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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogWhat is a Ninja? Let’s Find Out!

What is a Ninja? Let’s Find Out!

Tokyo TerryTokyo Terry
Published Time
Posted on 
April 16, 2024
Modified Time
Updated last 
May 16, 2024
A man in black garb, in front of a sword, answering the question "what is a ninja?"

Back in Japan’s old days, when battles were common, the big shots lived safely in their massive castles, but regular folks weren’t so lucky. Out of these challenging times, a group of fighters emerged. They became legendary warriors and were both respected and feared. Let’s take a look and answer the ultimate question: “What is a ninja?”

Who were the ninja? 

Ninjas popped up during a really rough time in Japan’s history. Many strong families owned the best pieces of land and always fought each other. Farmers, who had it pretty tough, had to give up many of their crops in taxes to help pay for these wars, sometimes even all of their food.

Three men in all black, posing with swords.
The ninja use an array of weapons. Image via Shutterstock

When the government became unstable, robbers caused trouble everywhere. To keep them safe, villagers sometimes hired samurai without masters, called ronin, to protect them. But when they ran out of money for this, they had to figure out how to defend themselves!

Initially, these village fighters, known as jizamurai, tried fighting using their farming tools. But those tools weren’t enough when they had to face off against bigger groups of samurai. So, these jizamurai started forming “clans,” using real samurai swords, and learned how to fight like samurai. These guys were the early ninjas. In areas like Koga and Iga, they even made their own rules and stopped listening to the local leaders!

What makes ninja unique?

Ninjitsu, which people now call ninpo, is a mix of unique skills ninjas use. These warriors often found themselves outnumbered, so they had to be super sneaky and use surprise attacks to win. The word “ninja” means “invisible person” in English. They were also called other names like shinobi, which means “to hide,” nokizau, or “roof monkey,” and monomi, or “watcher,” all because they were really good at staying out of sight!

Different ninja families wrote their tricks in books and even started schools to teach them. Pretty soon, armies wanted these sneaky warriors for their own teams. Ninjas were excellent at hiding and setting up surprise attacks. They were also great climbers, which came in handy for sneaking into places that were supposed to be safe.

A man in ninja garb standing on a rock.
Ninja were secret warriors in feudal Japan. Image via Shutterstock

Plus, their smarts about the weather and places made them excellent scouts. Big shots like lords and daimyo hired them for all sorts of jobs, from being bodyguards to being secret hitmen. Ninjas were so valuable that sometimes they worked for both sides in a fight!

The most important job for a ninja was spying. While movies show them wearing all-black outfits to sneak around at night, being able to blend in was actually more important. They kept using some of their farm tools as weapons to walk around armed without anyone getting suspicious. Being able to disguise themselves (hensojutsu) and gather secret information (choho) was key to being a ninja.

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Who were some notable ninja?

Hattori Hanzo

Hattori Hanzo was a ninja warrior from Iga province who participated in many battles. He’s famous for helping Tokugawa Ieyasu become the leader of Japan, also known as the shogun. After a really intense battle, Tokugawa was chased by enemy soldiers. 

A statue of Hattori Hanzo.
Hattori Hanzo served the Tokugawa family during the Edo period. Image via Lai Times

But Hattori Hanzo and his ninja friends from the Iga clan swooped in and ensured Tokugawa got to safety. Thanks to their bravery, Hanzo and his crew became Tokugawa’s official bodyguards at his castle in Edo, now known as Tokyo. And guess what? There’s even a subway line in Tokyo named after Hanzo, called the Hanzomon Line!

Kato Danzo

A wood block painting of hattori hanxo.
Kato Danzo was a ninja master during the 16th century! Image via YouTube/See You In History/Mythology

Kato Danzo is the reason we have the Naruto anime! He popularized using smoke to escape and “spells” (jujutsu) to quiet guard dogs. A daimyo challenged Danzo to show off his skills by stealing a sword from a castle. Danzo stole the sword and kidnapped a staff member without anyone noticing!

Fuma Kotaro

Fuma Kotaro was the boss of the Fuma clan in Kanagawa Prefecture. This clan might not have been as well-known as the Iga and Koga ninja clans, but they were really good at fighting in wars.

A woodblock painting of Fuma Kotaro.
Fuma Kotaro’s clan specialized in horseback riding! Image via Swords of Northshire

They were expert thieves and even had special groups who fought on horseback and acted like pirates. Kotaro is famous for leading an attack at night that was so sneaky that the enemy fought each other by mistake! You can now find the Fuma clan popping up in anime, manga, and video games.

Why are ninjas important?

Ninjas are important because they taught us how to be smart and quick on our feet. They started as regular farmers who had to defend their homes and fields when things got rough. Instead of giving up, they became some of the sneakiest and most clever warriors. They didn’t have fancy weapons—just their farm tools and brains. But they changed what happened in Japan and made a name for themselves worldwide. Ninjas show us that anyone can do amazing things with creativity and determination.

A man with long hair, with a sword on his back.
What else do you know about ninja? Image via Shutterstock

Jinichi Kawakami, the last known ninja from the Koga clan and a college professor, announced in 2012 that the traditional ninja clans were ending. But he also showed us that the ninja spirit is still alive through things like martial arts, museums, and all the ninja stories we see in movies and TV. Is there anything we missed about ninjas? Let us know in the comments below!

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