Another Nail in the Ninja Coffin

In response to a query on the H-Japan list, samurai historian par excellance Karl Friday wrote:

There are basically no publications in English on ninja worth reading–it’s all junk. The only serious academic scholarship available outside Japanese language publications would be the material on Roy Ron’s website at Roy is a (fairly) recent PhD graduate from U Hawaii, and has spent a number of years doing research on ninja and related topics.

The lack of reliable documents to work with makes ninja and ninjutsu a very difficult subject to research, and the ninja movie and novel phenomenon gives the whole topic a cartoonish aura that further dissuades academic historians from looking into it. Thus there isn’t much out there to read, other than what’s been written by modern teachers of “ninjutsu,” none of whom have an credentials as historians. In English, you’re simply out of luck; in Japanese there a few decent books and articles around, but for the most part information on ninja has to be culled in bits in snippets from studies on other topics.

The most reliable reconstructions of “ninja” history suggest that “ninja” denotes a function, not a special kind of warrior–ninja WERE samurai (a term, which didn’t designate a class until the Tokugawa period–AFTER the warfare of the late medieval period had ended–before that it designated only an occupation) performing “ninja” work.

Movie-style ninja, BTW, have a much longer history than the movies (although the term “ninja” does not appear to have been popularized until the 20th century). Ninja shows, ninja houses (sort of like American “haunted houses” at carnivals), and ninja novels and stories were popular by the middle of the Tokugawa period. The “ninja” performers may have created the genre completely out of whole cloth, or they may have built on genuine lore derived from old spymasters. Either way, however, it’s clear that much of the lore underlying both modern ninja movies and modern ninja schools has both a long history AND little basis in reality outside the theatre. [emphasis added; quoted with permission]

The site which Friday mentions above includes a history section which covers a lot of the same ground as Turnbull (though much more concisely) and some of the primary sources, most of which are either old gunki or 17th century martial manuals.

This pretty much puts an end to the remaining questions I had after reading Turnbull’s book. I used to tell students that the question of ninja was, from a historian’s standpoint, still somewhat open. I think I’m going to take a much stronger line from now on, and point out that there are no historically credible claims supporting the historicity of a tradition which somehow concludes with modern schools of ninjustsu. So, we’re back to the problem of created modern traditions in the martial arts and their discursive meanings.

Update: Peter Shapinsky’s comment about the users of violence and the relative flexibility of the term samurai are also interesting.


  1. I have actually read (I can’t remember the source right now) that the black costume commonly depicted as the ‘official’ ninja uniform is actually based on the black clothing worn by stage hands/puppeteers to hide enough of the person to permit the audience the illusion that they were watching events on stage unfold without such intervention. Somehow the costume of the stage hands became linked with that of the protagonist (or is it antagonist?) ninja-perhaps simply because some performers one day decided that it would have made sense for a real ninja to have worn a similar costume.


    I don’t have much faith in stories about historical ninja/ninjutsu, but there are various ones out there. A martial artist friend of mine who studied for a while with a (so-called?) ninjutsu teacher told me the version of history he’d heard from his teacher. As in most versions of ninja history, there were two clans based out of the Iga and Kouga regions, but the ninja arts hadn’t originated there. According to this story, the original Iga/Kouga ninja had been Tendai-mikkyou(天台密教) monks that fled from Enryakuji (延暦寺) on Mount Hie(比叡山) NE of Kyoto after Oda Nobunaga burned it in 1571.

    While this story isn’t very convincing as a real historical narrative, it does fit well into the legendary history of the ninja, whose stories and powers are often closely related to those of the shugenja/yamabushi (修験者/山伏) or tengu (天狗), and in many stories are said to have learned from these earlier figures. The yamabushi (which were real) were heavily influenced by esoteric Buddhism, and the tengu (legendary bird/man creatures with magical powers) were often said to be transformed or reincarnated monks, or in those stories where the tengu was a natural creature, was itself a practitioner of shugendou like practices.

    Even if there may not be much to uncover about “real” ninja (although undoubtedly there was a lot of ninja-like espionage and assassination activity), serious study of the history of the ninja legend could uncover a lot of interesting connections.

    Someone once told me that Hatsumi Sensei actually has ancient ninja scrolls, but if he really does, a historian would have to be mighty persuasive to get a look at them. Of course, as a real ninja master, he knows all the answers.

  2. Hi, I stumbled upon your column and was very intregued. My experiance on this
    matter is from stories told by my Sensei of the Kosho Shorei Ryu. they indeed spoke
    of yamabushi and warrior monks. Sometimes called warrior-scholars. These monks
    lived on top of Mt.Kinkai near Kummomoto Castle. Some were indeed Buddhists yet
    others were kinda just thugs that were offered food and shelter in exchange for work
    if the Temple was attacked. They were taught a secret family art later to become known
    as Kosho Shorei. See James Mitose for a very provacative history of this art in the
    20th century. These groups may have lasted a little longer by the fact that they were
    further down south and it took Cato and the boys a little longer to burn their way
    down there. good luck and see ya tim jordan

  3. Hey. Hmmm.. I’m planning on writing a novel about ninjas.. i learn the art of shinobi, and i’m very interested in ninjas.. now i’m doing a research on them. oh, by the way, its Soke Hatsumi. Sensei is for intructors below 8th Dan. From 8th to Grandmaster is called Shihan, and Grandmaster is Soke. At least thats what i think. Ninjas are indeed always misunderstood and written wrongly. That’s probally because ninjas are secretive, and the less people know about them, the better.. i guess they’ve accomplished their objective. What legends…

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