Blogs > Cliopatria > Who Were the Ninjas?

Aug 13, 2004 2:11 pm

Who Were the Ninjas?

Don Fernandez, in the AJC (Aug. 8, 2004):

... The term "ninja" is a 20th-century concoction. Those now referred to as ninja were the modern equivalent of a sniper, spy or assassin. Some of the names used to describe them in ancient Japan were suppa, rappa and shinobi.

Many were lowly peasants. Others were very high-ranked samurai.

"The best way to think of ninja is as an activity instead of a status per se," said Karl Friday, professor of Japanese history at the University of Georgia.

In the late 17th century, those who practiced these skills often would showcase their talents in performances that would be the equivalent of U.S. Wild West shows.

Because there were no large-scale conflicts in Japan from the mid-1600s through the 1840s, the country was filled with martial arts masters who could demonstrate their skills in the absence of war, said Mark Ravina, director of East Asian studies at Emory University.

"For the last two centuries of the samurai, they were doing the equivalent of jousting," said Ravina, author of "The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori." "Ninja are part of that."

And the abilities and sleight of hand were essentially tricks of the trade that no one wanted to leak.

"You had to keep it secret or you couldn't get students," Ravina said.

Thus the legends began, mostly outside Japan, where 80 percent of the interest occurs, Friday said.

"It's like Japanese coming over here and saying I want to be a cowboy or Indian brave," he said.

Friday, author of the book "Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan," said part of the reason so little is known about ninjas is because they are considered a bit of a joke for any serious historian to pursue.

Yet even academics with astute insight and knowledge of Japan's past can see the westernized appeal.

"The one guy who has superpowers and can do all these things. It's the romance of sneaking around in the night," Friday said. "A big part of the modern legend is that these are the underdogs. They're peasants. Get the man, fight the power."...

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