Despite popular opinion, real ninjas were more like CIA agents than ultimate fighters. Sure, they could fight, but it wasn’t their primary function. Ninjas, or shinobi, were as sneaky as foxes. The first ninjas came from the Iga Province of Japan, specifically the area around the village Koga. Subversion was their game, and they were the best.

The birth of the ninja

Clans from the Iga province produced the first ninjas, possibly as early as the 12th century. They became more common in the 15th century. Shinobi trained as spies and mercenaries during the Shinoku period. A ninja’s goal was to strike terror into the hearts of enemies.

Shinobi were arsonists, spies, raiders, and terrorists — whatever their masters asked of them. They did what honorable samurai warriors were unwilling to do — the dirty work.

Spying, reconnaissance, and espionage

Sometimes ninjas fought openly as hired hands. During the Shimaraba Rebellion in 1637, Koga ninjas were recruited to fight against Christian rebels. Shinoku disguised themselves as the enemy and snuck into Hara Castle — the enemy’s stronghold.

The ninjas surveyed the defensive moat, the height of the wall, and the conditions of the roads. They stole bags of rice when the enemy’s food was running low. With the help of the ninjas, Christianity was forced underground.

Psychological warfare to boot

Sometimes a ninja’s job was to get under the enemy’s skin. At Hara Castle, shinoku would sneak in at night to turn the enemy’s flag upside-down. It was unnerving to know that the enemy could come and go as they pleased. No defender felt safe and paranoia ran rampant.

In the 16th and 17th century, accounts of ninjas being used for psychological warfare became more common. Shinoku were regularly sent to capture enemy banners in the middle of the night. Ninjas were the swiss army knife of war— a creative weapon of warlords and kings.