In feudal Japan, two types of warriors emerged: the samurai, nobles who ruled the country in the name of the Emperor, and ninjas, often from the lower classes, who carried out espionage and assassination missions.
The functions of the ninja included sabotage, infiltration and so on…
Because the ninja (or shinobi) was supposed to be a secretive, stealthy agent who fought only when absolutely necessary, their names and deeds have made much less of a mark on the historical record than those of the samurai, though it’s known that their largest clans were based in the Iga and Koga domains.
Yet even in the shadowy world of the ninja, a few people stand out as exemplars of the ninja craft, those whose legacy lives on in Japanese culture, inspiring works of art and literature that last through the ages.
Famous and legendary Ninjas ↓
Fujibayashi Nagato was a leader of the Iga ninjas during the 16th century, with his followers often serving the daimyo of Oomi domain in his battles against Oda Nobunaga.
This support for his opponents would later prompt Nobunaga to invade Iga and Koga and try to stamp out the ninja clans for good, but many of them went into hiding to preserve the culture.
In 1581, Oda Nobunaga launched a vicious invasion of the Iga province known as the Tensho Iga War, which decimated the Iga and Koga ninja clans. Survivors went into the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Nagato was killed in the invasion.
Despite how little we know about his life, however, Nagato did in fact leave behind an important legacy: His descendants would eventually compile the ninjutsu knowledge he left behind to create the Bansenshukai.
The Bansenshukai is a multi-volume compilation of the “secrets” and techniques of the ninja as written by the Fujibayashi clan – a lot of the information we have about ninjas today come from this compilation.
Fujibayashi‘s family took steps to ensure that ninja lore and techniques would not die out, and his descendant, Fujibayashi Yastake, compiled the Bansenshukai.
Kido Yazaemon was an Iga ninja born around 1539. He was apparently a master with the Tanegashima arquebus, a type of matchlock rifle :
The fact that the arquebus was his weapon of choice would suggest that Yazaemon was an expert with explosives and specialized in teppo-jutsu, a sub category of katon-nojutsu, or fire techniques.
Yazaemon’s true claim to fame, however, would be how he attempted to assassinate Oda Nobunaga in 1579. This attempt, although ending up in failure, was still noteworthy enough to be recorded in the Iranki, a historical document on the Iga ninjas.
As part of the operation, Yazaemon and two other ninjas fired at Nobunaga while he was inspecting the aftermath of his invasion. They missed Nobunaga and ended up killing seven of his companions instead.
Tomo Sukesada was a jonin (master ninja) of the Koga and the head of the Tomo Ryu tradition. In 1562, Tokugawa Ieyasu, working for Oda Nobunaga, was mopping up the remainders of the Imagawa clan following their defeat at the Battle of Okehazama two years earlier.
Not willing to give up yet, the Imagawa clan had holed up at Kaminogou castle – located at a highly strategic location over a precipice – under the command of Udono Nagamochi, a general of the Imagawa.
※ Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which effectively ruled Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Taking the castle was going to be difficult for Ieyasu, especially since the Imagawa had taken some of his family as hostages. To that end, Ieyasu hired 80 Koga ninjas led by Sukesada to infiltrate the Imagawa’s castle.
Working together with Hattori Hanzo, Sukesada and his 80 Koga ninjas infiltrated the castle, set its towers on fire, and killed 200 of the garrison, including the general.
Momochi Sandayu was the leader of the Iga ninjas in the second half of the sixteenth century, and most believe he died during Oda Nobunaga‘s invasion of Iga.
However, legend holds that he escaped and lived out his days as a farmer in Kii Province — retiring his life of violence for a pastoral existence far from conflict.
Momochi is famous for teaching that ninjutsu should only be used as a last resort and could only legitimately be used to save a ninja’s life, to aid his or her domain, or to serve the ninja’s lord. He warned that ”If one deliberately uses it for the sake of personal desires, the techniques will indeed fail.”
He was one of the founders of Iga Ryu Ninjutsu, and is considered to be one of the 3 greatest Iga jonin, the other two being Hattori Hanzo and Fujibayashi Nagato.
Sandayu’s real name was Momchi Tanbe Yasumitsu, though some sources suggest they were separate people. Other sources claim that Sandayu and Fujibayashi Nagato were actually one and the same person.
By the way, Ishikawa Goemon (石川五右衛門) was allegedly the student of Momochi Sandayu.
No matter who Momochi really was, he was believed to have been killed in 1581 when Oda Nobunaga invaded the Iga province in the Tensho Iga War, which almost completely wiped out the Iga and Koga ninjas.
One of the ways Sandayu operated was to maintain 3 different houses, with a different wife and family at each one. When things would get difficult for him, he would just move to another of his houses and assume a different identity.
Kirigakure Saizo is most well known for the fictional ninja he was the inspiration for : Kirigakure Saizo, second-in-command of the Sanada Ten Braves under rival and friend Sarutobi Sasuke.
As for the historical Kirigakure, according to historical records, an Iga ninja called “Kirigakure Saizo” (believed to be an alias used by another man named Kirigakure Shikaemon) once attempted an assassination against Toyotomi Hideyoshi by thrusting a spear through the floor beneath him.
The attempt failed and Kirigakure’s life was spared on condition that he swore loyalty to the Toyotomi clan. In fact, there are some sources that suggest that Saizo was a “careless ninja” who was merely spying on Hideyoshi when he was caught.
And yet, as a result of getting caught, he ended up thwarting an actual assassination attempt on Hideyoshi by double agent Yusuke Takiguchi. This was the reason his life was spared on condition of declaring loyalty to Hideyoshi.
In folk tales, Ishikawa Goemon is a Japanese Robin Hood, but he likely was a real historical figure and a thief from a samurai family that served the Miyoshi clan of Iga and supposedly trained as a ninja under Momochi Sandayu.
Goemon likely fled Iga after Oda Nobunaga‘s invasion, although a spicier version of the story states that he was having an affair with Momochi’s mistress and had to flee from the master’s wrath. In that telling, Goemon stole Momochi’s favorite sword before he went.
The runaway ninja then spent about fifteen years robbing daimyo, wealthy merchants, and rich temples. He may or may not have really shared the spoils with impoverished peasants, Robin Hood-style.
In 1594, Goemon tried to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, allegedly to avenge his wife and was executed by being boiled alive in a cauldron at the gate of the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto.
In some versions of the story, his five-year-old son was also thrown into the cauldron, but Goemon managed to hold the child above his head until Hideyoshi took pity and had the boy rescued.
Hattori Hanzo‘s family was of the samurai class from Iga Domain, but he lived in Mikawa Domain and served as a ninja during Japan’s Sengoku period. Like Fujibayashi and Momchi, he commanded the Iga ninjas.
Hattori Hanzo is probably the most famous ninja of all. He was a vassal and samurai in the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and was a major driving force in Ieyasu becoming the shogun and ruler of all Japan.
His most famous act came in 1582 : When Oda Nobunaga was killed following the betrayal by one of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, Tokugawa Ieyasu was suddenly thrust into a highly dangerous position in close proximity to Mitsuhide.
To facilitate Ieyasu’s passage through the Iga province to the safety of the Mikawa province, Hanzo brought together his fellow Iga ninjas – along with their former rivals, the Koga clan – to escort Ieyasu to safety.
Hattori led Tokugawa across Iga and Koga, assisted by the survivors of the local ninja clans. Hattori also may have helped to recover Ieyasu’s family, which had been captured by a rival clan.
Hattori died in 1596 at the age of about 55, but his legend lives on. His image actually features in numerous manga and movies, with his character often wielding magical powers such as the ability to disappear and reappear at will, predict the future, and move objects with his mind.
In many ways, Kato Danzo was the ninja who popularized the notion that ninjas held supernatural powers. Danzo was an illusionist who many believed was an actual sorcerer.
His tricks included swallowing a bull in front of crowds, causing seeds to sprout and flower the instant they were thrown, and even flying. Today researchers believe that he must’ve been a master of hypnosis, even though there is nothing to verify this.
Either way, Kato’s reputation eventually caught the attention of Uesugi Kenshin, who decided to test the ninja’s abilities. He challenged Danzo to steal a prized sword from one of his vassals, Naoe Kanetsugu.
Not only did Danzo successfully infiltrate the heavily guarded castle and retrieve the blade, but he also captured a servant girl as well. Impressed, Kenshin brought Danzo into his service, but Danzo eventually became unwelcome, either because Kanetsugu was plotting against him or because Kenshin had grown suspicious of him.
Ultimately, Danzo defected to Kenshin’s rival, Takeda Shingen, but this proved to be costly when Shingen suspected that he was a double agent and ordered that he be killed. Danzo was beheaded in 1569.
Mochizuki Chiyome was the wife of samurai Mochizuki Nobumasa, who died in the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Chiyome herself was from the Koga clan, however, so she had ninja roots.
After her husband’s death, Chiyome stayed with his uncle, Takeda Shingen. Takeda asked Chiyome to create a band of kunoichi, or female ninja operatives, who could act as spies, messengers, and even assassins.
Chiyome recruited girls who were orphans, refugees, or had been sold into prostitution, and trained them in the secrets of the ninja trade. They might dress up as actresses, prostitutes, or geisha to infiltrate a castle or temple and find their targets.
At its peak, Chiyome’s ninja band included between 200 and 300 women and gave the Takeda clan a decisive advantage in dealing with neighboring domains.
Fuma Kotaro was an army leader and Ninja jonin of the Hojo clan based in Sagami Province. Although he was not from Iga or Koga, he practiced many ninja-style tactics in his battles and his special forces troops used guerrilla warfare and espionage to fight against the Takeda clan.
The Hojo clan fell to Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590, after the siege of Odawara Castle, leaving Kotaro and his ninjas to turn to a life of banditry.
Legend holds that Kotaro caused the death of Hattori Hanzo, who served Tokugawa Ieyasu. Kotaro supposedly lured Hattori into a narrow seaway, waited for the tide to come in, and then poured oil on the water and burned Hattori’s boats and troops.
However the story went, Fuma Kotaro’s life was put to an end in 1603 when the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu sentenced Kotaro to execution by beheading.
Jinichi Kawakami is called the last ninja, although he readily admitted that “Ninjas proper no longer exist.”
Still, he began to study ninjutsu at the age of six and learned not only combat and espionage techniques but also chemical and medical knowledge handed down from the Sengoku period.
However, he has decided not to teach any apprentices the ancient ninja skills. He notes wistfully that even if modern people learn ninjutsu, they cannot practice much of that knowledge: “We can’t try out murder or poisons.”
Thus, he has chosen not to pass the information on to a new generation, and perhaps the sacred art has died with him, at least in the traditional sense.