Sunday, November 15, 2015

Training the Ninja


Many people know that ninjas (shinobi in Japanese) were highly trained assassins, skilled with throwing weapons like shuriken and daggers. However, shinobi were more than pajama-clad, knife-wielding killing machines. Their training included not only multiple forms of combat, but also espionage, disguise, and deception—making the ninja the “007” of Japan’s medieval age.

Sample Shinobi disguises, as seen at the ninja museum of Iga, Japan

Ninja training started in childhood, with skills passed down from father to son, and also within the shinobi clan. Combat methods were closely guarded secrets, rarely taught or shown to outsiders (except, of course, for the ones who wouldn’t live to tell the tale).

Both men and women trained in ninja arts—female practitioners were known as kunoichi, and became both spies and assassins alongside their male counterparts.

Shuko - climbing claws, used by both men and women.

Ninja training encompassed many different arts, both physical and mental. This enabled them to function as spies or assassins, depending on the needs of the clan.

Shinobi were weapons experts, familiar with various forms of ranged and hand-to-hand combat. Most acquired proficiency with multiple weapons, in order to better adapt to a range of possible circumstances.

Actual shinobi lockpicks in the Iga museum
Shuriken—sometimes called “throwing stars,” although they came in many shapes—were used as ranged weapons but also as fist loads, making them versatile in a range of situations.

A small selection of shuriken from the Iga museum collection.

Shinobi also pioneered the use of caltrops in Japan. These pointed objects could be thrown behind a fleeing shinobi to slow or stop pursuers, or scattered across a hallway, opening or road as a trap. Caltrops were normally pyramid-shaped, and were designed to have at least one point in an upward position no matter which way they landed on the ground. The ninja museum in Iga, Japan, has a large display of caltrops, demonstrating the wide variety of materials and shapes the shinobi used. One of the most interesting is also completely natural—a thorny seed pod that may have been the inspiration for the man-made metal and wooden types.

Natural seed-pod caltrops. OUCH. (Think "legos in the night" meets thorns.)

Another important part of shinobi training involved disguises. Good spies blend into their environment, and shinobi learned to impersonate merchants, priests, farmers, and even samurai. Kunoichi learned disguises, too; they frequently took on the role of itinerant priestesses and spied on the men (and women) who visited shrines.

Poisons and explosives rounded out the shinobi’s arsenal. 

Shinobi explosives, from the Iga Ninja Museum

Hollow bamboo tubes made perfect natural casings for smoke bombs, fireworks, and grenades, used for diversions and destruction, depending on the mission at hand. Gunpowder came to Japan from China before the first European traders introduced the country to firearms, and ninja were using explosives long before the first samurai held a gun. Fortunately for the shinobi, many of the ingredients required to produce explosive powders—horse dung, moxa, camphor, and even saltpeter—were in plentiful supply in the mountainous regions Japan’s most important shinobi clans called home.

Iga, Japan.

The ninjas’ diverse and unusual skill set made them uniquely suited to their role as spies and assassins. (Ironically, that same set of skills creates a good detective, which is why I set my Shinobi mystery series in medieval Japan, and made my investigator a master ninja.) Although most people know them only from movies featuring black-clad supermen who vanish like smoke and attack without warning, in reality, they were highly-proficient weapons experts, trained from childhood in a range of techniques that made them capable of not only assassination, but also a wide range of covert operations.


  1. Fascinating. I particularly like the disguise of having a basket over one's head! Definitely difficult to be recognised that way.

    1. And cheaper than plastic surgery and faster to don than false mustache!

    2. Indeed! I loved the basket-head disguise so much that I actually used it in one of my novels.

      Certain Zen monks dressed that way to distance themselves from the world. (I guess putting a basket on your head is one way to avoid distractions.) They then walked around Japan, not-seeing what was around them in their quest for inner enlightenment and peace. The ironies abound.

  2. I those days we wielded a long sword, a short sword and a wee shield. That was about it. We hid behind things and listened, that was the limit of our espionage. Don't think we were a very sophisticated fighting machine!

    1. I find comparative warfare one of the most engaging and interesting topics of historical study. Asia was actually a lot farther ahead than a lot of Europe realizes!

      All of which said...I'd be running like hell from those longsword-wielding dudes with the wee shields. In the immortal words of Han Solo...slightly altered for context... "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good longsword in your hand, kid."

  3. I don't know about that Annmaria, I am pretty nifty with my false moustache! :)

  4. And I'm sure the false mustache would be a VERY effective disguise for you, too, Caro. Kind of like Clark Kent and Superman: take off the glasses (or mustache) and NO ONE would recognize you, you sly devil.

    Lovely column, Susan.

    1. Thank you!

      My son once tried to use a false mustache to get out of being blamed for something. Unfortunately for him, he was three and he drew it on with a sharpie.

  5. And all this time I though caltrops was a California state agency. Hmm, perhaps they better represent a symbol of the sort of services the state provides.

    1. Both. The California Department of Caltrops (better known as CalTrans) is responsible for tearing up highways, thereby increasing business for tire companies everywhere.

      I might have that slightly wrong. My information is based on observation...