, he animatedly explained how there is not much known about ninja in history except that they started in Iga and Koga. As he said those locations, I smiled, nodded my head, and we promised to talk more about these legendary spies that continue to appeal to new generations worldwide.

This article is copyright by Carmen Sterba and first appeared in Suite 101 Online Magazine and Writers Network, May 7, 2011.

Sources

Richie, Donald. “Documentary and Anime,” A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History with a Selective Guide to Videos and DVDs, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001, pp. 43-53.

The Samurai Archives Citadel Japanese History Forum (1999)Retrieved from http://forums.samurai-archives.com/viewforum.php?f=2&sid=f5a86319973f8ec488a06491c165b164

Iga-ryu Ninja Museum, 2011

Naruto Anime Ninja

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