Shinobi. Anyone that has played a video game, watched a martial arts movie, or anime has either heard this term or the more used slang term ninja. Though not many really know that the true origins of the Shinobi was born from chaos and the shadows during a very turbulent time in Japan’s history.
The Shinobi acted as highly trained spies specialising in surprise attacks, covert surveillance and espionage. They acted as mercenaries, selling their services, instead of acting out of honour or loyalty; traits associated with the aristocratic samurai.
Origins of the Shinobi
There are questionable influences that some perceive to be the origins of the ninja(shinobi) such as the story chronicled in the Kojiki(One of Japan’s first history books) that details 4th century Prince Yamato Takeru, who dressed as a maiden to assassinate two chiefs of the Kumasu people.
Another suspected origin is from the 6th century, when Prince Shotoku used acts of espionage during his family’s reign.
Another possible influence was Koharumaru, known as the boy spy, who was executed by Taira no Masakado for spying against the samurai’s insurgent forces against the Kyoto central government.
However, none of these are the true origins of the Shinobi.
The actual word “shinobi” dates back to the 8th century in the poems of Man’yoshu which define the word to mean “to steal away, to hide”. This word became associated with these groups which performed acts, whereby they would need to stay out of sight and get away without detection.
Since they performed acts in secret, there really isn’t much written history of shinobi clans, because they weren’t considered honorable members of society and worked in the shadows.
They were perceived as dishonorable for taking money for their services and not having loyalty to a certain group.
The members were also mostly from the lower class, so not much literary interest was taken in documenting the acts of perceived lesser people.
The birth of the Shinobi can be dated back to the Sengoku Period in Japan (Sengoku Jidai/Age of Warring States 1467-1600). During this period, Japan was in a state of constant war with social upheaval within social classes and political figures vying for more power.
Japan’s Emperor, who was the official ruler of the nation, divided power between his Shoguns, which were basically the top Generals in the Country.
The shoguns appointed local lords (daimyos) to rule over parts of their designated territory, but with economies and agriculture growing in these provinces, it was hard for the central government to hold power over local lords. There was constant battles between lords to control more territory.
This upheaval boiled over with the Onin War(1467-1477), a civil war between the Ashikaga shogunate and a number of local lords.
The war would last ten years and would start the continuing conflicts between shoguns for over the next hundred years, helping create the birth of mercenaries that would later be called shinobi.
Since the Sengoku period was a time of unrest, there was a demand for shady acts to be committed and there were desperate people willing to carry them out. Men and women were recruited to commit various tasks such as arson, raids, spy, and various acts of terrorism for their employers. They were then trained to become experts in these dark arts and later were categorized by roles and a hierarchy of ranks.
Kancho(spy)- Their job was to infiltrate enemy areas and obtain certain information needed by their employer.
Tiesatsu(scout)- They would be instructed to scout out enemy troops and report back their findings, so the commanders could come up with a battle strategy.
Kishu(assassin)- These shinobi were the killers that would generally try to assassinate enemy leaders and escape without detection.
Konran(agitator/terrorist)- Finally, this group of shinobi would be designated to commit acts of terror whether it be setting fire to a castle or start riots within a Shogun’s territory. Causing chaos was their objective.
Kunoichi– This was the name given to female shinobi. These women were just as cunning as the men and were prominent in the 16th century.
There was also a ranking system that was developed within clans consisting of three positions.
Jonin(leader/top rank)- The Jonin was the representative of a shinobi clan hiring his/her people out for various missions.
Chunin(Middleman/woman)- They would work directly under the Jonin assisting the leader with contracts and group business.
Genin(agents)- Genins were the rank that would carry out the actual missions.
Shinobi were proficient in using a variety of different weapons. Depending on the mission a shinobi had a weapon perfect for any situation.
Shuriken(ninja star)- The most famous weapon of the shinobi, this was a portable circular metal plate with different points or barbs. There were 40-50 types of shuriken used by shinobis, which gave them the ability to travel lighter and the opportunity to coat the ends with a variety of lethal substances: poisons, tranquilizers, and even faecal matter.
Katana– Samurai weren’t the only ones that used katanas and actually a main weapon of the shinobi. Katanas were a grab weapon for them being a lightweight blade they could easily hide and quickly grab to slash an enemy.
Kusari-Gama– The weight and kama blade combination connected by a chain was easily concealable and carried around by normal people that weren’t allowed to carry a katana. The weight would be thrown to either bash an enemy or wrap around an enemy giving a shinobi the ability to pull them in to land the final slash with the sickle.
Kunai– Another staple weapon in a shinobi’s arsenal was also used as a tool. The steel blade with a handle/rope hole gave them the ability to climb walls by either going up walls by stabbing into them or by attaching it to a rope to use it as a grappling hook.
Makibishi– An escape weapon for a shinobi that were basically little spikes ninjas would throw when making their escape. The spikes would penetrate the enemy’s feet making them unable to run.
Tekko-Kagi– These were the bladed claws people would wear in close combat and were also the inspiration for the claw hands of marvel character Wolverine. Also doubled for a tool for farming.
Tekken– Similar to tekko-kagi, but more like knuckle dusters with smaller blades.
Kakute– A bladed ring a shinobi would wear to either grasp to tear an artery or wear the blade facing outward to use it as a knuckle duster.
Naginata– A pole armed weapon over 200cms tall used to attack at a distance. There were reported instances of assaissination attempts using it to stab the enemy from under the floor.
Fukiya– a blowgun that was about a meter long which the Sinobi could use to strike at a distance. The darts were 8 inches or less and like the shuriken would be coated in certain substances to kill, aggravate, immobilize a target.
Nigiri-Teppo (blackpowder handgun) – Europeans allegedly introduced firearms to Japan, but blackpowder had been around for years used for artillery. Shinobi would used improvised pipe guns that were easily disposable filled with blackpowder and various shrapnel.
Houroku-Hiya– Was basically the original Japanese pipe bomb. They were filled with various objects and used to commit an act of terror.
(Shinobi also used other various types of daggers, short blades, and arrows.)
Shinobi infiltrating enemy territory were said to have 6 tools that they would always carry.
Kaginawa– This was a climbing tool shinobi would use. A rope connected to a metal hook for scaling walls.
Inro: A small box of medicine and herbs used to quickly manage a wound.
Sekihitsu– a pen made of charcoal clay for writing.
Sanjaku-Tenugi – a cotton towel
Hidane/Amigasa– a type of kindling to make fire.
Shinobi Training Techniques
What we refer to today as “ninjutsu” were actually multiple disciplines a shinobi would learn to survive.
Physical Training– All shinobi needed to be strong and agile and would practise long distance running, climbing, carrying weights, and learn proper methods of walking and swimming stealthily.
Disguise – They were masters of blending into plain site and imitation. Learning the ability to disappear into a crowd or pose as enemy guards to get close to a target.
Weapons – They had to be ready for all types of combat, so they needed to train for every scenario. Short swords and daggers for close combat, arrows for long distance attacks, and various other weapons for surprise strikes.
Scouting and Survival – All shinobi had to know how to survive in different terrains and be able to navigate to where they’re going, while staying undetected.
Medicine – When in the wilderness a shinobi needed to have knowledge of plants and herbs they could use as medicine depending on the situation. Knowledge of poison would also go hand in hand with learning medicine.
While ninjas(shinobi) are thought to have worn all black and to have disguised their face, they actually had no uniform. They were spies, so they would generally wear what everyone else was wearing and remain inconspicuous. Shinobi would wear dark clothes at night during night missions to remain unseen, but it wasn’t something they would just casually wear on the street.
The Iga and Koga Clans
Iga and Koga were regions were in the now Shiga Prefecture on the western side of Honshu Island. In these regions, were villages located within mountains that were remote and almost inaccessible. This was said to have played a role in the development of secret shinobi groups and how they trained.
Historical documents such as the Go Kagami Furoku and Nochi Kagami had written accounts of the two clan’s origins. They both confirm that families within these regions were known for developing the skills of elite shinobi warriors. Different accounts of activities involving members these clans were documented between 1485-1638. There are also a few lesser known clans, but these two were the most prominent.
There were many known shinobi during this time, but here are just a few of the most famous ones and the actions they were famous for.
Tomo Sukesada: He was a jonin of the Koga clan and head of the Tomo Ryu tradition. In 1562, Sukesada was hired by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was working in alliance Oda Nobunaga and trying to finish wiping out the remaining members of the Imagawa clan that were holed up in Kaminogou castle.
It was a strategic location Ieyasu needed, so he hired Sukesada to lead 80 koga to infiltrate the castle. Under the cover of darkness Sukesada and his men invaded the castle killing 200 Imagawas and setting fire to the castle towers. (The incident was detailed in the Mikawa Go Fudoki.)
Mochizuki Chiyome: Chiyome is possibly the most famous kunoichi. Rumored to be a member of the kolga clan, Chiyome was the wife of samurai warlord Mochizuki Nobumasa and was left to care for his uncle Takeda Shingen, while her husband was gone.
She was given a mission by Shingen to recruit women from across the province and train them to be part of an underground network of female espionage operatives. Headquarters was set up in Nazu village in the Shinsu region that was assumed to be an orphanage for victimized women, but in reality it was a shinobi training center that trained around 300 women to be spies and assassins.
Hattori Hanzo: Hattori Mansanari is definitely the most well known shinobi renown for many acts, but probably most notably known for saving the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu and helped him become the ruler that united Japan. He was an Iga shinobi that helped organize the safe passage through the Iga province for Ieyasu, when he was thrust into a position of power after the assassination of his superior Nobunaga.
This betrayal by one of Lord Nobunaga’s closest cabinet members put Ieyasu and his family in danger. So, Hattori brought together his fellow Iga shinobi, as well as rival members of the Koga clan and saved the life of Ieyasu.
In return for his loyalty, Hanzo became the palace guard of the Tokugawa shogunate at Edo Castle and his legacy would continue to live on thanks to tales of his suspected supernatural abilities and his name being passed to his successors making him seem immortal.
Shinobi vs Samurai
The shinobi and samurai were the most well known warriors Japan produced, but they couldn’t be anymore different from one another. Samurai were from military nobility that lived by the code of bushido giving their undying loyalty to their master and living a respectful life with honor and dignity.
Shinobi were the exact opposite, made up of lower class people that were trained to commit acts of irregular warfare that were considered dishonorable in Japanese culture. Both had their part to play in the history of Japan, but they eventually faded away as times changed and the nation became more unified.
The Shinobi Diet
A lot of the shinobi lore is still shrouded in mystery, so it’s hard to narrow down what exactly their diet was, but it was considered well balanced and many were most likely vegetarians, if their diet was similar to the poor farmers they shared a social class with.
There were two known rules for a shinobi’s diet.
One was they couldn’t be above 60kg(130lbs), so they had to stay slim and agile moving within the shadows.
The other was no pungent foods, so they couldn’t eat anything like garlic or leeks that could make them become foul smelling leading them to give away their position to their enemies.
Difference Between Ninja/Shinobi
You often hear the words ninja and shinobi and may be wondering if there was a difference between the two. In fact, there isn’t.
Ninja is actually a slang term popularized during WW2 and the more used term in pop culture.
Shinobi is actually the proper nomenclature for these Japanese mercenaries and is the word used in Japanese history books.
Do Ninjas Still Exist?
While there is no direct lineage to the original teachers of shinobi from over 500 years ago, the techniques they practiced are still taught today at ninjutsu schools around the world. Even though the schools of today can’t be traced passed the Meiji era it does not make the techniques any less effective.
The shinobi may be gone and not all the facts of their history are known, but they are still celebrated in pop culture to this day.
Ninjas(shinobi) will always be cool.