Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ninja Codes and Colored Rice - the History of Goshikimai

Susan - every other Sunday

During the medieval age, ninjas—(also called shinobi)—were known and feared throughout Japan for their skills as spies and assassins. 

Sneaky, sneaky.

Most people know ninjas only from Hollywood movies, where men in black pajamas appear out of nowhere, throw a shuriken or two, and disappear in a cloud of smoke. In reality, ninjas did far more than assassinate unsuspecting victims (though they did their share of that as well) and they developed a remarkable arsenal of tools to aid them with every aspect of medieval espionage.

All ninjas trained in combat skills, but many were not primarily assassins. Far more often, the shinobi acted as spies and undercover agents, gathering information for their clans or for samurai who hired them to spy on rival warlords. 

No one suspects the man with a basket on his head.

Note: in medieval Japan, a group of itinerant monks (called komuso) who followed the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism did, in fact, wander the roads with baskets on their heads.  The baskets were intended to help them separate themselves from the world--and also made convenient disguises for ninjas hoping to pass on the roads unnoticed.

In order to pass information to other agents, the shinobi developed several systems of passing secret information, known as “dentatsu-jutsu.”

One of these secret methods of communication, known as goshikimai, involved an elaborate code and grains of dyed or colored rice. 

Colored rice in bamboo tubes. Text messaging, medieval style.

Shinobi (or their female counterparts, called kunoichi) dyed or painted grains of rice in five different colors: purple, black, red, yellow, and blue. 

Different combinations of colored grains represented the various phonetic sounds of the Japanese language. When combined, the sounds formed words and messages which other ninja spies could understand.

Memorize this and you're ready to go.

The colored rice was left by roadsides or in other pre-arranged locations--generally outside, where colored rice was less likely to draw attention (though, between you and me, I'm not sure bright red rice would ever fail to draw a glance). 

Birds and animals left the rice alone because the dye, which was also water-resistant, was designed to taste unpleasant. Even so, rice breaks down quickly in Japan's humid climate, making goshikimai an effective short-term method of secret communication. Once received, the messages were normally scattered and left to decompose naturally, under a bush or in a river, leaving no trace of the message and no evidence for the recipient to carry away from the scene.

I haven’t yet had the chance to use goshikimai in my novels, but it has a scheduled appearance in an upcoming story. Frankly, it's just too cool to leave out. 

So tell me...what's the coolest ancient or medieval spy tool in your arsenal of knowledge?


  1. So clever, Susan. I have none so clever to share about my books. My earliest set book is City of Silver. The only clever--if you could call it that--aspect of that story was about hiding money. The historic character on whom one of my characters is based--the Alcalde of Potosi, Francisco de la Rocha, was one of the richest men in the world. History tells us that, faced with a crisis, he sent mule trains out if the city every evening. People thought they were carrying his fortune and hiding it somewhere in the vast Altiplano. It has never been found. My little secret in telling my fictionized story was to invent a destination for it

    1. I loved City of Silver, in part because I adore mysteries that offer "explanations" for the real mysteries of history. I also loved it because I know so little about South America that it was fun to let you take me on such an immersive journey to a time and place I didn't know.

  2. Fascinating, Susan. I presume the rice grains had to be left in careful order. Even if the birds and animals didn't eat them, wouldn't they get disturbed or blown around in the wind?

    1. They would, Michael, so the ninjas had to be careful about placement--under or in the lee of a rock, or under brush, where the wind would not disturb them. Fortunately, much of Japan isn't all that windy (most of the year) so it wouldn't be too much trouble to find a good place. Even so, it did take some careful thought, I'm sure.

  3. My favorite is Illya Kuryakin's pocket communicator pen. That's pretty ancient, isn't it?

  4. I didn't even understand the DiVinci code never mind anything with rice. I was on some serious meds when I listened to Inferno- that helped a bit.

    1. LOL. I'm with you on this one. I'd always be afraid the grains got moved, and that I was misinterpreting the message --assuming I could remember the code in the first place.

      A friend and I like to visit a "puzzle room" place in Denver when I'm there, and though I love the ones with physical manipulation (we aced the museum break-in room in less than half the allotted time) we blew ourselves up and lost in the room that required interpretation of morse code to defuse the final "bomb."

  5. This is so cool! Tedious to set up, I imagine, but hey, whatever works.

    A tactic I've been trying to work into a story is the Spartan skytale, a rod of a certain thickness around which was wrapped (slantwise) a strip of leather. They'd write a message on the leather and then unwind it for delivery--the correspondent had a rod of the same thickness, while anyone else just found a long piece of leather covered in letters.

  6. I love this, thank you! Would love to use it with present day adaptations--coded sequence of coloured M&Ms maybe...

  7. Up until now I always thought my Captain Midnight Ovaltine Decoder Ring was pretty cool. But it only came in copper tone.