The Seven Disguises Used by Real Ninjas

Hollywood likes to portray the ninja in black pajamas, scaling a roof to assassinate a samurai. In reality, ninjas, also called shinobi, were more like spies.

14E30 Hokusai sketch (ninja)(public domain) copy

Assassinations played a role (as did those famous dark pajamas) but ninja training focused as much on espionage as it did on killing, and then–as now–a large part of successful spying depended on disguises.

During the 17th century the head of a famous ninja clan wrote a manual called the Shoniniki, which described techniques and methods used by medieval ninjas. At the time, the Shoniniki was considered a “secret” manuscript, used and protected by shinobi clans. Now, it offers a glimpse into the real ninja’s world, including the types of disguises ninjas favored.

Shoniniki page (disguises)(pd)

The Shoniniki lists “Seven Disguises” as recommended “personas” a shinobi could assume in order to infiltrate a town, obtain information, or generally fool people into thinking he was someone other than a spy. (Female ninjas, called kunoichi, used disguises too.)

The Shoniniki’s Seven Disguises include:

1. Itinerant monks (komuso) – for wandering the countryside. 

2. Buddhist monks – for infiltrating temples, towns, and cities.

3. Mountain ascetics.

4. Merchants.

5. Actors.

6. Street entertainers.

7. “Normal Appearance” – which means taking on the persona of a typical resident of the city, village, or area the shinobi wanted to infiltrate without being noticed.


Ninjas weren’t limited to these seven roles. When on a mission, a ninja blended in with the population–or with the environment, in the case of truly clandestine missions–and was expected to take on any persona or disguise that allowed him (or her, in the case of kunoichi) to pass unnoticed.

14F13 Yoshitoshi

Shinobi assigned to long-term missions might use only a single disguise, living for years as a farmer, monk, or merchant. This allowed the ninja to gather information or “wait in place” as a sleeper agent until his clan was hired to assassinate a nearby lord or other valuable target.

On short-term missions, a shinobi might use multiple disguises, blending in with different crowds as needed to reach the goal. Ninjas were trained to think independently and conceal themselves in many ways … including the use of disguises to hide in plain sight.

Disappearing is great, when you have the cover of night or foliage, but hiding in plain sight is the best disguise of all.

Did you know that shinobi were trained to “hide in plain sight”? Does it surprise you to learn that ninjas were masters of espionage as well as assassination?

One thought on “The Seven Disguises Used by Real Ninjas

  • July 28, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve always thought that those long-term disguises — the sleeper agents — would be the hardest job of all. Pretend to have friends and attachments, but stay loyal to someone you haven’t seen in years, and be ready to drop your friends of everyday life at a second’s notice. Rough.

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