Despite being a covert agent employed hundreds of years ago in feudal Japan, the ninja or shinobi has penetrated pop culture as one of the most iconic warriors in history. His look is instantly recognizable and helps convey an air of mystery, turning the ninja into the archetypal silent assassin even though, in real life, his primary role had always been espionage.
The ninja has often been presented as the counterpoint to the samurai, an equally-famous warrior coming from the same time and place. While the samurai came from a noble family and was famed for his loyalty and code of honor, the ninja was usually a commoner and often offered his services as a mercenary. He also wasn’t particularly concerned with honor. Getting the job done by any means necessary was his creed and sabotage, subterfuge, arson, and assassination were all part of his arsenal.
10. Hattori Hanzo
We might as well start off with the most famous ninja on our list – Hattori Hanzo of Iga Province, who was instrumental in helping Tokugawa Ieyasu become shogun and unify Japan. What makes him particularly interesting was that Hattori had also been a renowned samurai, showing that the two roles were never quite as distinct as one would expect.
He was also never a mercenary, instead serving the Tokugawa Clan for most of his life, basically fulfilling whatever role was needed of him. When it was time for battle, Hattori distinguished himself as a unit commander at the Battles of Mikatagahara and Anegawa and the Siege of Odawara. When his ninja skills were required, Hattori assembled a group of shinobi and saved Tokugawa’s life by escorting him out of dangerous, enemy territory.
Nicknamed the Demon Hanzo, Hattori soon turned into a mythological figure as tales of his exploits spread throughout the country. Some said that he was able to see into the future, others that he could teleport.
When Tokugawa became shogun, Hattori and his ninjas served as his private guards at Edo Castle, and later morphed into a sort of feudal secret agency called the Oniwabanshu.
9. Fuma Kotaro
Contrary to popular belief, ninjas were not ubiquitous throughout the whole of Japan. The practice of ninjutsu was mainly developed in two regions, each one with its own school, that churned out professional ninjas, specially trained for this purpose. They were Iga and Koka.
Now let’s ignore what we’ve just said and focus on a ninja group that did not come from either of those regions – the Fuma Clan of Sagami Province, led by Fuma Kotaro. He was not the first leader of the clan, but he was the one who took it to the height of its power. Serving the Hojo Clan during the late 16th century, the Fuma Clan consisted of up to 200 covert agents who acted as thieves, bandits, and pirates who disrupted the operations of their enemies.
Kotaro’s most notorious moment came in 1581, when he was tasked with weakening the forces of the Takeda Clan in anticipation of the Battle of Ukishimagahara. He employed psychological warfare to great effect. Several nights in a row, he and his men would infiltrate the Takeda camp and cause chaos by releasing the horses, setting fires, kidnapping people, all the while dressed like Takeda soldiers and using their battlecry so they could not distinguish friend from foe. Eventually, this triggered a frenzied fight where the soldiers killed a lot of their own confederates.
Later on, some of Takeda’s men tried to get revenge by using the same trick on Kotaro and infiltrating his own clan. However, he had planned for this event, and had previously established secret signals with his men, so the undercover operatives were easily identified and executed.
8. Ishikawa Goemon
Like Fuma Kotaro, Ishikawa Goemon did not match the traditional view of the ninja. In fact, the earliest historical mentions of him label Ishikawa simply a bandit, not a shinobi. However, with time, his story became wildly popular and his feats were exaggerated to the point where Ishikawa attained the rank of a folk hero. Centuries later, he turned into a beloved character of kabuki and puppet theater, ensuring that Ishikawa Goemon became one of the most renowned ninja in the country, regardless of whether or not he actually warranted that moniker.
The information we have on the real historical figure is sparse. He was born around 1558, although the location and his real name are uncertain. According to his legend, Ishikawa’s father was killed by the shogun’s men, which prompted him to take an anti-authoritarian stance and begin his training in ninjutsu. From there, he engaged in numerous exploits, some on his own, and some with his band of bandits.
The most famous aspect regarding Ishikawa’s thievery was that he stole from rich lords and merchants and gave to poor commoners. Whether this was actually true or not we don’t know but, as you might expect, this reputation retroactively earned him comparisons to Robin Hood.
Ishikawa tried and failed to assassinate the notorious Oda Nobunaga. He escaped, but later the same thing happened with Oda’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The second time around, Ishikawa was captured and sentenced to death in 1594 by being boiled alive.
7. Sugitani Zenjubo
Sugitani Zenjubo is primarily remembered for his failure, which eventually led to an extremely unpleasant death. As part of the Koga Clan, he was tasked in 1570 by Rokkaku Yoshikata, head of the Rokkaku Clan, to kill his mortal enemy, the aforementioned Oda Nobunaga. Sugitani was chosen as the man to carry out the assassination as he was a skilled sniper, specialized in the use of the hinawa ju, a flintlock firearm used in Japan.
Sugitani traveled to Omi Province, where Nobunaga was located, and found a secluded spot on the Chigusa Road where he hid and waited for the lord or daimyo and his retinue to arrive. When they finally passed by him, the ninja took the shot, but his bullet hit Nobunaga’s collar-armor, leaving the daimyo unharmed. Sugitani had to flee the scene with his mission failed, and found refuge in a temple. However, a few years later, the people there betrayed him as they sought to curry favor with Oda Nobunaga who was steadily becoming the most powerful man in the country.
Nobunaga had a particularly gruesome punishment in store for the ninja. Sugitani was decapitated… slowly, by being buried up to his neck and having his head cut bit by bit by passers-by with dull bamboo blades.
6. Mochizuki Chiyome
Female ninjas are an interesting, but obscure topic. We know that they existed, based on the Bansenshukai, a 17th century book which contains most of the knowledge we have on ninjas, but information on specific people is hard to come by.
Female practitioners of ninjutsu were called kunoichi and they typically employed a different skill set compared to their male counterparts. They would rarely engage in open combat. Instead they were mainly used for espionage and surveillance by gaining access to places where men could not, such as getting hired as maids for their targets. Some would also rely on sex and seduction to obtain secrets.
Their arsenal was also slightly different, as kunoichi preferred smaller weapons which were easier to conceal, such as the tessen, or the Japanese war fan, and the neko-te, aka the “cat hands,” which were often dipped in poison.
As far as named kunoichi are concerned, we know of a few, but probably the most famous of all was Mochizuki Chiyome, even though her exploits are part fact, part legend. Allegedly, she was descended from a line of ninja, so when she was left in the care of Takeda Shingen, leader of the Takeda Clan, he tasked her with organizing for him a network of deadly kunoichi.
Mochizuki recruited and trained hundreds of girls and young women, most of them orphans, prostitutes, and war victims, operating in a headquarters disguised as an orphanage. She seemingly disappeared from the historical record after the death of Takeda in 1573.
5. Fujibayashi Nagato
Fujibayashi Nagato might be one of the most significant ninjas in history, but we know almost nothing about his life. He lived during the late 16th century and was the leader of the Iga-ryu, which was one of the two main ninja schools alongside the Koga-ryu.
Fujibayashi and his men would often serve the Rokkaku Clan which held dominion over Omi Province. During the 1570s, this meant going up against a very powerful foe – Oda Nobunaga, again. Nobunaga eventually won that war and, once the Rokkaku Clan was no longer a serious threat, he decided to permanently deal with the ninja clans, as well. In 1579, he launched the Tensho Iga War when he sent his son, Oda Nobukatsu, into Iga Province, to pacify all the clans in the area. Nobukatsu failed, so in 1581, Nobunaga himself led a much larger army into battle and successfully brought the province under his control.
As far as Fujibayashi was concerned, he realized that his once-fearsome clan was gone, but he also understood that the very existence of the ninja was in peril if Nobunaga had his way. He decided that this knowledge needed to be written down for future generations. Eventually, it was his descendants who completed his work as the aforementioned Bansenshukai aka the Book of the Ninja which contained the philosophies, tactics, strategies, and weapons used in ninjutsu. Without it, it is possible that the ninjas would have been doomed to fade into complete obscurity.
4. The Sanada Ten Braves
The Sanada Ten Braves refers to a group of fearsome ninjas active during the late Sengoku Period, primarily in the service of a renowned samurai named Sanada Yukimura. In modern times, the Sanada Ten Braves have become a part of Japanese pop culture, being featured prominently in movies, video games, manga, and anime. There’s just one problem, though – the Sanada Ten Braves were fictional. They first made their appearance in a novel titled Sanada Sandaiki published during the Edo Period.
Even so, there is some scarce evidence to suggest that they were, at least, based on real-life ninjas. The most convincing case can be made for Kirigakure Saizo, one of the leaders of the Braves, who appeared to have been the fictional counterpart to a historical shinobi named Kirigakure Shikaemon.
His main claim to fame was a failed assassination attempt against Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the “Great Unifiers” of Japan. Allegedly, Kirigakure had hidden under the warlord’s floorboards, waiting for the opportune time to strike, or he may have been there simply as a spy, according to one historian. Either way, his presence began attracting the attention of mosquitoes. One guard noticed this and pierced his spear through the floorboard, stabbing the ninja in the shoulder.
In a massive coincidence, all the commotion helped prevent a separate attempt on Toyotomi’s life, this one coming from one of his servants who was a double agent. For his inadvertent service, Kirigakure’s life was spared, as long as he swore his loyalty to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
3. Daisuke Togakure
Trying to determine the origins of ninjutsu with any accuracy is a nigh-impossible task due to the scarcity of historical records from that time, and because there are a lot more myths and folktales available about the secretive ninja than there are facts. Although this story is probably also legendary, there is one school called the Togakure-ryu which traces its lineage to hundreds of years before the ninja golden age of the late Sengoku Period.
It all started during the mid 12th century, when the Genji Clan tried to revolt against the Taira Clan, one of the most powerful groups of that time. Among the Genji was a samurai named Daisuke Nishina, who came from a small village called Togakure. After his side was soundly defeated in war, Daisuke had to flee and hide in the nearby Iga Province. There, he met a yamabushi warrior monk named Kain Doshi, who took the young samurai under his wing and taught him about spirituality.
This prompted Daisuke to create a new martial art which combined the samurai sword fighting of his day with evasion techniques, unarmed combat, spirituality, potion-making, and other elements which would go on to form the basis for all ninjutsu traditions. Thus, the Togakure-ryu was born, which is still being taught today.
2. Kato Danzo
There has always been an air of mysticism and magic surrounding ninjas, and nowhere is that more evident than Kato Danzo, a shinobi from the early 16th century who became famed for his illusions. There are many tales surrounding Kato’s skills and prowess, making him out to be more a sorcerer than a martial artist. These include the ability to fly and being able to instantly sprout flowers out of seeds he threw on the ground. On one occasion, he allegedly swallowed an entire bull in front of an audience.
Such fantastical tales soon reached the ears of a lord named Uesugi Kenshin, who wanted to put Kato to the test to see if he was truly as gifted as people said he was. He tasked the ninja with stealing a prized sword or naginata from one of his retainers who kept it inside a heavily guarded castle. Apparently, the lord even alerted his retainer that Kato was on his way, but this did not prevent the ninja from using his magic tricks to abscond with the weapon.
Despite passing the test, Kato considered Uesugi untrustworthy and believed the lord intended to have him executed so he defected to one of his enemies, Takeda Shingen. Unfortunately for him, Takeda came to regard the ninja as a double agent. Either that, or he considered Kato too powerful and dangerous to be left alive. Either way, the ninja was captured and executed by decapitation.
1. Jinichi Kawakami & Masaaki Hatsumi
Lastly, there is only one thing left to wonder – are there ninjas still left? Well, the answer is “yes, sort of.” You won’t find any trying to assassinate Japanese lords or burn down castles anymore, but there are still one or two who not only teach the art of ninjutsu, but also claim lineage to the shinobi clans of old.
One of them is Jinichi Kawakami, identified by the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum as the “last ninja.” He is the grandmaster or soke of the Ban Clan which traces its lineage to the Koga-ryu. He started training in ninjutsu when he was six years old and, when he turned 18, he inherited the ancient scrolls which contain the secrets and history of his clan.
Whether or not he is alone, however, is a bone of contention with Masaaki Hatsumi, an 88-year-old grandmaster who also claims leadership of another historical clan, the aforementioned Togakure-ryu.
Both men do agree on one point, though – neither one intends to name a successor. Kawakami feels that there is no more room for the ninja in the modern world, while Hatsumi believes that being the grandmaster of a clan is a destiny you’re born with, one which none of his students have.