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Real Ninjas, Courtesy Of NHK

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    Real Ninjas, Courtesy Of NHK

    So my wife gets Japan TV on cable in case she gets homesick. Much of the programming comes from that country's major public broadcaster, NHK.

    This evening, I had no shift and so--being shiftless--was able to join Her Matrimony in watching one of NHK's many historical documentaries, which tend to be both well-researched and well-received, both in Japan and elsewhere. The subject? Ninjas.

    Since most Japanese know little about them (obsessive Ninjaphilia being peculiar to a small cult composed mostly of Westerners), the program went over some basics, as well as some debunking of some of the more common myths regarding a group of people known, during their most active period (the time of the Warring States, just prior to the Edo Period), as "Shinobi." The term "Ninja", as many here already know, was a later appellation.

    First of all, who were they? According to the documentary, Shinobi were farmers. Farmers during this period were desperately poor, and those who could do so would find any extra income they could, however they could. What they could offer, to any Daimyo willing to engage them, were hard-as-nails physiologies of men (and some women too) who were used to constant effort under conditions of deprivation.

    In addition, being farmers, they knew the lay of the land better than any castle-bound Samurai. They knew the terrain--day or night--where to find water, the weather patterns, what plants could be found that sustained, which ones healed, which species sickened, which plants, when set alight, produced the most covering smoke, and--if needful--which ones killed. As they toiled at their farms during the day, they most often worked their "other job" in the small hours of the night.

    What did they do with this knowledge of theirs? Unlike the "secret-assassin" image often promulgated, Shinobi were primarily intelligence-gatherers, covert message-carriers and scouts. Being farmers, they didn't have all day to practise fighting in some lord's castle grounds (and the Samurai of the Warring States Period--unlike their Edo-Period counterparts--fought in military engagements on a regular basis). Unless they were able to surprise them, they would likely have a hard time surviving any encounter with such well-armed, practised and experienced foes.

    Speaking of which, the many almost Batman-like tools often attributed to "Ninjas" in movies are mostly fakery. These were poor people. They'd scrape together any knives or whatever else they could, maybe have some throwing-darts stored up, and anything small, hard, many-sided and sharp they could find or make to throw on trails behind them if pursued.

    As for apparel, the all-black head-to-toe covering is bullshit. When they could afford special job-related clothing, the colour they preferred was blue, as they believed it was a colour that repelled the venomous snakes that were (and still are) common in Japan's forests. Fancy two-toed-sloth footwear was unknown to them; if they needed to move more quietly than bare feet allowed, they fabricated, from soft plants, makeshift sandals. They were also practitioners of hide-in-plain-sight, donning "normal clothes" (if they weren't already wearing such) and casing their next assignment while posing as passerby. In fact, far from scurrying squirrel-like across rooftops, they did most of their intelligence-gathering by waiting and watching.

    There was no single Big Ninja Organization, with a single Big Ninja Way Of Doing Things. These farmers provided vital intelligence to war efforts of the time, but also ended up being little more than target-practice if caught by the soldiers of the time. Not being of noble class, they were both reviled by the nobles and considered expendable by those nobles who employed them.

    By the advent of the Edo Period, when the constant conflict was ended, the usefulness of the Shinobi was ended, and they went back to their farms...until "revived"--morphed almost beyond recognition--by movie-makers and charlatans.

    According to NHK, at any rate.

    Thanks for the summary; since I don't get NHK/Japanese TV.

    This is an interesting perspective and no where near as sensational as I would expect from, say, an American TV production company.

    It also fits better with the views I've been finding from the Academics (e.g. Friday, et al). The view basically boils down to: "ninja" was more a battlefield role, and less an occupation. As you point out, the term "ninja" become more common in the modern period, and during the feudal period the role went by any number of names and descriptions. Truthfully, it's highly likely that historical "ninja" would bear little to no resemblance to what we would expect after exposure to countless Sho Kosugi movies, samurai flicks, comic books, mutant turtles, and Lee Van Clief TV shows. (I, for one, will never be the same after seeing Tom Cruise effortlessly defeat ninja armed with repeating crossbows...)

    From your description, it sounds like the thesis for this show was that "ninja" were farmers and makes an excellent case for this. But from the more serious reading I've done, one of the reasons there were so many different names was that "ninja" fulfilled the unconventional warfare niche in feudal Japan. Unconventional warfare can be: espionage, ranging and raiding, commando attacks, spreading disinformation, sabotage, psychological operations, even sanctioned banditry... We do know that some of the bugei ryuha included a curriculum of shinobijutsu or ninjutsu techniques; which certainly implies some trained bushi might take the role of "ninja" under certain circumstances.

    Obviously one of the major problems when dealing with this history is that the term "ninja" has become hopelessly entangled with a cartoonish image, con men, charlatans, and much silliness. This causes the more serious researchers to shy away from what scant material does exist. Unless we can get past the silliness, we will never be able to untangle the truth from the myth.


      So the ninja legends Do stem from some truth. Honestly they sound more like the run of the mill guerrilla insurgents to me.


        Ninja Were more like Tengu!


          There you go; entwining myth with fact with legend with history with fable with truth...

          It's like shredding dollar bills with green and grey construction paper; I guess we'll never be able to sort out the valuable bits.



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