Examining the Surprising Misconceptions of What Ninjas Actually Did

Ninjas are super popular in media, and most of them contain these misconceptions. Read on to learn the truth!

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A closeup of a ninja almost completely covered in black clothing and holding a sword over his shoulder

Ninjas have been around perhaps as early as the 12th century. They disappeared sometime in the 17th century after Japan was unified after over a century of war since they were no longer needed. Despite being around for about 500 years, not much is known about this secretive group. Perhaps because of this — and mistranslations, stereotypes, and misinformation — there are many misconceptions about ninjas. Some of them are addressed below, though it is by no means a comprehensive list.

Etymology of Ninjas

In Japanese, there are two words for “ninjas”: “shinobi” and “kunoichi”. Shinobi are male ninjas, kunoichi are female ninjas. Part of the reason for the distinction is because of the Japanese characters and their meanings: the characters for kunoichi form the kanji character for “woman.” The characters in shinobi essentially mean “someone who avoids being seen.”

A chart showing the meanings of the Japanese characters that make up the words shinobi and kunoichi

The word “ninjas” didn’t come about until the 1950s. It’s derived from the Japanese wordsnin”, which means “stealth,” and “sha”, which means “person.” (The second character can also read as “ja”, which is why it’s ninjas and not ninsha.) Because the word is based in Japanese, which doesn’t use plurals, both ninja and ninjas are okay when talking about multiple.


Ninjas Wore All Black Clothing

A ninja wearing all black kneeling with a sword strapped to his back

When we think about ninjas, we think of someone covered head to toe in black. But that’s not true. In fact, wearing all black would have made them stand out, and they needed to blend in. So they would wear normal clothes and try to look like everyone els. Even during nights, they never wore black.

Ninjas Used Shuriken (Throwing Stars) to Kill People

three black throwing stars

This is popular in Hollywood movies, but it’s not true. They weren’t used often, and when they were, they were used to distract someone or divert attention. Shuriken weren’t sharp enough hundreds of years ago to really do any damage. Shuriken were also used by samurai, but that’s another story.

Ninjas Can Magically Vanish

A ninja standing (appearing?) in a cloud of smoke in a field

Unlike in cartoons, ninjas can’t vanish into thin air. They were, however, escape masters. Most of them would avoid conflict when possible, as their jobs were espionage rather than assassination. They would use distractions, such as shuriken, to misdirect their enemies’ attention so they could get away. A few clans of ninjas may have used smoke bombs so they could hide undetected, but ultimately, they were masters of hiding.

Ninjas Were Heroes

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael with weapons out

It’s unclear how this misconception came about. Ninjas were mercenaries for hire. In the beginning, samurai would give ninjas missions that were either too low or too dishonorable for them to take. This changed some as ninjas became more known and had higher status, but they were never heroes. They would do assassinations, had no honor code which meant anything could happen, and they served as spies, especially during conflict. While they were never villains, they were also never heroes.

Ninjas had Supernatural Abilities

A ninja wearing full black garb standing on water devices called mizugumo to stand on water

While ninjas were skilled fighters, they were as human as anyone else. They couldn’t magically disappear, they didn’t have supernatural abilities like walking on water, and they didn’t have superhuman reflexes. They relied on this misconception to intimidate enemies, but ultimately, it wasn’t true.

Book Recommendations

Now that we know things that aren’t true, what about learning what is true about ninjas? Below are a couple of book recommendations to learn a bit more.

The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai – Japan’s Premier Ninja Manual

'The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai - Japan's Premier Ninja Manual' by Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami book cover with red background and a faint kanji character

In 1676, a ninja called Fujibayashi compiled information from Iga ninjas clans, becoming the bible of ninjutsu. This is a translation that discusses warfare, espionage, and how to be the best spy. It also covers weapons, tools, mission planning, infiltration, and other information to help us overcome our enemies, both inside and outside. This is perfect for learning more about ninjas and ninjutsu.

The Ninja, the Secret History of Ninjutsu: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan

'The Ninja, the Secret History of Ninjutsu: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan' by Dr. Kacem Zoughari book cover showing a ninja ready to fight

This is a deep, factual look at ninjutsu as art, including when ninjas emerged, philosophy in feudal Japan, historical events, how ninjutsu is in the modern day, and more. Based on a decade of research and translations of Japanese texts, this is the strongest study of ninjutsu from outside Japan. Studies of ninjutsu history, wisdom, and philosophy are included along with extra information from historians, chronicles, and more to deepen understanding of the art. This is perfect for those who practice ninjutsu, those with an interest in Japanese feudal history, and historians.

While real-life ninjas may not have been as flashy or impressive as those in media, it’s still interesting to learn their history and practices.

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