“Growing up as a kid, I wanted to be a ninja. In martial arts, even though I did Chinese kung fu, I always wanted to be this secret samurai or a ninja. There’s something about ninjas that was very appealing to me as a kid. So of course, I was climbing a lot of trees and other things and getting up to mischief – good mischief.”
– Ray Park (Darth Maul)
Thanks to martial arts films, legendary stories, and (most accurately) 15th-17th century feudal Japan, ninjas have become a part of popular culture. Ninjas were used in unconventional or guerrilla style warfare which was frowned upon by the Samurai class who felt ninjas violated widely observed standards for honorable warfare.
Today, the ninja has captured the imagination of many, because of their stealthiness, their expert martial arts abilities, and their seeming indestructibility. Who are ninjas really though, and what are they all about? The mysterious legacy of the ninja continues.
25. Believe They Hype
Determining what was true and what was false about ninjas is still difficult today. This is because Ninjas encouraged rumors about their abilities and in the 15th century, you could get away with telling some tall tales. People thought they could read minds, disappear, and even have supernatural powers. This misdirection was all about instilling fear in their enemies.
24. Secrecy For Survival
Ninjas kept their skills and knowledge a closely guarded secret, even from one another. This secrecy is what kept the ninjas alive as their enemies were looking for them.
23. Keep It In The Family
In order to protect the secrets of ninjutsu, many families only passed down their knowledge to their children, if found worthy. Family members would begin teaching children certain skills at a young age, by playing games.
22. A Bit Overdressed
The concept of a ninja dressed all in black with a mask covering their face is a modern day concept. Ninjas were trained to blend in with the crowd. Anonymity was key to a ninja’s survival.
21. True Colors
The functions of the ninja included espionage, sabotage, infiltration, assassination and guerrilla warfare. Ninjas were often hired and had no allegiance.
20. All In A Name
The word ‘ninja’ didn’t come into use until the 20th century. The ninjas were typically called Shinobi meaning covert agent.
19. Resourceful Weaponry
Since ninjas hid in plain sight, many ninja weapons were nothing more than modified farming equipment. The sickle and chain is one example of a farm tool turned into a ninja weapon.
18. More Than Meets The Eye
Ninjas were not always hired as silent assassins. Even though ninjas were trained to fight and kill, they were also hired for their espionage abilities. Ninjas often dressed as gardeners, and would stake out the properties of their enemies.
17. Learning By Doing
Ninjas didn’t write down their specific practices until peacetime. Ninjas learned their ways, by practical application and following the instruction of their masters. There was no strict code with ninjas as with samurai. Ninjas were encouraged to use whatever means necessary to eliminate an enemy.
16. No Room For Big Weapons
Ninjas would not typically be found with a large sword, like those used by samurai. Ninjas would use smaller weapons making them easily concealed. A ninja’s blade was utilized as a multi-tool, and not strictly used to kill.
15. Gone In A Cloud Of Smoke
Ninjas created the smoke bomb effect by using ash. The ash would be kept in an eggshell, and sometimes in the sheath of a weapon. A ninja would release some ash, in order to confuse or misdirect their enemy.
14. Make Room For The Ladies
Kunoichi is a modern term for a female ninja. Their primary role was to infiltrate their enemies estates through being a maid or servant. Once inside they could pick up secrets and even smuggle people or items in and our of the estate.
13. Not My Job Description
The samurai felt that espionage was beneath them leading them to employ ninjas. Samurai had a stricter code of conduct than ninjas, and enforced social hierarchy.
12. Really Not Enemies
Contrary to popular belief, ninjas and samurai often worked side by side. Ninjas were hired throughout the 15th and 16th century, by anyone who could afford their services. Ninjas were respected during war time, for their contribution to espionage and sabotage.
11. Seeing Stars
The word ‘shuriken’ did not only describe the well recognized ninja’s throwing stars. Shuriken was also used to describe any object or tool that the ninja would throw, such as knives or darts too.
10. Born To Be A Ninja
The most skilled ninja clans were from the Iga and Koka regions in Japan. These ninja clans flourished in their skills, in part because of their geographical location. They were isolated between two mountain ranges, which ensured their protection.
9. The Demon Hanzo
Hattori Hanzo was a Samurai who is known as one of the most famous ninjas in Japan’s history. Although not technically a ninja, Hattori was hired by the distinguished Tokugawa family, and later helped Tokugawa Ieyasu become a ruler in Japan. Hattori gained his many famous nicknames, as a ‘ghost’ or ‘demon’ because of his skills, and participation in successful raids. Even the film Kill Bill had to give Hattori a nod.
Hattori Hanzo, The movie Kill Bill
8. One Powerful Lady
Mochizuki Chiyome was one of the most famous female ninja of her time. She managed to recruit 300 women to form an underground espionage training operation. On the surface, it seemed that Mochizuki was running an orphanage for young women, but she was really training ninjas assassins and spies.
7. A Japanese Robin Hood
Ishikawa Goemon was known for robbing the wealthy and giving his exploits to the poor. Born in 1558, he was believed to be a ninja apprentice of the Iga clan, before becoming a runaway ninja. He was remembered for his ‘Robin Hood’ activities, and was publicly boiled for a failed assassination attempt.
6. The Message Is In The Rice
Ninjas created a system passing covert messages using colored rice. Each specific rice color had a different meaning.
5. Cat Has The Time
Ninjas often used nekome-jutsu, which was the ability to decipher the time just by looking at a cat’s eyes. Cat’s eyes are very sensitive to light which causes and their pupils to change shape at specific times of the day. Think of them as the digital watch of the 16th century.
4. Deadly Hair Accessories
Female ninjas liked to wear beautiful ornate hairpins, called kanzashi. Unlike the hairpins innocently worn by most women, female ninjas employed their kanzashi for multiple uses. Hairpins would be sharpened to be used as a weapon, or dipped in poison for assassinations.
3. Watch Those Nails
Female ninjas didn’t just weaponize their hair adornments, as nail accessories proved an easily concealed weapon too. Female ninjas would attach deadly metal nails to their fingertips. These razor-sharp weapons were called ‘neko-te,’ meaning ‘cat hand.’
2. Not Just A Pencil Case
Since ninjas were used to gather information, they were often seen with a yatate, or small container made of bamboo to hold ink and writing utensils. A yatate was indispensable for writing down information, but also concealing poison, needles, and other small weapons.
1. Move Over Pinocchio
Although ninjas used an assortment of weapons and tools, one of the most important items is a live crickets which was used to aid them in their covert missions. Crickets would be induced to chirp, with the use of a special mix of chemicals. The chirping of crickets would cleverly mask the footsteps of a ninja, so they could maneuver undetected.
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