It's undeniable that the myth of the ninja, a cunning assassin with supernatural skills in the arts of concealment and murder, is tremendously alluring. However, the ninja's historical reality is slightly different. Ninjas were a lower class of soldiers in feudal Japan who were frequently used as spies by samurai and governments.
1. Origins of the Ninja
Since spies and assassins have always been utilized by people all throughout the world, it is challenging to pinpoint the exact moment the first ninja, or shinobi as they are more correctly known, emerged. It appears more plausible, nevertheless, that the ninja slowly developed in early feudal Japan as a rival force to their aristocratic peers, the samurai.
The majority of accounts claim that between 600 and 900, the techniques that would eventually become ninjutsu—the ninja's art of stealth—began to evolve. It is reported that Otomono Sahito was engaged by Prince Shotoku, who reigned from 574 to 622, as a shinobi spy. The Tang Dynasty in China had collapsed by the year 907, throwing the nation into 50 years of anarchy and prompting Tang generals to flee across the sea to Japan, where they brought with them new strategies for combat and military ideologies. The 1020s saw the arrival of Chinese monks in Japan as well. They brought with them their own combat philosophies and new medicines, many of which had their origins in India and had traveled through Tibet and China before arriving in Japan. The monks passed on their techniques to the first ninja clan members as well as to Japan's warrior-monks, or yamabushi.
2. The First Known Ninja School
The counterculture without rules that would eventually give rise to ninjutsu flourished for at least a century as a combination of Chinese and native methods. Around the 12th century, Daisuke Togakure and Kain Doshi first formalized it. Daisuke was a former samurai who lost a local conflict, forcing him to give up his estates and his samurai rank. In these conditions, a samurai might typically commit seppuku, but Daisuke didn't.
Instead, in 1162, Daisuke was wandering the southwest Honshu highlands when he came into a Chinese warrior-monk named Kain Doshi. Daisuke gave up the bushido code, and the two of them created the ninjutsu idea of guerilla warfare. The Togakureryu, the first ninja ryu or school, was founded by Daisuke's offspring.
3. The Rise and Fall of the Ninja
Large-scale combat in Japan came to a stop after the Shimbara Rebellion. This meant that ninja were no longer in high demand for fighting throughout the Edo era. Instead, they served as spies and bodyguards for daimyo (Feudal Lords). The information from their ninjustsu enabled the ninja to transition to various fields of employment over time, becoming anything from surgeons to fireworks producers.
The oniwaban were established by the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune at the beginning of the 18th century. The oniwaban were a hybrid of a secret service and an intelligence organization. Some people think the oniwaban eventually evolved from ninjas. The skill sets of ninjas and oniwabans were aligned since many members of the Iga and Koga clans had served as royal guards in the past. There is no written documentation to support this move, though.
It should be emphasized that not every ninja changed their line of work at this time. Although certain daimyo continued to employ ninjas until the end of the Edo period in 1868, for the most part, the ninja era was long since passed.
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