The super secret ninja thread

Hi all,

After seeing some of the postings re: ninjas on the "Last Samurai" thread, I thought I'd post a link to some writings on the subject by Karl Friday, an associate professor of Japanese history at UGA (who appeared on the History Channel documentary last night, by the way). Unfortunately, though, the section no longer seems to be up at (I'm pretty sure that's where I saw it first). So, for the benefit of those who have not yet read this, I'll post the sections that I saved.

Hope you all enjoy.

Correspondence dated March 16-24, 1999


"I was told once that there never really was "ninja"-in fact the storyi got was that an american invented the whole ninja "thing" and sld it to the Japanese who loved the idea and made alot of B movies about ninja and thier secert ways". Any comments????????


The lack of reliable documents to work with makes ninja and ninjutsu a very difficult subject to research, and the ninja movie and novel phenomenon gives the whole topic a cartoonish aura that further dissuades academic historians from looking into it. Thus there isn't much out there to read, other than what's been written by modern teachers of "ninjutsu,"
none of whom have an credentials as historians. In English, you're simply SOL; in Japanese there a few decent books and articles around, but for the
most part information on ninja has to be culled in bits in snippets from studies on other topics.

As I just noted this morning, in my post on "ninja-to," the most reliable reconstructions of "ninja" history suggest that "ninja" denotes a function, not a special kind of warrior--ninja WERE samurai (a term, which BTW, didn't designate a class until the Tokugawa period--AFTER the warfare of the late medieval period had ended--before that it designated only an occupation) performing "ninja" work.

The idea that distinctive, specialized ninjutsu ryuha existed prior to modern times is highly suspect. Specialization--focusing on one art, such as the use of sword or spear--was a phenomenon of the Tokugawa period, when Japan was at peace and bugei training was undertaken more for reasons of traditionalism or self-development than for practical use. Prior to that no warrior could afford to specialize--any more than today's infantrymen can afford to learn only one weapon. Given the pomposity of tone that developed in samurai philosophy during this period, arts of concealment and espionage strike me as exceedingly odd choices for samurai seeking spritual development or contact with past glories. It IS possible, of course, that a few small specialist traditions developed during this period (possibly to serve the interests of would-be spies or thieves) but this would have been a very small market and a difficult one for teachers to reach and sustain. In any event, there is NO extant documentation for ninjutsu ryuha
(including the documents that Hatsumi Masaaki claims to possess) that independent experts (historians or authorities on diplomatics) have been able to authenticate as dating from prior to the late 19th century.

On the other hand, even the movie-style ninja have a much longer history than the movies. Ninja shows, ninja houses (sort of like American "haunted houses" at carnivals), and ninja novels and stories were popular by the middle of the Tokugawa period. The "ninja" performers may have created the genre completely out of whole cloth, or they may have built on genuine lore derived from old spymasters. Either way, however, it's clear that much of the lore underlying both modern ninja movies and modern ninja schools has both a long history AND little basis in reality outside the theatre.

Karl Friday
Dept. of History
University of Georgia

Question (in response to Dr. Friday's statement that "'ninja' denotes a function."):

This sounds strange to me. It's like saying that a Ranger is not a special kind of warrior, but a regular soldier just doing "Ranger" work. Or even worse, a regular soldier doing "Delta" work.


If by "regular soldier just doing 'Ranger' work" you mean some ordinary infantryman pulled off the line, given no special training, and sent on a Ranger-type mission, yes, this would be strange. But no one's ever suggested a parallel to anything like that with reference to the "ninja" phenomenon.

"Ninja" were samurai in the same way that Rangers ARE regular soldiers: both are warriors doing a specialized JOB, not a special class of soldier. Rangers are not specially born or bred for the job, they join the same Army as regular infantrymen and other specialists, they start with the same basic training, they are on the same basic rank and pay scales, and they wear the same uniforms. What separates a Ranger or a Delta Force member from "regular soliders" is specialized training and specialized assignments, not a separate identity (although--unlike the case of medieval "ninja"--Rangers and Delta Force people consider themselves, and are considered, elites).

Likewise "ninja" came from the same social classes and joined armies under the same circumstances as did other samurai. Certainly (as I've noted repeatedly) there were those who were particularly good at "ninja-ing" and who trained extra-hard at ninjutsu; and there were also many samurai (the vast majority, in fact) who learned little or no ninjutsu at all. Some
"ninja" probably never fought on regular battlefields in their entire career; and some "ninja" missions were undertaken by warriors who normally performed other sorts of duties. But they were all bushi of one sort or another.

The idea of the "ninja clans" of Koga and Iga stems from the fact that these regions weren't incorporated into any major daimyo domain until very late in the game. Until the very end of the 16th century, these lands remained under the control of small scale "yeoman" samurai. As a result, many of these samurai specialized in guerilla tactics and the regions developed a reputation for producing experts in this sort of warfare, as well as in the related skills of espionage and reconnaissance. And the
yeoman samurai of these regions were often recruited for this kind of service--individually or in groups--by daimyo and other warrior leaders--just as "regular" cavalrymen and infantrymen were.


I believe that in gathering intellegence is a little
different. Just look in our modern Army.


The modern Army is a very different thing, organized under very different circumstances, used for very different purposes than medieval Japanese armies were. Espionage and reconnaissance are ancient activities, but the level of specialization of skills, training and service you now see in units like the Rangers and Seals is fairly new. Trying to reason about medieval warrior training by analogy to modern soldiers generally clouds the issue more than it sheds light on it.

In point of fact, the modern military has a number of different kinds of specialists, from radio operators to artillarymen, to pilots, to whatever. This is a function of the highly specialized, highly organized, highly technological nature of modern warfare. Medieval Japanese warriors were not specialized to this sort of degree, by virture of either training or
function, nor were medieval armies. There were no uniforms, no unified recruitment methods, no universal rank or pay scales, and little or no
training organized by commanders of armies--in fact armies themselves were temporary amalgamations of smaller forces under private chains of command.
Military training, was mostly a matter of personal responsibility.


How did the Tokugawa Shogunate maintain eyes on all of the daimyo? Did they use
would be spies or thieves? Or did they use their own?


They used an elaborate, two-tiered system of inspectors, both regularly scheduled and "surprise" inspections. And they probably used spies as well, but the records (not surprisingly) don't tell us much about this. In any case, it's unlikely that spies were used in any appreciable numbers, for the same reason that modern governments use more uniformed policemen and open inspectors of various sorts than they do undercover operatives: catching violators is, in the grand scheme of things, less important than
reminding potential violators that someone is watching, and the majority of the violations can be found and dealt with by visible officers. Interestingly enough, some very recent scholarship suggests that the inspection system was more corrupt and more of a facade than was once believed.

Karl Friday
Dept. of History
University of Georgia

For more info than you'd ever want to sort through (some good, some not):

There's a guy that rides a ninja by here sometimes.



One thing that bothers me is that I read a few times that the documentation about Ninja was kind of coded so a lotus flower might represent a sword or something else so translating it would provide a problem to modern scholars? SO I take it Massaki Hatsumi's scrolls don't have a shread of evidence in them? I mean legends always have some thread of truth to it. So now we are throughing out all that research and history?

What research and history? Unless you can document it, it is speculation, and unless a scroll is authenticated it could have been written last year.

No I understand but people have seen these. It was so long ago but I got information that from a couple of sources.

Yeah really Sho Kisugi is a good Budo weapons expert at least! Hahah

Where is that Q&A from, Friday?

I believe the original conversation took place on fa.iaido. Since that time, it has been reproduced on other websites, namely However, since the section on has recently been heavily edited (maybe it was all the ninja death threats), I figured I would paste the sections I saved on my computer. Since the original can still be found on the iaido list archives, I don't think there should be any problem.

Also, the links I posted earlier were not part of the original iaido-l conversation. Those are links to other discussions that took place on rec.martial-arts at other dates (though they do feature some similar arguments).



Hmmm generally, historical evidence points towards the Ninja being from the Yamabushi(the kuji is from a specific religious sect, which was not generally practiced and definatley not accepted at large), not the Samurai. He also seems to point to weapon "specialization" as being more of a modern concept, which I think is pretty silly. Of course I spent a pretty penny on ordering one of Friday's books and thought it a piece of crap, so I may be bitter=)

According to some Japanese text (authenticated) those who performed Ninja-like activities were typically referred to as Shinobi or Rappa.

But now I'm really curious... What is the truth? Were 'Ninja' of old really just considered to be Samauri who were specialized, or were they considered a separate type of warrior or agent? Or was it a little of both?

TFS? Do you have any insight on this one?

As I said in the Last Samurai thread, I think it's a little of both.


The reason I'm a little confused and asking is because this is something that has been nagging me for a while. I read a book by Stephen Turnbull that appeared to indirectly back up what you others have been saying, that in most cases those attributed as being "NINJA" were in fact Samauri carrying out specialized assignments.

As mentioned, the men of Iga and Koga were noted for their specialization in infiltration. They are several historical text which refer to the men of Iga and Koga and their actions during castle sieges winning the day for their employers (as they were often hired as mercenaries). In these text, they were also referred to as "Shinobi from Iga/Koga".

I suspect that the "NINJA" title has been tossed around and used much too loosely. Everything from a simple spy to an elite/specialized warrior has come to be labeled as a NINJA, when in fact these supposed events attributed to NINJA were simply being filled with the best man for the job.

SPYING: Anyone, and I mean ANYONE, can be a spy. Anyone from the lowliest peasant up to the Shogun's right-hand-man or his family. Heck, you don't even need any special training, really.

ASSASSINATION: Anyone can pull off an assassination. Its more a matter of finding someone who can get close enough to the target to pull the job off. Though certain assassins are trained warriors, it doesn't necessarily NEED to be a trained warrior.

SCOUTING: Okay, not just anyone can be a successful scout. It does take some skill, but it doesn't need to be a warriors skill. It has more to do with being observant, silent, and out of sight. But this is still just a slightly different version of spying, and there are many ways to approach this task.

Then there is all the stuff that really does take a warriors skill. But does one really need to be a "ninja" to do so? Uh, no. A warrior with a certain skill-set, yes. Ninja, no.

There are references to the Shinobi of Iga and Koga in Japanese historical texts, but did the use of the term "shinobi" denote a completely different type of warrior APART from the Samauri, or was the use of the term "shinobi" more to denote the job that these Samauri were specifically hired to do?

From my reading of the Stephen Turnbull book (I forget the exact title, unfortunately) I have gotten the impression that it is more of the latter. Turnbull pretty clearly states that image of the modern ninja grew out of the romanticization of the Samauri Class during the Tokugawa period. (also pretty succintly discussed in the History Channel show, "Samurai").


Right, KK. I personally think you're spot on. As I said in the other thread, there probably were a seperate class of ninja, and they were peasants, and they did train samurai, so there were also samurai with ninja skills, BUT the romanticization you speak of did occur. I think the Iga and Koga thing has been overplayed a bit but I definitely think there were guerilla fighters who thought of themselves as ninja and were grouped together in a family clan AND part of their mystique was the occult-ish beliefs they had, probably indigenous, esoteric Taoist sorcery passed on from generation to generation.

Friday says it much better and, I think, much more accurately than I could. I'll have you note that among the koryu - that is, Japanese fighting systems with old, traceable lineages - some still list ninjutsu among their curriculum, along with sword, spear, bow, swimming, horsemanship, planning sieges, etc.

So, I think there were samurai that were trained in ninjutsu, and peasant "shinobi" or what have you used for other jobs.

One thing that occurs to me is a fighting man who prefers to meet his enemy on the field is going to be reluctant to disguise himself as a serving boy to poison someone's food: that's peasant work, and only the daimyo needs to know it's even happening. Just my thoughts out loud, but that would be an illustration of a difference between a ninja and a samurai with ninja skills.

I think that the problems arise with modern ninjutsu students. They have a lot of emotional investment in the idea of a "non-Samurai Ninja ethos and world-view" and any evidence contrary to that idea makes them feel like frauds.

Once again, if you like the curriculem, do it and let others worry about authenticity.