The exact origin of the ninja is a matter of debate. It is known that ninja appeared in 14th century Japan and remained active from the Kamakura to the Edo period. The role of the ninja may have included sabotage, espionage, and scouting. Such actions may have taken place at the service of a feudal lord (daimyo, shogun), or other entity waging guerrilla warfare.
Ninja is the on'yomi reading of the two kanji 忍者 used to write shinobi-no-mono (忍の者), which is the native Japanese word for people who practice ninjutsu (忍術, often erroneously transliterated as ninjitsu). The term shinobi (historically sino2bi2 written with the Man'yōgana 志能備), has been traced as far back as the late 8th century to a poem to Ōtomo no Yakamochi. The underlying connotation of shinobi (忍) means "to steal away" and—by extension—"to forbear", hence its association with stealth and invisibility. Mono (者, likewise pronounced sha or ja) means a "person."
The word ninja became popular in the post-World War II culture. The nin of ninjutsu is the same as that in ninja, whereas jutsu (術) means skill or art, so ninjutsu means "the skill of going unperceived" or "the art of stealth"; hence, ninja and shinobi-no-mono (as well as shinobi) may be translated as "one skilled in the art of stealth." Similarly, the pre-war word ninjutsu-zukai means "one who uses the art of remaining unperceived."
Other terms which may be used include oniwaban (お庭番 "garden keeper or gardener"), suppa (素っ破 "thief"), rappa (乱破 "ruffian"), mitsumono, kusa (草 grass) and Iga-mono ("one from Iga").
In G.I. Joe
Ninjas have played an important part in the formation and history of G.I. Joe.
Period of origin
"Ninjutsu did not come into being as a specific well defined art in the first place, and many centuries passed before ninjutsu was established as an independent system of knowledge in its own right. Ninjutsu developed as a highly illegal counter culture to the ruling samurai elite, and for this reason alone, the origins of the art were shrouded by centuries of mystery, concealment, and deliberate confusion of history."
A similar account is given by Hayes: "The predecessors of Japan's ninja were so-called rebels favoring Buddhism who fled into the mountains near Kyoto as early as the 7th century A.D. to escape religious persecution and death at the hands of imperial forces."
Clothing and image
There is no evidence historical ninja wore all-black suits. Some ninja may have worn the same armor or clothing as samurai or Japanese peasants.
The stereotypical ninja who wears easily identifiable black outfits (shinobi shozoku) comes from the kabuki theater. Prop handlers dress in black to move props around the stage. The audience sees the prop handlers but pretend they are invisible. Building on suspension of disbelief, ninja characters came to be portrayed in the theatre as wearing similar all-black suits. This made the audience unable to tell a ninja character from the prop handlers until the ninja character distinguished himself from the other stagehands with a scripted attack or assassination.
Boots that ninja used (jika-tabi), like much of the rest of Japanese footwear from the time, have a split-toe design that improves gripping and wall/rope climbing. Ninja also attached special spikes to the bottoms of the boots called aishiki. The spikes that were attached to their hands for climbing trees are known as shuku or tiger claws.
The head covering suggested by Masaaki Hatsumi in his book The Way of the Ninja: Secret Techniques uses sanjaku-tenugui, three-foot cloths. It involves the tying of two three-foot cloths around the head to make the mask flexible and securely bound.
There are several organizations currently purporting to teach ninjutsu, or to provide neo-ninja training. Claims of authenticity are disputed, with some sources stating that none of the modern schools have koryū origins.
In popular culture
Ninja appear in both Japanese and Western fiction. Depictions range from realistic to the fantastically exaggerated both fundamentally and aesthetically. Sources include books, television, movies, videogames and internet media. These examples often portray ninja in non-factual ways for humor or entertainment.
Self-styled modern groups
- Death squad-type armed groups active under Indonesian rule in East Timor, which terrorized populations supporting independence and were allegedly controlled by the Indonesian military, in some cases called themselves "Ninja". The name seems to have been borrowed from the movies rather than being directly influenced by the Japanese model. The "ninja" gangs were also active elsewhere in Indonesia.
- The Angolan special police forces are a specialized paramilitary police force officially referred to as the Emergency Police, but popularly known as “Ninjas”.
- Rebels in the Pool Region of the Republic of the Congo also called themselves "Ninja".
- Red Berets, a Serb paramilitary group of Dragan Vasiljković based in Knin, Croatia, called themselves "Kninjas".
- Takagi, Man'yōshū poem #3940; page 191
- Satake, Man'yōshū poem #3940; page 108
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.; American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.; Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1).
- The Historical Ninja (PDF); last accessed May 28, 2008
- Ninjutsu: The Art of Invisibility (Google Books); last accessed May 28, 2008
- Illuminated Lantern: Ninja
- Skoss, Diane (ed.); Beaubien, Ron; Friday, Karl (1999). Ninjutsu: is it koryu bujutsu?. Koryu.com. Retrieved on 2007-01-01.
- Green Left - 'Ninja' terror in East Timor
- BBC News | Asia-Pacific | Indonesia's 'ninja' war
- Democracy Fact File: Angola. sardc.net. Retrieved on 2007-03-23.
- Reuters AlertNet - Congo's Ninja rebels burn weapons and pledge peace
- Captain Dragan set for extradition | The Australian
- Takagi, Ichinosuke; Tomohide Gomi, Susumu Ōno (1962). Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei: Man'yōshū Volume 4. Iwanami Shoten. ISBN 4-00-060007-9.
- Satake, Akihiro; Hideo Yasumada, Rikio Kudō, Masao Ōtani, Yoshiyuki Yamazaki (2003). Shin Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei: Man'yōshū Volume 4. Iwanami Shoten. ISBN 4-00-240004-2.
- Hatsumi, Masaaki (June 1981). Ninjutsu: History and Tradition. Unique Publications. ISBN 0-86568-027-2.
- Turnbull, Stephen (February 2003). Ninja AD 1460-1650. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-525-2.
- How Ninja Work at How Stuff Works
- History of the concept of the ninja, especially in theatre
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