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In Search of the Ninja
The Historical Truth of Ninjutsu
By Antony Cummins
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Antony Cummins
All rights reserved.
What Is a Ninja?
Shinobi are also called Suppa or Rappa. These are people who hide themselves and infiltrate an enemy position and observe and listen to the status of the enemy and then bring this information back to their allies. For these shinobi, there are various teachings and they are called; the 'tradition for a moonlit night', the 'tradition for a night with a hazy moon' and the 'tradition for a moonless night'. In the area of Koshu they were called Suppa and in Bando (Kanto) they were known as Rappa. These days they are known as Iga no mono or Koka no mono and they are well trained in the arts of the shinobi.
The writings of Arisawa Nagasada, 1689
To discover the historical truth behind the ninja, one must negotiate a network of dead ends, fabrications (both historical and modern), geographical differences, varying terminology and an evolution of skills which change with the political climate.
Often the word ninja comes with two main suffixes, 'ninja assassins' and 'ninja spies' both of which have a claim to correctness, yet fall short of the reality. Ninja were used as assassins, but evidence for this is scant and represents a minor part of their role. Ninja were spies; secret agents have existed throughout history and yet ninja remain the most enigmatic and most complex. In truth, the terms 'assassin' and 'spy' do not do the ninja justice, nor do they describe fully the arts of shinobi no jutsu,the way of the ninja.
A ninja or shinobi no mono is a person with a specific set of skills and the term has no connection to their level of ability. Also, the term shinobi can be used for a person who is undertaking any form of stealthy mission, even if they have not been trained in any arts. However, it is considered that most shinobi no mono were at least trained to some level in the ways of the ninja. These skills include the arts of spying and working as an undercover agent, the ability to scout in extreme proximity to the enemy – scouting inside enemy castles and defensive positions or even temporarily acting as a member of an enemy force to gain information before returning to one's own side. A ninja was also a person involved in the making and the use of explosives in a clandestine military capacity, including arson, and who could use the skills of breaking and entering to gain entrance to a fortified household in order to steal. He would gather information through eavesdropping, would take documentation and valuables and on occasion would murder the residents and set fire to the buildings. A shinobi was a person who acted as a guide in no-man's-land for attacking units, normally under the cover of darkness. Alongside this, they acted as messengers and utilised secret codes via horns, drums, symbols and the written word to transfer information. In short, the ninja was a spy-scout-arsonist-thief-killer.
The following is from the 1656 Bukyo Zensho military manual and outlines the requirements and uses of the ninja.
Those who should be chosen as Ninja
1 Those who look stupid but are resourceful and talented in speech or are witty.
2 Those who are capable and act quickly and who are stout [and can endure]. Also those who do not succumb to illness.
3 Those who are brave and open-minded and those who know much about certain districts and people all over the country, with the addition of being eloquent.
Items you should be aware of in order not to allow a spy or Shinobi to infiltrate your position
1 Strictly guard the gates and checkpoints and arrange for signal fires and signal flags and also 'dual section' tallies, identifying marks and passwords.
2 Examine merchant travellers or travelling monks who are training or collecting for their home temple.
3 If any of your allies have relatives within the enemy, they should declare this immediately.
4 If you receive an offer [from one of the enemy] to spy for you, then you should report this immediately.
5 Understand the difference between truth and untruth.
6 If the enemy offer reconciliation and they say they are sincere, then be careful not to be deceived by them.
7 Do your best to defend against double agents.
Of Shinobi Scouts
Shinobi – Scouts have people called shinobi who go to and come from the enemy provinces and they acquire information. There are traditions and skills exclusive to them and they spy on and ascertain the status of the enemy.
Tasks Assigned to the Shinobi
1 To take advantage of enemy gaps, in reference to both information and [the enemy] position.
2 Getting through doors.
3 Body warming device (Donohi) and ignition tools.
4 Signal fires and passwords.
5 The art of quickly changing appearance.
6 Tools used to climb fences, stone walls, earth walls or to cross over rivers.
7 The carrying of various tools.
8 To hide that which is hidden and to display that which should be shown.
9 Attaining [a certain] mindset.
Two major categories of ninja begin to emerge through historical analysis. The categories are not distinguished grammatically.
Firstly, a ninja can be a man or woman with no training whatsoever, who is simply exploited for their innate abilities, even if only minor. For example, a man with a good memory may be used as a shinobi to go forward into an area and gather a mental record, simply because he has the ability to recall information. Or a man who has knowledge of a local area (Kyodo) may be called on to act as a ninja and go into that area and gain information. This untrained individual is considered a shinobi by the tacticians of medieval Japan and is not what we would consider a ninja from our modern prospective.
The second category is the archetypal ninja figure, that is a man trained in the arts first outlined above (to any skill level) and who is used as required by a general. Documentation is often vague in distinguishing between these two. The only way to identify each is to understand the context of each historical reference.
Therefore, remember that at times we may be considering a relatively incompetent person, sent out at the whim of the lord, but at other times, the ninja are a group of individuals who were highly trained specialists, who took part in actions that have made them the legends they are today; creeping into castles, passing armed guards as they slip through the shadows, leaving a trail of destruction or silence behind them. Before we can investigate their skills, we have to understand where they came from.CHAPTER 2
The Origin of the Ninja
The people of the Qi dynasty trained themselves with these skills [of ninjutsu], and Xu Fu inherited the traditions and brought them to Japan. He went to the Kumano Mountains and tried to find [the elixir of life,] however, he could not find what he was looking for in the land of Japan but he did not return to China. From here, he then went into the mountains in Iga province and passed down these subtle secrets of military skills to two of the children he brought with him.
The 'lost' chapter of the Nagata version of the Shinobi Hiden, 1646
While the true origin of the ninja has been lost, this chapter will record for the first time in English their appearance in accordance with the actual historical record.
No reference to date of the word ninja or shinobi no mono, in any of its forms, has been discovered earlier than the end of the fourteenth century. As research stands, nothing is written describing the act of espionage or infiltration using the ideogram [??] as a name for the agent before this date. This sets the base point for the entry of ninja into written history.
The Chinese Idea
Separating the ninja from a Chinese ancestry is almost impossible, as much of what the ninja stands for has some connection to Chinese skills in one way or another and as will be shown in a later chapter, the ninja or their skills most likely did originate from the Asian mainland. The evidence for this Chinese connection is immense, yet still myths and misnomers proliferate within the ninja enthusiast communities around the world. One such unfounded (yet maybe not wholly incorrect) story is that, under oppression from the harsh Chinese totalitarian system, Chinese refugees fled to Japan and found their way to the soon-to-be ninja homeland provinces of Iga and Koka, where in the mountains they taught the locals the way of the ninja. This is a modern construct and has no historical record, and whilst it is undeniable that Chinese immigrants came to Japan in many waves and at various points – including the Chinese origins of the famous 'ninja family' Hattori – there is only one piece of 'evidence' to connect Chinese migration with ninjutsu, which comes from the Nagata version of the Shinobi Hiden manual (quoted above) but any attempt at constructing theories based on this is impossible as the document was written over 1000 years after the event and is only a family tradition based on a famous ancestor – a common thing in the manuals – and results in pure speculation.
What we do know is that in Japan around the end of the fourteenth century the word shinobi appears, and then begins to appear more frequently until it becomes known all over the world today. When written evidence cannot be found, speculation is our only recourse.
The Mythological Origin
The Igamondo Ninjutsu Kazamurai no Makoto scroll of the Edo period states that ninjutsu originated at the time of the Emperor Jimmu and was transmitted by a man named Doushin No Mikoto, who was a descendant of the god Amatsu-shinobi, who achieved a great success in a place called Shinobi-kaza.
This myth is not shared by the three major works of ninjutsu and is probably an Edo period historical fantasy. The use of the ideogram for ninja [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] appears in the name of the god and in the place name. These place names or names of gods were inscribed well after any period of importance for the ninja and must be ignored in any attempt to find the origin of the ninja, as they seem more wishful han historically verified.
The Ninjas' Origin Beliefs
The shinobi themselves did possess origin myths or origin theories. Whilst these stories can be found in credible manuals, it does not mean they are correct. Just as the Spartans claimed to be 'descended from Hercules' and the Nazis from pure white Aryan ancestors, the ninja did not necessarily descend from the 'historical' persons they mention. The Shoninki manual states: 'Shinobi have existed in Japan since ancient times'; the Shinobi Hiden states: 'In our country these skills [of ninjutsu] are found as late as in the era of the Emperor who was called Tenchi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (626-672).' The Bansenshukai explains:
Question: When did this way [of ninjutsu] come into use in our country [of Japan]?
Answer: A brother of the 38th Emperor Tenchi was Emperor Temmu. In this period when Prince Seiko plotted treason against him and holed up in a castle that he had constructed in Atago of Yamashiro Province, the Emperor Temmu had a shinobi named Takoya [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and he infiltrated the fortress. Takoya got into the castle and set fire to it, as a result the emperor penetrated its defences and the castle fell without difficulty. This is the first time that ninjutsu was used in our country. This is written in the Chronicles of Japan. Since then no general has not used this skill. It is also said that those generals who fully exploited ninjutsu were Ise no Saburo Yoshimori, Kusunoki Masashige and his son, Takeda Shingen, Mori Motonari, Echigo Kenshin, and Lord Oda Nobunaga. Of them, Yoshimori produced 100 poems about the shinobi and they have been passed down to this day.
As can be seen, the ninja themselves believed in a history which stretched back well before the actual period that ninjutsu appears in the historical record, predating that appearance by hundreds of years. It can be argued that the Bansenshukai's origin story was based on Fujibayashi consulting the Shinobi Hiden manual, as he may have had access to it. If that is the case it helps to support the idea of a unified and well connected ninja community, which possibly shared a common origin story. However, the problems are compounded by the fact that after the Bansenshukai, many documents simply copy the latter manual's information and origin story.
It can be stated that the ninja believed that their skills had an origin in China and that at some point, by an unknown medium, the arts of the ninja were brought to the shores of Japan, where they were then perfected, altered or honed by the warriors of Japan and that the people in the regions of Iga and Koka were the exemplars of the skills of the ninja. With the Chinese immigrant origin not based on historical records, we need to look at the documents we have.
The Seventh-Century Myth
One recurring myth is that of a seventh-century use of the word shinobi. This myth has its foundation in the scroll the Ninjutsu Ogiden (1840) where it says that the origin of the name shinobi was established in the seventh century; Otomo no Sahito, who was a retainer of Prince Shotoku, worked as his agent and was called a 'shinobi' [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
The Ninjutsu Ogiden is the second scroll of that name, the first being from the Sengoku period, however the one used here is from 1840, near the end of the Edo period. The word shinobi was not only well established by this point but also at the end of its military significance. Therefore, this information appears to be highly dubious as there is no historical documentation to support this statement in any way, and it should be considered to be a fabrication of the author, which means that the actual first mention of shinobi is in the Taiheki war chronicle.
The Taiheiki War Chronicle
The first historically identifiable use of the ideogram for ninja [??] as a definite name for a military role, dates to the late fourteenth century, where two descriptive segments discuss the shinobi and show their first confirmed usage, the document is the famous Taiheiki war chronicle. Volume 20 states:
One night, as it was windy and raining, Moronao took advantage of the weather and sent out an Itsu mono no shinobi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [excellent ninja] to infiltrate Hatchiman Yama and to set fire to the buildings.
Volume 24 continues with the second use of shinobi:
The Shogunate's military governor, Tsuzuki-nyudo, led 200 armed people on a night raid, and approached Shijomibu, from the direction where Kukkyo no shinobi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII](robust ninja) were hiding. Those soldiers [ninja] in the complex did not care for life or death and went to the top of a building and after spending all their arrows committed suicide (hara kaki yaburu).
This document of the late fourteenth century deals primarily with the Nanboku-cho, the period of war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino. It features the tactics of the famous general, Kusunoki Masashige; only a few early copies survive. The manual viewed by the Research Team was the Seigenin Bon version at Tokyo University and dates to between 1520 and 1550. The Kanda Bon manual is the oldest but only a single chapter remains and unfortunately it contains neither of the above references.
This finding initiates some debate. Firstly, most 'anti-ninja' historians argue that the term shinobi was an invention of the Edo period, which is without doubt incorrect, as through this find (and others) we know the term shinobi predates the Edo period. The Seigenin version –viewed by the team – has the correct ideogram and as this was written in the early 1500s it shows that the ideogram shinobi is clearly recognised in the Sengoku period, putting the ninja in Japan well before the time of peace. Secondly, the fact that it comes with no explanation as to what a 'shinobi' is, proves that the word was in common usage and was accepted as a fact, implying that the shinobi as an entity was present in the early 1300s and possibly before.
Further shinobi-like skills are clearly displayed in other sections of the Taiheiki, such as the following episode concerning Kasagi Castle:
Under the cover of this night's rain and wind, let us secretly enter the castle precincts to amaze the men of the realm with a night attack!
Thereupon all drew holy pictures to wear in preparation for death, since they were resolved not to return alive. They took two lead ropes for horses, 100 feet long, knotted them at intervals of a foot, and tied a grapnel at the end, that by hanging ropes from branches and boulders they might climb over the rocks.
Excerpted from In Search of the Ninja by Antony Cummins. Copyright © 2012 Antony Cummins. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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