The history of ninjutsu is long and ancient. As it is next to impossible to say where, how, by who or from who ninjutsu was created, we find numerous theories and stories that tell tales of Chinese and Korean immigrants, shugenja (ascetics), Buddhist monks, Taoists, farmers, thieves, magicians, and other conjurers. Therein lay many interpretations based on different texts where information is easily confused and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell truth from falsehood.
Add as well the fact that the image of a warrior clad in black, popularized by the Japanese chan bara and American action films, that has inspired the imagination of more than one, is very recent in Japanese history. In fact, this popular image only first appeared in the years 1770-1780 in picture books. Associated with this is a blend of heroic legends, esoteric religious practices, stories of magic and invisibility, etc. that leads us to the charismatic image of the "super ninja spy". Of course, the real story is something else altogether.
1. Designations during the different periods.
In the study of the history of ninjutsu and the ninja, we need to forget about the idea of men dressed in black as well as the name attributed to them. The term ninja was first used in Buyô Benryaku, a work compiled in 1684 by Kinoshita Gishun, where we can read one of the first definitions of the ninja and his practice: "The ninja were people who knew how to conceal themselves at home as well as in other provinces. Among them, some knew techniques that allowed them to infiltrate secretly, any protected area…"
A detailed look at the facts presented in the Japanese military chronicles shows us that the ninja had different names depending on the period, region, and depending on his skills. The first names were Kansai and Kancho which signify espionage, meticulous search. During the Asuka period (592-710), under the reign of regent prince Shotoku Taishi (574-622), the term shinobi, made up of three Sino Japanese characters, is used. It can be translated by the following sentence: "The talent or capacity that allows one to realize his goals by seizing the opportune moment", or perhaps "The talent or capacity to master information". This name tells us that the ninja and his practice allowed him to employ all of his resources to assimilate and master knowledge in all its forms, as this was vital in times of war. Under the reign of emperor Tenmu (673-686), the most common name was Sokkan which signifies "He whose knowledge allows him to master space and the most confined corners". Here again, we must note that very early in Japanese history, those we will call ninja much later on, are always a part of the close entourage of a powerful lord or emperor.
In the treatise on military strategy and espionage written by Sun Tzu, introduced to Japan by Kibi Makibi (693-775), among the five categories of spies presented, Sun Tzu placed on a pedestal those who, in addition to being patient, clever and wise also possessed a vast amount of knowledge on warfare and espionage. This type of spy called Shokan, would be part of the inner circle of the general, who would in return compensate him generously.
The provinces of Iga and Koga (today's Mie and Shiga), thanks to their difficult positions of access and the fact that they escaped control of the neighboring provinces, became quickly known as the breeding ground for ninjutsu and the ninja. The most common name was Iga no mono (the men of Iga or those of Iga) and Koga no mono (the men of Koga or those of Koga). In certain chronicles we may also find the terms Iga shu and Koga shu which signify the group or band of Iga or Koga. One of the names that best illustrates the character of invisibility and the art of concealment in ninjutsu is the term Musoku bito, which mean "those who walk, to act without being seen, or without being able to see their legs". One of the technical terms in ninjutsu referring to the way of movement in combat with or without a weapons, is Musoku no ho, or ninja aruki-ho. The term Musoku no ho can be found in many schools of classical bujutsu whose traditions trace back to the Kage ryu.
During the Nara period (710-794) different characters were used to designate the ninja, but their reading was always the same. They were all read Ukami. The chronicles of the time give Ukami the meaning of Mawashi no mono, the prowler. Several centuries later with the emergence of the warrior class at the head of power and beginning with the warriors of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the necessity to have a type of warrior experienced in diverse unorthodox techniques was of utmost importance. Therefore, those who would become known as the ninja represented the hidden end of the iceberg in every battle. In fact, they were capable of tipping the scales of battle in an instant by employing unorthodox methods that the warrior class of the Kamakura period had not yet created. In the annals of the bakufu of the Muromachi period (1392-1475), the term used to designate the ninja was kagimono hiki, "those who appear from the shadows".
It was during the Sengoku period (1477-1603), where as the result of sporadic war, that many lords looked to expand their hegemony and the services of the ninja became extremely sought after. Here, the names also became numerous and varied according to warlord, region, etc. One that best signifies the ninja and his practice was that of Kanja which can be translated as "man of the moment" or "man who slips between the cracks". This shows already that the value of the follower of ninjutsu was renowned for his exceptional and multidisciplinary talents that allowed him to handle any situation. In the Kanto region where the current capital of Japan, Tokyo is located, we find another type of ninja who operated within a group like an elite unit on the front lines that was sent in to create disorder and confusion. The chronicle relating to these historical events concerning the Hojo family, the Hojo Godai-ki, gives the terms Rappa, Seppa, and Suppa that hold the meaning "creating disorder and confusion" or "to infiltrate like a wave and to insight confusion". The term Shinobi no mono, "one who endures without showing himself", is also cited here.
The chronicle that recorded the military accomplishments of the Takeda family, the Koyo Gunkan, gives the term Kagimono hiki. The famous warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), well known for an unparalleled hatred towards the ninja of the Iga region and who would later crush them in 1580, had his own ninja called Kyodan, "those who hear the whispers". Even Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) used ninja who survived the battle of Iga, where most met a tragic end. He employed different ninja according to their respective skills and talents in order to control any risk of outburst during the Edo period (1603-1867). Some of the names used were Onmitsu; secret agent of the bakufu, and Oniwaban; guards that protected those close to the Tokugawa family and the quarters that were reserved for them in the castle. The Metsu-ke, acted as informers who brought back all types of information to avoid any kind of outburst and maintain peace. The Teppo-tai was a group that served as close protection for the shogun during his travels outside the castle walls. These groups would become the origin of the various police groups, the armed future that began to take shape during the Edo period.
2. History and Origins
The many names, appellations, and functions show how truly difficult it is to define the origin of ninjutsu. Moreover, with the mere utterance of the terms seen above and those over the course of the centuries, it becomes clear that ninjutsu is much more than a simple guerilla warfare technique or unorthodox style of combat, as there were many in Japan. Its diversity and complexity are the source of its creation as a method using orthodox means and techniques in non-orthodox ways.
This discipline devoted to survival, which will later be called ninjutsu, debuts as a vaguely defined counter-culture, a forced reaction against the dominant current of political, economic, and social traditions of Japan. Absorbing everything that would allow it to overcome any situation, it would withstand and accept the influences of many trends and sciences of combat introduced from abroad. All of this knowledge would be incorporated with the local knowledge of different warriors taking from their experiences of war, suffering, defeat, and in turn survival. Due to the inaccessibility of their geographic positions, the regions of Iga and Koga represented the ideal locations for cultural groups, dissidents, and warriors looking to avoid the political and economic powers of the time. It was between the 6th and 7th centuries, with the arrival of numerous immigrants from China and Korea, and with them new esoteric religious currents, that ninjutsu took on a multicultural façade while still maintaining its uniquely Japanese roots.
Slowly but surely with the rise of the warrior class, ninjutsu developed itself and eventually became the central element to ensure a victory or to control information. In every war we find a group of ninja or a single ninja operating in the shadows for the purpose of reestablishing equilibrium. The first historical appearance of the ninja was in the battle magari no jin in 1487 in the province of Koga where the lord Rokkaku Takayori was saved by a group of Koga ninja. Other battles would follow suit, always requiring the services of ninja. All of the warlords of Japan, emperors, and temples employed ninja. They also possessed an ability that the traditional warriors did not. In essence, they could terminate their contract or change sides at their discretion and most importantly, had complete freedom of movement. This was not the case for the bushi, as they were bound to their lord until the latter's death.
The battle of Iga, known under the name Iga no ran (1581), put an end to the autonomy of the large ninja families of Iga. This region, since long ago, had served refuge for dissidents, rebels, and other disenchanted warriors who wanted to live freely. Families such as the Hattori, Momochi, and Fujibayashi controlled the entire region of Iga, whereas Koga was controlled by more than 50 families of warrior descent. The schools of ninjutsu that were later created all came from the Iga ryu and Koga ryu as their technical base lay in a profound knowledge and science in the use of the body in combat. After the battle of Iga the remaining members of the last families such as the Hattori, took up posts with the Tokugawa. They previously saved Tokugawa by escorting him safely to his fief across Iga after the attack of Mitsuhide at Honno temple (1582) where Nobunaga met his end by committing seppuku. The help given by the Hattori family, by way of Hattori Hanzo (1543-1596), impressed Ieyasu to the point that he took them into his service, which would last all the way to the end of the Edo period. The battles of Sekigahara (1600) and the two campaigns against Osaka castle; (1614) and Shimabara (1637) would prove to be the last battles in which the ninja partook. Their pragmatic technique and role survived adaptation to the new demands of the Edo period where a relative peace was installed by the Tokugawa family which would last right up to reopening of Japan to the outside world in 1868.
Today we can still find documents, weapons, tools, and writings presented to the public in several museums across Japan, though the best known are those in Iga (Mie prefecture) and Koga (Shiga prefecture). To the eyes of Japanese visitors or western passersby, all of the weapons, documents and writings maintain the myth of the infamous warrior that was the ninja.
Principle historical dates based on fact:
-1487, the battle of magari, magari no jin, first appearance of the ninja in battle against the lord Rokkaku Takayori for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshihisa.
-1581, the Iga revolt, Iga no ran. Nobunaga Oda and an army of 46000 men invaded the province of Iga and executed its inhabitants. The surviving families such as the Hattori, Momochi, and Fujibayashi fled to other provinces like Ise, Kishu, and Mikawa.
-1582, Incident at Honno temple, Honnoji no hen. Fearing an attack by Mitsuhide Akechi, Tokugawa Ieyasu called upon the survivors of Iga, in particular Hattori Hanzo, who would escort him between the cities of Sakai and Mikawa.
-1600, the battle of Sekigara.
-1614, campaign against Osaka castle.
-1637, Shimabara rebellion in Kyushu. Last major military role played by the ninja. 10 among them infiltrated Hara castle where 40 000 Christian rebels were entrenched. They collected information on the troops and lived in the castle.
-1674, writing of the densho containing the uses and techniques of the ninja families of Iga and Koga called the Bansen shukai (Ocean of Ten Thousand Rivers) written by Fujibashi Yasutake, a descendent of an Iga family.