Weird History

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

Travis Morgan
Updated January 9, 2020 134.4k views 15 items

Are ninjas real? While they seem like a part of Japanese folklore, they are, in fact, real. Though 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 around the 15th century. 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 Come From China
Ninjas' Roots Come From ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 15 Basic Facts Most People Don't Know About The Actual History Of Ninjas
Photo: 663highland/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA 3.0

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 tactics and philosophies had a huge influence on Japan.

Shinobi And Ninja Mean The Same Thing
Shinobi And Ninja Mean T... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 15 Basic Facts Most People Don't Know About The Actual History Of Ninjas
Photo: Katsushika Hokusai/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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.

Iga And Koga Were The Most Famous Clans
Iga And Koga Were The Mo... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 15 Basic Facts Most People Don't Know About The Actual History Of Ninjas
Photo: Specialoperations/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA 2.0

The two most famous ninja clans were Iga (from Mie prefecture) and Koga (Shiga prefecture). 

They kept their ninja communities hidden away in the local mountains and forests, allowing them to hone their skills. 

The Sengoku Period Was The Ninja Golden Age
The Sengoku Period Was T... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 15 Basic Facts Most People Don't Know About The Actual History Of Ninjas
Photo: Collection of The Town of Sekigahara Archive of History and Cultural Anthropology/Wikicommons/Public Domain

During the Nanbokucho (1336-1392) and Onin Wars (1467-1477), ninja's 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.