Practically everyone who has heard of ninjas has some sort of idea about them in their head. Black clad assassins, able to fade invisibly into the shadows.
Masters of the dark arts of combat, indomitable yet silent warriors. How much of this is actually true, however? Moreover, did they even exist?
Well, we’ve got the truth for you! We’ll tell you a bit of the truth behind the mythology of ninjas (see also, ‘What is Ninjutsu?‘), and what relevance ninjas might have today!
What Is A Ninja?
In popular culture, ninjas (see also, ‘What is a Kunoichi?‘) are often portrayed as silent assassins, able to blend into the shadows, kill a whole room of people, and simply disappear.
They’re often shown to be far above the average human in physical ability and combat intellect, as well as being trained in a whole host of covert and lethal arts.
They’re also shown to be honorable above reproach, eschewing a normal life entirely in exchange for one spent entirely in service to their leader.
Much like with the British film character James Bond’s relationship to real life spies, there are some grains of truth to the popularly understood portrayal of ninjas – but a lot of this portrayal is based on mythology and wishful thinking.
Did Ninjas Really Exist?
While common media portrayals of ninjas are misleading in terms of their actual role in history, and the reality of life as a ninja – it’s 100% true to say that ninjas existed in Japan, and that their use was widespread amongst Japanese aristocracy and political factions (see also ‘Is Japan A Democracy?‘).
In reality, ninjas were covert agents who specialized in espionage, unconventional methods of warfare, and deceptive actions. They absolutely existed, and were indeed tasked with tasks such as spying, assassination, and psychological warfare.
And they indeed used many stealthy methods and trickery to accomplish their goals, being trained and disciplined extensively in the use of deceptive methods to sow disruption amongst enemy forces and factions when needed.
They didn’t wear the black clothing that you might be used to seeing from media portrayals. If you think about it, something that makes you look like a ninja is an absolutely terrible disguise for someone conducting covert operations!
When the job of a ninja was to conduct espionage or perform some other underhanded act, hiding in plain sight was often the best option.
After all, it’s simply unrealistic to think that a ninja would hide in a shadow in a dark room for days on end like in a film! It’s more likely that a ninja conducting espionage would be posing as a civilian of some sort in order to perform their covert duties.
The common trope of ninjas wearing black might well come from bunraku, a Japanese theater tradition, where props are often moved around by performers dressed all in black who are assumed to be invisible for the purposes of the play.
Did They Have Superpowers?
Of course not! Ninjas were normal human beings like any of us. Despite what it might be fun to believe, they were no more superhuman than any well-trained spy or soldier.
So, any myths or fun stories you might know about ninjas being able to perform superhuman feats are, of course, going to be untrue.
They couldn’t literally hide invisibly in shadows, any more than anyone else could do in reasonably dark and unreflective clothing. They didn’t have inhuman fighting ability, nor the capability to kill an entire room of people with just one sword stroke.
Although, it’s probably fair to say that considering the actual role of the ninja, close combat could definitely be a hazard of the job – so it’s probably fair to say that the average ninja certainly would have to be reasonably tough, and well-trained in martial arts.
They were certainly well-trained for their jobs, as they would not have been successful at them if they weren’t! However, they were normal men and women, making best use of the technology and training they had available to them at the time.
Of course, one thing that’s good to consider – it certainly wouldn’t have harmed the reputation and the usefulness of ninjas for them to have been thought of as superhuman!
After all, if you’re tasked with causing disruption amongst the enemies of your leader, having them think that they have superhuman warriors acting against them from the shadows would certainly be an effective tool in spreading such disruption.
But, in terms of the magical powers and abnormal feats that are ascribed to ninjas in fiction? No – ninjas couldn’t do any more than any other person could with the correct training and discipline.
Do Ninjas Exist Today?
Well, the art of espionage has never gone away, and nor is it likely to.
There will always be a need for people to spy on each other, and while newer methodologies might arise as a result of new technologies and a developing world, it’s fair to say that some skills used by ninjas are ubiquitous amongst those tasked with espionage and disruptive warfare.
There will always be a need for intelligence gathering, and as long as people are people they will be able to be tricked by other people.
So, it’s fair to say that many of the arts and methods practiced by ninjas still exist in use today – there will always be a need for eavesdropping of some form or other, and sadly assassination will likely always remain a part of warfare and politics.
However, ninjas essentially don’t exist in their historical form today – the world has changed, and much of what they practiced and did simply doesn’t have much use in today’s world, as too much has changed.
For instance, can you picture a stereotypical ninja as a computer user instead of being a silent assassin?
The world has changed too much for the actual historical truth of ninjas to have much relevance or use today. As artifacts of history, they’re of course fascinating – but their days are gone, and aren’t coming back.
So, while ninjas themselves don’t exist today, much of what they did still does, and will likely continue to happen for the rest of time. While it’s probably a little silly to call modern spies ninjas, it’s fair to say that they are performing much the same role.
Ninjas in their historical form essentially only exist as practitioners of arts that are taught as a way of keeping a historical tradition alive – and no longer as tools used by those in power.
Of course, there’s one semi-important point to make. If ninja really did ever exist like they do in the movies, and if they still existed today, they’d likely be pretty good at keeping it a secret…
While much of what you’ve heard about ninjas might be untrue, there are likely some grains of truth in the mix with the mythology. They certainly existed, and were extremely useful in performing espionage and disruptive acts.
However, they didn’t have magical powers, and were just as human as any of us, with the same needs and weaknesses.
Ninjas definitely did exist, and much of what they do is still done today – but also, much of what they did lacks relevance today. It’s definitely possible to still learn what historical ninjas learned – but nobody lives the same life as they did.