The Chinese Origin of the Ninja - Just Where Did the Ninja Come From?
by Antony Cummins
The ninja are without a doubt the most misunderstood and misrepresented individuals in military history;; their story brims with falsehoods - loose theory and unconfirmed "facts" that many now take for granted. In this article, the history of the ninja and the possibility of the connection to China will be explored, with the aim of putting some historical facts in place to form a better picture of the connection between the two. By the end of this short article you will have a better understanding of what a ninja is and just maybe where he came from.
A lot of people have major misconceptions about the nature of the ninja, so before diving into their history, let's first establish just what ninja (or shinobi) are.
The three biggest misconceptions about ninja today are: 1) Ninjutsu is a specialised hand-to-hand combat system passed on in secret between ninja and was kept secret from the samurai;; 2) the ninja were a "counter-culture" born in the mountains to peasant families who were fighting against the oppression of the samurai overlords, and there they developed ninjutsu, which was considered too underhanded for the samurai to use;; 3) the ninja were founded by Chinese immigrants in the sixth and seventh century who were fleeing oppression in China.
These three mistaken beliefs always "crop up" when researching the ninja. Firstly, there is no record of a ninja martial art ever being created, let alone used to provide special hand-to-hand combat or weapons skills in direct combat. The shinobi are always referenced as being used to "creep in" or to get information by clandestine methods, and history shows that the "ninja martial arts" were an invention of the mid-twentieth century, coming from a single source that Japanese researchers today discredit. Secondly, ninja always appear in the historical record as samurai, or in some minor cases as foot soldiers who work for samurai. The "poor ninja farmer" myth, where shinobi live in the ninja homeland of Iga and Koka, is incorrect. The problem is that the families of Iga and Koka at the time of the ninja were in fact independent samurai families. They owned farms (as did many samurai) and were powerful enough to stay independent until the 1580s. They were not a rag-tag group of dirty serfs, living in isolation;; they were a culturally sophisticated and independent collection of clans, land-owning samurai families powerful enough for an early shogun of Japan to need to ask permission to cross their lands. Thirdly, the idea of the ninja as Chinese immigrants may not be wholly incorrect, and this article will discuss that subject at length. Having purged these myths from the readers' mind, the next step (before asking where the ninja came from) is to come to an understanding of what the arts of the ninja were.
What is Ninjutsu?
The arts of the ninja (ninjutsu) are quite specific in the historical records, as the ninja played an important role in war. However, there is no English word to describe their job in total, as they served a mixture of western military roles.
Scouting: A ninja's job is to creep into enemy territory, past enemy checkpoints and scouts, venturing deep into the mountains and valleys. It is here that the ninja will search for days on end, recording information on rivers, mountains, rice paddies, measuring with care the depth of moats and watercourses. Here it is also the ninja's task to use mathematical principles to measure the heights of castle turrets, so that the correct distances for launching (Chinese-based) fire attacks can be calculated. In addition, the ninja must wait and hide, attempting to discover enemy passwords, "listening-scout" positions, "watch-fire" defenses and the status of the enemy army. The ninja's scouting duties may take him to the walls of the enemy castle where he must possess every skill he can muster to achieve these goals.
The Spy: During a scouting mission, or even months or years before a war has begun, the ninja changes his identity from that of a samurai or foot soldier and takes on a disguise as he travels into the enemy territory. His task here is to record as much about the enemy as possible from the inside of the opponent's castle or fortifications to the smallest details of the population. Also, he learns the preferences of the commander, the weaknesses of his retinue and any other useful details he can gain. This information will be used later to lay plots and send fake secret letters, designed to cause friction within the clueless enemy.
The Explosives Expert: A much underappreciated role of the ninja was their dramatic and in depth understanding of explosives and gunnery, which clearly originated in China, even if somewhat altered over time. Explosives were a major part of a ninja's skills. The medieval ninja Fujibayashi writes that a shinobi needs to know the basic "fifty-three" fire recipes;; however, in his manual he then goes on to list over two hundred and fifty! These include all forms of fire signals, including smoke, flares and rockets. Further tools include tear gas, poisonous gas, hand grenades, multiple shot muskets, landmines and even exploding and collapsible bridges. All in all, the ninja was a fire expert and would be called upon to use his skills to burn down castles, destroy supplies or even burn armies that strayed into dry grass land (a tactic taken from the Chinese).
The following is an example of a fire tool from the 1676 manual, Bansenshukai: "The Illuminating Arrow: Saltpetre - 20 Momme;; Sulphur - 5 Momme; Ash - 5 Momme; Camphor - 3 Bu; Mouse droppings - 3 Bu. Make a powder of the above, put the mixture into a cylinder and scrape the outer surface of the bamboo and wrap it with paper and glue. Attach it onto an arrow which is one Shaku five Sun long and which has no arrowhead. When you need to see inside [of a fortress], shoot it through the arrow or gun port so you can see within."
The Infiltration Agent: "Enter the ninja" is a phrase that gives us the classic image of the shinobi. One of his most important tasks was to find his way into enemy castles and houses at night and under the cover of darkness, waiting for the moon to set as he scaled the walls. Once inside, the ninja or group of ninja would set up position and wait for a signal, at which point they would burn the castle or house to the ground from the inside while their allies on the outside would attack in unison; or they would infiltrate and remain unseen, hiding in the shadows of the house, listening to enemy plans as they were constructed.
These above points are the true roles of the ninja, of which only the latter has ever really been portrayed by modern media or modern ninja enthusiasts. But it was such a small role in comparison to the months of preparation before, during and after a war, and its overemphasis has left us with a distorted image of the shinobi masters.
The Chinese Origin of the Ninja
The origin of the ninja is considered a "Dark Age" in Japanese history as there is no documentation of its creation that is contemporary to the first records of ninja activity. This means that all arguments about ninja origins lack supportive documentation prior to the first appearance of the ninja. However, one theory will never "fit the bill," and that is the idea of a ninja counter-culture to the samurai made up of peasants that were based in Iga and Koka and that developed special skills to defend against samurai oppression. Still, no one knows where in Japan the ninja were first created. Though they were best known in the provinces of Iga and Koka, this was not until at least two hundred years after their first appearance (in the thirteen hundreds) in Japanese history.
The fourteenth century Taiheiki war chronicles records the very first appearance of the ninja and states: "One night, as it was windy and raining, Moronao took advantage of the weather and sent out an itsu mono no shinobi 逸物ノ忍 (excellent ninja) to infiltrate Hatchiman Mountain and to set fire to the buildings."
This, alongside another quote from the same document, represents the entrance of ninja into the Japanese historical record. This means that any attempt to show a sixth century migration and establishment of the ninja from China requires the theorist to bridge a gap of around six hundred years, a mighty chasm in the world of history.
So, if the ninja have no contemporary origin record in Japan and there is no evidence which states that they directly came from mainland Asia, then the first step is to look to what the ninja believed about the origins of their own skills.
The Natori-ryu ninja manual of 1681 states, "Shinobi have existed in Japan since ancient times." However, the author Natori, a samurai of the Kishu-Tokugawa clan, does use Sun Tsu's five types of spy as a basis for the ninja and continuously shows Chinese influence in his manual (now published in English as True Path of the Ninja).
The Ninpiden ninja manual of 1560 states, "The shinobi 竊盗 were founded in the period of the Emperor Gao (256/7BC - 195BC) of the Han dynasty of ancient China. At that time the art of war and the shinobi were both initiated and at that time the shinobi were called Kan 間. In the Zuo Zhuan 左伝 Chinese classic they were called Cho 長 and after that Ryosaku 両作."
It is known that a man called Yi Yin 伊用, who was a retainer of King Chen Tang of Shang of China, sneaked into the palace of King Zhou (who reigned over the Shang Dynasty from 1075BC - 1046 BC) and defeated him. Also Jiang Ziya, who was Prime Minister to King Wen of the Zhou state, wrote 71 chapters on the shinobi ways (The Six Secret Teachings) and ruined Dodo, a retainer of King Jie of Xia 桀王.
Sun Tzu, a retainer of He-l� of Wu, invented five types of shinobi called gokan, which appear in his chapter called "Sonyokan" 尊養寒. It is said that some retainers of the Emperor of Gaozu of the Han Dynasty, such as Zhang Liang (?-189BC) and Han Xin (?-196BC), as well as Sun Tzu, used the arts of the shinobi, as they are referred to in the book on the dialogues with Emperor Taizong.
The Bansenshukai ninja manual of 1676 also discusses the connection with ancient China and Chinese warfare as the origin of the skills of the ninja in a form of questions & answers page:
Question: Is this art called ninjutsu in China as well?
Answer: Shinobi is a name that was invented in our country. In the state of Wu it was called Kan 間, and in the Spring and Autumn Period, Cho 諜, and in and after the Warring States Period [in China], Saisaku 細作, Yutei 遊偵, and so on. All these names refer to ninjutsu. Alongside this, in the Six Secret Teachings, it is referred to as Yushi 遊士 "playing warrior" and in the Yin Jing 陰経 manual written by Risen it is known as Koujin 行人. As seen in these, it has been called in many different ways according to the period, or the lord's intention. It is quite similar in our country [of Japan], as we call it shinobi (ninja), Yato, Suppa, Nokizaaru, Mitsumono, Kyoudan, etc.
It is plainly obvious that the ninja themselves fully believed in a Chinese origin theory, but a few factors must be understood. The time period between the dates above is almost one thousand years, and when put into a historical context, we can see medieval ninja discussing Iron Age movements without any proof or recordings and who are working purely from oral traditions. However, it is reassuring to see that nearly all of the ninja origin theories presented in the Middle Ages point to a Chinese ancestry. However, one thing that they all lack is any reference to how the skills came to Japan. The available options for this movement of skills are: 1) "ninjutsu" did in fact come over with Chinese immigrants in some form, probably over the many years of migration, bringing the skills of the ninja with them bit by bit and settling down on Japanese soil and invariably becoming Japanese themselves; or 2) Chinese military texts (which are constantly referenced) were imported to Japan where the "native" Japanese of the time studied them and constructed ninjutsu from their pages.
The final step in attempting to identify an origin for the ninja comes with a comparison of skills between the two countries. To start with, it is fundamental to understand that samurai warfare is heavily based on Chinese ideas, which makes a strong argument that ninja must be a part of Chinese warfare. Adding support to this idea that the ninja came from China, a comparison of skills between the Chinese kan (spies), "incendiary agents" and "thieves" and the Japanese shinobi shows a vast array of similarities, which include: water crossing devices, infiltration skills, fire technology, explosives manufacture, spying skills and scouting tactics. While too complex to discuss in full within this article, there is little doubt that the ninja of Japan shared a considerable amount of skills with their Chinese counterparts and that the ninja themselves went on to change and develop ideas (at times inferior to the Chinese versions), and that without a doubt Chinese warfare skills were being used in the mountains and plains of Japan.
In summary, the ninja enter the historical record as full-blown shinobi in the late fourteenth century, leaving their true origins a mystery. The ninja themselves believe that their skills are descended from the ancient ways of China, yet they do not state whether this occurred through immigration or the import of war manuals. When the skills of ninjutsu are compared to those in China, many similarities are found. Therefore, it appears that at some unrecorded point, Chinese military concepts "invaded" the shores of Japan, most likely piecemeal and with a gradual dissemination, either due to Chinese immigrants mixing with locals to develop and teach the skills of ninjutsu, or through the import of Chinese military manuals that Japanese utilized for their "ninja-like" skills, giving birth to the shinobi somewhere between the seventh and twelfth century. Either way, the story of the ninja's origins highlights two major points: first, that China had the first "ninja-like" agents in the world according to the historical record; and second, that the ninja before the thirteenth century are fully in the shadows, their origins subject to much unsupported speculation. But the research continues.