Ninjas, or shinobi as they are called in the original Japanese, are prevalent in a thousand tales in many media. Medieval secret agents, rumored to have mystical powers over the elements? Of course they are.  They weren’t exactly what you’d think, however. For one, they didn’t dress in black clothing and facemasks or heartlessly slaughter people on behalf of their masters.


Once you get the details and layout of the castle or camp, all you need to do is get back with the information as soon as possible.

That’s the first verse of a ninja instructional poem. Ninjas actually did very little killing, and were mainly spies. A lot of them didn’t even carry weapons. Instead, ninjas carried six tools around with them everywhere: A straw hat, to hide your face but still let you see out, a grappling iron and thin rope, for climbing and tying people up, a pencil for making notes and marks on buildings, basic medicine in case you get sick on the job, a meter long strip of cloth, used as a headband or waistband, and a fire starter for cooking fires or arson.


Make yourself resolute with the idea that you will win whenever you go on a mission, and you can win even if it is not so realistic.

A ninja called Torii Sune’emon volunteered to take a message asking for help from this guy called Nagashino to another (super awesome) guy called Nobunaga and his allies, and said he would light a beacon if he got out safe. Nagashino was under siege by Katsuyori, with nets in the river and palisades so that nobody could get out, so Torii left through the sewer and swam down the river cutting nets until he got away safe, and lit a beacon. He gave Nobunaga the message and came back to the castle, but he got caught by Katsuyori and offered a job, which he accepted. (Secretly, though, he’s loyal to Nagashino.) Basically, he’s supposed to yell for Nagashino to surrender, because no allies were coming to help him, and he’s tied to a cross to get attention, but instead he yells for the people in the castle to hang on because reinforcements are coming. Torii is then crucified in a sufficiently violent, Japanese way.


The way a good ninja works is: to know about people without letting them know about him.

Ninjas didn’t wear black clothing and facemasks. Instead they wore seven kinds of disguises:

1, a Zen monk, who wears a big straw hat and can see without other people seeing their faces, 2, a Buddhist monk, so you can get close to people without suspicion, 3, a Yamabushi mountain priest, so you can carry a sword without being questioned, 4, a merchant, to mix freely with people, 5 and 6, street entertainer and actor, who are always traveling and don’t raise suspicion, and finally 7, dress like the people around you to blend in.


If there is an unlucky aspect to the direction or date of your mission, you should back out and choose another day or time for departure.

Ninjas were commonly believed to have powers over the elements, particularly the wind, and were very superstitious. In one of their instructional books, they outlined five powerful spells: one for protection, three to divert weapons, and one to make friends come together or fall apart.


While I was researching this, I learned three very important lessons. First, medieval Japanese people were extremely violent and overly dramatic. Second, everything I thought I knew about ninjas was completely wrong. Third, and probably the most important, is that you don’t have to be super-strong or well-liked to make a difference. Even if that difference involves killing people in sufficiently dramatic, violent ways.


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