Ninjutsu, also sometimes and less commonly known as ninjitsu, is an ancient Japanese practice that combines martial arts with strategy and mental acuity. Practitioners are commonly known as “ninjas,” though the modern associations of a ninja as a fierce warrior and deadly killer aren’t usually quite in line with the art, at least not as it was practiced in ancient times. The practice was developed in feudal Japan during the height of samurai power, and records describe ninjutsu schools and training as early as 1100, though they could well have existed before this date as well.
Most scholars believe that practitioners were primarily experts in espionage. They were sly and cunning, but in most cases their mission was information gathering — not violence, fighting, or warfare. The practice is traditionally made up of 18 “disciplines,” or focus areas. Some of these concern modern-day martial arts and self defense, but most are more concerned with mental acuity and situational manipulation. The mystery and mystique surrounding the art has lead to a lot of speculation over the years, though. In ancient times the ninjas were often credited with having supernatural powers, and even today their image is glorified in many places as vicious and deadly warriors.
Origins and Early Development
Most experts attribute the art’s early development to the feudal lords that controlled the land and much of the power that went with in ancient Japan. Back in the era of the samurai, different gropus fought almost continually over land rights and honor issues. It is widely believed that ninjutsu developed as a training plan to enable men to gather information on rival movements and plans. Most ninjas worked for and were trained by feudal lords known as Daimyo. In ancient times women were not trained in this art, at least not officially.
Its primary focus was espionage and spying. Doing this well requires a certain amount of physical agility, as well as some knowledge of defensive postures and warfare when needed. Practitioners typically wore dark clothing and masks over their faces to blend into the darkness in which they did their primary work, and most of their movements were designed to be quick, silent, and unnoticed. They were rarely sent on missions that involved killing and were not traditionally known as assassins. In some cases, though, mortal injury and death may have come with the territory. A lot of this depended on circumstances and the precise nature of the assignment.
Disciplinary Basics and Core Skills
Ninja work can have a lot in common with that of the samurai, at least when it comes to philosophical education and rigors of training. The samurai were warlords who studied sword fighting and battle as an art, often spending as much time on book learning and spiritual training as physical prowess. Ninjutsu practitioners are sometimes thought of as “anti-samurai” due to their more closeted and hidden ways, but in terms of discipline, the two are similar in a number of important respects.
Practitioners were generally trained according to 18 separate “disciplines” or skills known as ninja juhakkei. These include everything from combat and sword art to disguise, impersonation, and techniques on entering buildings and staying concealed; some more practical skills like meteorology and geography were also incorporated.
Folklore and Notoriety
The stealth and secrecy of ninjitsu gave rise to a lot of speculation and mystique that has persisted in modern times. Ninjas were rumored to be ruthless, cunning and stealthy killers who would stop at nothing to defeat their opponents. As the reputation of Ninjas grew in the countryside, the peasantry escalated the notoriety of the Ninja's prowess, attributing them with supernatural powers. Although many Ninjas were skilled warriors, their abilities were often exaggerated to include flying and the ability to predict future events.
Misconceptions about the art persist to this day. Movies and modern media frequently portray ninjas as stealthy assassins who deftly use karate and other martial arts to defeat enemies. In many respects this is an over-glorification of the ninjas’ traditional role, and doesn’t take into account the other skills and responsibilities of the ancient specialists.