What makes a Ninja?
The original picture is from Bujinden Honbu Dojo
As long as there have been people, there has been war and the need for espionage. Takamatsu-sensei tells us that the mythical figures Amenoshibinomikoto, Kume be and Otomo from Japanese mythology made use of early ninjutsu. In the Asuka Period (538-710), Prince Shotoku Taisi 聖徳太 (574 – 622) employed Otomo no Hosohito 大伴細人 as a ninja. At this time, the term shinobi was used of him.
According to other researchers, Prince Oama (later emperor Tenmu) commanded Mirakuni Oyori, Mugetsu Kimihiro, and Wanibenoomi Kimite to prepare for war in secret during the Jinshi War (672). Based on their spying, they too could be regarded as contemporary ninjas.
Few contemporary sources are available on espionage and reconnaissance, as it appears people at the time wanted to conceal the details of such actions. Ninjas and ninjustu are often mentioned in passing by different names, however. The term ninja is a very new reading of the old kanji, which originally stood for shinobi. Shinobi denotes ‛he who endures or survives’. In addition, different eras and sources use different names for ninja, e.g. Ongyô no Mono – ‛he who hides his shape’; Musoku-nin – ‛he who isolates himself’; Kanchô – ‛those who move between spaces’; and Iga no mono – ‛the people of Iga’.
In some instances, criminals were recruited to carry out spying and espionage tasks. One famous example is of rappas who served the Hojo clan. A rappa’s criminal background provided him the requisite skills for his tasks rather than having received them from an upbringing in a samurai family specialising in ninjutsu, as was the custom in Iga and Koga. The most famous rappa was Fuma Kotaro.
In some instances, criminals were recruited to carry out spying and espionage tasks. One famous example is of rappas who served the Hojo clan. A rappa’s criminal background provided him the requisite skills for his tasks rather than having received them from an upbringing in a samurai family specialising in ninjutsu, as was the custom in Iga and Koga. The most famous rappa was Fuma Kotaro. Ninjutsu got its characteristic traits for which it is now known in the mountainous regions of Iga and Koga. These areas in the centre of Japan’s main island Honshū are difficult to traverse, but are located in the vicinity of important cities like Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya. The mountainous area held many natural defensible positions and hiding places, and in the earliest times was known as a place where the persecuted could find sanctuary. It was typical for the losing side in a battle to be hunted down, and many survivors of all sorts of backgrounds sought refuge in the mountain range. Small village communities sprang up in Iga, and they were home to jizamurai, or independent samurai who owned plots of arable land they usually tended them self. Early on, Iga was under the governance of the Tōdai-ji temple at a time when Buddhist temples were politically and martially influential institutions. The local villagers of Iga revolted against the Tōdai-ji temple and became sovereign, succeeding in liberating themselves from central government before the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). Nominally, the area was thereafter under the rule of the Niki clan, vassals of Mikawa, but in truth Iga Sokoku Ikki (伊賀惣国一揆) ruled Iga. This was a council formed by locals who gathered to make decisions regarding shared issues and defence of the region. The council comprised twelve members elected from the area’s fifty to sixty families (clans). In an important position of leadership were the three most significant clans of the area; the Fujibayashi, Momochi, and Hattori clans. The neighbouring Koga district became independent in a similar way.
In the seventh century, a local form of Buddhism developed in Japan named Shugendō (修験道), or ‛The Way of Trial and Practice’, which merged Tantra Buddhism, Shinto mountain worship, and local beliefs. En no Gyōja is regarded as the central figure of the religion in question. During the Heian Period (794-1185), the religion was further influenced from Vajrayāna Buddhism and gained popularity amongst the Kyoto nobility. Shugendō is practiced by undergoing mentally and physically strenuous rituals in the mountains. The ranges of Iga and Koga were holy areas for this belief, and this influenced the world-view of the locals significantly.
The prevailing theory of Bujinkan holds that refugees from China flooded into Japan following the collapse of the Tang dynasty. Among those who fled to Iga are Cho Busho, Yo Gyokko, and Ikai. They shared their learning with local jizamurai and ninjutsu as we understand it today is based largely on their teachings. A family typically had a style of ninjutsu handed down through the generations. In addition to spying and unorthodox warfare, the Iga no mono (ninjas) had to master the skills of the samurai. Many sources emphasise the ability of ninjas to function as soldiers rather than strictly as spies. As a result, ninjutsu was a blend of different espionage techniques and fighting styles.
The ninjutsu families of Iga worked as mercenaries for neighbouring warlords in special operations throughout Japan. In so doing the were able to influence political equilibrium which enabled their independent life. This came to an end in 1581 with the war of Tenshō iga (Tenshō Iga no Ran 天正伊賀の乱).