Know Your Ninjas – Shinobi Spies of Medieval Japan

Ninjas are a popular part of 21st century culture. We see them in films and on television, in Internet memes, and even on chocolates and coffee mugs – but how much do you know about who ninjas really were?

In medieval Japan, ninja assassins represented a very real, and dangerous, threat.

Ninjas – also called shinobi (“ninja” is based on a Chinese pronunciation of the characters, whereas “shinobi” is the more accurate Japanese term) – were highly trained spies and assassins. The word “ninja” translates “shadowed person” – and like most spies, real ninjas knew how to use the shadows to their advantage.

13H02 Ninja

Ninjas used a variety of weapons and stealth-based tactics. They also acted as “spies for hire.” As experts in disguise, they could infiltrate castles or pass as priests, musicians, or other “harmless” members of society. Sometimes, ninjas spent years undercover, gathering information or preparing to strike at an opportune time.

Despite the often contentious relationship between the shinobi clans and the samurai warlords who ruled Japan, samurai frequently hired ninjas to gather information or eliminate troublesome rivals. Then, as now, espionage was a common political tool.

Historically, samurai warriors favored hand-to-hand combat with swords and naginata (a type of halberd). Ninjas trained with those weapons, too, but favored daggers, shorter swords and other concealable items like shuriken and caltrops.

Samurai in Hakama (public domain)

Ninjas also studied stealth, disguise, and various ways to disappear into a crowd.The Shoniniki, a 17th century ninja training manual, describes ten major methods of concealment. These range from “concealing yourself by virtue of surrounding noises” to blending in with the enemy’s environment and vanishing without a trace after an assassination or other clandestine activities.

Whether acting as assassins or as spies, the ninjas of medieval Japan were highly skilled and very much a reality. The modern “ninja myths” contain a number of inaccuracies–ninjas didn’t just wear black and sneak around on rooftops–but they also hold a grain of truth and, sometimes, more than that.