The Influence Of Shinobi On Fuedal Japanese History
From the late twelfth century up to the eighteenth century, the country of Japan was in a warring state with few decades separated by peace. At this point in history for more than six hundred years, many power struggles took place as feudal warlords, Daimyo and Shogun fought for and defended their positions in power through military strength. It was within this time that medieval Japanese warriors became highly demanded and were needed for protection and to attack other militant leaders of the period. The medieval warriors of Japan ranged from Samurai to Ronin to militant Buddhist Priests yet none of these warriors were as feared and as highly regarded as ninjas were. Thus in a period of ceaseless power struggles the ninja of Feudal Japan flourished. The importance that ninjas played on the shaping of Feudal Japanese history is immense, as the ninja’s physical and mental feats and abilities, origin and history will be discussed in relation to this importance.
The modern depiction of the ninja is often a mixture between truth and myth. As elusive as the ninja were in their movements and activities, they have become equally as elusive in the pages of history. There are very few legible historical papers which document the Shinobi’s (Ninja) accomplishments. Thus much of the knowledge gathered about ninja was presented in the form of oral accounts of the ninja’s history. With the majority of knowledge stemming from these oral accounts, there has been the tendency to distort the truth of the ninja’s abilities. This is where many of the Shinobi’s numerous myths originate. These myths include the ninja’s ability to fly, walk on water, live underwater like a fish, turn invisible at any given moment, sink into the ground, walk through tangible objects such as stone walls, disappear in a puff of smoke and transform into a bird, snake, frog or insect (Adams 23). As impossible as these abilities are, there is fact behind the fiction.
Even more spectacular than the myths of the ninja’s abilities are the factual physical feats that the Shinobi could perform. ninjas were at the highest peak of physical conditioning mankind has ever seen and their chilling martial art of Ninjutsu (Also spelled as Ninjitsu) was designed to master all tactics of war and was taught at very early ages. However in order to train to be a ninja, one needed to be born a ninja as a descendant of a Shinobi family. The training to become a full-fledged ninja was intense, strict and extremely physically demanding. The training began as a child and extended until adulthood. Ninjas practiced running, jumping, climbing, swimming, diving, balancing, hanging from elevated heights such as trees or buildings and standing as still as possible. They also were taught how to dislocate many bones in order to escape from holds and ties (Gaskin 79).
Additional training was practicing and perfecting the use of many weapons. One of the shinobi’s many deadly aspects was that he was adept at using almost all weapons known in Feudal Age Japan. Hence Ninjutsu incorporated all of the following: Kenjitsu (swordsmanship), kyujitsu (bow and arrow archery), yarijitsu (spear), Bisento (broad-bladed spear), bojitsu (stick), iaijitsu (fast sword draw), Kusari-gama (chain and scythe) and Kumi-uchi and Taijutsu (unarmed combat) along with horse-back riding (Adams 94).
Ninjas practiced perfecting their muscular control and body movements for hours on end, turning themselves into superb athletes who were capable of astonishing physical feats. Such abilities were scaling sheer walls and cliffs (with the appropriate equipment), nimbly walking on their hands to avoid detection, remaining submerged underwater for several minutes at a time, appearing to be dead using reduced breathing techniques, running and walking faster and further than ordinary men, jumping higher and farther, swimming faster and longer and fasting for days (Adams 24). Claims have also been made that these elite warriors could also jump over seven feet, run 100 miles without stopping and walk the three hundred and fifty miles between Tokyo and Osaka in three days (Adams 24). They were reputed to be immune to pain, fatigue and the cold and were capable of not leaving any sign of their tracks or a single footprint when traveling on foot (Gaskin 79).
Other than their specialty in weapons and elite fitness, ninjas have been synonymous with the ways of stealth and invisibility. Although there is no exact translation of Ninjutsu to English, Ninjutsu has often been translated as the art of stealth or the art of invisibility (Gaskin 78). Shinobi were amazing escape artists who could put Houdini to shame. They trained equally as hard to be able to disguise and hide themselves in many ways. Their abilities of dislocating certain bones aided them in breaking of out the most complicated of knots, and they could also fit themselves into tiny spaces when needed. Hiding was a common practice of the ninja; they hid in an array of places varying from hiding in bells, above ceilings, under floors and under water for hours at a time while breathing through reeds and pipes (Adams 15). Ninja trained their entire lives in the art of Nonuse, to be able to run, walk, climb and jump noiselessly to the point where this was performed effortlessly and subconsciously (Draeger 56).
The ninja’s attire was equally as important in concealment; the famous and classic black garbed outfit called Shinobi Shozoku was often worn in night attacks where the ninja could easily hide in trees and bushes without being detected (Hayes 2 19). The Shinobi Shozoku outfit itself consists of four pieces of attire, a jacket, trousers, hood or scarf and shoes (Draeger 51). The outfit also contained many pockets in which ninjas could discretely carry and conceal numerous weapons and tools ninjas had at their disposal (Draeger 51-52). Ninja wore white attire in the winter season where they could easily camouflage themselves in the snow and popular belief is that the Shinobi Shozoku outfit was reversible with one side entirely black and the other side entirely white making the outfit an all purpose uniform for the ninja. Ninja were also known to carry a gray cloak as well which would be used to cover the Shinobi’s body, as the ninja would curl up into a ball and would make himself look like a rock or a stone (Adams 25).
Another one of the Shinobi areas of expertise was the art of deception and disguise. The Shinobi was as good an actor as he was an expert assassin. The ninja was very capable of assuming hundreds of identities, the original ‘man of a thousand faces’. Ninja could disguise themselves as priests, carpenters, merchants, gardeners and much more. Yet, ninjas did not merely take the identity of a priest but rather fully immersed themselves into that character by having the accent, background, history, custom, culture, attire and facial and physical features down to the smallest of detail (Gaskin 79). From the time they assumed that identity until it was time to carry out the mission, they were the priest of a far away land sent to preach of a new philosophy, they lived the carpenter’s life sharing stories of past constructions, they sold their merchandise with a smile on their faces and they planted the seeds and tilled the fields while sweating in the sun from the day’s long labor.
Apart from their physical abilities, ninja were also trained and raised with mental conditioning which often saved their lives. Under pressure ninja were calm, collected and ever calculating; they were elite strategists and were not held back by any restrictions of honor or reputation (Adams 110). This disregard towards traditional Japanese honorable and respectable fighting is what separated ninja from the warriors of their day (Hayes 2 19). Hence ninjas were able to accomplish what the Samurai could not; ninjas fought dirty and they flourished because of their own mentality of Sacchi-jitsu, Ninja Strategy (Adams 111). Sacchi-jitsu has a wide range of stratagems, the first applying to the individual ninja. Ninja needed to carry out mission objectives without hesitation and release of emotion was essential to maintain the concentration and awareness in completing his duty assigned (Adams 110).
The second form of Ninja strategy is Satten-jitsu, a strategy based on taking advantage of weather and atmospheric changes (Adams 111). To take advantage of such changes was vital to the success of a mission. For instance if a ninja needed to assassinate a military shogun, on a windy night preferably along with a dry spell in the area, setting off a fire could cause confusion and scatter guards just long enough to complete the mission. Another example would be when a ninja would need to infiltrate a guarded house; a ninja could wait for a natural distraction such as a thunderstorm at night because sound would be drowned out and there would be fewer guards out on duty because of the storm.
The third form of strategy is gojo-goyoku which is specifically designed to operate against the enemy’s feelings and desires (Adams 112). Ninjas would often incorporate female ninja, Kunoichi, into this strategy. Kunoichi could gather much information applying this strategy when the mission was espionage; as they were most useful in such espionage scenarios. Kunoichi played directly into the weakness of lust and gluttony and she would spoil the target with her deceptive ways until the mission was complete (Adams 112). Other forms of this strategy were dosha in which the ninja directly played against a man’s short temper often doing something to set him off so the man would act rashly; thus the ninja would amplify this temper to one’s advantage (Adams 113). Rakusha was a stratagem that often diverted lazy-minded individuals from their orders with elaborate entertainment and amusements (Adams 113). Kyosha was a strategy which was used in a ruthless manner to filter out the weak-hearted and cowardly through vicious displays of brutality (Adams 113). Although not a ninja himself, Ghengis Khan was a master at this strategy. He would slaughter an entire city leaving no survivors if residents went against his demands. As word traveled of his treachery cities soon gave into Khan’s threats before they were made examples of. The Shinobi’s use of the Sacchi-jitsu greatly helped in his ability to complete their mission objectives.
Besides the use of such shinobi strategy, ninjas were very knowledgeable in the sciences of chemistry and botany which they would use hand in hand to create an array of deadly poisons to ailing curatives. This mastery of chemistry and botany was a special part of the ninja’s training called yagen, which dealt with not only the formulating of poisons and ailments but also the creation of gunpowder, explosives and concentrated foods for use on lengthy missions (Adams 83). The ninja’s ability to ignore fatigue from hunger and thirst derived from his ability to cook foods immensely high in protein which could prevent hunger for many days and potent thirst quenchers, not unlike the K rations given to soldiers in the modern era of warfare either.
Yet the ninja could do much more than quench thirst and hunger, usually a concoction was made to have negative effect on his target or targets in one way or another. Ninja’s could make a variety of poisons which would lead to quick and certain death or sickly prolonged death; the ninja could place these deadly poisons on his blades or in the food and drink, depending on which was necessary (Ratti 329). Other poisons could merely weaken the enemy, paralyze him, place him under a deep sleep, make him laugh uncontrollably for days on end or could even drive the target into temporary madness (Adams 83).
The ability for the ninja to become his own doctor was crucial to staying alive and remaining anonymous. To heal a sword wound, the ninja would mix herb root of goosefoot with black cowpea, char the mixture and spread it on the cut (Adams 88). Mashed leeks were used to heal gunshot wounds at the time (Adams 88). To halt the flow of blood from nail lacerations, the smoke from a slow-burning rag was utilized (Adams 89). The plant fhellodindron amruense was used to heal sprains and contortions along with bruises (Adams 89). The Shinobi also had a remedy for cancer with the mentality of fighting fire with fire; the main ingredient used was a piece of an aged trunk of wisteria or more specifically a lump growing on the trunk. The lump on the wisteria tree is a form of plant cancer which was mixed with water-nut seeds and water. The weakened form of cancer in the system was a means of slowing down the cancer itself and uses the same ailment principles of treating a snake bite wound with the same snake’s anti-venom (Adams 89-90). The ninja’s rich wealth of knowledge in the areas of poisons and curatives was yet another factor that aided in the ninja’s survival and in dealing death to others.
The origins of Ninjutsu bare striking resemblances to the Chinese military science book Ping-Fa (The Art Of War) written by Sun Tzu in early 500 to 300 B.C. in the art of spying (Prowant 11). Some historians pinpoint Ping-Fa with its revolutionary techniques to be the cornerstone and basis for the martial art of the ninja (Ratti 325). However the actual formation of spy tactics in Japan weren’t used until roughly 600 A.D when Price Regent Shotoku employed secret agents to probe both sides to gather the truth in civil disputes (Adams 31). Historians argue that these ‘secret agents’ were in fact some of the first ninjas ever employed (Hatsumi 19). One of these agents is believed to be Otomono-Saijin, the first ninja to ever be employed for his practice of Ninjutsu (Prowant 10). After the death of Prince Shotoku, the nation turned in on itself and a bitter power struggle arose between Buddhists and Shintoists on which was the true state religion. Thus the practitioners of the spy tactics were carried on by Yamabushi or mountain warriors who were rebellious mountain priests who fled from the cities of Japan to avoid religious persecution (Adams 31). The Yamabushi practiced a new form of martial arts which is widely known by historians to be the ancestor martial art of Ninjutsu. It was at this time that a Yamabushi named En-no-Gyoja tried to restore order by propagating a new form of Buddhism, Shugendo (Hatsumi 19). As Shugendo gained increasing popularity, En-no-Gyoja knew it was inevitable before the aristocracies built on Shintoists control would force a showdown. Thus with a large government army to face, the Yamabushi were forced to fight against great odds; the priests borrowed Chinese military strategies from Sun Tzu with individual and collective fighting which designed ways for few to fight against many, this dynamic new martial art would soon be called Ninjutsu (Adams 32).
The Heian Period from 794 to 1185 A.D. marked the foundation of Ninjutsu which was incorporated into the Genji and Heike clans which both held close ties to the Yamabushi pioneers of ninja (Adams 31). Ninjutsu was included in the martial arts that the Genji warriors were required to learn, however it was not until the middle of Heian Period in which Ninjutsu became an individual martial art and was singularly practiced (Adams 32). This happened when the Iga Province came under the control of Hattori Hanzo and the Hattori clan. Hanzo himself had gathered the collective fighting knowledge from Genji and Heike clans while also including the traditional Yamabushi martial art as well to create the one of the first schools of Ninjutsu, appropriately named the Iga School of Ninjutsu (Adams32). However the oldest school to include Ninjutsu was established by the famed Genji warrior Yoshitsune, the teachings of Yoshitsune’s Ninjutsu was based on surprise attack strategy and deceiving the opponent (Adams 32-33). Before creating his own school of martial arts Yoshitsune gathered knowledge and mastered many various forms of martial arts and incorporated them into his teachings of Yoshitsune-ryu (ryu means school). Nonetheless the rise of the Hattori clan of the Iga Province in late 1100’s lead to the singular practice and teaching of Ninjutsu as an individual martial art.
The Kamakura Period (1192-1333) was a period that gave rise to the Samurai and Shogun. However the Kamakura Period is described as also being the “the beginnings of the golden age of Ninjutsu” and within the Kamakura Period more than 25 schools of Ninjutsu arose with the majority of the schools being located in the Iga and Koga provinces in Japan (Adams 35). The Iga province was ruled by the Fujibayashi, Hattori and Momochi clans; as the Fujibayashi clan governed the northern part of Iga, the Hattori clan governed the central section and the Momochi clan governed the southern section of the Iga province (Adams 39). To the north the Koga province was ruled jointly by more than fifty Shinobi families, however the Fujibayashi clan also governed the southern part of Koga as well (Adams 39). Thus the Fujibayashi clan was the medium that connected the two ninja networks. The Iga and Koga regions of Japan were extremely influential to the Ninjutsu and to ninjas, as they were the two major city-states governed, policed and organized by ninja in this period (Ratti 325).
Apart from their elite warriors, the Iga and Koga provinces still held traditional culture and customs of other city-states in Japan at this time. However the secrecy of the ninja was kept through each Ninja family tree and if a shinobi were to attempt to abandon their life as a shinobi, it was the other family members’ duty to either bring back the straying ninja or kill him to prevent the leaking of secrets within Ninjutsu (Adams 94). The secret nature of the ninja thus made it difficult to fully understand the way of the ninja, and consequently they were feared and despised throughout Japan as word traveled of their treachery and abilities.
Another influential Ninjutsu school was raised by the famous warrior Masahige Kusunoki in which his school of Ninjutsu, Kusunoki-ryu, stressed the importance of an elaborate espionage and intelligence network (Adams 35). The intelligence network was comprised of 48 Iga ninja agents positioned throughout the cities of Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto and they recorded and kept a close eye on hostile operations of the enemy. Espionage was great business for the ninja (Adams 35). As two famous ninja rivals of Shingen Takeda and Kenshin Uesugi were hired by warlords to report movements within each Ninja intelligence network (Adams 38). As a result there were many spy vs. spy and double cross scenarios.
The Sengoku period from 1467 to 1590 AD was truly the period in which Ninjutsu and ninjas prospered (Adams 38). Japan in the Sengoku period would be plagued with governmental instability and constant civil war as this period is referred to as the “warring states period” (Perez 52-54). The Sengoku period, although an ugly stain in Japanese history, was the effective ‘Golden Age’ of the ninja. The Iga and Koga ninja networks were in high demand as missions of assassination, espionage and protection were the highest than in any other period (Adams 38). Warlords used ninja almost by necessity in order to obtain and maintain power (Ratti 325). Most notably, ninja assistance at this time was used by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the famed general who would effectively create a stable 250 year family dynasty of military shogun (Adams 38-39). Tokugawa utilized both Iga and Koga shinobi together to carry out numerous cover surprise attack missions against his enemies (Adams 39). Thus the ninjas of feudal Japan had helped place the Tokugawa into a 250 year long dynasty.
However the reign of the Iga and Koga ninja within their perspective provinces would in time come to an end. The close ties that both Iga and Koga shinobi held with their Buddhist yamabushi pioneers and Buddhism would create tension and aggression towards their religious affiliation (Adams 39). Within the Sengoku period the three strongest and most powerful warlords were Nobunaga Oda and his two generals Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Ieyasu Tokugawa (Totman 205-208).Both Oda and Toyotomi were ruthless enemies of Buddhism, as they persecuted and murdered priests and razed temples of Buddhists at every foreseeable opportunity to do so (Adams 39). Tokugawa was the only warlord of the three to employ ninjas and his trust for the Iga and Koga shinobi grew as they were of great help to Ieyasu. Unfortunately the Iga and Koga ninjas soon became targeted for their association with Buddhists. On November 3, 1581, the Iga Hattori, Momochi and Fujibayashi clans would face an invasion of Nobunaga Oda with 46,000 armed soldiers (Adams 39). The Iga shinobi were greatly outnumbered, as their approximated 4,000 ninja battled Oda’s 46,000 soldiers; within a week the Iga province was brought under Oda’s command (Adams 42). Many Iga ninja were slain, those that were captured were executed and around a third of Iga’s ninja retreated and escaped (Adams 42). Among the Iga ninja that escaped were the famous two leaders of the Iga shinobi; Hattori Hanzo of the Hattori clan and Sandayu Momochi (Adams 42). Records depict both Hattori and Sandayu fighting with “courage and gallantry” in the fight against Oda; oddly enough there is acknowledgement Nagato Fujibayashi ever seen fighting (Adams 42-43). This leads some historians to the conclusion that both Sandayu Momochi and Nagato Fujibayashi were one in the same, a ninja who lead a double life deceiving even his perceptive ninja brethren (Adams 42-43). Oda’s reign was short lived, less than a year later Mistuhide Akechi, a rival warlord and a former colonel of Oda, killed Oda in Kyoto (Adams 43). Mistuhide Akechi also sent forces to kill Ieyasu Tokugawa and further eliminate opposing warlords in his path (Totman 205-207). Fortunately Tokugawa found the last remaining Iga ninja under the control of Hattori Hanzo near Osaka; Tokugawa asked the Iga ninja for their protection on his return to his headquarters in Okazaki (Adams 43). The Hanzo clan’s protection was so effective that they became the personal bodyguards of the Shogun, with Hattori Hanzo being the “chief” and his remaining Iga ninja being employed as “gardeners” (Hayes 13). Tokugawa also utilized the last of the Koga shinobi as sergeants in his police force (Adams 43). The last military action taken by the Iga ninja was a successfully suppressing some 40,000 rebellious Christians confined in a castle within Shimabara, Kyushu in 1637. (Adams 46). Afterwards the Iga and Koga ninja made the transition from expert assassin and spy to policemen and detectives for the Edo Police Force within the calming and more peaceful 18th century. Even after the fall of the shogunate government in 1867, many ninja remained vital policemen to Japan. The Iga ninja created one of the most elaborate intelligence networks for the police, as they reported and tracked down criminals due to the top notch intelligence network (Adams 46-47). The ninja of feudal Japan helped to not only establish the Tokugawa dynasty but also help maintain as well. The ninja’s role as police enforcers in the 17th to 19th century helped to keep criminals off the street, establish a tactically efficient intelligence network across Japan’s mainland and create stability for the Japanese government.
The ninja of Feudal Japan were elite assassins rigorously trained to perform amazing physical feats. They were trained in nearly every form of weaponry used in the period and were amazing strategists, chemists and botanists. They were strictly discipline and coldly calculating in battle. They used the art of stealth and deception to gain significant advantages in battle and the Iga and Koga Ninja flourished because of it. In a time of constant upheaval and a prolonged Civil War, they were highly demanded for their abilities of assassination, espionage and counter intelligence. As shown in their brief but complex history, the Ninjas of Feudal Japan were greatly influential in Feudal Japanese history.
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