Weird History 15 Basic Facts Most People Don't Know About The Actual History of Ninjas  

Travis Morgan
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Are ninjas real? While they seem like a part of Japanese folklore, they are, in fact, real. While most people think of the ancient shinobi mercenaries as nothing but stealth assassins, in reality, they were a lot more James Bond than Sonny Chiba's Hattori Hanzo. Espionage was the name of the game. Cloaked in a variety of disguises, they infiltrated enemy territory to learn building layouts, swipe secret passwords, and spread misinformation. If need be, they were also up for sabotage, mainly in the form of arson. 

No one knows when ninjas first started to appear, but it's estimated it was between the 12th and 15th centuries. However, they didn't fully come into their own until the Sengoku period (also known as the Warring States Period). During this time, the two most famous ninja clans, Iga and Koga, had their heydays. But like with all golden ages, eventually the sun had to set. Even so, shinobi have left an imprint on the history of Japan that will never be erased. So if you only thought ninjas were all myth, think again: these are some real facts about ninjas. 

Ninjas' Roots Came From China


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Photo: Unknown/Wikicommons/Public Domain

After the Tang dynasty collapsed in 907, some of the generals fled to Japan. Later in the 1020s, Chinese monks followed, carrying their own new ideas along with them. The resulting blend of battle tactics and philosophies had a huge influence on Japan. Sun Tzu, the famed military strategist, claimed the art of deception was a key component of victory, and became a cornerstone for the way of the ninja.

Shinobi And Ninja Mean The Same Thing


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Photo:  sjrankin/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Some say ninja, some say shinobi. Who's right? As it turns out, everybody's a winner! Ninja stems from Chinese, but it's pronunciation changed after it was adopted into Japanese (ninja translates to “one who endures”). Shinobi on the other hand, is a homegrown Japanese term.

In Kanji, ninja (or shinobi, and more formally shinobi-no-mono) has two characters, and when pronounced in Chinese sounds like "nin-sha." In modern times ninjas are sometimes referred to as ninjutsu. People who practice martial arts in the "way" of the ninja often refer to themselves as ninjutsu.

Iga And Koga Were The Most Famous Clans


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The two most famous ninja clans were Iga (from Mie prefecture) and Koga (Shiga prefecture). These rural areas were relatively free of warlords, and they wanted it to stay that way. But warlords aren't really the types to just chill and let things be. So Iga and Koga turned into what you could call self-defense communities. Although, as they came to later find out, sometimes the best defense is an even better offense.

The Sengoku Period Was The Ninja Golden Age


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Photo:  Collection of The Town of Sekigahara Archive of History and Cultural Anthropology/Wikicommons/Public Domain

During the Nanbukucho (1336-1392) and Onin Wars (1467-1477), ninja played an active role, but they didn't hit their peak until the Sengoku Period (1467-1568). In this era, they functioned as scouts, spies, and agitators for the different warring factions, and were particularly skilled at breaching castles. Once behind the walls, they distracted enemy soldiers while their “clients” charged in from the outside.