The ninja question came up last week in my Samurai class — we were talking about possible writing projects — so I had to do my ninja spiel, which has become a bit of a set piece. The history of ninja in three stages: Sneaky samurai, literary device, and school.
The first stage covers the history up through the Warring States, possibly including the early Tokugawa, and it’s the age when, as Karl Friday put it, ““ninja” denotes a function, not a special kind of warrior–ninja WERE samurai … performing “ninja” work.” Turnbull describes this period in some detail, and it’s fairly clear from his collected episodes that there may have been some warriors who were especially sneaky, but not a continual tradition. There are a variety of figures that are credited as “the first ninja”: I’m partial to the yamabushi theory, just because it does highlight the warrior-priest tradition, and because it attributes to the ninja magical powers and ethical principles which are clearly absurd. Ignoring, though, the origins snipe-hunt, there clearly was a place for stealth, surprise and spycraft in the free-for-all conflicts of Japan’s warrior ages, when samurai honor was based more on “victory or death” than battlefield procedure. (( see Conlan, State of War, which we’ll be reading in a few weeks. )) So some warriors did that.
As the Hideyoshi-Tokugawa peace takes hold, and Samurai become a more cohesive class with an interest in Confucian ethics, a more rule-oriented value system, (( see Ikegami, The Taming of the Samurai, which we’re reading now )) they become ashamed of the sneaky successes of their predecessors, and also start to become more specialized and formalized with regard to combat styles. Most schools of martial arts have both public and secret teachings, so the idea of a separate class of stealth specialists with secret traditions is entirely consistent with the Tokugawa-era samurai tradition. This is where the second stage begins: the cultural ninja.
Ninja were a lively part of the Tokugawa entertainment industrial complex: plays, fun houses, books, and visual art all explored the idea of the secret warrior, turning him in to a mighty, nearly mystical, foe, a haunting presence which could only be beaten through preparedness and righteousness by the mightiest samurai. (( Friday and Turnbull both address this )) Ninja become Robin Hood/Jesse James type outlaws, a friend to the common man — sometimes said to be of peasant origin themselves — and a blight on the establishment. By being a kind of anti-hero, occupying a rhetorical tactical space that the samurai could not, the ninja helped to legitimate the samurai as ethical warriors, as well as providing a kind of outlet for anti-samurai frustration and fantasy. This version of the ninja enters the western literary tradition through, among others, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. (( There’s a whole history yet to be written on the relationship between US military presences in East Asia, kung fu movies and the rise of Japanese martial arts in the US. But nobody’s written it yet. )) This stage is still very much in existence, of course, as the literary/cinematic tradition persists, even adding new themes like environmental consciousness.
The third stage overlaps the second — a common problem for historians attempting stage theories; perhaps ‘state’ or ‘thread’ would be a better unit — from the early modern to the modern. At some point in the Tokugawa or Meiji eras, depending on the form and who you believe, styles of martial arts became formalized more or less at the same time that they become largely irrelevant. As noted above, most have some form of “secret teaching” for advanced adepts, and a “hidden history” as well tracing back to a noteworthy ancestor-teacher, and most of them also have well-established rivalries with related schools. In that regard, Ninja as a modern “warrior way” isn’t distinguishable from other Japanese or Chinese martial practices. In the modern age, when combat techniques are as much a matter of market forces and fashions as military necessities, the secret traditions have largely become routinized; the mythology of the ninja requires an overlay of mystery, which is maintained both by the continuing use of ninja legends as entertainment (( From children’s literature to Mito Komon…. )) and a passionate defense of the narrative of ninja as a secret, continuing tradition which has emerged into the light with modernity.
These three phases of the ninja tradition help separate out the fact from the fiction, clarify how and why ninja might be a substantial historical topic, and why the entertainment tradition has strayed so far from anything resembling reality.