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.
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.