Woodblock Print on Paper called "Prince Hikaru and the Ninja"

History and Cultural Origins of Ninjas in Medieval Japan

Cultural origins: The Sengoku Period

"Shinnyo-do Engi" ancient Japanese scroll depicting samurai on a battlefield during the Sengoku Period
Image source: The Japan Times

Few ancient warriors are as well-known today as ninjas. Today, ninjas are the stuff of myth. They are renowned for almost mystical powers of stealth, martial skills, and being master assassinations.

Ninjas originated in Japan during the 15th century, in a time of chaos. Ninjas, or shinobi, were most prominent during The Sengoku Period, also known as the Warring States Period, which lasted from 1467 to 1615. It was a time when medieval Japan was in a constant state of civil war.

How did the conflict begin?

The conflict began over the issue of who would be the next Shōgun of Japan after Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was the military dictator of Japan from 1449 to 1473. Initially, in 1464, Yoshimasa appointed his younger brother Ashikaga Yoshimi to succeed him. However, this plan of succession was disrupted when Yoshimasa had a son in 1473 named Yoshihisa. This threw the succession plans into disarray. One prominent family headed by Yamana Sōzen, a Shōgun deputy, backed the brother. Another family headed by Hosokawa Katsumoto, another deputy and the son-in-law of Sōzen, claimed that the son was the rightful heir. This dispute led to a full-scale war called the Onin War, which began in 1467 and ended in 1477. There was no clear victor.

The inconclusive end to the Onin War set off a chain reaction. It resulted in nearly every Daiyamo (warlord) and samurai family engaged in a fight for control of Japan. In this Sengoku period, war spread throughout the entire country.  Warlord families hired and deployed thousands of samurais into battles for each other’s land. Samurai were elite warriors who had high standards of honour and loyalty to their warlords. Samurais often fought on the battlefield and were heavily armoured.

In this civil war, alliances were often forged and broken. The Shōgun government fell apart, leaving Japan with no centralized government. This chaotic period ended when warlords Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Oda Nobunga forged an alliance and defeated the other warlords, finally unifying Japan.

The tumultuous time of the Sengoku period, with its division, double-crossing, and political chaos, created the perfect environment for ninjas and their skills, especially spying and assassination.

Ninja clans

Woodblock Print on Paper called "Prince Hikaru and the Ninja"
Artist: Kunisada

Ninjas were created by samurai families to support their warlords in battle against other warlords by sabotage and assassination. Ninjas were men of samurai status or those born into a samurai family. Ninja clans were established in training camps and villages across the country, including the Iga-Ryū and the Kōga-ryū. Since these training schools were meant to be covert, their founding dates and leaders remain a mystery.


The Iga-Ryū or “Iga school” was one of the most well-known ninja clans. It was named for the province of Iga. The date of its founding is unknown, but the first recorded appearance of the Iga-Ryū was in 1487. Iga-Ryū helped the warlord Rokkaku Takayori of the Ōmiprovince against an invasion by Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshihisa. The Iga ninjas were trained in the martial arts of ninjutsu and jujutsu and were taught how to fight both from the shadows and on the battlefield. The Iga-Ryū suffered a major loss in 1581 when Oda Nobukatsu, son of warlord Oda Nobunaga, launched a full-scale invasion of the Iga. He slaughtered thousands of samurais and ninjas, with only a few survivors managing to escape.

The Iga-Ryū school is famous for such notable ninjas as Hattori Hanzō. Hanzō is credited for saving Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s life and aiding in his efforts to unite Japan. Hanzō’s loyalty inspired Tokugawa Ieyasu to employ around two hundred surviving Iga-Ryū ninjas  to guard the gates of the Edo Castle, Tokugawa’s main base of operations.


Another well-known ninja clan was the Kōga-ryū, meaning “the Kōka school.” The Kōga-ryū  identified the ninja schools of  Kōka in the Ōmi province. The Iga-Ryū and the Kōga-ryū rarely come into direct conflict with one another. The Iga-Ryū and the Kōga-ryū had many similarities in their training and skills. Ninjas of the Kōga-ryū were trained in the discipline of ninjutsu. They were also well known for their mastery of hand-to-hand combat, also known as taijutsu. One of the most famous Kōga-ryū ninjas was Fujita Seiko. Fujita was the fourteenth and last heir to the Kōga-ryū Wada-ha ninjitsu tradition and is thought to have been one of the last ninjas.

Life of a ninja

A ninja in dark clothing wielding a katana
Image source: flipguide.com

Contrary to popular thought, ninjas don’t spend most of their time training to be ninjas. Most men who acted as ninjas for their warlords were also trained in the ways of the samurai and served on the front lines in battles as much as, if not more than, they executed stealth missions. Another common role for  ninjas was as body guards. They were expected to guard high-ranking political figures as much as they were expected to kill enemy politicians.

In their roles as assassins and spies, many ninjas went undercover into enemy territory for weeks or months, posing as everything from farmers to elite guards. Ninjas would spend most of their time on such missions learning the ins-and-outs of their target’s routine as well as the entrance and exit points in their homes. They would use this information to either kill the target or inform their warlord to prepare for an invasion. Once a mission was over, ninjas would go back to working as farmers, guards, or soldiers for their warlords.

Like samurais, ninjas were loyal to their masters, with only a small number working as free-lance mercenaries. Ninjas were paid well, like all high-ranking soldiers in the Japanese military. A ninja faces all the risks associated with being a spy and a soldier. Those who were captured by enemy forces in either capacity were tortured and killed. Some captured ninjas were known to commit seppuku, a ritual form of suicide also practiced by samurais.


Two illustrations, one of a ninja defeating a samurai, and another of a ninja climbing up a rope
Artist: Hokusai

As soldiers, ninjas had to excel in numerous forms of marital arts, but the defining martial art for a ninja was ninjutsu. Ninjutsu encompasses espionage, guerilla warfare, hand-to-hand combat, camouflage, and assassination. The exact origin of ninjutsu is unknown, but it most likely evolved over many centuries under the command of various Japanese generals.

Ninjutsu focused primarily on remaining quiet and hidden, with actual fighting being only a last resort. Unnecessary fighting and killing enemy soldiers would do nothing but raise the fortress’s alarm and make it more likely for the ninja to be caught. As a result, ninjutsu mostly focused on techniques dealing with acrobatics and flexibility. Men would learn how to scale walls, leap over rivers, and hide in the shadows. Additionally, within ninja schools, students will learn how to work together.

Ninjas would also be trained to use various weapons and tools to infiltrate and kill their targets quickly and quietly. Tools such as grappling hooks and smoke bombs were often used to get around a fortress’s defenses. Ninjas would even be trained to kill targets without needing to enter the building, such as with a bow and arrow. While ninjas are iconic today for their dark clothing, ninjas wore whatever was needed to make them be camouflaged in their surroundings. Accordingly, ninjas only wore dark clothing when working at night.

Because of the rigorous training needed to perfect these ninjutsu skills, samurai families would often have their children start learning at a very young age. These children would then spend the better part of their lives being pushed to the limit both physically and intellectually.

A Ninja’s weapons

In the cases when fighting was the only option, ninjas employed many weapons and tools for their missions. Ninjas were knowledgeable in all forms of poison to kill their enemies and of medicine to heal their allies. Additionally, ninjas were well trained with various types of weapons, ranging from long-distance fighting to hand-to-hand combat. Most ninja weapons were small and easy to conceal, whether within a sleeve or a shoe. With ninjas’ affinity for stealth, it was likely that a target didn’t even realize that they were there before the killing blow was delivered.


A ninja's katana and seath
Image source: knifeimport.com

The Katana was a Japanese warrior’s most important weapon. “Katana” means “a curved sword with a one-sided blade.” They were forged from steel. These swords first appeared in the early 15th century and became the staple weapon of both samurais and ninjas. A man born into a samurai family would be given a katana at his birth and when he died, it would be buried with him. A ninja’s katana tended to be shorter and less curved than a samurai’s, which made it more portable and easily hidden. Ninjas would fasten their katanas diagonally behind their backs as opposed to hanging from their hips in the fashion of the samurai.

The fighting style associated with the katana, known as Kenjutsu or Kendo, focused on quick, slashing, and impaling blows because a katana didn’t have the hacking strength of a European broadsword. The katana was not only sharp, but also incredibly strong, as it could be used in long swordfights without breaking. The katana was perfectly designed to slit a target’s throat or fend off alerted guards. Katanas also had a ceremonial use for committing seppuku.


Five different versions of a ninja's shuriken
Image source: Chatsam

One of the weapons most associated with ninjas today is shurikens, or throwing stars. Despite the modern media’s depiction of these circular blades as deadly long-range assassination weapons, in reality they were far less lethal. Shurikens came in many shapes but were mostly small, hand-held metal disks with numerous pointed blades. They were easy to conceal and extremely light, making them perfect for sneaking into a target’s home.

However, shurikens were extremely hard to throw and hit their targets. Shurikens required years of training in order to perfect. Even then, the Shuriken was hardly a deadly weapon. Shurikens were mostly used to draw guards away by throwing them and breaking items far away from the thrower’s position. Shurikens were useless against armor: even if they hit the skin, the pointed edges on them were so short they were unlikely to cause any serious damage. Consequently, shurikens were almost never used to deliver a killing blow to a target. The best targets for a shuriken to hit would be either a hand to disarm an opponent or in the face to blind them.


Although ninjas died out with the unification of Japan and the end of the civil wars in 1615, they continue to fascinate people around the world. Due to the secrecy, surrounding ninjas, very few written records exist of their missions, training, and most of their members. This absence of written evidence has led to a lot of misinformation and exaggeration. Ninjas over the centuries have become romanticized warriors of legend, like medieval knights and Vikings. They have been represented as unstoppable fighters with near-superhuman strength, stealth, and speed.

Countless movies, books, comics, TV shows, and video games take inspiration from ninjas. Many of the myths and inaccuracies attributed to them are the result of their romanticization in the media. Ninjas and their specialization in stealth and exotic fighting tools have inspired many well-known and popular characters, such as Naruto, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesand even Batman.

Ninjas in the modern world

Despite the virtual extinction of the ninja clans hundreds of years ago, there are still a few people today who continue to practice and teach the ways of the ninja. Japanese ninjutsu grandmaster Jinchi Kawakami, born in 1949, is considered one of the last great teachers of ninjutsu. Kawakami is the current head of the Ban family, one of the many ninja clans that made up the Kōga-ryū. He is also an honorary director of the Iga-Ryū Ninja Museum in Liga, Mie, Japan.

He had been trained by his family in the discipline of ninjutsu since he was eighteen years old. Kawakami continues to this day to teach ninjutsu, but Kawakami himself says that none of his students will be true ninjas. He explains that one must inherit the mantle from the family and train for most of their life growing up. Kawakami also says that inventions such as the internet, surveillance cameras, modern medicine, and guns make the role of ninjutsu and ninjas in general obsolete in the modern world.

Ninjas arose in the chaos and constant war of medieval Japan. Although ninjas have become outdated, and official ninjas may soon vanish entirely, their legacy, myth, will remain a powerful and dramatic part of Japanese history and culture and they will continue to exert a powerful impact on world popular culture and imagination.

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