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Masters of Stealth
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Masters of StealthMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Shadow dressed in black, with their faces covered, almost preternaturally agile, able to infiltrate a fortress no matter what and trained to use such weapons as shuriken, nunchaku blowguns, the ancestor of the flash-bang grenade and their trademark straight knife with the sheath open on both sides, the ninja-to. Spies, scouts and killers born into their trade, often living peacefully as farmers or fishermen until their skills were requested by their lords, at the same time such dishonourable elements that no samurai would ever use a weapon that was associated with them.
All this, and more, are the ninja said to be. But who were they? What are their origins? Did they really exist or are a fictional invention?
Ninja is the on’yomi (nipponized Chinese) reading of the two characters 忍者 used to write 忍の者 (in native Japanese reading, shinobi no mono) the character 忍 means to endure, to forbear and also to steal away, so the meaning of ninja is one who endures and also one trained in stealth.
The popularity of the word ninja is fairly recent, it grew in favour only in the post- second-World-War culture, shinobi, though has been traced as far back as the 8th century.
Shinobi’s history is as elusive as ninja themselves. Some historians believe that the origin of the ninja clans are to be traced to groups of Chinese refugees seeking shelter in Japan during the anti-Buddhist persecutions of 574, 577 and 843-846 A.D. . These refugees, monks, soldiers and ascetics would have settled in the mountains of central and southern Japan and kept practicing their spiritual and martial disciplines, which in time (according to the same scholars) evolved into what was later known as the Art of Stealth, ninjutsu. That would account both for ninja being seen as outcast in Japanese society and for the perceived enmity between the ninja (foreign people with martial training, outside of the traditional Japanese class-system) and the samurai (native Japanese fully inside the system and honour-bound to the service of a noble house).
Japanese sources, though, begin mentioning ninja as a group as late as the 15th century, as clan / village based martial organizations based predominantly in the regions of Iga and Koga, in central Japan (1).
At the time, given the on-going rivalry and even open warfare among rival daimyo, espionage, stealth and assassination were starting to be recognized as viable alternatives to open and direct attack (something along the lines of our ‘all is fair in love and war’), but such tasks could not be assigned to samurai loyal to bushido, thus the daimyo willing to employ this sort of stealth-strike tactics had to enlist the help of the ninja clans.
The disdain or rivalry among samurai and ninja doesn’t appear to have been absolute though. Some books on ninjutsu (among them Stephen K. Hayes’ Mystic Arts of the Ninja) mention the celebrated warrior Hattori Hanzo as one of the early ninja (2).
Hanzo was born in Iga, in a samurai family vassal of the Matsudaira clan (that later became the Tokugawa) and served loyally the shogun Tokugawa Yeyasu. He is often depicted in samurai attire, sources as http://www.samurai-archives.com/ appear to doubt the ninja connection, treating Hanzo as a bona fide samurai.
If the scant sources were not enough, fiction got hold of the ninja making it even more difficult to discern between fact and fantasy.
The famous all-black outfit that is often seen as quintessential and traditional ninja garb, for instance (although eminently ill suited for real life nigh time operations where anybody dressed head to toe in black would jump out to an observer as a homogeneous man-shaped patch ), comes not from documented evidence but from kabuki theatrical conventions.
In kabuki the prop handlers (that often are on stage at the same time of the actors) often dress in black, something that takes them apart from the actors and signals to the public to dismiss them from conscious perception of the play, making them ‘invisible’ to a willing audience (3). The same garb was given to ninja characters, either to have them share the same invisibility convention or to confuse them among the prop handlers until the ninja character would reveal himself by his own actions.
Ninja are staple characters both in Japanese and foreign popular culture, in Japan they started to be wildly popular in the ’50 and ’60, as a result a TV series called “The Samurai” was produced in 1962, it was later screened in Australia (the first Japanese TV production to be seen there) making ninja a favoured among pre-teens.
A few years later, in 1967 the ninja had their first appearance in a western movie, it was the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, from that moment there was no turning back, either in movies, cartoons, manga, anime TV series, novels, videogames or web-sites, pitching ninja against the most unlikely opponents (pirates come to mind), or mixing and matching in the same movie very different martial traditions (as seen in quite a few ninja versus shaolin Hong Kong flicks).
At least one intended spoof of ninja was a rousing success: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are among that elite of fictional characters that are easily recognized all over the world and to which children and former-children alike tend to respond, at least with a smile and fond memories.
With this I leave you for this month. In my next column we will begin a travel through perception and simbology of colors.
(1) Two neighboring provinces near Kyoto, on Honshu island. According to tradition, the ninja villages in Iga were destroyed in 1579 when General Nobunaga Oda invaded the province to bring it under the control of the central government.
(2) Hattori Hanzo (1541-1596), also known as Oni-Hanzo (devil Hanzo) for his ferocity in battle. In Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, the master swordsmith of the same name is a descendant of the historical Hanzo, an homage to the role played by actor Sonny Chiba in Kage no Gundan.
(3) A Kabuki prop-handler/actor helper is called a koken. It is usually an apprentice actor and can wear different outfits as appropriate to the play. When wearing black clothes and a veil or mask covering his face, the koken is called kurogo.
Illustration credit: Kabuki scene with kurogo on stage from www.faktoider.nu/ninja.html.
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