New Research Center Seeks to Separate Ninja Fact From Fiction


Shrouded in mystery, ninja were reputed to be masters of disguise and have mythical powers like the ability to walk on water and disappear in the blink of an eye. MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
Shrouded in mystery, ninja were reputed to be masters of disguise and have mythical powers like the ability to walk on water and disappear in the blink of an eye. MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

Answer the door on Halloween and every fifth kid will be dressed as a ninja. There's just something about the legend of the ninja — secretive assassins who move silently in black robes and covered faces, leaping from rooftops and killing with throwing stars (shuriken) — that captures our popular imagination, like pirates or Robin Hood. But just like those other legendary figures, our image of the stealthy Japanese warriors is based largely on nuggets of historical truth buried under mountains of myth.

But we may soon have more clues to the real origins of the ninja tradition. That's in part because in July 2017, a Japanese university announced the opening of the world's first international ninja research center. Mie University is located in Iga, in Mie Prefecture, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) southwest of Kyoto, where the first and most famous ninja "school" may have existed in the 16th century. The new research center will house not only historical documents related to the ninja, but also hundreds of novels, movies and cartoons that have helped to forge the modern image of the black-clad assassin.

Stephen Turnbull, a historian of Japanese military history, gave the inaugural lecture at the opening of the research center in Iga, and has written more than 75 books on samurai and Japanese warfare, including the forthcoming "The Ninja: Unmasking the Myth", due in November. He explains that everything we associate with the character of the ninja — the black costume, the weapons, the spycraft and secrecy — is all based on historical truth.

"What's made up," Turnbull says, "is to give it to the ninja."

The Myth of the Ninja

Like any good legend, the image of the ninja was crafted over centuries of storytelling and colorful exaggeration. Starting more than 300 years ago, Japanese people in the Iga region began taking elements of traditional warfare that exist in all cultures — spying, subterfuge and assassination — and assigning them to a secretive brotherhood of Japanese warriors called shinobi. The characters for shinobi can also be read and pronounced as ninja.

The origin of the word itself reveals a lot about ninja mythmaking, says Turnbull. In Japanese, shinobi means "in secret," and the earliest known historical account of ninja-like activities in Iga specifically uses the word. In 1541, a local monk wrote up a brief crime report describing an attack on a castle by a band of mercenaries:

"This morning, the Iga-shū entered Kasagi castle in secret (shinobi itte) and set fire to a few of the priests' quarters and so on."

Back in the 16th century, the word shinobi was used as an adverb to describe any activity carried out in secret. In the monk's account, the invaders could have been mercenaries, common thieves or highly trained warriors. All we know was that they acted "in secret." But as early as the 17th century, Turnbull says, you start seeing exaggerated stories about Iga warriors in which shinobi the adverb becomes shinobi the noun.

"Instead of saying that it was done in a 'shinobi' way, in a secret way, you say it was done by a shinobi," says Turnbull. "They're taking something that's real, these things that really happened, but instead of them being done in secret, the stories say they're being done by these special secret people."

The Ninja Legend Spreads

The biggest challenge in separating ninja truth from myth is a lack of reliable primary sources. Turnbull says there are five total documents housed at the new research center that are similar to the monk's account. What's most remarkable about that handful of documents isn't so much the content of the original texts, but how they've been transformed into these legendary tales. The mission of the new center is to trace the path from a few garden-variety nighttime attacks in the 16th century to what became a global cultural phenomenon.

The birth of the ninja myth starts with those exaggerated shinobi stories of the 17th century, spread by members of the Japanese warrior class, who were feeling a little underappreciated since widespread fighting in Japan largely ceased by 1615. Next were a series of 18th-century military manuals concerned with spying techniques, which mentioned the importance of operating in disguise.

This Japanese woodblock print from 1802 doesn't really depict a ninja, but the black costume became part of the ninja legend.
This Japanese woodblock print from 1802 doesn't really depict a ninja, but the black costume became part of the ninja legend.
Stephen Turnbull

Around the same time, Japanese artists created some famous woodblock prints of people dressed in black carrying out assassinations. That's where Turnbull believes the idea of the black ninja robe took hold, even though the prints weren't specifically about ninja at all, just secretive attacks.

The throwing stars known as shuriken have a similar origin. They started as 19th-century novelty weapons that bored Japanese gentlemen dabbling in the martial arts would play around with. It took a pair of enterprising Iga boosters to put the spiky stars in the hands of ninja.

The Modern Ninja

In the mid-20th century, a Japanese martial arts historian and military adviser named Seiko Fujita teamed with the mayor of Iga to promote the region as the "heartland of the ninja." One of their ingenious moves, Turnbull says, was to find old illustrations of throwing stars in 19th-century martial arts manuals and revive them as ninja weapons.

The two men built the first ninja museum in Iga in the 1950s. About the same time, they started collaborating with novelists and filmmakers to forge the image of what, in their minds at least, ninja "ought to be," Turnbull says. "And because their ideas appeared on film, that became what people regarded as the standard of what ninja did."

The modern ninja legend was sealed by the 1962 film "Shinobi no Mono," which depicted everything we associate with the ninja myth: the black robes and specialized weapons, a strict code of secrecy, almost "superhuman" martial arts skills and selfless sacrifice.

"That's really where it all started," Turnbull says. "These two guys took these genuine historical episodes and other elements from Japanese history and culture, stuck them all in a big pot and gave it a stir. And the rest is history."

That still doesn't explain Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.