There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about Ninjutsu and the Ninja, many of which came about due to numerous Hollywood films during the eighties. I’ve yet to see someone disappear in a cloud of smoke, walk through walls, or fly! However like all myths there is an element of truth behind them. The Ninja were able to perform feats that seemed impossible to the highly superstitious folk of medieval Japan. These people, like people all over the world attributed supernatural qualities to things they could not logically explain.
Behind these supernatural qualities lay the Ninja’s ingenuity and ability to use nature to achieve their aims. Using their skills the ninja were able to convince people that they could achieve such feats as disappearing. What people saw was the Ninja’s clever use of medieval smoke bombs and their amazing ability to either blend in and conceal themselves, or escape. When the smoke cleared, the Ninja was gone, but the belief that they disappeared in a cloud of smoke remained.
As for Walking through walls, again, the use of concealment and evasion skills could give this illusion, but also the Ninja’s ingenuity led to the development and use of trap doors and secret passages behind walls. The Ninja then literally did walk through walls.
There are many of these examples throughout Ninjutsu history and the Ninja were more than happy to have people believe these things as it made them seem superhuman which always gave the Ninja a psychological advantage.
Ninja, the hidden assassin
Possibly the most common misconception is that of the Ninja as ruthless assassins. Again, like other misconceptions there is an element of truth to this. Assassination was a tool the Ninja used, but this was by no means their sole purpose. Ninjutsu developed out of the need for protection, and one of the features that enabled the Ninja to protect themselves was the use of stealth. As time passed these skills became recognised by Samurai lords who would employ the ninja if stealth could achieve victory or increase the chances of victory. The Ninja would be used to spy on enemy units and movements, or to infiltrate an army with the aim of reducing morale, to sow the seeds of discontent, or to provide misinformation. They were used to break in to strongholds to steal plans or even to rescue or kidnap someone. In some situations assassination of an enemy leader could bring about victory without the need for open warfare, thus sparing many lives. For the Ninja such a use of their time and skills could help them in their ultimate goal of survival. The payment received could provide much needed food; the settling of rivalries between lords could prevent war which would leave their lands safe. Also, cooperation with a powerful lord may afford them some further protection.
This also questions the idea that the Samurai and Ninja were at constant war with one another. As previously explained, they were often on the same side and sometimes opposing lords may well both employ Ninja from different clans to work for them. This meant that Ninja could even find themselves battling other Ninja!
Though the myths about the Ninja are fascinating they hide a truth which in most cases is far more incredible than the myth. The impossible feats with which the Ninja were accredited were in fact achieved by men and women (yes, there were female Ninja!) with incredible skill and self belief in their abilities to achieve the impossible.