The History Behind Ninja Costumes
Let’s be clear about something: ninjas are really cool. From Batman’s Ra’s al Ghul to the cast of TMNT, they’re some of our favorite fictional characters of all time. The real things weren’t quite like that, though. Here’s a look at where the idea of modern ninja costumes really came from, and what real ninja gear was like back in Medieval Japan.
In This Post:
Who Ninjas Really Were
19th Century woodblock print depicting Kumawakamaru, a warrior thought to have been a ninja during the 14th Century
Historically speaking, ninja (or, shinobi) were mercenaries with specialties in espionage and assassination that operated in feudal Japan. Evidence exists to suggest ninja may have been around as early as the 1100s, but the peak of ninja activity is generally thought to be during the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries. The Sengoku period, or Warring States period, was a time of political and economic unrest in Japan, with regional leaders constantly, well, warring with each other. Much of the shinobi and ninja arts arose during this time in and around the Iga Province and the village Koga. By the middle of the 18th Century, a period in Japanese history known as the Meiji Restoration, ninja and shinobi were already in full folklore status. Stories and legends of ninja adventures only grew with exposure to the western hemisphere.
What Ninjas Really Wore
The black “ninja costume” that everyone can immediately picture mentally is known as a shinobi shōzoku. The modern notion of such a costume is also almost entirely an invention of martial arts movies.
While there is some evidence that ninja would wear solid, dark clothing, both to act as camouflage in the dark and to conceal bloodstains (the logic being that a fighter who does not seem to bleed or take damage from attacks will appear stronger to enemies, almost supernaturally so), the hooded, black-clad ninja is a Hollywood myth. An all-black outfit would only draw attention to a ninja trying to stay hidden in a public place during the day, and would stick out like a sore thumb among castle guards or the like.
Like many Hollywood myths though, there is a grain of truth behind stereotypical ninja costumes. Ninja depicted in period drawings, sketches, and paintings were often shown wearing black – an artistic device used to convey the notion of invisibility.
Cropped from a retouched drawing by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1817
An even clearer forerunner to the Hollywood ninja is the kabuki ninja. Kabuki is a classical form of Japanese theater that involves singing, dancing, elaborate costumes, and very stylized makeup. Stage hands working behind the scenes would wear black, head-to-toe, so that while they switched props around or assisted actors, they would be concealed against the stage’s black backdrops. Audience members could see the stage hands, of course, but paid no attention, and let their suspension of disbelief carry on. Eventually, one director had the idea to write in a plot twist: during a scene change, as actors prepared to exit the stage, a stage hand revealed a knife from his robes and assassinated an important character before blending back into the background. In the 1600s, that completely blew peoples’ minds, and it contributed a lot to the notion of the hidden-in-plain-sight, black-wearing ninja.
Photograph of a Meiji-period kabuki production, 1895
So, if ninja costumes aren’t historically accurate, what did they actually wear while infiltrating enemy keeps or tracking assassination targets? Put simply, what everyone else wore. The art of the ninja was the art of deception, and so ninja typically dressed as average civilians. Common disguises included the garb of entertainers, merchants, priests, and monks – classes that typically would have had an excuse to be traveling through areas where random peasants might not. Yamabushi, a sect of religious hermits, were generally able to cross borders without trouble, making their wardrobe a fantastic choice for ninja to emulate. Priest robes also made it easy to conceal weapons, and the basket-like headgear of komusou monks provided the ultimate in facial disguise. Also, since many ninja were former ronin or samurai, they likely had access to the more “respectable” samurai armor.
A komusou monk, with traditional tengai hat made of woven straw
Outerwear aside, ninja would wear concealed armor if they expected to engage in fight. There was no “ninja uniform,” but many of them would have worn similar pieces of armor and gear. Kusari, different types of chain armor commonly worn by samurai, would have been easy for a ninja to wear underneath a disguise. Other less-bulky pieces of samurai armor may have proved useful for mobile ninja, too – suneate (tight-fitting shin guards made of cloth and iron strips, and sometimes incorporating kusari chain themselves) and kote (metal vambraces to shield the forearms) are just two examples.
The tenugui is an article that afforded ninja plenty of utility, as well. It’s just a simple sash of fabric, commonly used as a headband, but ninja also could have used it as a climbing aid, a makeshift mask, or as one-half of a flailing weapon – simply tie a dagger or heavy object to one end. The fact that tenugui were common (that is, not explicitly associated with a certain purpose or class of people) also made them a piece of equipment that ninja could count on no matter what disguise they were currently using.
Ninja Weapons That Were Really Used
The Katana – The Ninja’s Sword
1820 woodblock print depicting a kabuki actor’s portrayal of Goemon, a legendary Robin Hood-like Japanese folk hero, with katana in hand
One ninja cliché that is true is their weapon of choice: the katana. The curved sword was one of the most commonly used weapons in feudal Japan, period, and was heavily associated with samurai and the military as well. Ninja didn’t just use their katana for fighting, though. While sheathed, the sword could be propped against a wall to serve as step up or foothold. Dust or pepper could be put in the scabbard, or saya, to create a blinding cloud of particles when the sword was removed, and the saya could even be used as a blunt clubbing weapon itself. It should be noted that the straight-bladed “ninja sword,” the ninjato, is a relatively modern invention. There’s no evidence of these swords actually being used during the time of the ninja, although different types of straight swords did exist.
Shuriken – “Ninja Stars” and Projectiles
The word “shuriken” literally means “a sword hidden in the wielder’s hand,” and was not limited to the weapons known and “ninja stars” or “throwing stars.” Not all of them were star-shaped or best-suited for throwing, either: many shuriken were best used as stabbing and slashing weapons that could also be thrown as a secondary option. For example, bo shuriken typically resembled spikes or darts, and occasionally could be disguised as chopsticks or hairpins. Hira shuriken are the more familiar, disc-like shuriken. Many ninja were accomplished archers and sharpshooters, as well.
Other Important Ninja Tools and Weapons
A pair of kusarigama
Plausible deniability was important for any ninja – it’s easier to explain why you’re walking around with gardening equipment than with a couple of swords. That’s why ninja weaponized common tools like the sickle. The kusarigama is a weapon that consists of a small sickle, not unlike what a farmer of the time period would be expected to have, connected to a weight with a chain. Not only was the blade itself a weapon, but the assembly could be used as a flair, an implement for strangling, or a as a means to entangle an opponent. The kunai, a heavy trowel, was occasionally used as a dagger-type weapon, and was also used to carve footholds into walls.