Photo: Modern depiction of ninja with ninjato (ninja sword), Edo wonderland, Japan, 2010. Photo: Danny Choo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The ninja, also known as shinobi, has become a mythical figure in popular culture due to their image as an outlaw. They achieved enduring notoriety through popular folktales and historical accounts that cast the stories of men and women recruited from the lower class to be specially trained as spies and mercenaries to take on tasks that were considered “beneath” the aristocratic samurai.
They first came into being during the fourteenth century, becoming a secret squad of warriors operating as resistance against the manor system of the period. The following century, the name “ninja’ was established, and they began to act as mercenaries on behalf of various feudal lords as a secret organization. Taught in the ways of guerilla warfare, including sabotage, infiltration, and assassination, their primary purpose was espionage. Their purpose was to provide information that the lords could then use to topple their enemies.
Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety of Our Country (Honchô nijûshi-kô). Publisher: Mura-Tetsu. 1842-1843. Author: Utagawa Kuniyoski. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
With the mastery of their craft, the mystique of the ninjas continued to rise, and they became associated with legendary powers like invisibility, walking on water, and control over nature. During the twentieth century, their image extended beyond the borders of Japan, inspiring a wide array of Western media including books, television, movies, video games, and comic books, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from Mortal Kombat, as well as through the practice ninjitsu, the martial arts.
Now, the Japan Ninja Council brings the traditions, rituals, and practices of the culture to the world with plans for the country’s first Ninja Museum and Academy set to open in 2018. The Council, which was established in 2015, is the only official organization of its kind; it is a formed of a nationwide network of municipalities, universities, tourism associations, and private organizations that bring together a passion for the art of the ninja.
Tekko-Kagi (hand claws). Courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
According to Yuri Kageyama, who covered the announcement for the Associated Press, Jinichi Kawakami, known as “the last ninja” and a master of the Koga ninja school, told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan that ninja has much to offer spiritually.
“It is possible to say that Ninja spirit: even though one’s name would not be known to the world, one would endure and accomplish a mission with honesty and achieve a big job in the end, represents the Japanese way of life well. Aspects of Japanese culture such as technical capabilities, diligence, organizational strength and perseverance that have supported the modern Japanese society are compacted within some of the wisdoms of Ninja, and Ninja is the culture that represents Japan,” the Japan Ninja Council website explains.
Page from volume 6 of the 15-volume Hokusai Manga (sketches collection), 1814-1878. Artwork: Katsushika Hokusai, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.