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We are ninjas: The word “ninja”

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/20 Traditional Culture , , , , , , ,

When I was a child, “ninja” was not known worldwide like today.
Of course it was very popular in Japan, but famous ninja anime / manga (“Sasuke” and “Kamui” by Sanpei Shirato were probably the best-known at that time) were for rather adults than kids to compare with the present “Nintama Rantarou” or “Naruto”, although I did enjoy those stories.

Like many children, I was a ninja wanna-be, and I once had a book called “Secrets of Ninja” which introduced several trainings to become a ninja.
It’s a pity I was too lazy to practice these myself.
If I trained enough, I might be able to have won the gold medals at any kind of sports competitions including Olympics.

Anyway, I’m going to write about ninja sometimes.
Although details about ninja are not known, there are numerous stories, theories and so on.
I’ll try to pick up some of them including tricks and people.
This is the first post of the series, so I’d start from general information.


The word “ninja”

You may know “ninja” can be called as “shinobi”.
The word ninja is consisted of two Kanji characters, while shinobi is one.

Actually, the Kanji character “shinobi” is consisted of two characters – a blade and a heart.
Kanji for Shinobi
“Ninja” is written as “shinobi no mono” which means “a person who endure / hide”.
Kanji for Ninja

According to “Mansenshuukai” a.k.a. “Bansenshuukai” * (Ten thousand (all the) rivers run into the ocean) , when you become a right person, your heart becomes “shinobi”, and when your heart becomes “shinobi”, your heart won’t be influenced by any outer elements, thus you will never be disturbed by anyone, anything.
(There are lots of explanation what “the right person” is and how to be one in the book, but it’s too long and complicated to translate.)

“Mansenshuukai” is the most famous “ninjutsu-sho” (a book about ninja’s tricks) written by Yasutake Fujibayashi in 1676.
There are 22 volumes in total.


History of “ninja” names

In fact, the word “ninja” has never been used until recently.
The word to call “ninja” differed from when and where.
These are examples of ninja name history;
History of names for "Ninja"

Note in the Taishou era, ninja was called as “ninSHA”.
“Ninjutsu-sha”, a person who use ninjutsu, was another word to be used in that period.



The name “suppa” was one of the local variations for “ninja”.
It was used around Kyoto and Nara areas where the old capitals were, and it was consisted of two Kanji characters – “water” and “break”.
Also in Yamanashi area, it was used but its Kanji characters were different.

Kanji for Suppa

The present word “Suppanuku”, which means (usually journalists) exposing somebody’s secrets, came from this “suppa”.
It once meant drawing one’s blade unexpectedly too, because a ninja collected information and exposed it as well as drew his / her blade suddenly.

Ninja men and ninja women

Maybe you’ve already heard of the word “ku no ichi”.
This word usually refers to a female ninja now.
However, in “Mansenshuukai” vol.8, “ku no ichi” is introduced as one of ninjutsu (“Ku no ichi no jutsu”).
It means using a woman as an undercover when it’s difficult for a man to infiltrate.
So, the woman didn’t necessarily have to be a ninja.
She seemed to play only a subsidiary role to help male ninja(s), mainly collecting information.

Wrong kunoich

"Ku no ichi" shouldn't have been like this.
Illustration from Illust AC

“Kakure mino no jutsu” is a major example of “ninjutsu” by “ku no ichi”.
(“Kakure mino” means “a shield to hide”.)
After she made it inside, she sent up for a big box packed with her belongings like clothes.
A ninja was hiding inside the double-bottomed box, but tended to be unnoticed, because people easily overlooked the women’s belongings.

In those days, women kept their belongings in “nagamochi”, a huge rectangle wooden box with a lid.
It was usually carried by two people.
So, it was not very strange if the box, which was big enough for somebody to hide, was sent to the woman on undercover duty.

-Image of "nagamochi"-Two handles to put a stick so that a man at each end shoulders it.

-Image of "nagamochi"-
Two handles to put a stick through so that a man at each end shoulders it.

I guess “ku no ichi” was considered as rather “untrustful”, because it is written that “Women are loose-lipped and soft in the head and the mind, so need to be taught carefully what they do again and again and to be paid close attention.”
Unforgivable description!

The word “ku no ichi” is generally believed to be made of the Kanji character “onna”, meaning woman.
If you put together the Hiragana character “ku”, the Katakana character “no” and the Kanji “ichi”, they become one Kanji character “onna”.
In “Mansenshuukai”, a woman is expressed as “a three-characters-into-one person” and the character for “ku” is not Hiragana but Kanji meaning “long time”.

In the same paragraph, a man is called as “Tajikara” because the Kanji character “otoko” (man) can be separated into two Kanji characters – “ta” (rice field) and “chikara” (power).
Pronunciation of “chikara” changes into “jikara” when it becomes part of the word.

Characters for kunoich

"ta" means "rice field".


Related posts:
#What is “ninja”?
#Walk like a ninja!
#Run like ninja!

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A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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