Japanese Culture Teaching Notes


Ninja - Myths and Legends

During the relative quiet time of the Edo period, under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the arts flourished. Stories, woodblock prints, and plays all told dramatic stories from the past. In these tales, the ninja became semi-mythical beings, whose ability to hide, stay silent, to siege castles, and to kill, grew to superhuman heights, and so the only explanation for their powers became sorcery. In one play a ninja is able to turn himself into a rat. Stories tell of another ninja who knows 'Toad Magic,' and rides on the back of a giant toad. In another tale, a ninja meets a sorcerer on the road, and when the ninja cuts the sorcerer open, and his intestines continue to attack the ninja, the ninja begs him to teach him the magic arts. In the face of such powers as these, the ability to fly or turn invisible seems commonplace.

Part of the mystical aura that surrounds the ninja may be due to their longstanding association with monks, especially the yamabushi. They would take long, mountain pilgrimages in the belief that such hardship combined with worship and fasting would reveal their religion to them, and at the same time be granted powers beyond that of ordinary humans. Iga and Koga provinces, being very mountainous, were both destinations for yamabushi. Add to this the rumours that ninjas often disguised themselves as wandering monks for purposes of concealment on intelligence missions, and it is easy to see how the magical powers ascribed to one can so easy be passed to the other.

As the legend of the ninja grew, so to did the amount of historic figures that were newly assigned ninja status. Any samurai who had an unaccounted for period of wandering in the mountains became a possible candidate: the warrior Yagyu Jubei, who served the Tokugawa but then took an unaccounted for ten year leave of absence, is a prime example. Hundreds of tales have been written about those unknown years and the events surrounding it, so much so that it is generally not questioned that Jubei, and in fact the entire Yagyu clan, were ninjas. And it could be true. Much less likely is the claim that Minamoto Yoshitsune, brother of the twelfth century shogun Yoritomo, was a ninja. Yoshitsune was forced to flee from his brother, who was trying to consolidate his power and make sure there would be no other claimants to the title of shogun. Yoshitsune has to disguise himself as a yamabushi to escape. But despite this ninja-like disguise, it would be several hundred years before ninjas really appeared in the historic record. But that doesn't stop ninja believers, who even go so far to claim that he founded a school of ninja arts, the Yoshitsune-Ryu.

In addition to the ninjas abilities in maritial arts and magic, one other power remains to be mentioned -- which is, they were legendary in the sack. As far back as the late eighteenth century, erotic art was being printed of ninja antics in the sack. Usually, the images were ones of violent entry and rape. The ninja, using his strength, his ability to gain entry to any place, would tie up or slay men and rape women at their pleasure. Japanese Ninja literature and cinema still contain a powerful element of the erotic.

With all of these stories of the ninja being written, it was only a matter of time before they appeared on the Kabuki theater stage. And then, the actors had a dilemma -- how does one portray a ninja? And more importantly, what kind of costume should be used? Sometimes, they wore garb not dissimilar to any other samurai when playing a ninja on stage. But the ninjas reputation as masters of stealth and invisibility suggested a costume to the actors. Because there already were people on stage, in many performances (especially of the Bunraku or puppet theater), who were supposed to be invisible. They were the kurogo, or stage-hands. The stage-hands, to indicate to the audience that they were not meant to be seen and should be ignored, wore black from top to bottom. And here, at last, we have the famous ninja uniform -- those black pajamas that seem to provide little protection from weapons, little cover in pitch darkness, and foolishly advertise to the entire world who you are. It makes little sense for an outfit such as this to be used in the real world, but in the conventions of Kabuki theater, it was the perfect costume. And to this day, every ninja movie, no matter how authentic they attempt to be, includes the Kabuki stage-hand's costume as an unquestioned and vital part of ninja outerwear.

And so, during the Edo period, the ninja moved from the battlefield into the imagination, and have remained there ever since. While popular plays were presented to lay audiences of ninja exploits, those who believed they carried on the tradition of the ninja continued to practice their skills in various schools throughout the country. Many of them kept secret books which showed weaponry, medicines, and food recipes. As the long peace wore on, however, the need to keep these books secret became less and less, and eventually, many of them were published. It is these guides which have been used ever since as reference for the many weapons and other equipment used by the ninja.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 2:32 AM :: 2 Comments:

Post a Comment