The Roots of Ninjutsu

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

Sonshi Heiho, is the Japanese way of pronouncing Sun Tzu's Art of War. Sun Tzu, for the rest of the article referred to by his Japanese name Sonshi, lived sometime around the fifth century BC. He wrote what is considered the first actual manual of war in Chinese history. Chapter thirteen deals specifically with the use of spies and details the different types of spies and how they are to be employed and exploited.

Sonshi Heiho, Sun Tzu's Art of War, was brought into Japan during the seventh century. All the chapters were regarded as necessary knowledge for a military commanders, and was one of the reasons Bushi and Samurai in later centuries made it a point to learn to read. There were always those who thought that by knowing how to fight and lead men in direct battle, that they could be successful commanders, but these were always overcome by those who studied strategy, referred to as Heiho, and especially those who studied the ancient manual of Sonshi.

Prince Shotoku

It is believed that spies, on a wide scale basis, were first used effectively by Prince Shotoku in his battle to allow religious freedom for Buddhist believers. At that time, those who practiced the indigenous faith, normally called Shinto, the way of gods, which was a type of pantheism or animism, according to interpretation, were afraid that Buddhism would totally replace their belief. It is postulated that believers of Buddhism, including warrior monks, such as Yamabushi and Sohei, were familiar with Sonshi Heiho. It was these monks who became friendly with the royalty and thus developed the skills and organization to use spies to supply information, which allowed the Buddhists to gain the upper hand and so become established as a permanent faith in Japan.

From that time on, the use of a spy network in war became a standard operating procedure. Spies were especially active during the Gempei War between the Taira and the Minamoto. Following the advice of Sonshi, spies were used to avoid conflict, shorten battles, and weaken an enemy without fighting. Literally the bottom line was that spies saved lives and money.


Originally spies were known as Kancho, literally 'the interval of spying out'. In the early days, the term, Kancho was also used as the term for scouts, in that the Kanji for Cho can also mean 'reconnoiter', thus Kancho can also be translated 'the interval of reconnoitering'. In the beginning there were basically two types of spies, those from inside ones own camp and those recruited in the enemies. According to which copy of Sonshi Heiho a person possesses, the two groups of spies are divided into five divisions. (The author has an extremely old copy, which is not only translated into English, but has the full test in Chinese. He uses the Chinese characters for the five divisions of spies, but acknowledges that there may be different lists according to which manuscript is used. It must be kept in mind that there are actually several distinct copies of Sonshi Heiho, with some differences in terminology, and that the first English version of the book did not occur until 1905.)

Among those spies recruited from the enemy’s country are Kyokan, Naikan, and Hankan. Each of these types of spies were turned either through promises of money or power, especially in the situation where an employer wins the war and actually takes over the land of the enemy.


Kyokan were people who lived in a village in the enemy's area. Generally these would be people who were dissatisfied with the living conditions in their Han, fief. There were always those who were unhappy where they were, usually because of a negative attitude, but which could be exploited by making the person think that they were hapless because of their Daimyo, lord. These folks could be encouraged to tell everything they knew about other people and conditions in their clan. Many times they were first cultivated by being encouraged to gossip about those they disliked, then their contact would play upon their dissatisfaction and eventually gain important information from them, with the promise that life would be better once their was a change of leadership.


Naikan were those inside of the local government. Once again it was generally a person who was dissatisfied for some reason. Either they had been passed over for promotion or were jealous of someone in the leadership, including the Daimyo himself. These people could not only supply information, but also if they were high enough in position, could actually help to postpone events, giving the enemy time to take steps against the Han. It was also possible for them to encourage bad decisions in an area, leaving gaps in defenses, which could then be exploited by their secret employers.


The final type of recruited agent was the Hankan, or what we call today, the double agent. This was a person who was originally sent into one's own camp in order to spy, but upon being caught, and with the promise of life and reward, turned against their own lord and thus worked for his enemy, while still pretending to serve loyally. This type of spy could send back false information, hoping to get the enemy to make a precipitous move, which could be capitalized upon. Or even encourage the enemy to postpone an attack, allowing the defenders to become better prepared to deal with it, or set a trap, when the time was right. According to the skills of the Hankan, the agent could be used for sabotage and assassination.


The two types of spies from ones own camp are Shokan and Shikan. Shokan are literally living agents, and were those sent on missions with the idea that they must return with important information or the results of sabotage or other type of data, which would be used to make decisions upon the next course of action. These were extraordinarily valued men and women, who were highly trained and skilled in the arts of espionage. They were leaders in their organizations who could accomplish missions with little chance of being caught, due to their great skill and ability.


Then there were the Shikan, expendable agents, who were expected to go on missions with little chance of survival. Generally these were people who had received just enough training to allow them to infiltrate an enemy stronghold, perform a mission, and then be caught, to be executed, or kill themselves rather than being caught. In example, a woman might work her way into being a Daimyo's lover, so that she could kill him after getting what information she could, passing it on to another agent, then killing him at the point of vulnerability during intimacy. Or it might be an agent sent in to kill a well guarded person, knowing that to get in was difficult, and could result in death, but once in and the mission completed, getting out would be impossible. Finally, some Shikan, were sent in, purposefully to be caught, so as to give false information under torture, before execution.

These two divisions and five types of spies had been implemented from as early as the seventh century in Japan and saw use throughout history, with the last active agent reportedly being seen in action during World War II, the great master of Kempo and Ninjutsu, Seiko Fujita. Eventually the indigenous term Shinobi no mono was applied to certain agents. Shinobi no mono means, 'a person who steals in'. At other times the term Shinobi was used by itself with the simple translation being 'spy' though it could also be thought of from the idea of sneaking or hiding and refer to a scout. The art practiced by those who were Shinobi was Ninjutsu, the art of patience or the art of stealth. It is said that the art was developed from Buddhist monks, during the time of religious persecution, as a method of practicing their faith, Nimpo, the (universal, sic., God's) law of patience, and continued to evolve into the art of stealth. This was shared with rural Samurai who supported the Buddhist faith. They adapted the skills for protection of their Han, after the persecution was over.

Spies: Trained and Untrained

In war, Bushi and Samurai, performed clandestine missions using their Ninjutsu skills. Eventually networks of spies were developed recruiting people from all walks of life to acquire the necessary information needed to keep up or get ahead of the next Daimyo. These spies were generally cultivated for the information they could acquire and were not trained or skilled in Ninjutsu, but rather were in the area where they could best pick up information.

Eventually, if was recognized that professional spies were needed who could travel to the different agents in an enemy's territory. These professional spies were recruited from Ronin, masterless warriors, who in some cases were in disgrace, and the outcasts of Japanese culture, the Eta and Hinin. Basically the Eta and Hinin were trained to be Shikan, expendable agents, who were taught certain specialized skills, and then, because they were already outcasts living outside a code of social conduct, they would do any job for a price, without having to consider the code of honor, which the Samurai followed. While the Eta and Hinin knew that basically they were being trained to die when needed, they were allowed a level of training and education they would have been denied otherwise. It was also a way that they could strike back at the society, which had ostracized them, for they were working against the Daimyo and ruling class.

Ninja – an insulting term

While Samurai or Ronin were generally at the top of the clandestine organizations, and were the ones who provided the skills training which allowed the Eta and Hinin to develop into effective spies, no one of the warrior class, including the warrior monks, would accept being called a Ninja. The actual term Ninja was coined for those agents of death and destruction, which came out of the night to terrorize and murder in the softening up process of war. The Ninja were the assassins, saboteurs, and arsonists that many times preceded the actual attack of a Samurai army. To call a Bushi or Samurai a Ninja was to invite immediate death at the edge of their sword.

Some say the term Ninja was only developed as late as the Tokugawa era and was used for criminals who were using breaking and entering techniques in the commission of their crimes. In an anachronistic manner the term Ninja was applied to unsavory actions in the past, so that today people think of the term Ninja as an ancient term for Ninja, but this is not historically accurate.

Real Spies

History has been confused by those who have tried to merge the term Ninja with the rural Samurai who were many times at odds with the central government. Many times the Sohei, warrior monks of the Buddhist temples, and the Ji-samurai, farmer (rural) warriors, marched in protest of legislation from the central government, especially in regard to over taxation. When the country was on the verge of being united by Oda Nobunaga, he first knew he needed to break the power of the Buddhist temples and rural Samurai, thus he marched against and destroyed the protest groups of many temples and their rural Samurai allies. One such group was known as the Ikko-ikki, Single Minded League. The Ikko-ikki were a group of Buddhist priests united from various Jodo sects, who were allowed to marry and have families. Their base was a massively fortified temple called, Ishiyama Honganji. Many rural Samurai were allied with the Ikko-ikki, especially the Mori clan. Some modern historians have rewritten this aspect of history to say that Oda Nobunaga was after the Ninja clans, but this is completely erroneous. He was after the Samurai clans, and Buddhist temples, that would stand against his unification of Japan or his concept of centralized government, and while it was true that they practiced Ninjutsu, all Samurai of the time did to a certain extent, but they were not Ninja.

Ninja, using the term in the historically inaccurate manner of common use, were the recruited agents, specifically from the Eta and Hinin, and sometimes from disaffected farmers, who wanted to leave the farm behind, but had no opportunity to become warriors, trained to be espionage agents, basically of the Shikan type. They were the ones who gathered information from the spies in an enemy's territory, performed assassinations, sabotaged whatever would disrupt the enemy's life, and did whatever needed to be done to hurt the enemy, without regard to honor or integrity. They were those who stood outside the class structure and would do anything for the right price, the right reward, or their own personal reason.

Shinobi and other names of the Ninjutsu trained Bushi and Samurai

Whereas the term Ninja was never historically used for the scouts, spies, and commandoes of ancient Japan, there were many terms, which were used. Some of these are; Dakko, Denuki, Hayamichinomono, Kage, Kagimonohiki, Kanja, Kanshi, Kishu, Koran, Kurohagi, Rappa, Sekko, Teisatsu, Ukami, and the most common term was simply, Shinobi. We need to understand that what is common today is many times inaccurate historically and just movie madness accepted as history.

These are the real roots of Ninjutsu. The art developed out of the strategy proclaimed in the thirteenth chapter of Sonshi Heiho. Spying was raised to a high art by those who needed to protect religious freedom. Among those who developed the art were Sohei, warrior monks, and the Ji-samurai, rural warriors, who protected their lands and rights from government abuse. The lowest level of espionage agent recruited from the lowest levels of Japanese society were those known as the Ninja, who operated without code of honor or conduct.

Ninjutsu can be considered one of the fifty honorable martial arts that the Bushi and Samurai practiced. While the warriors, and warrior monks, of Japan would perform clandestine missions, they never stepped outside their faiths and beliefs, living by a code of honor that would prohibit certain actions. Ninjutsu is an excellent art delving into the highest levels of physical conditioning and training, centering on patience and the development of skills through long years of training. The practice of Ninjutsu, as one of the Kempo Bugei (temple martial arts) and Kakuto Bugei (Samurai martial arts), must never be confused with the acts of the Ninja. Study Japanese history and not the modern, rewritten falsehoods, to know the truth about the development of Japanese martial arts. Seek the best and most honorable aspects of Japanese culture, upon which to base your martial arts training, and avoid the dishonorable shortcomings. This is the way for great and true growth in the martial arts of modern times. Accept that which is best and reject what would lower us to levels of violence and deception. One of the leading Japanese authorities on Ninjutsu makes sure to admonish his students to learn and follow the code of Bushido; loyalty, honor, courage, integrity, and compassion. A lesson for us all.


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