How Ninja Work

Prince Yamato of Japan is often considered the first ninja, although he didn't adopt the stealthy tactics.
Prince Yamato of Japan is often considered the first ninja, although he didn't adopt the stealthy tactics.

Secretive and silent, the ninja stalks through Japanese history like a shadow, striking fear into the hearts of peasants and emperors alike. Today, the ninja has become a legendary, cult-like figure, showing up in computer games and children's cartoons, as well as an entire genre of martial-arts action films.

­But who were the real ninja? Where did they come from, and what purpose did they serve? In this article, we'll peer into the murky shadows of ninja history, separate fact from fiction, and examine the weapons and skills that made ninja some of the most fearsome assassins in the world.­­

The Origins of Espionage

Running Press, 2003; translated by Ralph D. Sawyer
Running Press, 2003; translated by Ralph D. Sawyer
Photo courtesy

­Although ninja were almost always Japanese, the roots of the ninja philosophy lie in China, where Sun Tzu wrote "The Art of War" in the 4th or 5th century, B.C. "The Art of War" is a guide for military commanders that is still considered essential reading for modern military officers, as well as businesspeople. One part of the text in particular caused changes in the philosophy of Japanese warriors that would eventually lead to the ideology of the ninja. Chapter 13 (translated text) describes the advantages that can be gained by spreading disinformation amongst your enemies, and sowing confusion in their ranks through deception and sabotage. It also recommends that generals find out as much as possible about their enemy by using spies and other practical methods.

Much of this was antithetical to the Japanese way of waging war. For centuries, armies of foot soldiers and samurai would line up and call each other out to do honorable, one-on-one battle. The underhanded tactics espoused by Sun Tzu went against the grain. But the wisdom of using deception and espionage to win wars could not be denied, and many Japanese warriors came to grudgingly accept it.

The mixed feelings that the Japanese had toward the deceptive ways of the ninja, combined with the ninja's inherent secretiveness, makes studying the history of these shadowy warriors difficult. In many cases, Japanese historians simply left all mention of ninja out of historical documents. If they were mentioned, ninja were either elevated to the status of terrifying, supernatural beings, or were spoken of with contempt and disgust.

The First Ninja

The regions of Iga and Koga in Japan are considered by many to be the birthplace of the ninja. See more ninja pictures.
2008 HowStuffWorks

­T­he Japanese legend of Prince Yamato is often considered the first ninja story, although Yamato did not adopt the black costume or stealthy tactics so often associated with ninja. Instead, he used deception, dressing as a woman to attract two barbarian chieftains. When the chieftains had been lulled into a false sense of security, Yamato drew a hidden sword and killed them both. His use of a disguise is a hallmark of ninja tactics, so Yamato is sometimes called "The First Ninja." See Rick Walton's Online Library: The Story of Prince Yamato Take to learn more about this legend.

Another important part of ninja folklore is the story of 13-year-old Kumawaka. Kumawaka had traveled very far to visit his dying father, but a monk who was keeping the father as a prisoner would not allow the two to meet. Kumawaka's father died before he had a chance to see him, so the boy vowed revenge upon the monk.

At age 13, he wasn't strong enough to simply fight the monk and his family. Instead, he faked an illness so they would take him into their home. There, he would sneak around at night, finding out where everyone slept and when the guards patrolled. One night, he snuck into the monk's room. The monk slept with a lamp burning, so the boy opened a window and allowed moths to enter the room. They flocked to the light of the lamp and completely covered it, leaving the room in darkness. Then, Kumawaka stole the monk's sword and murdered him in his bed.

Fleeing out a window, the boy was chased by guards until he reached a river. He cleverly climbed to the top of a bamboo plant near the river, leaned until the flexible bamboo stalk bent out across the water, and then jumped off and escaped the guards.

Although he was only 13, and didn't call himself a ninja, Kumawaka's use of deception, stealth, and cleverness inspired generations of Japanese warriors who did adopt the name ninja.

Birthplace of the Ninja

The Hakuhojo White Phoenix Castle, often referred to as the "ninja castle," in Iga-Ueno City
The Hakuhojo White Phoenix Castle, often referred to as the "ninja castle," in Iga-Ueno City
Photo courtesy Skydancer

­The r­egions of Iga and Koga in Japan are considered by many to be the birthplace of the ninja as a major force in Japanese warfare. The men who belonged to the clans that ruled the area hired themselves out as mercenaries, fighting for whichever daimyo, or lord, paid them the most. The Iga and Koga ninja often worked for daimyo that they had been hired to attack just a few years earlier. This reputation as disloyal mercenaries became a trademark of the ninja, running in direct opposition to the bushido code of the utterly loyal samurai.

The Iga ninja had another reputation, however -- one that ensured their continued use in Japan's feudal wars. They were known as experts at infiltrating castles. With their stealthy skills, they could obtain secret information, sabotage enemy supplies, or steal food and weapons. These skills were passed on from father to son. For generations, warring daimyo knew that the best ninja in Japan could be hired in Iga and Koga.

Today, Iga-Ueno, a city in the Iga region, has capitalized on the popularity of ninja. The Hakuhojo White Phoenix Castle serves as a ninja museum, with a display of ninja weapons and costumed actors performing ninja attacks. The city holds a ninja festival every year on the first Sunday in April, with ninja parades and events in local parks.

A Different Role

­Although the ninja from Iga and Koga were espionage mercenaries, in other part­s of Japan the ninja took on other roles. Many daimyo had elite groups of ninja who served him as loyally as any samurai. They served as spies, scouts, or commando groups that would make guerilla attacks on enemy castles and encampments. When an army retreated from the field of battle, ninja with firearms were left lying in hiding to attack the oncoming enemy soldiers.

Ninja were particularly useful when a castle was under siege. In such circumstances, the ninja were often the only people who could sneak out of the castle. In one case, a ninja left the castle at night, entered the enemy camp, and stole their flag. The next morning, the enemy's army awoke to find their own flag waving mockingly in the breeze from the castle wall. The moral victory accomplished by humiliating their enemies in this way could be very important for the residents of a castle who were waiting out a long siege.

One of the primary roles of the ninja, and the one for which they are most well known and feared, was that of assassin. The daimyo of feudal Japan came to fear assassination at the hands of ninja so much that they spent a great deal of time at "secret springs," which were hidden resorts built around natural springs far from the daimyo's castle.

Within the castle, a daimyo would often go to extraordinary lengths to protect himself from ninja. In Kyoto, the Nijo castle sported "nightingale floors." These carefully crafted wooden floors were counterbalanced so that anyone walking on them made a loud squeaking noise. Some daimyo even kept guards in the same room with them at all times, even when they were asleep. The Tokugawa family required everyone in their household to wear trousers with wide legs that dragged on the floor, making it impossible to walk quietly.

During the Tokugawa (or Edo) period, Japan's civil wars were halted by the strict controls of the Tokugawa shogun. Peacetime forced many people in Japanese society to find different roles, including the ninja. They were very useful to Tokugawa, acting as spies and bodyguards in the enforcement of the laws that allowed him to maintain control of the clans.

Supernatural Ninja

Ninja were said to fade into the shadows, hiding under cover of darkness.
Ninja were said to fade into the shadows, hiding under cover of darkness.

O­ver the centuries, the ninja's fearsome reputation grew and grew. Eventually, the stories and legends surrounding them took on supernatural qualities. This happened in several ways:

  • Historical figures and legendary heroes in Japan had ninja skills added to their stories.
  • True stories of ninja exploits were expanded and exaggerated.
  • The ninja themselves often used tricks and disguises that made their powers seem supernatural, and they encouraged stories depicting themselves as superheroes.

­The ninja did little to discourage the myths that sprung up around them. These mythical superninja supposedly were:

  • 7 feet tall
  • Able to fly
  • Able to become invisible
  • Able to walk through walls
  • Shape shifters
  • Three-headed
  • Ghosts

Ninja Gear

Photo courtesy

Ninja­ used a wide variety of weapons, as well as other specialized equipment to help them survive while alone on difficult missions.

A ninja's uniform is called a ninja-yoroi, or ninja armor. It consists of a black jacket, black trousers, light sandals, and a hooded cowl. Some ninja costumes included red accents along with the black, supposedly to hide any injuries the ninja might receive from his enemies. There is some evidence that ninja wore all white costumes in snowy conditions, but the multi-colored ninja seen in some action movies did not exist. A few ninja wore lightweight armor beneath their shirts.

Much of a ninja's work was not done while wearing his ninja-yoroi, however. If a ninja needed to gather information or get close to an assassination victim in a crowded place, wearing a black hood was not a good way to stay inconspicuous. The ninja were experts at hiding in plain sight, disguising themselves as priests, dancers, merchants, or farmers. They tried to look as plain and ordinary as possible.

Modern ninja equipment: Foot spikes (left) and hand claws Modern ninja equipment: Foot spikes (left) and hand claws
Modern ninja equipment: Foot spikes (left) and hand claws
Photo courtesy

A ninja usually wore a ninja-to or other short sword on his back. They also used shuko, weapons worn on the hand (similar to brass knuckles), or tiger claws, which were sharp blades on the palm of the hand which may have been just as effective for climbing as for hand-to-hand combat.

Modern ninja equipment: Throwing star and throwing spike Modern ninja equipment: Throwing star and throwing spike
Modern ninja equipment: Throwing star and throwing spike
Photo courtesy
Modern ninja equipment: Grappling hook Modern ninja equipment: Grappling hook
Modern ninja equipment: Grappling hook
Photo courtesy

Ninja are famous for using shuriken, or ninja throwing stars. These were often small knives or daggers in addition to the well-known star shapes. The stars were very inaccurate, and were usually used as a delaying weapon if a ninja were being chased. Although they had little chance of striking, seeing a sharp metal blade come flying out of the darkness at his face would likely make even the toughest of pursuers hesitate.

­A wide variety of other weapons were used by ninja, including short knives, roped weapons for entangling a foe or striking from a distance, and weapons mounted on long bamboo poles. Some ninja may have used poison on their bladed weapons, though the murky historical records make it difficult to tell if this is true.

Other useful ninja gear included rope ladders with hooks on the ends for throwing up onto walls; small sharp tacks called caltrops that could be left on the ground for enemies to step on (particularly useful in Japan, where most people wore light straw sandals at most); small, one-person boats that could be folded down to a portable size; smoke bombs; blow guns; short hollow tubes for breathing under water; and special healing herbs in case the ninja was injured while on a mission.

The Modern Ninja Craze


­Japan­ rediscovered the ninja in the 1950s and '60s. They became favorite characters in comic books and movies. The first appearance of a ninja in a popular western work was in the 1964 James Bond novel, "You Only Live Twice." When the movie version appeared in 1967, the popularity of ninja exploded across Europe and North America.

Since then, ninja have appeared everywhere. The G.I. Joe character Snake Eyes and his archenemy Storm Shadow were ninja. Martial arts star Chuck Norris fought off hordes of ninja in many of his popular action movies. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were pop icons in the late '80s and early '90s. Some martial arts schools have taken up ninja training as a separate discipline, alongside the more common forms of hand-to-hand combat training.

Modern equivalents of true ninja can be found in the special operatives and espionage agents used by military forces around the world. These elite troops combine combat skills, stealth, and technology to infiltrate enemy strongholds, gather secret information, and spread disinformation -- just like their ninja forefathers hundreds of years ago.

For more information on ninja and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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