What is a ninja?
It’s now somebody who adopts a particular sort of martial art. But that’s not how they were originally. They were secret agents who undertook work, usually at night, and acted as spies and assassins of the medieval world of Japan.
What does the word ninja mean?
Ninja comes originally from the Chinese and is a vague Japanese pronunciation for “one who endures.” And because Japanese is what it is, there is also a Japanese word which means the same thing: shinobi. They are interchangeable. Because Chinese always was a slightly more higher-status way of talking, ninja tends to be higher status, and became acceptable to foreigners. Shinobi remains the Japanese way of talking about them.
And they originated from a particular part of Japan, right?
They did. I was surprised to discover there was a particular area that is associated with them. Traditionally, it is known as Iga and Koka — within a couple of hours’ drive from Kyoto. It’s quite a charming and fairly remote area of rolling hills and forests and valleys and streams and rice paddies — not at all well developed, but very charming.
So what made this such fertile ground for ninja-ism?
It’s very central in Japan and arose at a time when all of Japan was riven by feuds and governed by warlords. This particular area had been pretty free of warlords and was determined to remain so. And what happened was that the villages there formed themselves like self-defense communes, and it was in that context that the ninja skills developed.