|A mock battle between a samuari and a "kunoichi" (female version of a ninja) in Iga, Japan.|
During a stay in Japan last year to visit my wife's family in the bustling, industrial city of Osaka, I took a trip to Iga, a town in Mie Prefecture that is known as one of the ancient birthplaces of the ninjas. It was a perfect place to do research for an upcoming book project, one set in medieval Japan when Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidated his rule of the country under the shoguns.
|A poster for the town of Iga in Mie Prefecture, the "country of the ninjas".|
Ninjas played a special role in the feudal, war-torn period of medieval Japan between the 15th and 17th centuries. They were masters of covert warfare and espionage, possessing special skills that the formally trained samurai warriors lacked. The original ninja clans may have learned their techniques from Chinese mystic warriors according to Stephen Hayes' famous book The Ninja and the Secret Fighting Art.
|A castle in Iga, Japan.|
Ninjas (and their female counterparts, the Kunoichi) occupied a unique position in the social hierachy of feudal Japan: unlike the samurai and feudal lords, they were often recruited from the lower classes. They also organized their activities into specific roles: spy, scout, agitator or surprise attacker. In a society with rigid definition around an individual's role in society based on class, gender, etc., ninjas and kunoichi were mercenaries valued for their ability to transcend these social boundaries and play different roles. A ninja who came from humble origins might be valued for his ability to impersonate a noble warrior and penetrate enemy ranks. A kunoichi would be valued for ability to play different roles expertly, such as a Shinto shrine maiden or a palace geisha. She could wield tremendous power and influence in areas that were usually reserved for men in the danson jyohi (male dominated society) of traditional Japan.
Ninja clans would begin training their recruits from childhood in the mountains around Iga, with elaborate and painstaking lessons in balance and dexterity, such as making a young child stand on a tree branch all day long while remaining alert so he would not lose his balance.
|Ninja weapons on display in an Iga museum.|