Who is Ninja
This question is especially thorny one, to which there is no simple answer. Similar to the treatment of the term Ninjutsu, we have to distinguish between the historical Ninja and the modern practitioner of Ninjutsu traditions. The reason for making such a general distinction is that the cultural, social, and military change from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji (modern) period was so great that there is no sense in looking for a gradual change in the characteristics of the Ninja in this historical transition.
Was the first Ninja Yamato Takeru? Or perhaps it was En-no-Gyoja, who is now staring at you on the left side of this paragraph? Was the archetypical Ninja someone like Minamoto no Yoshitsune? Or some unknown warrior who never made it to the historical headlines? To look for the origin of Ninjutsu is not unlike looking for the root of a pine tree. Just as there is no single root, rather a fan-like spread of many roots, we can not identify a single individual who “invented” Ninjutsu. There is no founder, or one we might call the “first” Ninja. Therefore, it is best to look for the Ninja in different periods, and attempt to characterize the Ninja in its specific historical context. Understandably, because of the limited scope of this essay, it will be impossible to discuss in details the character of the Ninja in every period. To illustrate the characteristic of the historical Ninja I chose well known warriors and monks whom some of the readers would probably recognize.
I believe that when we analyze what we know about these warriors, we can see that until the medieval period the Ninja was for the most part a lone warrior. During the medieval period there was a gradual build up of warrior groups and clans who were associated with certain locations. In other words, they controlled a territory. The Ninja then, has become a group member with all the implications associated with it — social hierarchy, shared duties, and operating in groups, among other things. In the Sengoku period, out of necessity to survive the ongoing civil strife, Ninja were most active and clans were most tightly organized. However, during the Tokugawa period there seem to have been a deterioration in the tightly structured and organized Ninja clan, with a reversal to Ninja as an individual warrior. An important point to keep in mind is that throughout the centuries from the ancient period to the early-modern period one type of Ninja did not replace another, rather, a new type was added to the existing ones. Eventually, the Ninja community included those whose skills were rather limited, to those who held high samurai rank and lead armies.
I would like to begin by discussing what we know about the ancient warrior, Yamato Takeru (Mighty Man of Yamato). A warrior prince of ancient Japan about whom we learn from the Kojiki. Yamato Takeru was sent to take control over the Izumo area. To achieve that goal he had to fight Izumo Takeru who was known as a skillful warrior. Yamato Takeru first made a wooden sword that resembled his own. He then presented the real sword to Izumo Takeru as a gift, showing his friendship. Later they bathed in a river. Coming out of the river Yamato Takeru quickly wore the sword he presented to Izumo Takeru, thus having the real sword for himself while Izumo Takeru, not suspecting anything unusual since both swords looked exactly the same, put on the wooden sword. Following that, Yamato Takeru challenged Izumo Takeru to a dual and killed him.
After this, Yamato Takeru was sent again by the emperor to pacify the land. Before his departure Yamato Takeru received a sword and a bag from Yamato Hime no Mikoto. She told him to open the bag in case of an emergency. Yamato Takeru traveled east arriving at Sagamu where the governor tricked him into going to a bushy area which the governor then set on fire. Yamato Takeru, being in dire straits, opened the bag and found a fire making instrument. He set a counter fire, escaped death and killed the governor.
The records of Yamato Takeru as they are told in the Kojiki indicate that Yamato Takeru was familiar with various fighting tactics. Critics will naturally argue, not unjustifiably, that the Kojiki is a collection of myths that we can not regard as reliable historical sources, and therefore, we can not treat Yamato Takeru, or the stories associated with him, as an historical fact. This kind of argument can hardly be challenged since the only other written record, the Nihon Shoki, is not much more reliable than the Kojiki. However, without getting into a debate about the reliability of the Kojiki, its description of Yamato Takeru is still valuable. It is important to remember that the Kojiki was compiled in 712 A.D. and that it relied on earlier oral tradition and written documents. Therefore, whether the details of Yamato Takeru’s life are accurate is not as important as the fact that in the year 712 there was a record of a warrior who had the knowledge to utilize fighting techniques which were unusually innovative, and which we might identify as early Ninjutsu. In any case, we can characterize the ancient “proto-Ninja” as a warrior skilled in a variety of fighting methods, but not yet knowledgeable of military strategy or religious practices.
Shifting to the early medieval period, I would like to focus on Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In the early years of the medieval period, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, half brother of the first Kamakura shogun, is said to have mastered superior fighting skills and military strategy. In his meeting with the renegade monk Musashibo Benkei, Yoshitsune avoided Benkei’s naginata by leaping high, thus utilizing what is known as Hicho-jutsu. However, Yoshitsune became most famous for his rear attack at Ichi-no-Tani, and the final battle against the Heike at Dan-no-Ura. That is, Yoshitsune was an able general who knew how to conduct warfare on a large scale. Nevertheless, Yoshitsune lost his final battle to his brother Yoritomo, who was not as nearly as good a warrior and tactician as Yoshitsune was. How much of Yoshitsune’s life was a legend and how much of it was the real Yoshitsune, will always remain an open debate.
In the Gikeiki (or Yoshitsune ki), we learn much about Yoshitsune’s life, but unfortunately the historical value of this record, as appealing as it may be, is “so slight that it need not detain us.” (McCullough. Yoshitsune. 1966). We therefore have to rely heavily on the Azuma Kagami and Heike Monogatari from which we can learn only little about Yoshitsune’s personal life. These and other, less known records, show that Yoshitsune was not one among an identifiable group of warriors who shared similar skills and knowledge. Instead, he was an individual warrior who made an effort to learn warfare in depth. He did not have many years to learn because he joined Yoritomo when he was still a young man; and it is most likely that whoever taught him was a resident of Mt. Kurama. In any case, we can see a development from Yamato Takeru the warrior, and En-no-Gyoja the monk, to Yoshitsune who was taught Buddhism, fighting skills, and strategy.
In the following centuries there seem to have been a shift from individual warriors skilled in Ninjutsu, to groups of warriors who shared similar knowledge and interests. Whether they were of well established warrior lineage, or a band of outlaws, should not concern us here. What is important is to recognize the appearance of communities of warriors skilled in Ninjutsu. These communities were mostly located in Ki’i-no-kuni (present day Wakayama prefecture) and in Iga (present day, Mie prefecture).Related Information: