What exactly is a "ninja"?

Wajirou Ichisada

Super Moderator
Staff member
Aug 15, 2018
So what exactly is a ninja? Who were they in real life and what part did they play in fuedal Japan? Clearly, the Hollywood version of a black pajama wearing super fighter that can walk on water and jump 20 ft backwards into a tree is a myth. So what is a real ninja?

From my research, they were Samurai of family clans from the areas Iga and Koga and they worked as spies and mercenaries moreso than as assasins. But my sources aren't consistent about this information. Some sources claim they were merely Samurai, and "ninja" was a job description category- rather like "Scandinavian" was a people, and "viking" was when some of them got on a boat to go raiding and exploring. So in that respect, ANY Samurai could do a bit of ninja-ing if his Lord ordered him to do so.

Some sources also say ninjas were down on their luck Ronin, and there may well be some support for that idea, but I've yet to find conclusive proof of it either way. There were most definitly Samurai that were "free agents", but my research indicates that they either simply farmed their own lands and owed no allegience to a fuedal lord, or worked as mercenaries or as paid thugs.

Likewise, "ninja" weapons, from what I could find, were pretty much normal everyday weapons that lots of other people were also using at the time. This is logical, for if a ninja was on a spying mission, the last thing they would want was to be carrying around weapons that were not only out of place, but easily identifiable as belonging to a ninja.

So what say all of you? Were ninjas a secretive clan teaching the "dark arts" of Samurai, or were they just normal Joe's doing abnormal jobs from time to time?


Amateur Professional
Aug 27, 2018
IMHO, in modern terms, it was a specialty recon MOS field you trained and qualled for, but not something you did as a career.

Edit-- Taisha Ryu kenjutsu (a relative/predecessor of Togo Jigen Ryu, offshoot of Shinkage-Ryu, and founded during the Sengoku), still taught at one dojo in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, Kyushu (I believe by the original family, or at least with an unbranched linage), and which has the peculiarity of doing all their kata in a sort of crouch, has an oral tradition of having once had ninjutsu in their syllabus, but even the retired soke isn't sure exactly what the heck that means. A couple of other unique points about them, they do some practices outdoors in varied terrain and weather, and they are the only ryu I know of with a current female soke. The last one passed the office to his granddaughter.
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