Ninja led mostly unheroic lives as opposed to fictional portrayal

September 21, 2013

By KUNIHIKO IMAI/ Senior Staff Writer

A group of highly trained and deadly individuals collectively known as ninja, who crept stealthily across the back lanes of Japan's feudal past, continue to enjoy unwaning popularity as this summer's release of "Nintama Rantaro," a children's movie, shows.

In real life, the ninja were markedly different from the mystical figures who performed the improbable and unearthly exploits that are portrayed in the fictional world of novels and films.

Many contemporaries would fancy ninja as being clad in black, wearing a hood and mask, flinging throwing stars at pursuers, and disappearing theatrically to the other side of an earthen wall after tossing a smoke ball to cloak their escape. Experts say, however, that these and similar images of ninja gained currency among the public through movies and manga as recently as in the Showa Era (1926-1989) on the basis of heroic tales told in war books from the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) eras.

One of the extremely few historians who study ninja is Michifumi Isoda, an associate professor at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, who combs through old documents across Japan and is the author of "Bushi no Kakeibo" (Household account books of samurai), a 2003 best-seller.

"Ninja are called as such precisely because they led 'stealthy' lives," Isoda said, referring to the meaning of the kanji for "nin." "There are few records remaining of them."

But that intrinsic difficulty in ninja studies has not discouraged him from proceeding with research on whatever scant clues are available, such as the names of ninja registered in directories of feudal domain employees from the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Iga, in present-day Mie Prefecture, and Koka, now part of Shiga Prefecture, are the areas most famous for producing ninja. The Igans and Kokans were employed not only by the central shogunate government but also by governments of feudal domains across Japan.

Isoda dismissed the popular fictional setting that often pits the Igans against the Kokans as competing groups.

"The two areas faced each other across a provincial boundary," the historian said. "Ninja from the two areas apparently maintained technological exchanges and marital ties."

"Buke Myomokusho," a samurai encyclopedia compiled by the Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo Period, says ninja's missions included infiltrating other feudal provinces to gather intelligence and commit arson and other forms of surprise attacks on enemy castles, and to conduct assassinations. The ninja were also master marksmen with early firearms, with some serving as battlefield snipers.

But ninja's missions became less heroic after the demise of the Toyotomi clan ended an age of wars in the early 17th century. The central shogunate government thereupon assigned ninja from Iga and Koka to serve as gatekeepers for Edo Castle in present-day Tokyo.

Some believe, for example, that the Hanzomon gate, near Tokyo Metro's Hanzomon Station, was so named because Hattori Hanzo, a ninja from Iga, guarded it.

Isoda is studying Iga ninja who were employed by the Okayama domain. Their primary missions included guarding the feudal lord during his obligatory commutes to and from Edo, preventing fires in the castle, and transporting family registers to safety during disasters.

The superhuman image of ninja, a far cry from the unheroic nature of their actual lives, are believed to have originated from "Bansenshukai," a book written in 1676, forbidden to outsiders, that wrote about rules, tactics and utensils of the stealthy profession.

During the warring states period of the 15th and 16th centuries, ninja led the double lives of farmers-cum-warriors, and toiled on farms during peacetime. But the shogunate government's push to separate the warrior and farmer classes relegated the residual ninja in Koka to the status of farmers. In 1788, descendents of Koka ninja asked the shogunate to allow them to serve in public duties in the capacity of warriors. They thereupon submitted "Bansenshukai" and other books on the art of ninja to testify to the exploits of their ancestors.

Kazutoshi Fujita, who works for Shokokuji temple's chronicles office and has written a book on the real lives of Koka ninja, said "Bansenshukai" mentions how to chant a spell to be rendered invisible.

"Such unworldly aspects found their way into works of fiction, such as 'Ehon Taikoki' (1797-1802), where ninja villain Ishikawa Goemon plays an active part," Fujita said. "That probably went down in popular imagination as to what ninja were like."

Manabu Makime, a writer who published a serial novel featuring a ninja in the weekly Shukan Bunshun magazine, said ninja of yore and workers of today have much in common, as far as their social standings are concerned.

"Period novels of the past have portrayed ninja occasionally as opponents and victims of the shogunate government and the rules of their own profession," Makime said. "Ninja represent a perfect material on which to project the standing of contemporary individuals, such as corporate workers."

By KUNIHIKO IMAI/ Senior Staff Writer
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A Koka municipal government official clad in black performs as a ninja in Mount Hando in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, which is said to have been a training spot for Koka ninjas. (Provided by Koka Municipal Government)

A Koka municipal government official clad in black performs as a ninja in Mount Hando in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, which is said to have been a training spot for Koka ninjas. (Provided by Koka Municipal Government)

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  • A Koka municipal government official clad in black performs as a ninja in Mount Hando in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, which is said to have been a training spot for Koka ninjas. (Provided by Koka Municipal Government)
  • A Koka municipal government official clad in black poses as a ninja in Mount Hando in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, which is said to have been a training spot for Koka ninjas. (Provided by Koka Municipal Government)
  • Koka Mayor Takeshi Nakajima throws a "shuriken" throwing star in an event to promote ninja in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, in November 2011. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • A group preserving the tradition of Iga ninja performs with swords and other weapons in Iga, Mie Prefecture, in November 2011. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Chinese visitors clad in ninja costumes pose in front of a traditional Japanese house, called "Ninjutsu yashiki," in Koka, Shiga Prefecture, as part of their experiencing the life of ninja. (Provided by Koka Municipal Government)
  • "Shuriken" throwing stars and sharp spiked objects called "makibishi" used by ninjas  (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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