So, you want to be a ninja?

Page from volume 6 of the 15-volume Hokusai Ma...
Page from Volume 6 of 15 Volumes: Hokusai Manga

Have you ever wanted to be a ninja, a covert agent or mercenary of feudal Japan? If so, you would specialize in many unorthodox practices in the arts of war. Your functions would include espionage, sabotage, infiltration and assassination. Still think you are up for the job?

The abilities to be sneaky and deadly quick are your trademarks. You would travel in disguise as the front-line person who goes to check out and judge the enemy’s situation. If you are good at worming your way into other people’s confidence, then you might dress up like one of the enemy and walk among them gathering information. Just don’t get caught. Being hoodwinked is something most people frown upon.

You might be asked to set fire to the enemy’s castle. If you are a secret pyromaniac, this is a good job for you. Another job description besides spy (kanchō), scout (teisatsu), and surprise attacker (kishu), is that of agitator (konran). If you are good at causing a ruckus or a flat-out riot, this could be the job for you.

You will become part of a long and popular sect that has captured the imagination of Japan and the world. Your predecessors figure prominently into Japanese Folklore and legend, though sometimes it is difficult to separate historical fact from myth. Your legendary abilities include that of invisibility, walking on water, shape-shifting or the ability to split into multiple bodies. You should be able to summon animals or transform into them including birds and be able to control natural elements such as earth, wood, metal, fire and water.

Your origins are obscure and difficult to determine. One idea seems to rise above the rest; your predecessors appear to have come into existence in the Heian period, in the early days of Japan, from 794 to 1185, when the capital city was located in Kamakura. Unfortunately, there are few written records to check out these sketchy details. During the unrest of the Sengoku period, that took place from the 15th to the 17th centuries, mercenaries and spies were hired from the Iga and Koga clans.

A good book to get your hands on is the Bansenshukai manual. It was written in 1676 and details Chinese military philosophy as well as the techniques for espionage, the type that formed the basis for the art of ninjutsu. You should definitely study the The Art of War (Sunzi Bingfa), by Sun Tzu. It has invaluable information that you will be required to know. I’m pretty sure, there will be a test or two…

File:Yamato Takeru at 16-crop.jpg

Yamato Takeru dressed as a maidservant, preparing to kill the Kumaso leaders. Woodblock print on paper. Yoshitoshi, 1886.

Your family or clan is organized into larger guilds, each with their own assigned territories. There are also ranks involved. You can aspire to be a jōnin, the “upper man or woman”. It is the twenty-first century after all. This is the highest rank representing the group. If you like to boss people around, or have a “Mommie (or Daddy) Dearest” type of yearning, and if you want to be the person that others come to for hiring out the other members of your guild as mercenaries, then this job could be perfect for you.

The chūnin is the “middle man or woman” and is the assistant to the jōnin. At the bottom of the food chain is the genin or “lower man or woman”. If you don’t want to lead and instead want to be in the thick of it, this is definitely the job for you. You get to carry out the actual missions, which is way more fun, than bossy people around, don’t you think?

You will live in a secluded, remote mountain village, in the provinces of Iga or modern-day Mie Prefecture or Koga, which is now called Shiga Prefecture. This is where all your training takes place. It is the perfect place due to its remote location and inaccessibility of the surrounding mountains.

Also, the skills of ninjutsu require the aid of magic know as an onmyodo (see prior post) to calculate when it is the best times to carry out your covert operations.

File:Bansenshukai-v8-diagram.jpgThis is a diagram from the Bansenshukai, using divination and onmyodo.

Though I must warn you, it may be difficult to join if you were not born into this profession. Tradition is very important and is usually kept in and passed down through the clans. Most ninja are trained from childhood. It is important to learn martial art disciplines, survival and scouting techniques, information regarding poisons and explosives at a very young age. Scary, no?

Physical training that involves long distance runs, climbing, stealth methods of walking and even swimming are also taught to the very young. You must also learn how to blend into the woodwork by studying common professions so that you will be believable when you go incognito as a spy. You may even be asked to have medical training so that you can stitch up a wound right on the spot. You should know how to administer “Black Medicine” that will stop bleeding.

I won’t kid you, there is a lot to learn, so if you are a late starter, better crack the books and polish up your throwing stars. The jōnin will expect a lot right out of the gate.

To help you in your quest, I have included a list of tactics you will need to know (learn):

Hitsuke – the art of distracting the guards by starting a fire away from your planned point of entry. This is a “fire technique” known as (katon-no-jutsu).

Tanuki-gakure is the ability to climb a tree and blend in with the foliage. It is a ”wood technique” known as (mokuton-no-jutsu).

Ukigusa-gakure involves throwing duckweed over water in order to conceal underwater movements of your fellow ninja. It is a “water technique” knowns as (suiton-no-jutsu).

Uzura-gakure involves curling into a ball and remaining motionless so that you appear like a stone. This is an ”earth technique” known as (doton-no-jutsu).

Starting fires in order to cover a ninja’s trail falls into another katon-no-jutsu “fire technique”.

Now this is the fun part, you get to dress up in costumes or disguises. Any of you who like going to those crazy anime conventions or whose favorite holiday is Halloween will certainly appreciate the entertaining aspect of this.

File:Komuso Buddhist monk beggar Kita-kamakura.jpg

Here is a photograph of a komuso monk. It is just one of the many possible disguises you get to put on.

You can also dress up as a Shinto priest, or an entertainer, such as Kabuk andNoh. You can pretend to be a fortune-teller, a merchant, a ronin, you know, a samurai without a master, and a Buddhist monk. You can even be a regular “Jin” or person who goes to gather firewood. Now, how difficult is that.One of my favorite disguises is that of the mountain ascetic or (yamabushi), translated as mountain warrior, which would allow you to travel freely between political boundaries. While wearing the loose robes of Buddhist priest you could carry concealed weapons, such as a cool tanto blade. If you should decide that you want to take on the disguise of a minstrel or sarugaku, this would allow you to spy in enemy’s buildings without arousing suspicion. Disguises such as a Komuso, or a mendicant monk, who are known to play the shakuhachi, bamboo flute, are really fun. Just make sure you really can play a flute. Discordant music is not a good way to blend. That is for sure. The good news is, you get to wear one of those large “basket” hats that will conceal your entire head!

Listen to
Sound of Shakuhachi
John Kaizan Neptune
Tsuru no Sugomori9
(The Nesting of Cranes)

If you are one of those that likes to go in under the wire, so to speak, you would  probably wear one of these.

File:Ninja Armour.jpg

A suit of armor purportedly worn by ninjas

Sorry, but the black garb is part of the “legend” or “myth” aspect we were talking about earlier. But I think if you bring it up at the monthly meetings, the guild may concur and agree that this could become a new tradition. After all, black does blend in well with the black of night. Wouldn’t you agree? And all those anime and live action movies already have the costume down pat, so you could just copy them. The guild might even make you a jōnin because of your innovative ideas. From what I can gather though, it is much more common to be disguised as a civilian, than to dress in the typical nijutsu armor.

One thing you would definitely need to acquire and bring everywhere with you is a tenugui, which is simply a piece of cloth, in black, I would think. White or red is much too noticeable. It is used to cover your face, form a belt, or even assist in climbing.

Now for the tools you will need to purchase or make yourself if that is your talent. Here is a list, ready? A belt to carry all your stuff in such as ropes, grappling hooks, a collapsible ladder, with spikes at both ends, used to anchor the ladder, spiked or hooked climbing gear, worn on the hands and feet, that can also double as weapons, chisels, hammers, drills and picks.

Better get a really large belt. This is a lot of stuff!

Also, do not forget a kunai, which is a heavy pointed tool, much like a masonry trowel. This is for gouging holes in walls in order to get a foothold or to create a passage of entry. It can also serve as a weapon if necessary. You can use a knife or a small saw such as a hamagari for the same thing, but I say, why carry more things than are necessary? A portable listening device such as a saoto hikigane is also very useful if you should ever need to eavesdrop on important conversations.

A pair of mizugumo which are a set of wooden shoes that supposedly allow a the ninja to walk on water, are important gear as well if you think that you might need to cross a large pond or lake very quickly and don’t have access to a boat. The secret is that they can distribute your weight over the shoes’ wide bottom surface.

The word mizugumo comes from the Japanese water spider or argyroneta aquatica japonica. A set of inflatable skins and breathing tubes are also handy devices that allow you to stay underwater for prolonged periods of time.

You may have to pick and choose which of these handy devices you want to take along with you on any given mission. The goal is to not to be overburdened. Remember, it is of the utmost importance to move quickly and in silence. If you have too much stuff jangling around… well you get my drift.

Now, your weapon of choice, of course, is the katana blade. Isn’t it everyone’s? And all those samurai can’t be wrong! Still, if you can find room, it is good to carry a shorter sword or dagger also, most probably in back of your very heavy belt.

The katana has several uses beyond normal combat. In dark places, the scabbard can be extended out of the sword and used to probe the area. The sword can also be laid against the wall as a means to gain a foothold by standing on the guard or tsuba. You could stun your enemies before attacking them, by putting a combination of red pepper, dirt or dust and iron filings into the scabbard, so that as the sword is drawn the concoction will fly into the enemy’s eyes, stunning them until a lethal blow can be made. How cool is that! Just make sure the wind is not blowing in your direction.


A pair of kusarigama

Also, try to find room for an array of darts, spikes, knives, and sharp, star-shaped discs known as shuriken. A bow with arrows is always good for sharpshooting as well as a sickle or kusarigama that has, from what I am told, proved very useful. It consists of a weight on one end of a chain, and a sickle or kama on the other. The weight is used to injure or disable an opponent while the sickle part can kill at close range. Simple gardening tools such as a kunai or sickle can also be used. But they are not nearly as cool. It’s just an opinion.

Explosives such as hand-held bombs and grenades are also good to have in your mini arsenal. Soft-cased bombs that release smoke or poison gas, along with fragmentation explosives packed with iron or broken shards of pottery used as shrapnel are also good to have on hand..

Other assorted weapons include: poison, caltrops, (made of two or more sharp nails or spines arranged so that one of them always points upward from a stable base). Also good are land mines, blow guns, with poisoned darts, acid-spurting tubes, and firearms. The happō is a small eggshell filled with blinding powder or metsubushi and is useful if a quick escape is needed.


Actor portraying Nikki Danjō, a villain from the kabuki play Sendai Hagi. Shown with hands in a kuji-in seal, which allows him to transform into a giant rat. Woodblock print on paper.Kunisada, 1857.

File:Kumawakamaru by kuniyoshi - 24 paragons of filial piety.jpgKumawakamaru escapes his pursuers by swinging across the moat on a bamboo.[105] Woodblock print on paper. Kuniyoshi, 1842-1843.

File:Jiraiya - kuniyoshi - japanese heroes for the twelve signs.jpgJiraiya battles a giant snake with the help of his summonedtoad. Woodblock print on paper.Kuniyoshi, c. 1843.

REFERENCES (or where to learn more about the subject…)

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: Ninja

Tai Hei Shakuhachi Japanese Bamboo Flutes

(My favorite ninja movie.) “Ninja Assassin” A young ninja turns his back on the orphanage that raised him, leading to a confrontation with a fellow ninja from the clan. Starring: the handsome and very sexy “Rain” as the hero, Raizo.

TRAILER found at