Pirates versus ninjas – why ninjas would win

female ninjas

Ninjas were the dark side of the samurai. A ninja’s unearthly skills and mercenary code allowed them to perform feats that went directly against a samurai’s bushido code of honour – but would conveniently win a battle or a war. Trained from youth to withstand pain and dislocate their own joints, create gunpowder from secret recipes, and oh, a host of other things – find out about the real ninjas of medieval Japan.

3 Top character traits of ninjas

Mental clarity. To steel themselves to perform their feats, ninjas used a meditation method called kuji-kiri – 9 ceremonial moves with the right hand that represented using the sword of wisdom to cut through the veil of maya (the deceptive, mundane, sensory world). They were mentally tough.

Discipline. Ninjas were trained from a very young age and had to go through extensive conditioning, including training to accept pain and dislocating joints to enable escape. They never wavered from the task set before them, and they underwent incredible hardship to achieve their many skills.

Mythical powers. Ninjas used their training in death, espionage, disguise and chemistry (amongst many other skills) to make people fear them as being superhuman. Which, quite frankly, they weren’t. That didn’t stop them being rather cool, though, and they took pains to make sure everyone knew it.

Chosen king of the Ninjas

The Japanese legend of Prince Yamato is often considered the first ninja story, and he’s nicknamed “The First Ninja” because of his use of disguise, a hallmark of ninja tactics. Yamato dressed as a beautiful laydee to attract barbarian chieftains, then killed them with a sword hidden under his dress.

Another fine bit of ninja folklore is the story of 13-year-old Kumawaka. Kumawaka had travelled many leagues to visit his dying father, who’d been imprisoned by a monk. The father died before Kumawaka was allowed to see him, so Kumakawa swore revenge. As a boy of 13, Kumakawa couldn’t use force. Instead, he faked an illness so the monk would take him into his home. Every evening he’d sneak around, learning where everything was, and when the guards patrolled. One night, he tiptoed into the monk’s room and opened a window to let a blanket of moths cover the lamp that burned by the monk’s table, shrouding the room in darkness. Kumakawa then stole the monk’s sword and slew him. Although he was only 13, and didn’t call himself a ninja, Kumawaka’s use of deception, stealth, and cleverness inspired generations of Japanese warriors who made him something of a ninja mascot.

Natural habitat

One might find a ninja prowling the dark, scaling castle walls, watching all the other customers from the back of a sake hut, or, if one was very unlucky, in one’s bedroom at night, shortly before feeling the sharp point of a blade at one’s neck. Wherever they were, one would not be able to notice them, on account of their superior ninjing.

The regions of Iga and Koga in Japan are often considered the birthplace of ninjas as a major force in japanese warfare. Clan members hired themselves out as mercenaries, lending their skills to whichever daimyo, or lord, paid them the most. Iga and Koga ninjas often worked for daimyo that they’d been hired to attack just a few years earlier. This mercenary’s reputation ran in direct opposition to the bushido code of the utterly loyal samurai. Although, to counterbalance that, a daimyo would often have a crew of super-fine ninjas that would serve him as loyally as any samurai.

The Iga ninjas had another reputation, however – one that ensured their continued use in Japan’s feudal wars. They were known as experts at infiltrating castles. With their stealthy skills, they could obtain secret information, sabotage enemy supplies, or steal food and weapons. These skills were passed on from father to son. For generations, warring daimyo knew that the best ninjas in Japan could be hired in Iga and Koga.

Ninja code

The blunt answer is that ninjas didn’t really have a code, and if they were pressed to have one, it would probably be something unromantic like ‘kill the victim and cash the cheque’. We may have a romantic view of ninjas, but they were far too pragmatic and disciplined to have a romantic view of themselves. However, ninjas were very attuned to their environment and their body, and accepted folklore has it that they would often turn to contemplation akin to and including buddhism. Ninjas spent a lot of time on their own, and had a lot of time to think. You can’t kill people for a living and think a lot without wondering ‘Look, what’s it all about, really?’. I like to think that older ninjas ending up growing gardens in which to contemplate, and used their skills to protect peasant families from other, thoughtless ninjas.

Ninja attire

A ninja looks menacing and dangerous. Only their almond eyes give a clue to the man beneath. In films, a ninja’s classic outfit (shinobi shozoku) consists of a black gi (belted crossover top with black leggings or trousers, variants of which are worn in martial arts today). Cloth is wound about the face to shield the ninja’s identity and provide greater camouflage in shadows. However, this is not real ninja attire – this actually comes from japanese kabuki theatre. Prop handlers would dress in black and move props around on the stage. The audience would obviously see the prop handlers, but would pretend they were invisible. Building on that willing suspension of disbelief, ninja characters also came to be portrayed in the theatre as wearing similar all-black suits.

In real life, nothing screams ‘identifiable as a ninja, shoot on sight’ so much as the gi beloved of ninja films. However, ninjas did have some really cool clothes.

For example, they had amazing boots (jika-tabi). Like most japanese footwear at the time, these boots (or sometimes socks with sandals, which are not normally considered cool unless a medieval japanese person wears them) had a split-toe design that improved gripping and wall/rope climbing. They were soft enough to be virtually silent. Ninjas also attached special spikes to the bottoms of the boots called ashiko. Even better, they had ashiaro, or wooden pads on the base of their tabi – these were carved to look like an animal’s paw or a child’s foot, so that the ninja’s tracks wouldn’t arouse suspicion.

The actual head covering suggested by So-ke Masaaki Hatsumi (in his book ‘The Way of the Ninja: Secret Techniques’) made use of sanjaku-tenugui (three-foot cloths). It involved the tying of two three-foot cloths around the head to make the mask flexible in configuration but securely bound. Some ninjas might have worn samurai armour or peasant garb. Some ninjas wore a long robe, most of the time dark blue (kon’iro) for stealth. Which shows how astute ninjas were – very few things at night are black, and contemporary stealth suits are often made in dark red or blue so they will blend more convincingly into the shadows.

Ninja weapons

This is where ninjas really shine. There is little doubt that ninjas had the best kit. Throwing knives, garrottes, climbing ropes – they were trained in a vast array of weapons and used whatever lay to hand.

The resourceful ninja would not rely on success – escape and diversion were equally important, and smoke bombs and firecrackers in such a situation did very nicely. A good ninja could make and set a timed fuse to delay explosions. O-zutsu were cannons which launched fiery sparks as well as projectiles at a target. Small bombs called “eye closers” (metsubushi) were filled with sand and sometimes metal dust, which was carried in bamboo segments or hollowed eggs and thrown at someone to crack the shell and blind the assailant. Ninjas even made land mines, which isn’t very nice but is very clever, using a mechanical fuse or a lit, oil-soaked string. The secrets of making desirable mixes of gunpowder were strictly guarded in many ninja clans.

However, unless you’re bloodthirsty or a boy, the elegance of chemistry and mechanics involving things that go bang may not impress you. A less well-known but satisfyingly elegant ninja weapon was the small ring on his finger, the shobo. It had a tiny notch of wood that would be used to hit the assailant’s pressure points, resulting in sharp pain, or temporary paralysis.

Oh, and swords? Ninjas loved them. And knew how to use them at least as well as pirates. They used dinky little short swords called ninjato, or shinobigatana. Another version of the ninja sword was the shikoro ken (saw sword). The shikoro ken was said to be used to gain entry into buildings. The shuriken is a weapon that was essentially created from popular culture and was almost never used by actual ninjas. Shurikens are rather rubbish – to throw one hard enough to cause damage, one would be in danger of a severely minced-up hand.

A ninja was, however, more than his arsenal. His most ingenious weapon was his mind, steeled to action and capable of assessing and acting in any given situation. Unlike the pirate, he had no luck – luck often ran against him. All the ninja had in a tight spot was his skill, his will, and everything he’d ever learned. His second most powerful weapon was his body – he had to be able to melee (fight at close quarters), climb, act in a theatrical sense, run and use stealth with an equal degree of stamina, endurance and speed. A ninja worth the name would have had the physical discipline of a free-runner today, and a the body language skills of a funny Lee Evans.

Mad skillz

Stories and legends surrounded the growing reputation of ninjas, resulting in half the world believing they had glamorous supernatural powers. Which they did nothing to discourage. The few ninja operations that made it into the history books were often embellished with Chinese and Japanese mysticism to make the ninjas seem inhumanly skilled. Silly. As if the truth wasn’t amazing and magical enough! These mythical superninja supposedly were:

  • 7 feet tall
  • Able to fly
  • Able to become invisible
  • Able to walk through walls
  • Shape shifters
  • Three-headed
  • Ghosts

Of course, the ninjas loved this. As distractions go, being thought of as a ghost worked better than a smokebomb. At least one ninja is known to have faked his own death so that when he returned he would be feared as an unstoppable ghostly spirit. Much of ninja history is clouded as a result of these ninja fairy tales.

However, there is no doubt that, as assassins, ninjas were fine alchemists, capable of making a variety of poisons and smokebombs and things that flashed and fizzled. They were also able to tightrope walk, climb seemingly unassailable walls, spy on events and conversations that no man should ever see or hear, paralyse their attacker with a touch, and kill their assailants and victims in a variety of ways. Their skills were, honestly, quite mad, and rather good.

Disguise was also a skill that many ninjas employed. They frequently disguised themselves as farmers so that their weapons (kama) could be passed off as farming implements. Ninjas also, according to folklore, weren’t above disguising themselves as a woman. And female ninjas disguised themselves as male farmers. Probably.

Ninjas – a background

In China in 4-5 BC, Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” described the advantages of spreading disinformation and sowing confusion through your enemy’s ranks through deception and sabotage. It recommended that generals find out as much as possible about their enemy by using spies and other practical methods.

Ninjas were almost always japanese, and the japanese culture at the time was dominated by the samurai – the noble warlord bound by some degree of chivalry and a strict ethical code. What Sun Tzu wrote of war was how the japanese warlords wanted to fight – because it would win the battle – but couldn’t allow themselves to.

Ninjas were the dark subconscious of the samurai. By summoning a ninja to fulfil a dark deed, a samurai could pull a dirty trick without sullying his sense of his own chivalry. The ninja had an honesty and self-awareness that the samurai, for all his fine talk – and usually fair action – essentially lacked.

By the way, yes – there were female ninjas. They had all the skills of the men (though less strength), and were particularly valued for their skills at espionage and deception. Female ninjas used their uniquely feminine assets to lure male targets into a vulnerable mindset before offing them!

Historians have found it hard to study ninjas. This is partly due to the essential secrecy of the ninja assassin, but it’s also because the japanese had mixed feelings towards them, a grudging respect mixed with contempt and revulsion, and as a result ninja deeds were often simply left unmentioned in historical texts.

The cool takes on the ninja in popular culture don’t count. In real life, the ninjas have always been the underdog. And the more they progressed, the more they were shunned and blamed for all the ills that were actually of a corrupt society’s making. Rather like, in fact, the pirates.

Most likely to say

The quick answer is: in the capacity of either spy or assassin, a ninja would presumably say very little, or only what you’d want to hear.

However, one needn’t think they were soulless dullards. A good spy needs to infiltrate. That means to win affection and trust very quickly. Ninjas might well have been able to joke, dance, juggle, woo – whatever was required. Ninjas did have mouths under those masks, and thoughts, and personalities. And sometimes they’d be required to use them.

One thing a ninja would be most unlikely to say is “Check me out, I am a ninja”. The reputation of modern ninja schools is doubtful. Where is the secrecy of a ninja school that advertises itself in your daily newspaper? I’m inclined to think that real ninjas are a thing of the past. If they exist today, they certainly wouldn’t advertise in the paper about it. People aren’t really allowed to hire mercenaries nowadays, unless they’re multinational companies, or governments.

Why I personally swear fealty to ninjas

The trick to loving ninjas is to strip away the cool kit and the romance of the stealthy assassin and still have respect what lies underneath. One can’t help feeling that a cat, if reborn as a human, would rather above all else come back as a ninja.

Now, the nice thing about ninjas is that what you see (which admittedly may not be much, due to their preternatural feline stealth and love of disguise) is what you get. Pirates are brilliant, of course. Who wouldn’t want to be a pirate? They have the best fun. Idealised pirates win hands-down because of their bumbling, their luck, their natty hats and their sheer good-humour, but ideals sometimes bely a dirty reality full of atrocities and dark acts that have been conveniently glossed over.

Yes, the ninja was essentially a money-grabbing assassin, but he wasn’t like the money-grabbing mercenaries we hear tell of today, in famine-struck lands far away. There are no stories of ninjas making the most of a situation with cruelty, torture, rape, bullying. A ninja might be required to do some really terrible things, which I won’t recount here, but only as part of his job. He was too well-trained in both discipline and human ethics to behave badly outside the job. He went in, did what was asked, then got out.

One thing the ninjas lacked, which the pirates had in spades – which makes them more obviously lovable – was freedom. Ninjas were not free. They had to ninj. But, with meditation and a life of contemplation about the nature of reality amid the visceral display and violence, I like to think that good ninjas found their own way to be free, somewhere on the inside.

As for swearing fealty… I wouldn’t go that far. But how can one not respect sheer grit? How can one truly condemn someone who’s tempered themselves with a trial by fire? People who perservere against insurmountable odds are to be admired. Born from a perfectly ordinary background, a ninja has – by sheer discipline alone – rebuilt himself into a human bird of prey. Focused, powerful, implacable, in many ways understanding and, perhaps, only a whisker away from superhuman.

Pirates vs. Ninjas