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The Story of the Iga Ninja: A Tale of Bravery, Skill, and Dedication

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Ninja (忍者), also known as shinobi (忍び) or shinobi no mono (忍びの者), were covert agents and mercenaries in feudal Japan who specialized in espionage, sabotage, infiltration, and assassination, collectively known as the art of ninjutsu. They were highly skilled in a range of abilities, including martial arts, disguise, and stealth, and operated in the shadows to gather intelligence, spread disinformation, and carry out covert missions. One of the most important ninjutsu scrolls is the Bansenshukai, a universal collection of ninja skills from the Iga (modern Mie prefecture) and possibly the Koka (modern Shiga prefecture), written by Fujibayashi Yasutake in 1676. This treatise is profound, yet fortunately, its text is straightforward and self-explanatory. In Japanese, the name of the treatise 萬川集海 translates to “A Myriad of Rivers Merging into One Ocean”, with the first ideogram, 萬, having two spelling styles: "man" and "ban". The first spelling, "Mansenshukai", belongs to the Iga, while the latter, "Bansenshukai", belongs to the Koka. We follow the latter since its popular reference among the circles.



Despite being written in kanbun, which employs classical Chinese characters and grammar that is different from normal Japanese grammar and makes it difficult to read for ordinary Japanese people, the Bansenshukai is purely a product of Fujibayashi's innovation. Its legitimacy is further asserted through the use of quotes from ancient Chinese literature. For example, in beginning of volume two, Seishin I (the correct mind I), it directly references Chinese philosophy, stating: “Confucius says that no man has ever governed himself while his own foundations are confused. What we call Correct Mind is about keeping benevolence, righteousness, loyalty and fidelity in check. Without these factors in mind, you cannot attain any great courageous achievement nor fulfil any tactics required for the circumstances at hand.”


The Bansenshukai emphasizes the importance of one's initial state of mind, as the loyalty of spies or ninjutsu to their master and nation is crucial to the success of the intelligence cycle. As it states, "On the other hand, in our country, we call it shinobi 忍 because the character means ‘blade’ 刃 and ‘heart’ 心. It is named this way because it refers to the fundamental essence of all sections of ninjutsu. Without considering this meaning, one can hardly understand the true origin of this art." The ninja must take on all risks and demonstrate a heart that is hard and virtuous, just like a blade that is hard and sharp. "If the heart is not as sharp or hard, but instead is blunt and soft, even the most skillful plan cannot be completed, as such an agent will be fainthearted when getting close to the enemy." The author also refers to the original meaning of shinobi used in the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period in China, represented by the character "kan, 間", which means to infiltrate the enemy's castle and position without delay, even through the smallest gap, similar to sunlight (日) immediately coming through an open gate (門). The idea is that the shinobi must have the ability to quickly and efficiently penetrate the enemy's defenses, using any available opening or gap to achieve their objectives.


Currently, there is the International Ninja Research Association (INRA) dedicated to the research and study of ninja history and culture. They conduct research, hold academic conferences and seminars, and promote the understanding and appreciation of ninja culture around the world. INRA also works to preserve and promote the traditional skills and knowledge of the ninja, such as ninjutsu, shurikenjutsu, and other martial arts. As I had the opportunity to visit the village of the Iga Ninja, I will elaborate on their story alone. Hopefully, in the future, I will have the chance to discuss the Koga Ninja as well.


The Legacy of the Iga Ninja

The Iga ninja, also known as the Iga-ryu, were a group of highly skilled covert agents and warriors who lived in the Iga region of Japan during the Sengoku period (1467-1615). They were renowned for their expertise in guerrilla warfare, espionage, assassination, and infiltration. The Iga ninja operated independently of any centralized authority, and their services were sought after by various warlords and factions for their intelligence-gathering and combat skills.



Scene from movie "Sekigahara"


Among the Iga Ninjas, Hattori Hanzo was a legendary chief of the Iga ninja clan in the late 16th century. He was a trusted ally of Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the most powerful warlords of the time and a future shogun of Japan. Hanzo was known for his exceptional martial skills, tactical brilliance, and loyalty to his lord. He played a key role in several important battles and campaigns, including the Battle of Sekigahara, which paved the way for the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate. Hanzo's legacy has been immortalized in popular culture, including in the famous Quentin Tarantino film "Kill Bill", where a sword made by a fictionalized Hattori Hanzo is wielded by the protagonist, The Bride.


The Iga Ninja's legacy lives on, as their story continues to captivate and inspire people around the world. From their origins in feudal Japan to the present day, the Iga Ninja have left an indelible mark on history, culture, and popular imagination.



Today, the Iga region in Japan remains a popular destination for tourists who want to learn more about the ninja's history and culture. Visitors can explore museums, ninja houses, and training grounds, where they can see firsthand the tools and techniques used by the Iga Ninja.


But the Iga Ninja's influence extends far beyond Japan's borders. Their techniques and tactics continue to be studied and applied by martial artists and military strategists around the world. The Iga Ninja's mastery of stealth, espionage, and guerrilla warfare has made them a valuable resource for modern-day conflicts, and their techniques remain relevant even in today's high-tech battlefields. The Iga Ninja's impact on popular culture is also undeniable. From Hollywood blockbusters to video games, the ninja have become a staple of pop culture, embodying the values of courage, loyalty, and discipline. The Iga Ninja's legacy has helped to make Japan's martial arts and warrior culture famous around the world.


In the end, the Iga Ninja are remembered as heroes and legends, whose bravery, skill, and dedication continue to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Their legacy lives on, as new generations of warriors and martial artists seek to learn from their techniques and strive for excellence in their own endeavors.



Lessons from the Iga Ninja

The tale of the Iga Ninja is not just a captivating story of bravery and heroism, but also a source of valuable insights that can be applied to modern-day life and work. Here are some of the key lessons we can learn from their legacy:


1. Adaptability: The Iga Ninja were masters of adaptability, able to operate in a variety of environments with ease. In today's rapidly changing world, the ability to adapt quickly to new circumstances is a crucial skill for success.


2. Innovation: The Iga Ninja were constantly innovating and developing new techniques and tactics. By embracing innovation and thinking creatively, individuals and organizations can stay ahead of the curve and achieve success in their endeavors.







3. Focus: The Iga Ninja were laser-focused on their mission and remained committed to achieving their goals. By staying focused on what truly matters and avoiding distractions, we too can achieve great things.


4. Collaboration: The Iga Ninja, while fiercely independent, understood the power of collaboration and working together towards a common goal. By fostering a culture of teamwork and collaboration, we can achieve far more than we could alone.


5. Resilience: The Iga Ninja faced countless challenges and setbacks, but they remained resilient and committed to their mission. By developing resilience and the ability to bounce back from setbacks, we can overcome obstacles and emerge stronger than ever.


The lessons of the Iga Ninja are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. By studying their story and applying its lessons to our own lives and work, we can all become more effective, innovative, and successful in achieving our goals.

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