Few groups in history are as iconic as the Ninja of Japan. The word itself conjures images of black clad silent assassins that seem capable of impossible feats. Their mystery adds to their intrigue, even 500 years later.

It’s part of what drew me to study the art of the Ninja: Ninjutsu. And after a decade of training and numerous trips to Japan, my understanding of who the Ninja were and what they did is vastly different than when I started.

So today, we’re going to go over the most popular perceptions of the Ninja, and establish what is fact and what’s not.

1. Ninja Were Called Ninja

The term Ninja is a modern term, and is the current reading of the kanji for Shinobi. However, Shinobi also didn’t come into fashion until after the height of Ninja activity.

So what were they called during their time? Basically they were referred to by their village. For example, an Iga Ninja would have been called “Iga no mono” or “Iga person”. Similar names would have been used for Ninja from Koka – the other region known for producing professional Ninja.

Accuracy: False

2. Ninja Were Assassins

The word Ninja and Assassin have almost become synonymous in modern day pop-culture. And the Ninja have been portrayed in countless mediums as the hit-men of the feudal Japan. However, this is mostly fiction.

There has never been a recorded or documented (successful) assassination by a Ninja in Japanese history. Although there is the possibility they did occur, without documentation we can’t say for certain. It’s more likely the Ninja simply started this rumor for psychological warfare and instill fear in their rivals. 

They were, however, well documented as masters of sabotage and ambushing opponents. 

Accuracy: Mostly False

3. Ninja Wore Black

By Utagawa Kuniyoshi – Waseda University collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15642180

When we think of a Ninja, we immediately think of the iconic black mask and outfit. We even wear black Keikogi for training. However, it’s highly unlikely they wore black.

The color black was expensive at the time. And pure black is actually easier to see at night. If camouflage was the intention, they likely wore more neutral earth tones or even dark blue.

So where did the image come from? Kabuki theatre. Stage hands in Kabuki wear all black so they can blend in with the black backdrop. The audience then ignores them as they watch the colorful characters. So to depict a Ninja, they had the character wear the same outfit and then interact – giving the impression they were “invisible”.

So what did they wear? Disguises or regular clothes. They wanted to blend in, and wearing something so specific would immediately give them away.

Accuracy: Mostly False

4. Ninja Were Masters of Stealth

Much of the job of the Ninja was espionage. And sometimes that required them to sneak into enemy territory. Out of necessity they developed tactics stealth. The best example would be methods to walk silently to infiltrate dwellings for reconnaissance and sabotage.

This was such a concern that the Japanese developed Uguisubari – or “Nightingale Floors”. These woodboards of the floor and joists are designed to “chirp” when someone steps on it, and can be found in various temples and castles of the time.

Accuracy: Mostly true

5. Ninja Could Disappear

Since Ninja often engaged in espionage and sabotage, they had to learn to escape quickly. Being caught often led to being tortured to death. So they developed methods and techniques to disappear.

The most iconic example is “disappearing in a cloud of smoke.” While Ninja learned pyrotechnics, this is likely an exaggeration of something they really did use: use blinding powder.

Eye irritants and powders were often carried in hollowed out eggs and various other devices & containers. We can think of it as a primitive form of pepper spray. If the Ninja had to escape quickly, they could throw the contents into the eyes of their opponent, and escape quickly in the confusion. From the perspective of the opponent, they would have seemed to disappear in a cloud of “smoke”.

They also designed their homes with escape in mind: many Ninja houses had secret doors and passages that could be used if attacked by an enemy.

Accuracy: Mostly true

6. Samurai were the arch enemy of the Ninja

Portrait of Hattori Hanzo. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=973152

While Ninja fought Samurai of different clans in war, they were themselves Samurai. And on occasion, Ninja of different clans found themselves on different sides of the same conflict. Koka often contracted out Ninja to neighboring lords, and there were occasions where Koka had to fight members of their own clan.

Possibly the most famous Iga Ninja, Hattori Hanzo, rose through the Samurai class through his victories on the battlefield.

Accuracy: Mostly False

7. Ninja Carried their Sword on their back

Katsushika Hokusaiderivative work: AMorozov [Public domain]

Most films depict Ninja as carrying and drawing their swords from their backs. This gives a clear visual distinction to the classical Samurai wearing it on their hip.

In truth, Ninja would have carried their sword the same way a Samurai would since it is the most advantageous position for drawing the blade. However, if they needed to climb an obstacle, they would wear the sword on their back to help get it out of the way.

In Togakure Ryu there is an unorthodox draw where the weapon is moved around the back to the right side where it can be drawn over the shoulder. However, this is very situational and is not the default method of drawing.

Accuracy: Mostly False

8. Ninja used straight blade swords

Rendering of a Ninjato. However, there is zero historical evidence to support their existance.

Go into any tourist area in Japan and walk by a sword shop and you may see a straight sword marketed as a “Ninjato” or Ninja sword. These have little in common with the swords the Ninja actually used.

It’s unclear where the idea of the straight Ninja sword came from, but it might have been due to some of the Ninja movies in the 60’s and forward. 

The prop team on some of these movies may have opted for making swords from straight pieces of steel. This would have drastically reduced production cost and time. Then the popularity of the movies made people assume that Ninja used a straight blade.

Seeing a market, replica sword producers likely jumped on the band-wagon and created the straight blade variant marketed as a “Ninja Sword”, reinforcing the perception.

So is there such a thing as a Ninja sword? Actually there is. Weapons in Feudal Japan weren’t as standardized as we imagine them. There was a lot of experimentation in making unorthodox weapons, such as those with hidden blades or devices. And with swords, each clan likely had their own preferred specifications.

The Cheness Cutlery “Oniyuri” katana is built according to the specifications of Togakure Ryu.

Togakure Ryu specifies that the sword should be slightly shorter that your average Katana, but carry a standard or even long handle. It also specifies it should be carried in a standard length sheath or saya. This would give the illusion of it being a much longer sword.

The space in the bottom of the saya could be used to store blinding powder or secret messages. And the shorter blade meant the sword could be drawn much faster than a longer sword.

However, the blades themselves weren’t that much different from any other katana during the time. And they definitely weren’t straight.

Accuracy: Mostly False

9. Only Ninja threw Shuriken

The most iconic weapon of the Ninja is the “throwing star” or shuriken. However, the Ninja weren’t the only ones to use Shuriken.

In fact Shuriken were a widely used tool of Samurai as well. The purpose of shuriken were to distract the opponent enough to create an opening for a lethal attack. While shuriken could be deadly if thrown in just the right place with enough force, they mostly were simply used to make an opponent flinch.

As with swords, every clan likely had their own unique design for shuriken. And not just star patterns: throwing spikes were also a popular weapon as well.

Accuracy: Mostly False

The Ninja’s secretive nature and their use of propaganda and misinformation can make it difficult to discern fact from fiction. Add into that the the depictions of Ninja in pop-culture, and things become even murkier.

But the Ninja wouldn’t necessarily mind; they utilized misinformation and likely would have preferred it this way.