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The Story Behind Japan's Notorious Ninja

by John Erskine Banta

The Ninja, or secret agents, of Japan's samurai era are now famous around the world, but few people know the real or full story of their appearance and incredible feats...that make James Bond look like wimp...

Over the ages virtually all larger countries have had their spies and secret agents who carried out undercover activities, from assassinations to sabotage, against their enemies and competitors, real and imagined.

But until recent times no country had spies and secret agents who were as well trained, as versatile, or as deadly, as Japan’s infamous ninja (neen-jah) who, according to historical records, made Great Britain’s fictitious James Bond come off looking like an over-age boy scout.

The term ninja has become known around the world as a result of movies and books and the growing international popularity of martial arts such as karate (kah-rah-tay) and aikido (aye-kee-doh) -- but few people know the full story of Old Japan’s secret agents.

The ninja of pre-modern Japan practiced the art of ninjutsu (neen-jute-sue), which translates as 'the art of invisibility,' and used a variety of weapons and implements that would make today’s high-tech oriented spooks proud.

Historical records indicate that the first ninjutsu were trained by Otomo no Hosoto, a famous warrior from Omi Province in the service of Prince Shotoku (574-622 A.D.), who served as the Regent for Empress Suiko.

Otomo devised special tactics used by secret agents in his employ who were sent on missions to spy on the Prince’s enemies, steal documents, and commit other acts designed to weaken or destroy them.

Two types of ninjutsu strategy were developed: yohjutsu (yohh-jute-sue) or overt practices, and injutsu (een-jute-sue) or covert practices. Yohjutsu was used to infiltrate enemy ranks using disguises and assumed identities. Injutsu was a method of entering into places without being seen -- at which the ninja became so clever the general populace believed they could make themselves invisible.

When engaged in an injutsu mission the ninja worked at night, and wore black apparel and hoods that left only a narrow slit for their eyes. The ninja uniforms had numerous secret pockets where they carried their weapons and the tools of their trade, which allowed them to scale vertical walls, bore holes in wood or the ground, saw through walls, swim long distances underwater, blow up buildings using gunpowder, and deal with large numbers of well-armed warriors.

The heyday of the ninja were the 101 years of the Sengoku period (1467-1568), when rival clan warlords fought to gain control of the country. Samurai warriors from Iga Province (now Mie Prefecture) and the Koga region of Omi established secret camps where large numbers of ninja were trained from childhood.

The techniques these two groups taught came to be known as the Iga and Koga schools of ninjutsu, and are credited with spawning other schools that were to follow. The so-called Iga and Koga schools actually consisted of 49 extended families whose members lived in isolated mountain camps, and were all trained in ninjutsu as the family profession.

The training in ninjutsu was rigorous and comprehensive. It included running, jumping, climbing, swimming, the use of weapons and disguises, studying geography, topography, astronomy and history, learning to distinguish and imitate the sounds of animals and birds, learning local dialects, learning how to use and dispense poisons, and so on. Ninja were also taught to endure heat, cold, hunger, pain, and other discomforts.

Throughout Japan’s early history, ninja, both males and females, who were masters at playing the role of priests, traveling salesmen, entertainers, and other ordinary people commonly seen on the road were employed by the shoguns, by provincial lords, and by local authorities.

Ninja were especially clever at avoiding capture, but when all of their abilities and ruses failed, they could expect to be subjected to the severest torture in an attempt to find out who hired them. If capture became unavoidable, suicide was often the preferred choice.

One of the ways used to test people suspected of being ninja was to suddenly put them in extreme danger to see how they reacted. If a person leaped several feet aside to escape a falling object or jumped to the top of a high fence, in a split second, their cover was blown.

Real, live ninja can still be seen today at the Nikko Edo Mura (Nikko Edo Village) theme park near the mountain town of Nikko, famed as one of the most scenic spots in Japan, and the site of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa’s spectacular mausoleum.

The ninja reenact a variety of ninjutsu techniques and skills that made them one of the world’s deadliest and most feared societies of secret agents.

John Erskine Banta was General Manager and Director of Radisson Miyako Hotel Tokyo

Lonely Planet Japan
Chris Rowthorne
 Updated by an experienced team of Japan-based authors, this guide contains a special arts section covering everything from kabuki to anime (animation). It details a huge range of affordable accommodation, shopping and eating options, and has an easy-to-follow language chapter.
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