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The ninja or samurai myth


Next to the modern concept that ninjutsu (arts of the ninja) is a specific form of martial art, the ninja versus samurai myth is the second most popular misconception concerning the Japanese spy-commandos known as the shinobi. Throughout popular thought and modern media, the idea that the ninja formed as a counter culture to the samurai has taken root, not only in Japan but also the rest of the world. The issue at hand here is that this is not only an unfounded and recent construction but that it is also an outright mistake. 

The initial step to understand is that the term ninja is a term for a position and is not representative of a social status nor does it have connotations of social placement. A ninja is a man undertaking a job and who is trained in a particular set of skills, his social rank does not come into play and applicants of ninjutsu can be taken from any level. This being said, one has to remember that the majority of the Japanese population were not samurai and large sections of armies were in fact taken from the peasant class to form Ashigaru, or foot soldiers. This means that social status was not a factor in training the ninja and that any man could be taken from any social class and trained, dependent on circumstance and requirements. Therefore, the primary unknown factor in the search for the ninja is that an unknown number came from both Ashigaru and samurai class – and all that can be said is that ninja came from both classes. Remembering that social movement was considerably easier in the Sengoku Period (15th and 16th centuries) it was not too difficult for a peasant to achieve status as a mercenary and we must not become trapped in the modern connotations that arise with the term "peasant". Vast swaths of armies and fighters were based in the peasant class and come under the banner of foot soldiers; however, some of these men were promoted and did in fact help shape Japanese history. Further to this, some ninjutsu lines were contained within families and passed down through the bloodline or to a relevant candidate in the family, but family connection was not a requirement for shinobi training as is commonly believed.

To put this in context, samurai martial arts and skills were passed down through the clan and to those attached to the family who would also be trained in these arts, but what is needed to be understood is that ninjutsu is one of those samurai arts and was transmitted through a family but not always to those connected by blood. This is more so with ninjutsu, as ninjutsu requires a special type of person and therefore recruitment was mainly based on ability. It is not uncommon for manuals or documents to tell that certain shinobi would take people of worth in an army and proceed to train them in the arts of the ninja, sometimes with the help of Iga no mono (specialised ninja from the region of Iga, famous for their ninja).

Ninja documentation and historical evidence for the fact that there was no divide between the ninja and the samurai comes in many forms and establishes without doubt that during the Sengoku and Edo Periods, the ninja were considered as fundamental sections of an army and were indeed not only required elements of medieval life but were also government employees. Remembering that the administration of Japan was undertaken by the samurai class we see how samurai trained in the arts of the ninja or those who understand their use would command and govern their official but hidden ninja agents and that not only is the myth of the ninja versus the samurai, just that, a myth, but that it is also evident that initially, the term of ninja was not wholly a position of negativity.

Ihara Yori Fumi was a samurai and was active in the early part of the 1700’s and was retained by the Fukui domain to teach the Gunpo arts or the military arts to the clan. Further to this, his job consisted of the position shinobi no mono shihai or ‘ninja commander’ and his job was to orchestrate the shinobi of that domain and ensure that their system of spies was working correctly. His position as a shinobi and ninja commander illuminates the respect given to the ninja arts from a military perspective and the need for individual provinces to undertake espionage on a serious level. In his manual he states that raiding groups should consist of ten shinobi and twenty five "fighting samurai" and that there are difficulties in leading and taking charge of "fighting samurai" when leading them on night raids.  These difficulties are highlighted in Yoshimori's ninja poems and show that shinobi are needed to lead squads of men at night as they are trained in this matter, even that the Shoninki ninja manual states that ninja used to be known as Yato, or leaders in the night as they took command of samurai teams. This displays that not only did samurai of the time bow to the command of a shinobi but that shinobi were considered to be required for this job and that shinobi were from the samurai class as part of a samurai attack squad. The ninja commander mentioned above, Ihara Yori Fumi continues to display the shinobi as the leader figure in the following quote from his manual:

“In peace times when you go to other provinces on missions you should take those of a lower [social] position and carry alternative rain coats, spare clothes and so on. You should reach for the appropriate contact and proper person. This is how you will be able to see and hear [what you need to]. Before you go to a place of importance you should leave your swords somewhere and you, as the master should exchange places with those below you (ge-nin). Or you may take on the form of a merchant, pilgrim or yamabushi mountain monk.”

Alongside obvious references to social class, his writings also contain more subtle clues to the position of a ninja as here he advises to ‘drop the employment of servants to aid in your disguise as a lower level traveller’, showing his higher status and the basic fact of the ownership of servants by shinobi agents (making them samurai). 

By Antony Cummins

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