Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ninjas and Folklore

When I originally studied the people of the Amur River I was struck by how similar their lore was to that of Early Japan. For example, a great shaman character in their lore and that of Japan falls in love with the lord of the underworlds daughter. The lord of the underworld puts him through a series of tests to try to kill the shaman but his daughter helps the shaman succeed so that they can be married. The lord of the underworld is even put to sleep in both places by pulling the lice from his hair.

There are so many similarities that I began to wonder if there was some connection, a few years later it turns out that there is. The people of these lands are most closely related to the Jomon people of early Japan. In other words, much of Japan's early culture is shared with that of the hunter gatherers of North East Asia. So perhaps the story of Japan's Ninja's begins not with massive castles, but with cone shaped tents and small huts in which the hunter-gatherers of Japan first made their homes. For the art of stealth and cunning are the greatest weapons of the hunter gatherers, something, something which is clearly shown by the tales of the Oroqen. The Oroqen are closely related to the early people's of Japan and they have many folk tales that are very similar to the Japanese creation myths. Perhaps most importantly, within the Oroqen who were primarily hunter gatherers until very recently we can easily see the beginnings of the ninja myths and art in Japan. In one Oroqen tale when a man named Mokodai's wife was carried off by the Tegecen tribe he disguised himself as a cripple and went out in search of his wife. When she saw him she knew what he was doing and said that he was an old cook she knew and so her captors agreed to let him stay and cook for them. Then when they were asleep he killed them and freed his wife.

In another tale some enemies came to kidnap Mokodai’s wife yet again, though she didn’t go easily, when they stormed into her home chopped off their arms, and legs, and killing them one by one. At last they surrounded her and threatened to kill her if she didn't surrender. However, she thought “I'd rather kill myself then be caught and insulted by you,” so she lifted her sword to end her life, but an archer shot the blade from her hand and she was captured.

Her husband and brother caught up to the enemy three years later. Knowing they could not win in a direct attack, Mokodai transformed into a tree stump in order to spy on his enemy. When the leader of his enemies saw this stump he suspected it might be Mokodai, for he knew the man could appear and disappear, change form and do other tricks at will. So he shot an arrow into the stump, but Mokodai endured the pain, he shot a second arrow but Mokodai still didn't respond so the man decided that the stump was just a stump. That night Mokodai's wife, having been signaled that he was coming with his bird calls got up and cut the bow strings of their enemies. One by one Mokodai murdered his enemies and freed his wife.

Within this Oroqen story we have many aspects that are similar to Japanese motifs, and while the Linguistic and Genetic relationship between the Oroqen and Japanese is limited I believe that this story shows us two important things. First is that the idea of ninja, which is all too often traced to China, is common among the hunter gatherer cultures of North East Asia, so common that such trickery and deceit could almost be said to be the primary means by which hunter gatherers in the North, where the Japanese people come from, and waged war. Second the idea of suicide to retain honor is also present among these people, indicating further that Japan's indigenous culture retained a strong presence in it up into the modern era, and that rather than looking to China, perhaps one should look to related peoples for the source of their traditions.

Writing Prompt
Write about a ninja like society among a group of hunter gatherers which not only must deal with conflicts with other tribes, but which must also hunt for food for their village, they also have to deal with the kami rulers of the forests and many other monsters.

Among hunter gatherers the kidnapping of woman to become wives was a fairly common reason for war, as was conflict over hunting grounds as there was only so much food to go around. Hunter gatherers in these cases usually needed about one square mile per person in order to survive, although the later Jomon seem to have had a higher population density they were still in danger of starvation if they didn't have enough territory. In this case than the losing side in a war would have to watch many of their family members starve to death which had to be fairly motivating.

Another interesting point to keep in mind is that later Jomon tribes likely had wealth, which was held primarily by a few people as shown by jewelry and crafts which were traded from a long ways off, yet were not shared evenly within each grave site. This meant that there was a poorer class which may have resented the wealthier nobility.

Because hunter gatherers, and those in the wilderness throughout the world often engage in ninja like wars I would argue that the roots of Japan's ninja's come from its long periods of conflict between isolated villages over thousands of years. Even one of Japan's most famous heroes Yamato-Takeru wins many of his most famous victories by stealth and deception. He dresses like a woman to sneak into an Emishi home as a servant and assassinate their leader. He assassinated another leader by befriending him then killing him after secretly giving him a wooden sword in place of a real one. Wars are generally won in large part through knowledge and deception, for it is through such tricks that even a strong enemy is made weak. And it was the gaining of knowledge and the use of deception which the ninjas excelled at.

A storm rages outside the castle under siege, an owl glides silently through the rain and perches on a window sill for a moment as it peers through the darkness into the castle. No guards take notice of it, the window it's coming through is far too small for any human, so it flutters past them unseen. A moment later it's turned into a rat and is scurrying quickly along the walls, squeezing under doors, climbing up drainage vents to listen to the secret plans of his enemies and find places where it could start fires in order to cause the most damage to his enemies.

The shinobi (ninja) was only very rarely an assassin, as killing someone once they had infiltrated the enemy’s position would give them away. Rather they would take advantage of their stealth to spy on their enemy, learn their weaknesses and secrets, and to sabotage their operation. As spies the ninja would often first arrived in an enemy’s territory, long before any war broke out, before the land they were spying on had any knowledge that there might be a war. They had three primary tasks at this time. First they needed to determine which lands were the best marks for their lord to expand into by force. Second they needed to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the land they entered. Finally the shinobi would look for people who they could bribe over to their side. In order to find people who they could bribe they would listen for rumors about samurai and or government officials who were angry with their lord. Such as samurai had a family member was forced to commit sepiku (ritual suicide) by their lord, had been fined a lot of money, had had their income reduced, were desperate for money, or had been demoted. These were all potential targets for the ninja to bribe.

During this time the ninja would live among peasants and poor samurai, people who were likely to gossip. To do this they would act as poor travelers, as in the past such travelers often stayed in people’s homes, rather than in inns. Other times the ninja might create a false cover, even using a false family to pretend to be a merchant, blacksmith, poor samurai, or someone else who could move into a community.

Writing Prompt
In books with information on how to counter the activities of ninjas it recommends having underlings report any attempted bribe which took place right away. Because of this it’s conceivable that a ninja would need to kill those they failed to bribe effectively.

Tell the story of a ninja who bribes a number of people successfully but fails in one case. Now he must kill the person and make it appear to be accidental.

Or in another vein the ninja might have to kill off government agents so that those they've bribed can rise in rank before the war begins.

The Ninjas False Family
Write a story about a ninja who uses a fake wife and child as part of his cover when he is sent to a city or village to gather information.

As information gatherers and gatherers of double agents it was extremely important for the ninja to blend in with the people of the region he moved to. In order to do this the ninja would often times work with a woman who pretended to be their wife as well as children pretending to be theirs as well. Exactly where or how they recruited these women is uncertain, they may have purchased the contract of brothel girls and children who had been sold into servitude. They may also have picked up orphans or found desperate widows. Or there may actually have been special training for such women and children. Given the risk which was involved in these assignments it was unlikely that samurai or ninjas would give up their own wives and children for this task. Indeed it wasn't uncommon for a ninja to simply ditch their false family when the mission was over, leaving them to be captured by their enemies.

Writing Prompt
Imagine what a ninja who created an inugami could do.

Most often the Shinobi were chosen from the ranks of the lower samurais and the Ashigaru (foot soldiers) and were trained to perform their specialized tasks. Indeed samurai were told in some cases that it was important for them to learn the arts of theft for use in war and to prevent theft. Even the sword school Tenshin Katori Shinto Ryo taught the arts of the ninja to their samurai students. Further during times of peace the samurai would become unemployed, and while they were members of what was socially a higher class than most this didn't always translate to money. Because of this records show that samurai used the skills of thieves to sneak into people’s homes and rob them for hundreds of years.

Writing prompt
Write a story about a samurai who is a very skilled thief who is offered a pardon if he helps his lord in an upcoming war.

Because of the nature of their jobs Ninjas could come from any class. They could be merchants with specialized knowledge, skilled porters, and more. In addition, as with everything else in Traditional Japan, ninja’s jobs were at times passed down within the same families. Of course unlike many other jobs the ninja’s skills were meant to be a secret. This meant that if a ninjas decedents were dim witted or physically weak they wouldn't be taught these skills. Instead the ninja would have to seek out another to teach them to. After all, as spies’ ninjas were chosen because they were extremely intelligent but looked stupid. By looking stupid the ninja was able to appear unassuming, but more than this they were able to use there seeming ineptitude to gather information. Many if not most people after all, like to feel intelligent and so the ninja would buy a person a few drinks and then begin to ask them questions. The ninja’s unintelligent look meant that he could explain away his desire to know gossip or secret information, or lack of knowledge in general with a simple confused and befuddled look. The ninja’s apparent confusion meant that many a drunk person would be likely to give them more information than they should in order to explain the regions politics to the confused looking ninja.

However, in addition to having the ability to ferret out information many ninjas also needed to be skilled in the arts of stealth and war for once the war started the ninjas would sneak behind enemy lines to count soldiers and determine the make-up of enemy armies, they would sabotage the enemy through the use of fire and poison, and they would act as scouts and would lead guerrilla tactics against their enemies. This is why a lords retainers were often selected to become ninjas. Rather than loan wolves ninjas were typically a part of a larger military structure, one which they helped to win wars. In addition ninjas would work together in small groups, often leading larger groups of samurai and soldiers on a guerrilla raid inside a castle or other fortified position.

One of the favored tactics of the ninja was to use a storm as cover, so that they could sneak through a windy and rainy night into their enemy’s position where they would set fire to buildings, lead soldiers to fight quick guerrilla battles, and in short cause mayhem. Often times such infiltration meant not only the use of stealth but the climbing of hundreds of feet of rock and wall to get into a castle, or the swimming of moats all during storm, which meant that the ninja had to be very skilled at all of these.

Once inside a castle it wasn't simply stealth that allowed ninjas to pass undetected; instead their ability to seem confused, their skill at lying and their knowledge of the enemy would allow them to pretend to be guards searching for ninjas trying to sneak into the palace, messengers or simply as lost soldiers from 'such and such a clan'. In this way they were able to move about freely, gather information, and of course assassinate whomever they wish.

Although they would often lead men or perform sabotage when they would sneak into an enemy position this wasn't always the case. Often the ninja was purely after information that they would use on later raids. In this case they most likely went alone, or in very small teams so that they could sneak close enough to learn what passwords an enemy was using to distinguish friend from foe, the names of the clans and even individual people within the enemy encampment. Anything which would help the ninja lead successful raids later.

Sneaking into an enemy encampment is not the only use for stealth, however, it can also be the only way to prevent the enemy from sneaking up on one’s own army. For this reason shinobi could also be used for guard duties. Scouting out ahead of armies to search for potential ambushes. Or they could lay in wait at night in positing they felt another shinobi might try to sneak into their sides encampments.

Of course if a war was anticipated, which it often was given how common war was in Medieval Japan, there would likely already be ninjas within the enemy encampment. People who had been pretending to be someone else for weeks or even years before the war started. Such long term infiltration would better allow ninjas to join their enemies armies later, after all the easiest espionage occurs when you’re already in the trusted circle of those you’re spying on. From inside the enemy position the ninjas could spread rumors and false information to misdirect their opponent. They can also act as double agents or false guards, thus allowing the other shinobi to do their work more easily. Further while inside the enemy’s city the ninja could start fires, and raise an alarm that the city had already been breached. This misleads the guards away from their actual posts and gives the ninjas own allies outside the walls a chance to breach them.

Another way to begin a war was for ninja's to act as bandit lords, leading their allies on small raids to steal money. These, however, weren't the purpose of these raids, the purpose was to lure their enemies into the mountain in order to hunt down the ‘bandits' who had been causing trouble. Once the enemies soldiers were in the mountains traps would be sprung and rocks would be dropped on them from above. Thus the ninjas could slaughter huge numbers of their opponent’s men with very little danger for themselves, before anyone even knew they were at war.

Of course in lore ninja's were said to be able to change form, or at least nearly do so with disguises or magic. This means that any ninja who had made their way into an enemy encampment could pretend to be anyone they chose, including in some cases an animal. Part of where the idea of form changing likely comes form is the fact that ninjas would use animal skins to change their outline. This because at night or at day when the sun is right people can't and don't look too closely at animals they see all the time. This means that a ninja's disguise wouldn't have to even be very good to fool someone for a moment.