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Ninja: the true story of Japan’s stealthy spy assassins

By Darren on 10 Oct 2017

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The ninja is, for many people, one of the very first things that spring to mind when they hear the word ‘Japan’. In that sense, at least for foreigners, they signify Japan along with graceful geisha, kawaii Harajuku kids, black-suited salarymen, and honorable samurai. The ninja though is by far the most mysterious of these icons. Overworked salarymen are everywhere in Tokyo; one can still catch a glimpse of a genuine geisha in the Ginza or Kagurazaka districts, and though the samurai has long disappeared it is very common to meet locals whose ancestors include those noble warriors. By contrast, none of my Japanese acquaintances speak of having ninja hiding up in their family tree.


It is due to the ninja’s role as a discreet spy-assassin, of course, that we know relatively little about them today. Maintaining the highest levels of stealth and secrecy they left few tracks both literally and figuratively, with few historical artifacts left for us to learn from. There is, though, just about enough around for us to discover that ninja was, in reality, something rather different from the black-clad and throwing star-wielding characters of popular imagination. Something much more multi-faceted, and perhaps even more fascinating.


So who and what were the ninja? The kanji characters for the word literally mean ‘hiding person’, and historical record tells us that they were secret agents for hire, who emerged during Japan’s Sengoku (or ‘Warring States’) period that saw the almost constant battle for control of the land between roughly 1467 and 1603. Ninja made themselves available to carry out secret missions on behalf of the daimyo, a country-wide network of feudal lords all subservient to the shogun, a military overlord who attempted to rule over the country in turbulent times when Japan was yet to be fully unified.


Samurai similarly served the daimyo, but there the similarity between samurai and ninja ends. As is common knowledge, the samurai observed a strict code of morality, honor, courage, and respect even in the midst of fierce combat, and prided themselves on unswerving loyalty to their daimyo. Ninja, on the other hand, were loyal simply to whoever would pay the highest price, and were hired for underhanded, even treacherous, missions that the samurai would have balked at on moral grounds. Not only espionage and assassinations but also arson, sabotage, raids and even terrorism were all activities carried out by ninja. And so the famed secrecy of the ninja was not only to protect their identities and enable them to carry out their clandestine deeds: it was also to preserve the reputation of the supposedly upstanding daimyo who had hired them.


The ninja seen these days in movies and anime is depicted as wearing black from head-to-toe, but the reality is that they would, just as modern day spies do, generally wear everyday clothing that enabled them to move freely and undetected: that merchant, peasant farmer or Buddhist monk was sometimes a ninja in disguise. Sometimes, but how often we don’t know: due to the secretive nature of the ninja, it is unclear how many of them existed.


One aspect of ninja that the widespread stereotype gets spot-on is their stealthiness. Trained to operate with a speed, silence, and element of surprise that would shame modern combatants, the ninja would strike and have a mission complete before their unfortunate victims even had time to raise the alarm. Ninja was also greatly inventive in planning their missions. Legend has it that the daimyo Kenshin Uesugi, who ruled over Echigo Province (now part of Niigata Prefecture) in the mid-16th century, was killed by a ninja who hid inside Uesugi’s toilet, and thrust a sword upwards into the bowels of the unfortunate daimyo!


That painful tale is believable, even if the squeamish may prefer not to imagine the scenario. It is certain however that the more outlandish skills attributed to ninja in many legends and popular stories are entirely fictitious: including the ability to walk on water; to fly; to become invisible, or to transform into an animal.


So where might we find traces of the ninja in present-day Japan? Given that they left few tracks even in the Warring States period when they were active, it is not easy. But if you visit the famous Nijo Castle or Tōji-in temple in Kyoto, notice that certain parts of the wooden flooring make a bird-like chirping noise when you step on them. This is uguisubari (‘nightingale floor’), something often installed in castles, temples, and palaces to alert occupants to the presence of ninja who had sneaked inside. Think of it as the Warring States equivalent of a burglar alarm.


In Tokyo meanwhile, there is the Ninja Trick House in Shinjuku’s love hotel-rich Kabukicho area. Entirely a reconstruction but undeniably fun, rather than acting as a ninja museum this modestly-sized establishment puts the emphasis on more lighthearted hands-on experience. The friendly, English-speaking guide, Yumoto-san, introduces ninja combat techniques and weapons to visitors who are encouraged to get changed into period costumes and try aiming authentic shuriken (ninja throwing stars) at a bank of targets (this is a challenge: marks in the wall surrounding these targets attest to its difficulty). Yumoto-san also gives the lowdown on the swords and pistols used by ninja (the image of a ninja wielding a gun is again something at odds with the popular stereotype). Importantly, the Ninja Trick House’s toilet was free of hidden assassins when I checked: or did I simply miss them in their astounding stealth?


Ninja Trick House

Daiichi Wako Bldg. 4F, 2-28-13 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo


Open: 10:00~19:00 PM (last admission 18:30; closed Tues & Weds)

Admission ¥1,000 JPY per person; reservation via homepage recommended





Darren came to Japan to study 11 years ago, and never made it back home to the UK. Since then he’s built up a detailed ‘mental map’ of Tokyo by intentionally getting himself lost, and loves taking visiting friends way off the well-beaten tourist track. In his free time Darren can usually be found in the backstreets of Koenji or Asagaya, with camera in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other.

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