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The Origins of the Ninja

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Think of the ninja and you think of the black clad assassins from feudal Japan, renowned as secretive and skilful fighters and experts in espionage. They have come from being a shadowy figure from Japan’s past, to a legendary warrior that has silently crept in to modern culture, appearing in everything from martial arts films to children’s cartoons and video games.

But where did the ninjas come from? How did they operate and are they really the supernatural like assassins that are depicted in legend and film.

Legendary Origins

The origins of the ninja can be traced back to early feudal Japan, where they were hired by the ‘daimyo’, or lords. The ninjas had a reputation as mercenaries which went directly against the samurai Bushido code, where the samurai were sworn to loyalty at all costs. For the first time, warfare was being waged not just on the battlefield, but a skilled ninja could attack the enemy in their castle, or even in their own home. This new form of warfare may well have been inspired by the Chinese general Sun Tzu’s legendary book ‘The Art of War’, the strategy masterpiece that has inspired military men and business leaders alike. The phrase ‘Know your enemy pointed the way to the early use of espionage and infiltration by the ninja. Another tactic that the ninjas adopted was that of causing confusion and disruption through the enemy ranks with deception and sabotage.

There are many legends surrounding the ninja in Japanese history. One of the most famous is the story of Prince Yamato, who is often known as the first ninja. Although he did not wear the black uniform of the ninja, he became famous for his use of deception and disguise to defeat his enemies.

Mercenary Warriors

The two regions in Japan that are synonymous with the ninja legend are Iga and Korga. This is where the warriors in the local clans hired themselves out to the highest bidding daimyo. This is how the ninja became known as mercenaries, being loyal to no-one and even being known to change sides if the payment was right. It was the ninjas of Iga that became infamous for their ability to infiltrate the walls of an enemy’s castle, where they could carry out assassinations and sabotage.

But not all ninjas were so mercenary. Some daimyo recruited ninjas as loyal elite guards, who carried out spying missions and employed guerrilla tactics to defeat their masters enemies. The skill that the ninja is probably most famous for is that of the role of the assassin. Many daimyo lived in fear of assassination at the hands of a ninja and some went to extraordinary lengths to keep themselves safe.

A New Role

Japan, under the strict control of the Tokugawa shogun, saw the end of its civil wars. This meant that the ninja had to find new use for their skills. The Tokugawa made use of them, using their knowledge and expertise to act as spies and bodyguards and to aid the Tokugawa keep control of the clans.

Men in Black

The classic appearance of the ninja is dressed head to toe in black in the ninja uniform known as the ninja-yoroi. Although the uniform allowed them to move around unseen at night and in the shadows, the ninjas were masters of disguise and could blend in effortlessly with their enemy when needed. The ninjas devised their own weaponry, specific to their needs. The short sword they carried slung on their backs was called the ninja-to, but the weapon that the ninja are most famous for is the shuriken, or throwing star.

Over the centuries the legend of the ninja has grown, they became more than mere fighters, they became supermen, supernatural ghosts that could fly, appear or disappear, and as the ninja continues to fascinate us in the modern world, the legend will continue to grow.

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