Saturday, September 05, 2009

Nine Myths of the Ninja

In honor of this month's MIDNIGHT MADNESS II: NINJAFEST at Greensboro's Carousel Luxury Cinema, which kicked off tonight with the insane NINJA: THE FINAL DUEL, and continues next Friday with Chuck Norris in THE OCTAGON (with Sho Kosugi's REVENGE OF THE NINJA and the terrible but hilarious SAMURAI COP on subsequent Fridays), here are nine myths about Ninjas.

1) They were called ninjas.

The word "ninja" is derived from the Japanese Shinobi-no-mono, which is written with two kanji characters that can also be pronounced as nin-sha, but only if the Chinese pronunciation is used. In modern Japanese, they are usually referred to as Shinobi.

2) They wore those nifty black pyjamas.

Those costumes are actually relics of the 19th century Japanese stage, which helped form the modern image of the ninja, one that has little to do with the historical reality. In mythology, ninjas were supposed to be able to turn invisible, so actors portraying them adopted the same outfits as the stage hands and puppeteers who were supposed to be "unseen" by the audience. In reality, ninjas, if they ever really existed, dressed like peasants, or women, or soldiers in the enemy army.

3) They used a straight sword called a ninjato.

Another relic of the 19th century stage, where it was a useful way of distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys (ninjas were usually villains in the theater). There is evidence that some "ninjas" may have used a modified short (but curved) sword with the hilt and scabbard of a long sword, as this allowed them to draw it at very close range (and to hold it out with one hand as if it was being offered in surrender, then whip out the short blade with the other hand when the unwary opponent came within range), much like some Italian assassins may have used a dagger with a rapier's hilt that fit inside a scabbard. But even this claim is controversial.

4) That sword's scabbard could also be used as a breathing tube and blowgun.

Fun movie bullshit, but bullshit just the same. This is totally the invention of 20th Century practitioners of "ninjitsu," the LARPers of the martial arts world.

5) A shuriken could kill at great distances.

Generally speaking, a shuriken couldn't kill at all, unless one got very lucky or the victim later died from infection (always a possibility in those days). It's not meant to kill, it's meant as a distraction, to be used at fairly close range. For instance, when an armed opponent was closing in on a ninja, the ninja could throw a shuriken at his face. While the opponent was cursing and pulling the pointy metal star out of his face, the ninja could either attack with his own primary weapon or (more likely) attempt to escape.

6) Ninjas used smoked bombs and "black eggs" filled with esoteric powders.

Again, pure bullshido from the LARPers of the modern martial arts world. This myth also has its origin in the 19th century stage, where actors playing ninjas affected "disappearences" via the same kind of theatrical pyrotechnics used by European magicians (and actors playing Devils and magicians in stage melodramas).

7) Ninjas had special shoes that let them walk on water.

In reality, some ninjas MAY have used snowshoe-like footwear that allowed to walk on the surface of rice paddies and over mud without sinking in, but these contraptions don't work on actual water, as MYTHBUSTERS has shown. And while these are displayed in a couple of "ninja museums" in Japan, there are skeptics who feel they were actually used only by rice farmers, not by stealthy spies and assassins.

In Japanese, these shoes were called "water spiders." Apparently the Taiwanese makers of NINJA: THE FINAL DUEL took the metaphor literally!

8) Ninjas were master assassins.

Despite their prevalence in the mythology of many cultures, there have almost certainly never been any real world secret societies of master assassins. Throughout history, most assassinations have been performed by amateurs who happened to have special access to the person being assassinated. When feudal Japanese lords wanted to kill their rivals, they bribed the ministers, courtesans or personal bodyguards of those rivals to do the dirty deed, rather than dispatching teams of skulking black clad swordsmen.

Ninjas, as much as they ever existed, were primarily used for scouting and reconnaissance and in siege warfare. Any martial arts they practiced were to defend themselves if discovered, or when sneaking into castles and fortifications, to kill guards and soldiers in order to create a distraction from the main siege party outside.

9) There are modern schools of "Ninjitsu" that can actually trace their techniques back to those used by historical "ninjas."

In the 1970s, Masaaki Hatsumi founded the Bujinkan Association in Japan. Sensei Hatsumi claimed to have studied shinobi martial arts techniques under Toshitsugu Takamatsu, who in turn claimed actual ninja lineage.

These claims are dubious at best (rule of thumb: most martial arts schools are full of BS about their lineage). Masaaki Hatsumi is a formidable martial artist and his various schools teach some very effective techniques, but he is also a canny showman who is not above making bogus claims in order to sell books and entice students. How much he actually learned from Takamatsu, and how Takamatsu's own martial arts styles may have differed from mainstream jiu-jitsu and karate (i.e., possessed any uniquely "ninja" component) are highly disputed matters that are almost impossible to prove.

As for anyone else claiming to teach "ninjitsu" (or "ninjutsu" or "ninpo"), it's almost certainly pure bullshido. Some of these instructors may teach practical and effective self-defense techniques, but their actual historical "ninja content" is nil.

Note: some the above information comes from Peter Nepstad's excellent article at:

I already knew some of this stuff, such as the theatrical origin of the black outfits and the smoke bombs (Peter doesn't really get into the latter) and the less than deadly nature of the shuriken (something which should be obvious to anyone who's ever thrown one at a target), but it was from his old article that I learned the origin of the word "ninja" itself, and his comments about the historical record and its indication of ninja success (or lack thereof) are not to be missed.

My opinion of Masaaki Hatsumi is entirely my own (although one shared by many contributors to the forums at


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