The Most Famous Ninjas of Feudal Japan

The Rivals of Samurai in Feudal Japan

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In feudal Japan, two types of warriors emerged: the samurai, nobles who ruled the country in the name of the Emperor, and ninjas, often from the lower classes, who carried out espionage and assassination missions. 

Because the ninja (or shinobi) was supposed to be a secretive, stealthy agent who fought only when absolutely necessary, their names and deeds have made much less of a mark on the historical record than those of the samurai, though it's known that their largest clans were based in the Iga and Koga domains.

Yet even in the shadowy world of the ninja, a few people stand out as exemplars of the ninja craft, those whose legacy lives on in Japanese culture, inspiring works of art and literature that last through the ages. 

Fujibayashi Nagato

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Fujibayashi Nagato was a leader of the Iga ninjas during the 16th century, with his followers often serving the daimyo of Oomi domain in his battles against Oda Nobunaga.

This support for his opponents would later prompt Nobunaga to invade Iga and Koga and try to stamp out the ninja clans for good, but many of them went into hiding to preserve the culture. 

Fujibayashi's family took steps to ensure that ninja lore and techniques would not die out, and his descendant, Fujibayashi Yastake, compiled the Bansenshukai — the Ninja Encyclopedia.

Momochi Sandayu

Momochi Sandayu was the leader of the Iga ninjas in the second half of the sixteenth century, and most believe he died during Oda Nobunaga's invasion of Iga.

However, legend holds that he escaped and lived out his days as a farmer in Kii Province — retiring his life of violence for a pastoral existence far from conflict.

Momochi is famous for teaching that ninjutsu should only be used as a last resort and could only legitimately be used to save a ninja's life, to aid his or her domain, or to serve the ninja's lord. 

Ishikawa Goemon

In folk tales, Ishikawa Goemon is a Japanese Robin Hood, but he likely was a real historical figure and a thief from a samurai family that served the Miyoshi clan of Iga and supposedly trained as a ninja under Momochi Sandayu.

Goemon likely fled Iga after Nobunaga's invasion, although a spicier version of the story states that he was having an affair with Momochi's mistress and had to flee from the master's wrath. In that telling, Goemon stole Momochi's favorite sword before he went.

The runaway ninja then spent about fifteen years robbing daimyo, wealthy merchants, and rich temples. He may or may not have really shared the spoils with impoverished peasants, Robin Hood-style. 

In 1594, Goemon tried to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, allegedly to avenge his wife and was executed by being boiled alive in a cauldron at the gate of the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto. 

In some versions of the story, his five-year-old son was also thrown into the cauldron, but Goemon managed to hold the child above his head until Hideyoshi took pity and had the boy rescued.

Hattori Hanzo

Hattori Hanzo's family was of the samurai class from Iga Domain, but he lived in Mikawa Domain and served as a ninja during Japan's Sengoku period. Like Fujibayashi and Momchi, he commanded the Iga ninjas.

His most famous act was smuggling Tokugawa Ieyasu, the future founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, to safety after Oda Nobunaga's death in 1582. 

Hattori led Tokugawa across Iga and Koga, assisted by the survivors of the local ninja clans. Hattori also may have helped to recover Ieyasu's family, which had been captured by a rival clan.

Hattori died in 1596 at the age of about 55, but his legend lives on. His image actually features in numerous manga and movies, with his character often wielding magical powers such as the ability to disappear and reappear at will, predict the future, and move objects with his mind.

Mochizuki Chiyome

Mochizuki Chiyome was the wife of samurai Mochizuki Nobumasa of Shinano domain, who died in the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Chiyome herself was from the Koga clan, however, so she had ninja roots.

After her husband's death, Chiyome stayed with his uncle, the Shinano daimyo Takeda Shingen. Takeda asked Chiyome to create a band of kunoichi, or female ninja operatives, who could act as spies, messengers, and even assassins. 

Chiyome recruited girls who were orphans, refugees, or had been sold into prostitution, and trained them in the secrets of the ninja trade.

These kunoichis would then disguise themselves as wandering Shinto shamans to move from town to town.  They might dress up as actresses, prostitutes, or geisha to infiltrate a castle or temple and find their targets. 

At its peak, Chiyome's ninja band included between 200 and 300 women and gave the Takeda clan a decisive advantage in dealing with neighboring domains.

Fuma Kotaro

Fuma Kotaro was an army leader and Ninja jonin of the Hojo clan based in Sagami Province. Although he was not from Iga or Koga, he practiced many ninja-style tactics in his battles and his special forces troops used guerrilla warfare and espionage to fight against the Takeda clan.

The Hojo clan fell to Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590, after the siege of Odawara Castle, leaving Kotaro and his ninjas to turn to a life of banditry.

Legend holds that Kotaro caused the death of Hattori Hanzo, who served Tokugawa Ieyasu. Kotaro supposedly lured Hattori into a narrow seaway, waited for the tide to come in, and then poured oil on the water and burned Hattori's boats and troops. 

However the story went, Fuma Kotaro's life was put to an end in 1603 when the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu sentenced Kotaro to execution by beheading.

Jinichi Kawakami

Jinichi Kawakami of Iga is called the last ninja, although he readily admitted that "Ninjas proper no longer exist."

Still, he began to study ninjutsu at the age of six and learned not only combat and espionage techniques but also chemical and medical knowledge handed down from the Sengoku period.

However, Kawakami has decided not to teach any apprentices the ancient ninja skills. He notes wistfully that even if modern people learn ninjutsu, they cannot practice much of that knowledge: "We can't try out murder or poisons." 

Thus, he has chosen not to pass the information on to a new generation, and perhaps the sacred art has died with him, at least in the traditional sense.