A fog had rolled in that morning, cool and thick and mysterious, and in the middle of a grassy clearing amidst a forest sat a woman with navy skin and sky blue wings. She perched on a flat, smooth stone and had an ornamental lute in her arms, her elegant fingers plucking the strings as she played a soft, haunting melody, the notes drifting through the fog-filled air.
She paused however when she heard soft footsteps approach her and looked up, spying a samurai in the clearing with her. She was sitting on Goemon’s favorite mediation stone in his favorite forest.
Two shinobi (ninja) spy on the advancing troops of Takeda Shingen (1621-1573). They are wearing their foot soldiers (ashigaru) clothes normally worn under their armour and carrying their short swords and a kama (sickle) and wearing their helmets.
The biggest misconception that muddies the history of Japan’s feudal past is the myth of the samurai versus ninja. This is a fallacy that persists both in Japan and abroad and has no basis in history.
This myth of samurai vs ninja has its roots in the mid-Meiji period (1868-1912), but sits almost squarely with the modern fake “ninjutsu“ teachers that proliferate in Japan and abroad. These "teachers” peddle martial arts as “ninjutsu.” They claim that their methods are the methods used by some secret “ninja school” that somehow escaped the decline of the use of spies during the mid-Tokugawa period (1600-1868), the complete abolishment of the samurai class in 1868, and the subsequent Meiji period in which Japan did all it could to forget its feudal past and adopt Western military methods. This leads into another very common fallacy - that “ninjutsu” is martial arts, but I’ll leave that for another post.
So, who were “ninja?”
Just as anybody can be a cook, anybody could be a shinobi. The truth of the matter is that the majority of shinobi were in fact samurai. Shinobi were predominantly of thesamurai class, particularly samurai of lower rank, such as foot soldiers (ashigaru) - as in the illustration above.
The predominate role of a shinobi is that of spy, an agent trained in intelligence gathering, it is a speciality, a job - a talent used in warfare. It is NOT a class of people or a caste as is commonly believed. Social status had no bearing on the training of a person in the skills of shinobino jutsu (ninjutsu).
Samurai troops assigned to infiltrate enemy territory were commanded by samuraiwho were adepts at shinobi no jutsu. Termed shinobi no mono shihai (忍之者支配) which means “shinobi general” they would command small units of trained spies and infiltration experts. Considered a fundamental unit within samurai armies, an army without shinobi was doomed to fail in feudal Japanese warfare.
The pronunciation “ninja“ is the Chinese pronunciation of the kanji 忍者. The kanji 忍 (nin, shinobi) generally means “concealment” or “hiding.” The kanji 者 (sha, mono) means a person. When the phonetic compound 之 (no) is written between these twokanji - 忍之者 - as is most commonly found in historical documents, the reading can only be shinobi no mono or shinobi mono. This is the most prominent reading found in feudal war chronicles.
Ninja is the modern, common pronunciation that only began to be used in the early twentieth century. There were over 80 terms for military spies in feudal Japan, depending on the region & the job they were entrusted to accomplish and also on the historical era in which they were used. Shinobi or shinobi no mono though is the most common term/reading used in historical documents.
Some other common terms for what we today call ninja from Japanese feudal military chronicles:
shõkan, Koka no mono, oniwaban, suppa, rappa, shikan, kamari, kagi, yushi, yutei, kanchõ, teisatsu, inkan, naikan, yūkan, Iga no mono, onmitsu, kanja, kagimono hiki, mawashi mono, chõ, goku mono, hi mono.
All of these terms were used to refer to those carrying out the skills that come under the banner of shinobi no jutsu or ninjutsu.