As a child I watched many martial arts movies, and of all the characters and styles, I was always fascinated by the image of the Ninja. They way they became their surroundings, always had the coolest weapons, none of which you even knew were there, and they could disappear. The Ninja’s greatest asset was his own body and mind, seemingly impervious in any atmosphere.
These warriors practice a style called Ninjutsu or Ninpo. Ninjutsu began as a technique to thoroughly confuse and overtake an opponent. Enlightenment was not the goal of the Shinobi as it was in other arts. The singular goal of the Shinobi was to complete the mission by any means necessary. The image of the mysterious figure dressed in all black came from the Genroku era (1688-1704), where military chronicles called gunki-mono were painted, including the ninja, though Ninjutsu was around long before this first depiction.
Ninjutsu, or ninpo, is a collection of adaptable survival techniques that allows one to face the uncertainties of life and to respond to dangerous situations, through physical and psychological discipline, where one uses orthodox weapons in unorthodox ways. – Dr. Kacem Zhoughari
When we look at the word Ninjutsu, the first character “Nin,” read Shinobi or Shinobu means to apply one’s thought’s, ego, and heart to the edge of the sword. The second character “jutsu” simply means technique. By eradicating the ego, your will is made iron throughout the discipline of knowing that if you act in an egotistic or unreasonable way the blade will cut you. One must learn to be still and remain pure though many winds will come to sway you from the blade.
A great Ninjutsu practitioner waits until the most opportune time, then exploits that opening from all directions yet still remains flexible and strong. The ninja can stop danger coming a mile away and adapt to it by acceptance and response. The way of the ninja exists for survival, they endure very hard times, even ridicule, and persecution waiting for the right time to strike, wasting no energy or resources.
Ninjas, Historically Speaking
In order to understand the history of Ninjutsu or the ninja, one has to totally release these terms as they only represent how we currently see Ninjutsu. Unlike other martial arts, Ninjutsu has no “founded here” point in history, but through a deeper understanding of Japanese history, references can be made to appreciate Ninjutsu’s place in time. I hope that doesn’t discourage you from reading on, but it’s complexity is the simple truth. The word “Shinobi” is a much better term to find historical reference to the ninja as we know it. The Hojo Godai-ki uses other terms for ninja such as rappa and seppa, while the Koyo Gunkan uses kagimono-kiki.
In the 6th century BC, the Sonbu no heiho contained early Japanese military strategy. It was made up of teachings from the famous Sun Zi, author of “Art of War” (6th century BC), Se Ma (same period), and Zi (3rd century BC). According to historians, there is a chapter at the end of this book that contains the fundamentals of Ninjutsu. Was Ninjutsu the martial art that made the teachings of Sun Zi about deception and invisibility possible?
As immigrants began to arrive in Japan from China and Korea, the styles of kenpo (Chinese martial art using bare hands and weapons), and genjutsu (techniques of illusion and conjuring) were mixed with the local techniques of Japan. Among these immigrants were warrior monks and military personnel that settled in mountainous areas where they met the yamabushi (hermits of the mountains). These mountain hermits, warrior monks, and ascetics used early forms of Ninjutsu. It was in this time that these yamabushi developed the mysterious and supernatural persona of the ninja we know today. Even though these warriors remained separated from society, many senior government officials and warrior families maintained close relationships to these yamabushi who, at times, carried out jobs that needed to be kept secret.
To fully understand Ninjutsu as a martial art, one must first comprehend the combat culture of Japan in that era. You will see the use of Shinobi by the elite class (Emperors, Princes) and shoguns (military leaders equivalent to generals).
Historical periods of Japanese History that reference Shinobi:
- Paleolithic Age (50,000 – 12,000 BC)
- Jomon period (14,000 – 300 BC) First signs of stable living patterns
- Yayoi period (c.221 BC – 574 AD) New weaving and farming techniques, and iron and bronze making
- Sendai period (587 – 700) Otomo Sainyu hired as a Shinobi under Prince Shotoku who introduced Buddhism to Japan in 538, Bito Takobi hired as a Shinobi by Emperor Tenmu
- Nara period (710 – 758) The Golden Age, Yamabushi Heiho (strategies and combat methods of the mountain hermits and ascetics) developed from Chinese combat strategies. (early Ninjutsu)
- Heian period (794 – 1185) Abe Seimei creates his own version of Onmyodo which is then added to the Yamabushi Heiho. Onmyodo (the way of yin and yang) and Shugendo (Buddhist ascetics), greatly influence Ninjutsu practitioners of this time. Fujiwara Chikado, Koga Saburo, and Hattori are first ninja families to appear in Iga. Minamoto no Yoshitsune creates Yoshitsune-ryu Ninjutsu. Ninja families rise in influence in Iga
- Feudal Japan (1185 – 1603) Japan dominated by daimyo, powerful regional families, and shogun, military warlords. Daisuke Togakure creates Togakure ryu Ninjutsu during this period.
- Kamakura period (1192 – 1336) Medieval era, it’s named after the seaside town Kamakura where the first line of shoguns ruled. Mongols invaded in 1274 and 1281 but were repelled by a famous typhoon called kamikaze (translated divine wind). Zen arrives in Japan from China. Creation of Kusunoki-ryu Ninjutsu by Kusunoki Masashige, Kusunoki uses Ninjutsu for political influence
- Kemmu restoration (1333 – 1336) Kamakura shogunate overthrown, formation of Northern and Southern Courts
- Nambokucho period (1338 – 1487) Ashikage shogunate rules from (1336 – 1573)
- Muromachi period (1392 – 1573) The last shogun, Ashikage Yoshiaki, driven out by Oda Nobunaga.
- Sengoku period (1495 – 1580) Period of Warring Kingdoms. In 1540, a Portuguese ship blown off course (another kamikaze?), landed on Tanegashima Island, introducing firearms as the major innovation during this period. 1532, jujutsu created by Takenouchi Hisamor. Golden age of Ninjutsu, the art flourishes and the first manuscripts of transmission of the knowledge are made. Many ninja families listed for Iga and Koga ninja. Jesuit missionaries arrived in Kyoto in 1549, converting many Japanese, but by the 1620s the Jesuits were expelled and Christianity was banned.
- Momoyama period, (1581 – 1603) Oda Nobunaga led the campaign, killing many Buddhist priests and ninja. Nobunaga seizes the Iga province. Nobunaga assassinated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Koga ninjas. Hideyoshi dies after a succession of failed campaigns against China’s Ming Dynasty and Tokugawa Ieyasu becomes shogun in 1603 employing ninja from Koga and Iga.
- Early Modern Edo or Tokugawa period (1603 – 1867) An era of peace, where power was centralized by hereditary shogunate in a class society. Progressive dismantling of ninja groups, technical science and knowledge begin to disappear from Ninjutsu, methods forgotten little by little. Sakoku period (1639) of isolation began and ended with gunboat diplomacy by the U.S., establishing Japan U.S. treaty in 1854. The Onmitsu appeared after an installed network of information and reinforced monitoring of various strongholds.
- Modern Japan – present (1868 – present) Policy imperialism developed and the need for a mixture of military police force and spy network was created with a mix of the Onmitsu and the ninja. Kenpeitai, military police force created. The Nakano school is created to train spies similar to the ninja.
The Development of Bugei
As you see, Japan went through an intense time of war which gave rise to bugei. Bugei (arts “gei” of war “bu”), was the mastery of weapons used in war, while bujutsu (techniques “jutsu” of war “bu”) included all aspects of war including horsemanship. The mastery over these weapons and techniques during this time began to be classified as the samurais of the Kamakura period came to power. These “bugei juhappan” were the 18 warrior disciplines the gave birth to combat schools called ryu-h or ryu taught taught to an elite class. For Japan this was the beginning of a martial arts system taught for profit whereby the practitioner would receive a certificate proving his master over levels (kiri-gami), certificates of complete license from the school (inka), and an index of the school’s techniques (mokuroku).
Keep in mind that the warrior arts up to a certain period were very inflexible and linear. Just imagine wearing the armor used in battle, it was heavy and probably limited movement, although the bujutsu at that time included techniques with and without armor. As times changed and armor wasn’t used as much, the need for techniques and movement for unarmed combat became crucial. With the introduction of the firearm by the Portugese in 1540, and an impending Western threat, times had changed culturally and traditional Japanese knowledge and warrior tradition gave way to Western techniques in industry.
Around this period (1860 – 1930), Kano Jigoro founded Judo (the way of flexibility) from a mx of ancient Japanese warrior traditions and Western thought. In the 1920s Karate came in from neighboring Okinawan islands from Funakoshi Gishin (1868 – 1957). Ueshiba Morihei (1883 – 1969), the founder of aikido, made great strides combining traditional bujutsu with a deep spiritual connection. Jujutsu had been around since the Sengoku period of the Muromachi period in 1532 and was founded by Takenouchi Hisamor.
Ninjutsu stands alone
Ninjutsu, on the other hand, took a totally different path. Ninjutsu is not bujutsu, nor can it be classified as a competition art. Unlike other martial arts where you directly face your opponent while performing a set of moves, the Shinobi is like a ghost to the opponent. In English, it means “the art of remaining unseen” or “the invisible art,” but to achieve this deceptive persona, one has to acquire iron discipline. Deception, in any martial art is a great weapon, and no other art deals with deception better than Ninjutsu. The ninja controls time and information, specializing in evasion and direct, rapid action. It is no wonder why the lords of feudal Japan kept Ninjutsu practitioners nearby.
As you’ve seen throughout history, it was their ability to control time and information that made the ninja so sought after by the elite and warrior class. Albeit obscure, Ninjutsu has been around a very long time and continues to survive in the present moment. When you see military forces such as Rangers, Seals, or Black Ops, you are seeing the modern practices and techniques of the ancient art of Ninjutsu being weaved in with the modern world’s need of it. I’m so happy to be a part of this history and tradition of these ancient warriors that still walk the Earth today.
Shikin Haramitsu DaiKo Myo
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8 thoughts on “The History of Ninjutsu and It’s Evolution”
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Great summary of ninjutsu!
I used this article as a reference In an article I did about ninja movies.
I didn’t want to put the link here without your permission, but great job on this article.
Thank you for asking no problem linking for you.
Sensei/15 Dan, Ed Martin taught me from 1991 till his passing in 2017. Ed Martin gave me my Godan test in 2005. I continue training on my own. This art has saved my life many times from certain death, and multiple attacks.
Thank you for your reply and sincere comments. This art has also saved my life and continues to serve as a guide in all times.
Thank you for your comments. This art has also saved my life and continues to serve as a guide in all times.
Thank you for this very clear explanation of Ninja and Ninjutsu.
I am setting up a new school in Lunigiana, Tuscany and would like to refer to this article with my future students if you give me permission.
I trained over 22 years with my Sensei in The Netherlands and moved to Italy recently. As many other students and teachers we take our teachings with us for the rest of our lives and as we teach new students we modernise and evolve the techniques into the future. I hope my teachings will keep Ninjutsu to carry on for many years to come.
Thank you for this article, it is very much appreciated!
Thank you very much for you reply and feedback on the article. Please refer this article and any other on this website to your students so they can further their studies in Ninjutsu. It is up to al of us to continue the teachings that have given so much to us over the years.