A black clad shadowy figure skulks across a rooftop. His footsteps are silent as his movement is fluid. He launches two throwing stars which catch in the throats of two guards. He lowers himself into the courtyard and dispatches an unwitting Samurai with as little as a glint of a blade. The guards spot the assassin who tosses a smoke grenade to the floor. Seemingly disappearing into thin air.
This is the Ninja of pop culture. Mysterious, stealthy professional assassins who possess almost magical skills and weapons. They are very interesting, proved by their status as popular culture icons. But what is the true nature of these legendary Japanese warriors?
First it is important to understand the origin of the Ninja. First off; the 'correct' term for them is Shinobi, the underlying connotation of which means “To steal away”.
Japanese folklore suggests that the ninja descended from a half-man half-crow demon, but it is far more likely that the Ninja evolved as the 'water' to the Samurai's 'fire'. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment at which the Shinobi began to exist, considering that espionage has been used in practically every war in history and is typically not very well documented. However, it was not until the 15th Century that spies were specifically trained for that purpose, and at around this time the word Shinobi began to appear to describe these stealthy and secretive agents.
However, the Ninja could not have simply appeared out of nowhere. Rather, they evolved over the course of the chaotic era between 1340 and 1600. During this period of almost constant war and struggle, the skills that the Shinobi brought to the conflict would prove invaluable – just as is espionage in any conflict, ancient or modern.
The Ninja were essentially used as mercenaries, where they were hired to act as spies, raiders, arsonists, terrorists and assassins. By the Sengoku period the Shinobi had several roles;
The Ninja families were organised into larger guilds, whose members also had ranks. For example, a Jonin (Upper Man) was the highest rank, and their duty was to represent the group and hire out the Shinobi. The next rank is the Chunin (Middle Man), who were assistants to the Jonin. At the bottom of the rank structure was the Genin (Lower Man), who were field agents who were assigned and hired to carry out missions. One common misperception is that the Ninja were all men, however women also served as Shinobi just as they also did as Samurai. Female ninja, or Kunoichi, often infiltrated enemy castles in the guise of dancers, concubines or servants.
Speaking of Ninja families and clans. The Iga and Kō
The Daimyo Oda Nobunaga would later invade the region in order to wipe out these organised groups.
The Samurai in Japan follow the Bushido code and thus value loyalty, valour and honour above all else. In a conflict a Samurai would typically fight by selecting an opponent, announcing a challenge, listing his family pedigree and only then attack. Their armour was adorned in bright colours to show off their clan identity. The Bushido code was noble in it's ideals, but in war the Daimyo knew it could not always get the appropriate job done.
This is where the Shinobi code of Ninjutsu came in. The Ninjutsu values accomplishing a goal by any means necessary; be it sneak attacks, backstabbing, poison and seduction – but these are all things that would be seen as shameful to a Samurai.
It was a win-win situation for both parties; the Samurai could hire the Shinobi to do their dirty work without sullying their honour, and the lower classes (as the Samurai were the upper classes in Feudal Japan) benefited from a transfer of wealth as the Ninja were handsomely paid for their delicate line of work.
It is widely suggested that Ninjutsu began as a blend of Chinese and native tactics, slowly developed as the counter-culture to Bushido, but it was likely first formalised by Daisuke Togakure and Kain Doshi.
Daisuke was a Samurai, but had been on the losing side in a regional battle. Thus, because his honour was disgraced in defeat he lost his lands and prestigious Samurai title. In around 1162 it is said that Daisuke was wandering the mountains southwest of Honshu when he met a man called Kain Doshi, a Chinese warrior-monk, who taught him the art of survival and this new philosophy on life. Daisuke renounced the Bushido code and together the two developed this new theory of guerilla warfare, known as Ninjutsu. Daisuke's descendants created the first Ninja 'Ryū
From there Ninjutsu developed in such a way that many different 'Ryū
The Ninja evolved to suit a need on the Japanese battlefield during the various set of conflicts and wars that ravaged the country for centuries. Following is a brief overview of some of these struggles.
For more than 50 years in the 14th century, Japan had two separate imperial courts, which fought for control of the country.
The Northern Court was controlled by the shoguns. The Southern Court belonged to Emperor Go-Daigo, who wanted to rule in his own right.
Ninja played an important role on both sides in this struggle, infiltrating castles as spies, and even burning down the South's Hachiman-yama Fortress.
The Northern Court eventually won, and the puppet-Emperor system was retained.
About 70 years later, the Onin War broke out. Ninja featured heavily in this conflict, as well.
The war began as a succession fight within the ruling Ashikaga clan, but soon devolved into a nation-wide civil war.
Although the Onin War ended after 10 years, it ushered in a century of turmoil called the Sengoku Jidai, or "Warring States Period" (though it was actually samurai clans fighting, rather than states).
Ninja served a number of purposes during the Sengoku Period (1467-1568). They acted as kancho (spies), koran (agitators), teisatsu (scouts), and kisho (surprise attackers). They were most effective in castle sieges, infiltrating and distracting the defenders inside while the main besieging army attacked from outside.
The ninja were an important tool during the Sengoku Period, but a destabilizing influence. When war-lord Oda Nobunaga emerged as the strongest daimyo and began to reunite Japan (1551-1582), he saw the ninja strongholds at Iga and Kō
Nobunaga's lightning-quick attack on Iga forced the ninja to fight open battles; they were defeated and scattered to nearby provinces or the mountains of Kii.
While their power-base was destroyed, the ninja did not vanish entirely. Some went into the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who later became shogun in 1603.
The much-reduced ninja continued to serve both sides in struggles. In one famous incident from 1600, a ninja sneaked through a group of Tokugawa's defenders at Hataya castle, and planted the flag of the besieging army high on the front gate.
We know that through their 'Fire and water' relationship with the Samurai that they were respected, mistrusted and feared all at once. Some Samurai feared the Shinobi so much that they would install a series of countermeasures to prevent their activities. Precautions taken could include concealed weapons beneath floorboards and traps attached to bells in order to raise alarm of intruders. Japanese Castles were also designed to be mazes which were difficult to navigate; blind spots and holes in the walls would allow surveillance of the castle grounds. Other devices such as 'Nightingale' floors - which rested on metal hinges specially designed to squeak when walked over, ground covered in gravel and segregated buildings to better contain fires.
The Edo Period (1603-1868) brought stability and peace to Japan, bringing the ninja story to a close. Ninja skills and legends survived, though, and were embellished to enliven the movies, games and comic books of today and thus began our Pop Culture obsession. The real Shinobi of course are different to the stereotypical depiction of a Ninja. For example, the Shinobi are usually shown wearing black from head to toe, but infact this costume is from Japanese Kabuki theatre. Actual Ninjas wore navy blue for night time operations, but it was far more common for them to dress or wear disguised in such a way to blend in with their targets, just as any other espionage agent would.
A A R S
:: The Sun always rises in the East :: Flawless Crowns :: Dancing Days ::
"We kissed the Sun, and it smiled down upon us."
[This message has been edited by Aftermath (edited 01-05-2011 @ 01:31 PM).]