The following essay attempts to explain the history and development of ninjutsu since ancient times to the present. By examining various historical records, together with an analysis of specific fighting strategy, methods, and weapons I hope to shed some light on what has become common, albeit distorted, knowledge. The essay is not annotated according to academic guidelines for technical reasons, and thus it might not convince the very skeptical reader who is academically trained. I can only hope that anybody who reads this essay will keep an open mind and look for logic in the content, if not for footnotes. Another, perhaps non-academic aspect of this essay is the inclusion of my personal experience in both Ninpo/Ninjutsu, and in modern warfare as I have learned, practiced and (unfortunately) had to execute. Since my military specialty greatly resembles that of the pre-modern ninja, I do not think I should refrain from personal involvement. On the contrary, the comparisons I will make here between the pre-modern ninja and the modern warrior who specializes in covert warfare methods, are based on real war situation experience, not on written records. Nevertheless, this essay has a strong academic aspect to it because it is not simply my own thoughts and wishes of how I would like ninjutsu to be viewed. I rely on available documentary evidence, which is commonly accepted by historians as reliable sources, while also considering what is not available. In other words, in constructing the history of ninjutsu I use a reasonable amount of analysis and critical thinking.
Finally, it seems that this essay will be much lengthier than I had previously planned. Therefore, I decided to put it on the site as I go along. I will try to add one topic each weekend starting with a section on the historical image of ninjutsu and the problems of discovering and constructing its history.
Problems in Dealing with Ninjutsu History
Tracing the origins of Ninpo/Ninjutsu is problematic because of a number of reasons which I would like to discuss first. For the professional historian constructing history means searching for a convincing evidence. The better the evidence is the stronger the argument will be. Such evidence is usually found in a variety of documents including diaries, chronicles, tales, picture scrolls, personal correspondence and legal documents, among others. In the case of ninjutsu documentary evidence is either vague or is not an original text. That is, the scrolls and books of ninjutsu traditions in which we find that tradition's techniques and military strategy are recent copies of earlier texts. We do not have texts that were transmitted from the founder of that tradition to the present successor. Ninjutsu in Japanese history has always been secretly practiced and transmitted within a homogeneous group. There are three important original texts existing today--Bansenshukai, Ninpiden and Shoninki. These are early Edo period records that include some historical information, discussions on the essence of ninjutsu, its characteristics, some of its unique weapons, infiltration techniques and more. However, these texts do not include any description of unarmed fighting techniques or even a curriculum of techniques. In other words, the texts can not date or authenticate most of what is today taught as ninjutsu fighting skills.
Another problem stems from the nature of Japanese society and Japan's social history. From the early seventeenth century until the middle of the nineteenth century (Meiji Restoration) Japanese society was locked in a rigid class structure that allowed very little or no mobility at all. That meant that members of a social group within a certain social class had no choice but to accept their place in society. In addition, there was a clear distinction between the ruling class--the samurai--and the other classes--peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. Within each class as well, there was a certain hierarchy according to which members of the class had to act their social role with little opportunity to change their status. This reality have produced strong identifying characteristics for each social class to which the individual had to conform. Outside these social classes, as they were designated by the ruling samurai elite, were the classless people and outcasts who were placed bellow everybody else. Ninjutsu, for the most part, was the fighting skills and methods practiced by a small number of families who belonged to the lower samurai class, peasants, and even outcasts, and only rarely by warriors belonging to the samurai elite. Consequently, ninjutsu since the Edo period has been identified as different than the noble traditions of the samurai, and those practicing it were usually regarded by the rest of society as lowly people. In other words, ninjutsu was anything but conformity to the pre defined social rules. As such, it could have never received a seal of approval as a recognized martial tradition, not even when those samurai were actually employing warriors proficient in ninjutsu.
The social conditions and the strong tendency for conformity I have just discussed produced another problem. Fighting methods or weapons that were not practiced by the samurai elite were considered mysterious at best, sometimes demonic, often super natural, and certainly unworthy of respect. Here again is the problem that rises from social conformity. For the samurai elite who were bound by rules of behavior and a code of honor and ethics, fighting methods were confined to a small number of weapons, namely bow, sword, staff, jutte, and spear. This resulted in little creativity in fighting. However, for warriors other than the samurai, those who were not constrained by their position in society, creativity was a necessity for winning. They have maintained unusual and innovative fighting methods and weapons that were developed in earlier periods, while systematizing, recording, and adding to it during the Edo period. Consequently, ninjutsu came to be perceived very negatively, and when Japan moved into the modern period ninjutsu gradually disappeared while its dark and mysterious image, which already became folklore, was now viewed as an historical fact.
Perhaps it was the Second World War and the American occupation of Japan that changed Japanese society in a way that made people ridicule ninjutsu not just suppress its place in the history of Japanese warfare. It was not part of the Yamato damashii (the Japanse spirit) that the Japanese now looked for to restore their confidence and self-identity. Ninjutsu was placed in a small dark corner in the Japanese historical attic. A further turn to the worse came when ninjutsu was introduced to the West in the Sixties, and became the subject of low quality low budget American films in the Seventies and Eighties. The image of a mysterious, super-human, often devilish warrior was now out in the open and on display. This image was based on fathomless misunderstanding of Japanese history, and of ninjutsu in particular. In addition, there was the motivation for producing profitable movies, a fact that greatly distorted any remaining accuracy. As it often happens, the public accepted the information delivered in the movies as an accurate historical portrayal of ninjutsu.
(Below, a nineteenth century photo of Otemon, one of the main gates to Edo castle. Visiting daimyo entered Edo castle through this gate. Guarding the gate were Koga warriors, and observing the visitors from special guard rooms were Iga warriors. Both warrior groups specialized in Ninjutsu)
What is Ninjutsu?
For the modern practitioner of Ninjutsu, or Ninpo, the term Ninjutsu represents a set of unarmed and weapon techniques from a number of ryuha, namely Koto ryu, Gikan ryu, Gyokko ryu, and Togakure ryu, among others. The techniques include various methods of fighting, leaping, hiding, walking and running methods, as well as sword evading techniques, and special utilization of the body. Similarly, the arsenal of weapons includes a variety of conventional weapons such as Tachi and Yari, and unconventional weapons such as Shuko, Kusari fundo, and concealed weapons. In any case, the combative characteristic of Ninjutsu, be it defensive or offensive, is commonly accepted as the essence of Ninjutsu.
However, a close analysis of historical records, from as early as the eighth century to as late as the nineteenth century, show that the fundamental nature of Ninjutsu was in fact methods of infiltration into unfriendly, often hostile territory. Descriptions of such infiltration usually talk about a general who sends his agents to infiltrate his enemy's encampment, castle, or province. The purpose of that infiltration was to gather information about the enemy, to cause disorder, and to disseminate false information. Sometimes infiltration was the first act of a military confrontation, that is, an agent was sent to infiltrate a fortress in order to open its gates from the inside to allow warriors into the fortress. And sometimes the purpose of infiltrating the enemy territory was simply to assassinate the enemy's general. It is interesting to note that most descriptions of such infiltrations are only a minor theme within a larger narrative, that the term "ninjutsu" does not even appear, and that only rarely do we get a description of the method of infiltration. The most common terminology used in all of these historical records is, shinobi komu and shinobi iri, which generally mean infiltrating incognito.
The only outstanding exception to most records are those written by Iga and Koga warriors about their own methods of infiltration. Especially in the Bansenshukai, a seventeenth century multi- volume compilation, there is an explanation of methods of infiltration into a fortress or a castle, accompanied with sketches. While these Iga and Koga records include sections on special weapons, history, philosophy, astronomy, topography and more, it is clear that the essence of their activity focuses on entering an enemy territory for reasons I have mentioned earlier. The unavoidable conclusion is that Ninjutsu in essence, at least from a purely historical perspective, is the skills involved in the act of covert infiltration for military purposes. Naturally, we should now ask, what are all these fighting skill that we now call with such confidence "Ninjutsu"?
The answer to that is not given in all those historical records which I have turned to in order to understand what Ninjutsu is. In fact, there is no known pre-modern historical record that systematically describes, or at least lists the titles of fighting techniques used by those warriors who specialized in infiltration and covert activity. The only records, which I am aware of, are those handed down by a number of late Edo period specialists to Takamatsu Toshitsugu who then passed on the records and knowledge to a handful number of disciples. If there are other genealogies of Ninjutsu related ryuha they remain unknown, but it is most likely that other genealogies did not survive the transition to the modern period and that if anything remains of them it is only in the form of written records, which are hidden somewhere--perhaps without their owner's knowledge of their contents.
The final conclusion of this brief analysis is that Ninjutsu until the modern period refers to knowledge and skills for entering enemy territory and fortifications in secret or in disguise. It is a universal term that applies to groups or individuals who engaged in covert operations or infiltration regardless of regionalism, clan affiliation, or historical period. On the other hand, Ninjutsu as it has been viewed after the Second World War is a systematic collection of fighting skills according to ryuha and respective genealogies. These ryuha, contrary to the universality of the term Ninjutsu, are identified with specific groups and clans who existed in specific regions in certain periods before the modern era. However, this differentiation between fighting skills, which we now identify by the ryuha, and the clans' or individuals' covert activity, for whatever purpose it may have been, does not mean that we are all wrong in calling these fighting skills Ninjutsu. Throughout history we witness continuous processes and shifts in the characteristics and definition of things. We should therefore view Ninjutsu as having gone through a transition into the modern period, at the end of which its meaning changed. It is important, however, to keep in mind the distinction between pre-modern and modern Ninjutsu.
Who was a Ninja? Who is a Ninja?
This question is especially thorny one, to which there is no simple answer. Similar to the treatment of the term Ninjutsu, we have to distinguish between the historical Ninja and the modern practitioner of Ninjutsu traditions. The reason for making such a general distinction is that the cultural, social, and military change from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji (modern) period was so great that there is no sense in looking for a gradual change in the characteristics of the Ninja in this historical transition.
Was the first Ninja Yamato Takeru? Or perhaps it was En-no-Gyoja, who is now staring at you on the left side of this paragraph? Was the archetypical Ninja someone like Minamoto no Yoshitsune? Or some unknown warrior who never made it to the historical headlines? To look for the origin of Ninjutsu is not unlike looking for the root of a pine tree. Just as there is no single root, rather a fan-like spread of many roots, we can not identify a single individual who "invented" Ninjutsu. There is no founder, or one we might call the "first" Ninja. Therefore, it is best to look for the Ninja in different periods, and attempt to characterize the Ninja in its specific historical context. Understandably, because of the limited scope of this essay, it will be impossible to discuss in details the character of the Ninja in every period. To illustrate the characteristic of the historical Ninja I chose well known warriors and monks whom some of the readers would probably recognize.
I believe that when we analyze what we know about these warriors, we can see that until the medieval period the Ninja was for the most part a lone warrior. During the medieval period there was a gradual build up of warrior groups and clans who were associated with certain locations. In other words, they controlled a territory. The Ninja then, has become a group member with all the implications associated with it -- social hierarchy, shared duties, and operating in groups, among other things. In the Sengoku period, out of necessity to survive the ongoing civil strife, Ninja were most active and clans were most tightly organized. However, during the Tokugawa period there seem to have been a deterioration in the tightly structured and organized Ninja clan, with a reversal to Ninja as an individual warrior. An important point to keep in mind is that throughout the centuries from the ancient period to the early-modern period one type of Ninja did not replace another, rather, a new type was added to the existing ones. Eventually, the Ninja community included those whose skills were rather limited, to those who held high samurai rank and lead armies.
I would like to begin by discussing what we know about the ancient warrior, Yamato Takeru (Mighty Man of Yamato). A warrior prince of ancient Japan about whom we learn from the Kojiki. Yamato Takeru was sent to take control over the Izumo area. To achieve that goal he had to fight Izumo Takeru who was known as a skillful warrior. Yamato Takeru first made a wooden sword that resembled his own. He then presented the real sword to Izumo Takeru as a gift, showing his friendship. Later they bathed in a river. Coming out of the river Yamato Takeru quickly wore the sword he presented to Izumo Takeru, thus having the real sword for himself while Izumo Takeru, not suspecting anything unusual since both swords looked exactly the same, put on the wooden sword. Following that, Yamato Takeru challenged Izumo Takeru to a dual and killed him.
After this, Yamato Takeru was sent again by the emperor to pacify the land. Before his departure Yamato Takeru received a sword and a bag from Yamato Hime no Mikoto. She told him to open the bag in case of an emergency. Yamato Takeru traveled east arriving at Sagamu where the governor tricked him into going to a bushy area which the governor then set on fire. Yamato Takeru, being in dire straits, opened the bag and found a fire making instrument. He set a counter fire, escaped death and killed the governor.
The records of Yamato Takeru as they are told in the Kojiki indicate that Yamato Takeru was familiar with various fighting tactics. Critics will naturally argue, not unjustifiably, that the Kojiki is a collection of myths that we can not regard as reliable historical sources, and therefore, we can not treat Yamato Takeru, or the stories associated with him, as an historical fact. This kind of argument can hardly be challenged since the only other written record, the Nihon Shoki, is not much more reliable than the Kojiki. However, without getting into a debate about the reliability of the Kojiki, its description of Yamato Takeru is still valuable. It is important to remember that the Kojiki was compiled in 712 A.D. and that it relied on earlier oral tradition and written documents. Therefore, whether the details of Yamato Takeru's life are accurate is not as important as the fact that in the year 712 there was a record of a warrior who had the knowledge to utilize fighting techniques which were unusually innovative, and which we may identify as early Ninjutsu. In any case, we can characterize the ancient "proto-Ninja" as a warrior skilled in a variety of fighting methods, but not yet knowledgeable of military strategy or religious practices.
Shifting to the early medieval period, I would like to focus on Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In the early years of the medieval period, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, half brother of the first Kamakura shogun, is said to have mastered superior fighting skills and military strategy. In his meeting with the renegade monk Musashibo Benkei, Yoshitsune avoided Benkei's naginata by leaping high, thus utilizing what is known as Hicho-jutsu. However, Yoshitsune became most famous for his rear attack at Ichi-no-Tani, and the final battle against the Heike at Dan-no-Ura. That is, Yoshitsune was an able general who knew how to conduct warfare on a large scale. Nevertheless, Yoshitsune lost his final battle to his brother Yoritomo, who was not as nearly as good a warrior and tactician as Yoshitsune. How much of Yoshitsune's life was a legend and how much of it was the real Yoshitsune, will always remain an open debate.
In the Gikeiki (or Yoshitsune ki), we learn much about Yoshitsune's life, but unfortunately the historical value of this record, as appealing as it may be, is "so slight that it need not detain us." (McCullough. Yoshitsune. 1966). We therefore have to rely heavily on the Azuma Kagami and Heike Monogatari from which we can learn only little about Yoshitsune's personal life. These and other, less known records, show that Yoshitsune was not one among an identifiable group of warriors who shared similar skills and knowledge. Instead, he was an individual warrior who made an effort to learn warfare in depth. He did not have many years to learn because he joined Yoritomo when he was still a young man; and it is most likely that whoever taught him was a resident of Mt. Kurama. In any case, we can see a development from Yamato Takeru the warrior, and En-no-Gyoja the monk, to Yoshitsune who was taught Buddhism, fighting skills, and strategy.
In the following centuries there seem to have been a shift from individual warriors skilled in Ninjutsu, to groups of warriors who shared similar knowledge and interests. Whether they were of well established warrior lineage, or a band of outlaws, should not concern us here. What is important is to recognize the appearance of communities of warriors skilled in Ninjutsu. These communities were mostly located in Ki'i-no-kuni (present day Wakayama prefecture) and in Iga (present day, Mie prefecture).
Sources for this essay include:
Nihon Shoki, Zoku Nihon-gi, Azuma Kagami, Taiheiki, Hojo Godai ki, Shikoku Gunki, Myozenji Gassen ki, Echigo Gunki, Asai Sandai ki, Taiko ki, and more; Chinese sources, and secondary sources, namely Ninpo Secrets by Grandmaster Tanemura Shoto.