Monday, November 2, 2015

The Truth About Ninjas

If you do anything for Halloween this weekend, chances are pretty good you might see a child (or an adult) trick-or-treating (or partying) dressed as a ninja. Maybe it’ll be a generic ninja, or maybe a specific one, like a Naruto character or a Ninja Turtle.

Today, ninjas are all around us. They’re in our movies and comics and video games; they’re even in our everyday language (“I can’t believe you ninja’d that in there at the last second!” “Come join our team of elite code ninjas!”). Far from their origins in medieval Japan, ninjas are now arguably that country’s most famous warrior type. We talk about pirates versus ninjas, after all, not pirates versus samurai.

There’s a huge divergence between historical ninja and the fantasy ninjas of popular culture. For example, everyone knows that ninjas were warriors who stuck to the shadows and never revealed their secrets— yet watch some anime or play a video game and you’re likely to see ninjas portrayed as the flashiest, most conspicuous characters around.

Like a lot of well-known fantasy archetypes, the ninja have a real history, but aside from some basic core attributes, writers and artists around the world feel free to interpret the word however they want.

The two strains of ninja—“real” ninja versus pop-culture ninjas—aren’t as separate as you might assume. In fact, the tension between the two is one of the things I love most about them. Ninjas as we know them today are a complex mixture of historical inspiration and modern imagination, defined by the intersection of two seemingly contradictory identities.

The true story of the ninja is fascinating. The people known today as ninja (they pronounced it “shinobi” then) rose out of small villages in the Iga and Kōga regions of Japan. By necessity, they became experts in navigating and utilizing the resources of the dense mountain forests around them. Because of their relative isolation, they served no lord and ruled themselves through a council of village chiefs. In the Warring States period (c. 1467 – c. 1603), people from these areas frequently found work as spies and agents of espionage, work that made good use of their skills in navigation, observation, and escape.

The villages of Iga and Kōga were eventually attacked by one of the greatest warlords of the era, Oda Nobunaga (an event that forms the loose inspiration for, among many other things, the underrated Neo Geo fighting game Ninja Master’s[sic], by World Heroes developer ADK).

The villages banded together and fought the invading armies with guerilla techniques—techniques enabled by their superior knowledge and mastery of the terrain. That’s pretty much textbook ninja action, right there.

By the end of the Warring States period, the ninja were enfranchised and integrated into the government’s systems of power. Their most famous leader, Hattori Hanzō, received an official salary equivalent to millions of dollars today. He became so much a part of the establishment that they named a gate in the Shogun’s palace after him, and today there’s a train line named after that gate: Tokyo’s Hanzōmon Line.

Serious researchers and students of ninja history and practice often take pains to remind us that the real-life ninjas they study were decidedly not cartoon characters. The real story of the ninja, they often say, is better than anything that’s been made up about them. That’s true in some sense: the history of the ninja is definitely worth understanding. It weaves together many threads of Japan’s culture, its philosophy, and even its spirituality.

But I have to admit: I love the goofy pop-culture version of ninjas, too.

by Matthew S. Burns, Kotaku | Read more:
Image: uncredited