The ninja need no introduction — you’ve seen these black-clad secret agents all over the internet and film, right? Well, as it turns out, the image currently in your head is nothing like the actual ninja of old Japan. Everything from the sword and clothing to the name itself is way off! So what did these historic assassins — actually known as shinobi in contemporary accounts— really wear and use?
That’s a big question, and one which is jumbled up with centuries of mystification and misinformation. This can be attributed to the inherently shadowy nature of their work, which left plenty of gaps in history, in which the imaginations of later generations ran wild.
A Ninja and Prince Hikaru Genji by Utagawa Kunisada (1854), published
long after the end of the ninja era.
What we do know for sure is that the two main shinobi groups held power in Iga and Shiga province, believed to have come from a class of petty samurai derived from farming families who formed into clans and acquired power during the turmoil of the 15th century. As the two most accomplished exponents of the widely-used guerrilla warfare tactics of the day, the Iga and Kōga clans enjoyed a heyday which lasted until the unification of Japan in 1603.
These mercenary organizations held a legitimate place in mainstream military culture; basically your go-to guys for every dirty trick in the book — from killing an enemy lord in his bed, to ambushing a trade caravan in the forest, to burning down watchtowers — usually paving the way for more conventional military approaches.
Over the centuries of peace which followed the age of the ninja, their legacy was romanticized and profited on by a succession of people who transformed them into legendary figures in popular folklore, Chinese-influenced instruction manuals, stage dramas, and historically sketchy 20th-century martial arts movements. Without further ado, let’s cut through all of this accumulated misinformation and mystification, and look at what tools these dirty tricksters really used in the field.
Dispelling the Myths
This iconic sword is usually associated with the samurai rather than ninja, but in fact, the two were often one and the same! Far from being the lowly commoners, they’re often portrayed as, many shinobi agents were born as members of the samurai clans, often inheriting the role. These noble-blooded ninjas held higher status in the organizations than those from lower classes.
In movies, ninjas are usually portrayed with shorter, straight swords, known as ninjatō. These are a total fabrication, developed through a process of misinterpretation during the pop culture craze with Japanese martial arts in the mid to late 20th century. Granted, shinobi are believed to have often preferred katana which were on the shorter side, but they were katana nonetheless.
A katana (top, 1440) and wakizashi (bottom, 18th century). The samurai class typically carried the two as a pair.
Resourcefulness was key to a ninja’s success, so their gear typically had a few different functions. Specialized hand-guards on the katana (often larger than normal, or square-shaped) allowed them to be used as an impromptu step ladder. Another clever adaptation adopted by some shinobi was the addition of a blinding powder to the top end of the scabbard, which would be thrown up in a cloud towards an enemy when the sword was unsheathed.
These small spearhead-like objects are a favorite in the Hong Kong action movies of the 1970s, usually seen being thrown towards enemies like knives. Actually, contemporary accounts reveal these were primarily used as climbing tools, to bore and scrape holds into plaster walls, or jam between bricks. It is likely, however, that one or two unfortunate palace guards also found a kunai sticking out of their neck as they patrolled the walls at night.
A historic example of a kunai, less stylized than the kind familiar from TV and film.
Potentially the source of the kunai confusion, these small metal weapons were the actual throwing weapons of the era. Their iconic designs are likewise familiar from pop culture, coming in a wide range of shapes — all of them sharp and deadly. But they weren’t quite as closely related to ninja as we think. In fact, these were in the arsenal of almost anyone who studied combat in Japan —including the more conventional samurai knights — as a tool for distraction and throwing enemies off balance.
A range of shapes and style of shuriken,
There’s one final myth to bust before we move on to some even more fascinating realities: the clothing of ninja. Sure, an all-black, hooded outfit with a pair of crossed swords on the back makes for a great video-game character, but it’s a little conspicuous when you’re trying to go unnoticed in a crowd. The shinobi shozoku uniform we associate with ninja came about through popular art and dramas of the Edo period and beyond, signifying their mythical invisibility.
A kabuki actor print by Konishi Hirosada (1810-1864). The familiar
black costume was a product of Edo era pop culture.
Much of a ninja’s work was done at night, but when scaling a castle’s walls to spy on a meeting, it was much more practical to dress in the uniform and colors of the guards inside. Sneaking across rooftops and rafters is exhausting, whereas sauntering through the courtyards makes for a much easier life, so the former was avoided unless absolutely necessary.
Really it suited the ninja better to blend in or to simply wear full samurai-style armor if they were hired for a more conventional task such as an ambush. When traveling on the road they could even be disguised as a monk, or a merchant in a market, having studied the in and outs of various professions so they could pass in these roles if questioned.
Of course, their real profession required some special additions. A lightweight shirt of chain mail armor known as a kusari katabira would often be concealed under their disguise, and a long strip of cloth known as a tenugui fulfilled the role of belt, climbing aid, and face mask all in one.
Exploring the Reality
It’s important to note that, while the art of subterfuge practiced by trained ninja had a lot of extra dimensions on top of standard military training, the style mainly made use of existing weapons rather than developing new ones. As with their clothing, inconspicuousness was often key, so weapons popular among commoners and regular soldiers (ashigaru) were often best.
The kama, for example, would fit the bill. With its roots as a farming tool found all across Asia, this short sickle is thought to have been first used as a common improvised weapon by farmers defending their lands. Military applications brought about some modifications, such as an indent at the base of the blade used to lock enemy weapons in place.
The Faithful Samurai Munenori (1864), by Utagawa Kunisada. Munenori
blocks a katana with the chain of his kusarigama.
The addition of a weighted chain to the bottom turned this into the even more deadly kusarigama, which could first ensnare an enemy before closing in for the kill. The similar kyoketsu shoge featured a straight dagger with a hooked prong at the bottom of the blade, a long rope tied through the handle, and a metal ring on the other end. Each of these weapons were both easily concealable — so nobody would be left wondering why the ‘priest’ wandering the palace grounds was armed to the teeth — and useful for climbing buildings or trees for cover.
An 1847 print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi for a copy of 47 Ronin. The yari was
one of the most common weapons of Japanese history.
Other common weapons which wouldn’t draw any unwanted attention included the yari spears used by every class of soldier, and non-bladed weapons which were permitted among the commoners such as tanbō hardwood staffs and chigiriki: a type of flail weapon with an iron weight on the end of a cain, attached to a short hardwood or metal staff. Pocket-sized pieces were also useful when trying to go unnoticed, such as the tekken iron knuckle dusters and tekko-kagi: a claw-like fist weapon originally used by peasants to rake weeds in their fields.
Ubiquitous in Japanese warfare since the ancient era, the shinobi trained in the use of bow and arrows just as much as the more conventionally-trained samurai. Theirs were likely shorter than the conventional yumi longbow, for use in tighter spaces, although standard styles would be used in conventional combat situations.
Jirai, a toad-riding ninja from folklore, dispatches a giant snake with a
firearm (1830). Edo-era ninja stories were... less than realistic.
Once firearms were eventually introduced to Japanese battlefields in the 16th century, they were quickly adopted by anyone with the money to do so, so naturally, there are records that prove these mercenary agents began to use them in assassinations and battles. The matchlock rifles popular in the day could be used at up to around 200 yards, while rarer pocket-sized guns developed in Japan called nigiri-teppo could be used for close-up situations. Hardly the silent and sneaky approach we’re used to, right?
One part of the ninja mythology is pretty on-the-mark: their fondness for climbing. For example, at the Siege of Hara Castle in 1638, a team of shinobi infiltrated the fortress, scaling the walls to make off with the castle’s dwindling food supplies, thereby forcing the desperate defenders to make a few last-ditch pushes in open battle.
The castles of Japan are multi-tiered, with walls dozens of meters tall. As already mentioned, many of the weapons ninja would have had access to could double up as climbing tools, but for more difficult climbs there was a range of other implements at their disposal. One was the aforementioned kunai, which would likely be used in conjunction with a kaginawa grappling hook (literally: ‘hook rope’), which featured one to four hooks on the head, and was also used widely during sieges by conventional samurai and common foot soldiers.
A print from Hokusai's long-running Manga sketch series (1814-1878), in
which an archetypal ninja escapes up a rope.
Iron spikes which were roped onto shoes, known as ashiko, gave some extra purchase when climbing, as did various claw-like handheld instruments known as tekagi. To provide an easy way down once the job was done, thick iron nails could be hammered into a surface and used as grips, or lightweight rope ladders made of bamboo could be unfurled from the top of the wall.
That covers the bulk of the ninja’s main weaponry, but the shinobi’s arsenal wasn’t just limited to tools for climbing and killing. Just as James Bond is nothing without Q’s range of laser watches and explosive cufflinks, the ninja were nothing without their own array of specialized devices. One of the most important of these were the makibishi (caltrops), small spiked implements with many points jutting out in every direction, which were thrown on the floor to injure and slow down pursuers.
Makibishi were made of several materials. The iron kind were known as tetsubishi, and they were often spread
out over strategic areas during sieges.
Another painful piercing tool the shinobi were known to use was the kakute, an iron ring typically worn on the middle finger, with one to three sharp spikes on the outer surface. This easily-concealable little weapon could be used to get a better grip on someone in a fight or be coated in poison to kill or paralyze.
That’s right, poisons were a key part of the ninja inventory. At the training villages where they learned their trade, the curriculum included lessons on the various types and applications. The Shōninki, a shinobi manual written by samurai Natori Masatake in 1681, details several types of poison including cyanide extracted from natural ingredients, and deadly mushrooms which could be easily slipped into a target’s food unnoticed.
A signature method for delivering poisons was the use of a wooden fukiya blowgun. Shinobi used a style around one and a half feet long to fire poison-coated darts at enemies. This device is still used in Japan today, in a sport of the same name, although modern versions are strictly poison-free.
The flip side of studying poison is the study of medicine — after all, many poisons are simply medicines applied in dangerous doses. Ever self-sufficient, shinobi needed to travel equipped with medical supplies for treating wounds, along with the knowledge of how to properly apply them. Because of this, there are some accounts of ninja acting as impromptu battlefield medics when the need arose.
An Edo Era woodblock print (date and artist unknown), featuring a bo-hiya rocket arrow gunner (centre).
The final element of a ninja’s success — on top of steel, rope, stealth, and poison — was fire. That’s right, just like the kid you avoided at all cost in high school, the ninja were accomplished arsonists. A flint and steel fire starting kit was an absolute essential, as fires could be used to damage enemy infrastructure, or to create a chaotic distraction for castle guards. Several historic texts also make reference to the shinobi’s proficiency in using the latest gunpowder tech of the day, including Chinese-style iron grenades filled with shrapnel, smoke bombs for signaling, and the bizarre bo-hiya rocket-propelled fire arrows!
Although the vast majority of what we know about ninja is entangled with centuries of mystification and re-imagination, what’s certain is that these armed-to-the-teeth saboteurs were a force to be reckoned with. Using the latest technology of the day, the clans who specialized in the clandestine arts created such a strong legacy of terror and fascination that their reputation lives on almost 500 years later.