Ninja legends. 10 historical real-life ninjas who archieved a legendary status. The most famous ninja warriors: Hattori Hanzo, Goemon, Kato Danzo, Tomo Sukesada and others.
Originally called shinobi, ninjas have cemented their place as a cult figure. Their exploits in the Japanese feudal history have left a tremendous mark on the country and also on the public imagination. Their need for secrecy has also increased their aura of enigma leading to the creation of a variety of myths and legends. Moreover, few official records are available about the shinobi.
As such, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction and identify the real-life exploits of real ninjas. In some cases, it is hard to determine which version of events is the truth. Nonetheless, here are some ninjas who actually lived and the exploits that made them famous.
Hattori Hanzo is considered by many to be the most famous shinobi. He was a member of the Iga clan and one of its greatest jonin. His first major action took place in 1582. Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed Oda Nobunaga and killed him. Tokugawa Ieyasu was supposed to become the next shogun. In order to get him to safety, Hanzo facilitated his passage via the Iga province with the help of Iga and Koga ninjas. He remained a faithful vassal to Tokugawa and was instrumental in helping Ieyasu become the shogun of Japan and its ruler.
Hattori was known to be a master tactician and expert fighter with the spear. Thanks to his leadership, the Iga ninjas began to serve as the palace guards at Edo castle under the Tokugawa shogunate. After his death in 1596, Hanzo’s successor took up the name of Hattori Hanzo. This became a tradition in the Iga clan with each leader of the clan taking the name. It led to the myth that Hattori Hanzo was an immortal ninja.
In Japanese folklore, Kirigakure Saizo is a member of the Sanada Ten Braves and its second-in-command. However, there was an actual ninja called Kirigakure Saizo who served as the inspiration for the fictional one.
According to history, Saizo is believed to be an alias used by a ninja of the Iga clan known as Kirigakure Shikaemon. Apparently, he attempted to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He tried to do so by hiding underneath the floor and thrusting a spear through it to stab Hideyoshi. However, the attempt failed and he was captured. Hideyoshi spared Kirigakure’s life on the condition that he would swear to be loyal to the Toyotomi clan.
However, other sources state that Kirigakure was a careless ninja. He was supposed to be simply spying on Hideyoshi. Instead, he ended up being caught but managed to save Hideyoshi from an actual attempt on the latter’s life. For that reason, Hideyoshi spared it.
An Iga ninja, Yazaemon was supposedly a master of the Tanegashima arquebus, a kind of matchlock rifle. Due to his skill with the weapon, it is believed that Yazaemon was an expert of the fire techniques and explosive skills of the ninja. During his time, the arquebus was a popular weapon among the shinobi and often used for assassinations.
Yazaemon’s legendary status rests on the fact that he tried to assassinate none other than Oda Nobunaga himself in 1579. Although it was a failed attempt, it was important enough to be recorded in the historical document of the Iga ninjas, the Iranki. Yazaemon and two other ninjas tried to assassinate Nobunaga when he was busy investigating the aftermath of an invasion. Although they missed the leader, they did kill seven of Nobunaga’s companions.
According to legends, Fujibayashi Nagato is considered to be one of the greatest jonin of the ninja clan of Iga. The others were Hattori Hanzo and Momochi Sandayu. Along with Sandayu, Nagato was the co-head of the Iga clan.
Oda Nobunaga invaded the Iga province in 1581 starting Tensho Iga War. The war ended with the ninja clans of Iga and Koga being destroyed. Nagato was killed during the invasion. However, he left behind an incredible legacy. It was Nagato’s descendants who compiled the Bansenshukai which is a collection of techniques and secrets of the ninjas. Much of the modern knowledge about the ninjas comes from this compilation.
Toma Sukesada belonged to the Koga clan where he was a jonin. He was also the head of the famed Tomo Ryu tradition of ninjustsu.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1562, was cleaning up the remnants of the Imagawa clan after their defeat at the hands of Oda Nobunaga at the Battle of Okehazama. The Imagawa clan had gathered at the Kaminogou castle led by Udono Nagamochi. Since the castle was located at a strategic location overlooking a precipice, Ieyasu had his work cut out for him. Moreover, some members of his family were held hostage by the Imagawa clan.
Ieyasu hired Sukesada and 80 ninjas to infiltrate the castle. With the help of Hattori Hanzo, the ninjas not only infiltrated the castle but also set the towers on fire. They killed 200 members of the garrison along with the general.
Kunoichi is the name given to female ninjas and there have been only a few mentioned in history. Out of them, Mochizuki Chiyome is possibly the most well-known. Chiyome, a noblewoman, was the wife of Mochizuki Nobumasa, a samurai warlord. Rumors have it that she was originally a member of the Koga clan.
During the 16th century, her husband left her in the care of his uncle while he was away at war. The uncle happened to be Takeda Shingen, the famed daimyo. Shingen assigned Chiyome to build up an underground network of women spies. Chiyome recruited nearly 300 women who were mainly prostitutes, war victims and orphans. These operatives were trained to use a variety of disguises such as geisha, Shinto priestess and prostitute for assassination or espionage.
Momochi Sandayu is revered is one of the founders of the famed Iga Ryu Ninjutsu. He is one of the three greatest jonin of the clan. His real name was Momchi Tanbe Yasumitsu. However, some believe that they were different people. Others believe that Fujibayashi Nagato and Sandayu was the same person. Nonetheless, it is a fact that Sandayu was killed during Nobunaga’s invasion. One of the well-known tactics of Sandayu was that he maintained three different houses. Each house had a different family of his. When he had to escape a difficult situation, he would move to another of the houses while assuming a different identity.
Goemon was one of the students of Sandayu at the Iga clan. However, he became a nukenin, a runaway ninja. As a result, neither the Koga nor the Iga would accept him as one of their own.
After running away, he became an outlaw stealing from the rich while giving to the poor. He eventually became a leader to a bandit group based in Kansai. He would target rich feudal lords, merchants and clerics. It is said that he tried to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi but failed. As a result, he was boiled alive in public in 1594. According to legend, he held his young son overhead so as to prevent him from being boiled as well.
The Fuma clan developed independently of the Koga and the Iga clans. It served the Hojo clan of Odawara. Fuma Kotaro was a jonin of the clan and the fifth generation leader. He is also the most famous member of the clan.
During his time, the Fuma comprised of 200 ninjas specializing in battle disruption. They worked for the Hojo clan as pirates, thieves and brigands. In 1580, Katsuyori, the son of Takeda Shingen attacked the Odawara Castle. Fuma Kotaro along with his men infiltrated the Takeda camp and began to cause disruption. They created so much chaos that the Takeda men began to kill each other in confusion. However, the Hojo were finally defeated in 1590 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi while reducing the Fuma to common bandits.
If there is one person responsible for popularizing the belief that ninjas possessed supernatural powers then that would be Kato Danzo. Kato Danzo was believed by many to be an actual sorcerer but he was only an illusionist. Some of his tricks were to swallow a bull with crowds watching, making seeds sprout and even flower as soon as they were thrown. Some researchers believe that he was a master of hypnosis. However, there is no truth behind it so far. Nonetheless, Kato Danzo was one of the best.
His skills attracted the attention of the famed powerful daimyo, Uesugi Kenshin. Kenshin decided to test the abilities of Danzo by challenging him to steal a cherished naginata from Naoe Kanetsugu, a vassal of Kenshin. Danzo successfully infiltrated the castle even though it was heavily guarded. He took the blade along with a servant girl. Kenshin was impressed enough to allow Danzo to serve him.
However, Danzo later became unwelcome possibly because of Kenshin’s suspicions or because of Kanetsugu’s plotting. As a result, Danzo fled to Takeda Shingen, Kenshin’s rival. Unfortunately, Shingen began to suspect Danzo to be a double agent and had him beheaded in 1569.