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Ninjas & Samurai – San Fran http://socialinsanfrancisco.com Join the Fun! Fri, 16 Feb 2018 11:57:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.4 Seppuku: Ritual Suicide in Samurai Japan http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/seppuku-ritual-suicide-in-samurai-japan-2/ Tue, 02 Aug 2016 22:51:02 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/seppuku-ritual-suicide-in-samurai-japan-2/

by Susan Spann

Seppuku (sometimes also referred to as hara-kiri) is a form of Japanese ritual suicide.

Many Westerners recognize this Japanese form of suicide, in which a person (often, but not always, male) slits his own stomach with a sword, disemboweling himself and causing his own death.

Seppuku has a long and complex history in Japan. The first recorded act of seppuku was committed by a samurai warrior and poet named Minamoto no Yorimasa, who committed suicide rather than letting his enemies capture him at the end of a battle (which Yorimasa lost).

14H01 Seppuku

Throughout most of Japanese history, only samurai were allowed to commit seppuku. Commoners committed suicide too, but usually accomplished their “self-determination” in other ways.

During the medieval period, samurai committed seppuku for several reasons, most commonly to avoid being captured after losing a battle (following the example of Minamoto no Yorimasa), or as a penalty for shameful or criminal activity. Samurai also committed seppuku to expunge the shame of outliving their liege lord, particularly if the lord was killed in battle or by an assassin — things the lord’s retainers were supposed to prevent.

Many Westerners think of suicide as an “escape” from life, but the practice of seppuku focused on the samurai’s honor rather than on his death. By committing seppuku, a samurai could maintain, regain, or prevent the loss of honor, for himself and also for his extended family. Because of this, a samurai who committed seppuku was often revered after his death. Defeated or dishonored samurai who chose surrender (or punishment) rather than committing suicide often found themselves reviled and disdained.

During the seppuku ritual, the samurai stabbed himself in the stomach with a dagger or short sword and then made a horizontal cut across his abdomen. (In some recorded cases, the samurai then reached into his belly and pulled out his own entrails.)

As the ritual developed during the medieval period, samurai committing seppuku often arranged for a “second” (called the kaishakunin) whose role was to stand behind the samurai committing seppuku and cut off the dying person’s head to end his suffering. In some cases, the decapitation came as soon as the samurai committing seppuku plunged the dagger into his belly, but the bravest samurai ordered the kaishakunin to wait until the dagger had completed its cut across the abdomen. This meant a much more painful death, but gained the dying samurai much more honor.

When helping with a suicide, the kaishakunin tried to strike the dying man’s neck hard enough to sever the spine but also delicately enough to leave the dead man’s head attached–if possible hanging from the neck by a narrow strip of skin. Severing the head completely dishonored both the samurai committing seppuku and also the kaishakunin, so the role of “second” was given only to men who possessed superior control of their swords.

Traditionally, a kaishakunin was only available to samurai who committed seppuku for honorable reasons. Men who were forced to commit suicide because of disgraceful actions or as a result of criminal acts were not permitted kaishakunin, and were forced to die an agonizing death from disembowelment alone. (This death which could take anywhere from several minutes to several days.)

14G01 Akashi_Gidayu_writing_his_death_poem_before_comitting_Seppuku

Before committing seppuku, a samurai typically wrote a “death poem” (jisei) which the Japanese considered important because a person facing imminent death was believed to have special insight into the nature of not only death, but the value of life as well.

People interested in learning more about this unique and historically important ritual may want to read Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide, by Andrew Rankin, whose book contains a great deal of historical and anecdotal information about seppuku and its role in Japanese culture.

***

NEW RELEASE!

 

The Ninja's Daughter

Autumn, 1565: When an actor’s daughter is murdered on the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are the victim’s only hope for justice.

As political tensions rise in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, and rival warlords threaten war, the Kyoto police forbid an investigation of the killing, to keep the peace–but Hiro has a personal connection to the girl, and must avenge her. The secret investigation leads Hiro and Father Mateo deep into the exclusive world of Kyoto’s theater guilds, where they quickly learn that nothing, and no one, is as it seems. With only a mysterious golden coin to guide them, the investigators uncover a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption within the Kyoto police department that leaves Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives.

THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER now available in ebook and Paperback at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Susan Spann is a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

* Both images: public domain, original copyright expired by law due to length of time after original creation.

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Shinobi Shuko: the Ninja’s Climbing Claws http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/shinobi-shuko-the-ninjas-climbing-claws/ Sat, 09 Aug 2014 07:22:18 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2829

by Susan Spann

Ninjas are famous for climbing walls with the ease and grace of a spider. According to legend, ninjas could scale even impossibly high, completely polished surfaces with ease. Some myths even claimed they could fly.

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)

In reality, ninjas were highly trained assassins and spies–not supernatural beings with magical skills. They couldn’t fly, but they did possess the ability to scale walls that would stop most people, partly due to a set of metal claws called shuko (or, sometimes, shinobi shuko–since shinobi is the more traditional Japanese word for “ninja”). Traditionally, shuko were made of metal. They consisted of metal bands (or occasionally, leather ones) which slipped over the ninja’s hands, with a set of spikes that protruded forward from the wearer’s palm. Like many ninja weapons, shinobi shuko were multifunctional. The claws gave the wearer a solid grip when climbing walls or trees, and also served as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat. The ease and speed with which a shuko-wearing ninja could scale a wall and disappear helped add to the legends surrounding the ninja’s supernatural strength and amazing skills. Ninjas really were strong, and agile, and highly trained in stealth and combat, but it was shuko and skill, not magic, that let them climb those walls so fast. Shinobi shuko were first developed during the medieval period, or possibly even earlier. Some histories attribute the invention of this ninja tool to the Tokugare ninja clan, though the exact date and place of the claws’ invention has either been lost to history or remains a secret (like much historical ninja lore). Over time, the use of shuko spread throughout the different ninja clans. These, like other useful, multi-purpose weapons, soon became a standard part of the standard shinobi arsenal. The construction and appearance of the weapon varied, from clan to clan and over time, but the basic appearance and function of the tool was fairly constant. Among the common variations: use of leather rather than metal bands, adjustable claws (as opposed to fixed ones), and different numbers of claw spikes (usually from two to four, though five-clawed shuko did exist). Many ninjas also used spiked foot bands to complement shuko when climbing or to aid with grip when hiding in elevated, precarious places. Spiked bands worn on the feet were called ashiko, and were usually designed to slip on over shoes or other footwear. In some cases, ashiko were designed with thongs that slipped between the wearer’s big toe and second toe–much like the thong on modern-day flip-flops–to help keep the spiked foot bands in place. Whether worn on the hands or on the feet, the shinobi’s spiked bands facilitated climbing and aided the ninja in close combat. Although familiar to ninja fans, shuko and ashiko are less-well known to Westerners generally, even though most ninja would have carried them on every mission.

14H08 Kumawakamaru (Kuniyoshi) pd

Many popular myths and legends about the ninja are untrue. Their skill at scaling vertical walls, however, is one that has its root in truth. With the aid of shuko (and ashiko), Japanese ninjas really could run up a wall much faster, and with more confidence, than other people can.

***

Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

* Both images: public domain, original copyright expired by law due to length of time after original creation.
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Seppuku: Ritual Suicide in Samurai Japan http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/seppuku-ritual-suicide-in-samurai-japan/ Sat, 02 Aug 2014 07:17:52 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2786

by Susan Spann

Seppuku (sometimes also referred to as hara-kiri) is a form of Japanese ritual suicide.

Many Westerners recognize this Japanese form of suicide, in which a person (often, but not always, male) slits his own stomach with a sword, disemboweling himself and causing his own death.

Seppuku has a long and complex history in Japan. The first recorded act of seppuku was committed by a samurai warrior and poet named Minamoto no Yorimasa, who committed suicide rather than letting his enemies capture him at the end of a battle (which Yorimasa lost).

14H01 Seppuku

Throughout most of Japanese history, only samurai were allowed to commit seppuku. Commoners committed suicide too, but usually accomplished their “self-determination” in other ways.

During the medieval period, samurai committed seppuku for several reasons, most commonly to avoid being captured after losing a battle (following the example of Minamoto no Yorimasa), or as a penalty for shameful or criminal activity. Samurai also committed seppuku to expunge the shame of outliving their liege lord, particularly if the lord was killed in battle or by an assassin — things the lord’s retainers were supposed to prevent.

Many Westerners think of suicide as an “escape” from life, but the practice of seppuku focused on the samurai’s honor rather than on his death. By committing seppuku, a samurai could maintain, regain, or prevent the loss of honor, for himself and also for his extended family. Because of this, a samurai who committed seppuku was often revered after his death. Defeated or dishonored samurai who chose surrender (or punishment) rather than committing suicide often found themselves reviled and disdained.

During the seppuku ritual, the samurai stabbed himself in the stomach with a dagger or short sword and then made a horizontal cut across his abdomen. (In some recorded cases, the samurai then reached into his belly and pulled out his own entrails.)

As the ritual developed during the medieval period, samurai committing seppuku often arranged for a “second” (called the kaishakunin) whose role was to stand behind the samurai committing seppuku and cut off the dying person’s head to end his suffering. In some cases, the decapitation came as soon as the samurai committing seppuku plunged the dagger into his belly, but the bravest samurai ordered the kaishakunin to wait until the dagger had completed its cut across the abdomen. This meant a much more painful death, but gained the dying samurai much more honor.

When helping with a suicide, the kaishakunin tried to strike the dying man’s neck hard enough to sever the spine but also delicately enough to leave the dead man’s head attached–if possible hanging from the neck by a narrow strip of skin. Severing the head completely dishonored both the samurai committing seppuku and also the kaishakunin, so the role of “second” was given only to men who possessed superior control of their swords.

Traditionally, a kaishakunin was only available to samurai who committed seppuku for honorable reasons. Men who were forced to commit suicide because of disgraceful actions or as a result of criminal acts were not permitted kaishakunin, and were forced to die an agonizing death from disembowelment alone. (This death which could take anywhere from several minutes to several days.)

14G01 Akashi_Gidayu_writing_his_death_poem_before_comitting_Seppuku

Before committing seppuku, a samurai typically wrote a “death poem” (jisei) which the Japanese considered important because a person facing imminent death was believed to have special insight into the nature of not only death, but the value of life as well.

People interested in learning more about this unique and historically important ritual may want to read Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide, by Andrew Rankin, whose book contains a great deal of historical and anecdotal information about seppuku and its role in Japanese culture.

***

Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

* Both images: public domain, original copyright expired by law due to length of time after original creation.
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Shuriken: the Ninja Star http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/shuriken-the-ninja-star/ Sat, 28 Jun 2014 09:42:05 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2693

by Susan Spann

If I asked you to name a ninja weapon, the most common answers would be a sword and a shuriken, which many people call a “throwing star.”

In reality, “shuriken” translates “behind-the-hand knife” or “hand-hidden blade,” meaning a knife or blade which a person can easily conceal in the hand. And despite all the untrue myths about ninjas, they really did use shuriken–though not always in the way that you might think.

Most Westerners think of the shuriken as a star-shaped throwing weapon with dangerous, sometimes poisoned, tips (hence the popular name “throwing star”). However, shuriken weren’t always thrown … and they weren’t always shaped like a star.14F27 Bo Shuriken

BO SHURIKEN

Bo shuriken (also called “stick shuriken”) were essentially sharpened iron spikes, either square or rounded in shape. These were generally thrown, though ninjas (also called “shinobi”) also used them for stabbing in close combat.

HIRA SHURIKEN

When most Westerners talk about “shuriken,” they generally mean the flat hira shuriken (also called “shaken”), which came in a variety of shapes, including the familiar five and six-armed star-shaped versions. In addition to the star-shaped types, hira shuriken came in crosses, triangles, and even swastikas–a shape and symbol that had a very different meaning before the twentieth century.

In addition to its utility as a throwing weapon, the shuriken made an efficient fist load weapon for hand to hand combat. Careful placement of the hand allowed the spikes to protrude through the fingers, while the shape of the weapon helped make the grip secure.

A MULTI-PURPOSE WEAPON

The shuriken demonstrates a cardinal aspect of shinobi weapons and other gear: the multi-purpose nature of the tool. Since ninjas worked in secret, and needed to avoid detection, lightweight gear and minimal baggage were vital to their survival. A tool which filled many different roles was better than one which had only a single or limited range of purposes.

A ninja could use a shuriken as a throwing weapon, a stabbing weapon, a cutting tool, and in any other circumstance when a thrown or hand-held blade might come in handy. Although the shuriken’s primary purpose was as a weapon, shinobi training taught ninjas to be resourceful, creative thinkers and problem solvers.

An ideal setting for a shuriken attack

An ideal setting for a shuriken attack

The shuriken remains an iconic ninja weapon to this day because of its dramatic, easily-concealed nature. Let’s face it–shuriken are cool. They fit the popular image of the black-clad ninja sneaking into a castle to assassinate a samurai…and, as it happens, they fit the history too.

***

Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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Japan’s Female Ninjas: the Kunoichi http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/japans-female-ninjas-the-kunoichi/ Sat, 21 Jun 2014 08:14:17 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2679

By Susan Spann

The Hollywood ninja dresses in black, appears from the shadows, and strikes without warning. He’s also usually male.

In reality, not all ninjas were male, and they didn’t all lurk in shadows.

14F20 Courtesans

Female ninjas, called kunoichi, were just as deadly as their male counterparts–and just as hard to spot in a crowd. Kunoichi trained in combat, disguise, and stealth, just as male ninjas (called shinobi) did, though the kunoichi’s missions and function differed from those of a male shinobi in several important ways.

DISGUISES AND TACTICS

Men of the samurai class dominated Japanese government and society during the medieval era. Samurai rarely trusted strangers, but often made exceptions for women, either because of their beauty or because the woman filled a “harmless” social role (for example, a maid or entertainer). Kunoichi frequently posed as performers, courtesans, or servants. In these disguises, kunoichi could infiltrate temples, cities, and fortresses, either to gather information or to strike at well-protected targets male assassins sometimes could not reach.

14F20 women at shrine

Shinobi training for both genders focused on utilizing the ninja’s personal strengths to best advantage. In medieval Japan, where women were often prized for beauty rather than skill, a kunoichi’s beauty was one of her most valuable—and deadly—weapons.

But that doesn’t mean the female ninja depended exclusively on her looks. In combat, kunoichi were just as deadly, and as well-trained, as any other shinobi.

SPECIAL WEAPONS

Like their male counterparts, kunoichi trained with many different weapons. Most kunoichi could use a sword, though they generally specialized in weapons with a shorter range, like daggers, garrotes, poisons, and specialty items like bladed fans and claw-like finger extensions called neko-te.

Kunoichi-Cats-Claw

Neko-te, in particular, were used almost exclusively by kunoichi. The weapon consists of leather finger sheaths topped with sharpened metal “claws.” The sheaths slipped over the end of the wearer’s fingers, giving the kunoichi a set of lethal, tiger-like claws that measured from one to three inches in length. Many women poisoned the metal claws for added effect.

VISIBILITY–OR LACK THEREOF

In some ways, kunoichi inspired more fear than their masculine counterparts because of their ability to mimic different types of women that samurai often regarded as harmless.

14F20 women and man

 

Samurai guards could watch the roof and patrol the corridors of a warlord’s castle. Lanterns and watchmen on the walls could stop a shinobi from sneaking in unseen. But kunoichi didn’t sneak inside under cover of darkness and they rarely killed their targets right away. A kunoichi took her time, earning the target’s trust and often becoming a part of his household. From that trusted position, she passed information to his enemies or struck when he let his defenses down.

When it came to infiltrating samurai strongholds, the kunoichi’s ability to adopt the role of a mistress or servant had obvious advantages. High-ranking samurai chose retainers from among their relatives and trusted associates, making it harder for male shinobi to reach a position from which he could spy or strike at the target. A woman, on the other hand, needed only to appeal to the target’s natural attractions.

WOMEN AS UNDERCOVER AGENTS

Both male ninjas and kunoichi worked as undercover agents, some so deeply in disguise that they could never return to their former lives. Some assignments were permanent—to spy on a target as long as he lived. Others took the form of suicide missions—to infiltrate and strike the target, even though the shinobi or kunoichi would die in the process.

In most respects, kunoichi  were treated the same as their masculine counterparts, though with tactics, assignments, and weapons suited to their differing strengths. Modern Westerners might not recognize a killer in a courtesan’s dress, but in samurai Japan, a wise man knew that a dagger often lurked in a beautiful woman’s bladed fan.

 

***

 

Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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The Seven Disguises Used by Real Ninjas http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/the-seven-disguises-used-by-real-ninjas/ Sat, 14 Jun 2014 08:29:10 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2660

By Susan Spann

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)
Hollywood likes to portray the ninja in black pajamas, scaling a roof to assassinate a samurai.

In reality, ninjas, also called shinobi, were more like spies.

Assassinations played a role (as did those famous dark pajamas) but ninja training focused as much on espionage as it did on killing, and then–as now–a large part of successful spying depended on disguises.

During the 17th century the head of a famous ninja clan wrote a manual called the Shoniniki, which described techniques and methods used by medieval ninjas. At the time, the Shoniniki was considered a “secret” manuscript, used and protected by shinobi clans. Now, it offers a glimpse into the real ninja’s world, including the types of disguises ninjas favored.

Shoniniki page (disguises)(pd)

The Shoniniki lists “Seven Disguises” as recommended “personas” a shinobi could assume in order to infiltrate a town, obtain information, or generally fool people into thinking he was someone other than a spy. (Female ninjas, called kunoichi, used disguises too.)

The Shoniniki’s Seven Disguises include:

1. Itinerant monks (komuso) – for wandering the countryside. 14F13 Actor

2. Buddhist monks – for infiltrating temples, towns, and cities.

3. Mountain ascetics.

4. Merchants.

5. Actors.

6. Street entertainers.

7. “Normal Appearance” – which means taking on the persona of a typical resident of the city, village, or area the shinobi wanted to infiltrate without being noticed.

***

Ninjas weren’t limited to these seven roles. When on a mission, a ninja blended in with the population–or with the environment, in the case of truly clandestine missions–and was expected to take on any persona or disguise that allowed him (or her, in the case of kunoichi) to pass unnoticed.

Yoshitoshi print (pd)

Shinobi assigned to long-term missions might use only a single disguise, living for years as a farmer, monk, or merchant. This allowed the ninja to gather information or “wait in place” as a sleeper agent until his clan was hired to assassinate a nearby lord or other valuable target.

On short-term missions, a shinobi might use multiple disguises, blending in with different crowds as needed to reach the goal.

Ninjas were trained to think independently and conceal themselves in many ways … including the use of disguises to hide in plain sight.

Disappearing is great, when you have the cover of night or foliage, but hiding in plain sight is the best disguise of all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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Ninja Swords: Better Than Just a Blade http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/ninja-swords-better-than-just-a-blade/ Sat, 07 Jun 2014 09:27:18 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2646

By Susan Spann

Real ninjas needed lightweight, concealable weapons which also served a multitude of purposes. With limited space and weight available, ninjas (also known as shinobi) generally opted for multi-use weapons, and carried only those most likely to help complete the mission at hand.

Ninjas used a wide variety of specialized weapons, but the shinobigatana, (ninja sword) is probably the most familiar (to Westerners, at least).

In truth, there was no single “ninja sword” that every shinobi carried. Like other weapons, swords were selected on the basis of several factors, including the ninja’s skills and personal preference, the requirements of the mission, camouflage, and other relevant details.

Man with Sword (1800s)

Like other ninja tools, the sword served multiple purposes. In addition to its obvious role as a bladed fighting weapon, the shinobi could use his sword:

— As an exploratory device. A ninja could use the sword (in its scabbard) to poke and prod dark spaces or to move carefully through a darkened room (like a blind person uses a cane).

— As a blowpipe. The scabbard (saya) of many ninja swords had a detachable cap on the end. By removing the sword and the cap, the shinobi could transform the scabbard into a functional blowpipe. Darts, sand, powdered pepper, or even rocks could be used as projectiles.

— As a climbing aid. The shinobi could lean his sword against a wall, hilt up, and use the guard as a step. After reaching the top of the wall, the ninja could pull the sword up after him using a length of rope (called a sageo) attached to the scabbard.

— As a snorkel or breathing device. By removing the sword and the cap that usually covered the tip of the scabbard, a ninja could use the hollow saya as a breathing tube.

When fighting multiple opponents, the shinobi could hold the sword and the scabbard in different hands, or swing the scabbard around while holding the sageo, thereby extending his reach.

As masters of weapons and disguise, ninjas often found other creative uses for their swords and scabbards also. Sometimes, this creativity extended to camouflaging the weapon itself. Ninjas often concealed swords (or daggers) in harmless-looking objects like bamboo flutes, walking canes, staves, and fans.

Sandaime Onoe Kikugorō no Ōboshi Yuranosuke

When impersonating samurai, ninjas carried a pair of swords, as was customary for the samurai class. By law, in medieval Japan, only a samurai had the legal right to wear two swords (generally a katana, or longsword, along with the shorter wakizashi).

Ultimately, the list of uses for a ninja’s sword was limited only by the ninja’s own experience and creativity. Practitioners of ninjutsu focused not only on martial training but also on intelligence, strategy, and independent thought. Like modern intelligence operatives, a ninja usually depended more on his mind than on his muscles, and though having a sword was important, thinking quickly and creative problem solving were far more useful skills to a ninja than merely knowing how to use a blade.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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Real Ninjas Wore Black … Or Did They? http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/real-ninjas-wore-black-or-did-they/ Sat, 31 May 2014 09:16:47 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2627

By Susan Spann

Popular culture often depicts the ninja as a hooded, black-clad man with a sword in one hand and a shuriken in the other – silent, lethal, and invisible against the midnight sky.

Unfortunately, the Hollywood version of “black-pajama ninjas” represents only a fraction of what real ninjas wore–and even that, with some inaccuracy. A real ninja escaping a moat might look more like this:

Woodblock by Kuniyoshi, 1842-43 (Public Domain)

Woodblock by Kuniyoshi, 1842-43 (Public Domain)

Real shinobi (aka “ninjas”) were masters of disguise, as well as camouflage. Next week, we’ll look at some of the most popular disguises shinobi used to keep from attracting attention when on assignment. Today, however, let’s look more closely at those famous black pajamas.

So, what did real ninjas wear?

For nocturnal missions, infiltration of enemy strongholds, and other objectives requiring a shinobi to remain unseen (as opposed to just “unnoticed”), ninjas often wore a special outfit (called shinobifuku or shinobi shōzoku) consisting of a shirt and knee-length trousers similar to those worn by modern practitioners of martial arts–but with tight-fitting sleeves and gaiters that tied at the knees and ankles to keep the sleeves and pants from flapping.

Ninjas sometimes–but not always–also wore a hood or cowl which hid the lower face.

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)

Did ninjas really wear black?

Sometimes, but not always.

The shinobi shōzoku might be black, or blue, or even brown (and sometimes other colors too), depending on the environment in which the ninja planned to hide. For example, operations in the snow might call for white or camouflage-patterned garments.

In some cases, the black (or blackish) clothes were dyed to contain a reddish hue, to conceal bloodstains. Some ninjas preferred a dark blue garment, because they felt it concealed them better in shadows or against the midnight sky. 

Sometimes, the ninja’s outfit was reversible, with different colors on different sides to allow the shinobi to blend into different environments without carrying a separate change of clothes.

Was the color the only special aspect of the ninja’s costume?

Nope.

A ninja’s clothing  contained hidden pockets and special compartments used for storing the ninja’s weapons. Shinobi utilized many special weapons, and needed to carry and store them efficiently. If a special device was needed, the ninja didn’t need to waste time rummaging through a satchel filled with many different objects! Multiple, smaller compartments helped the shinobi find the tools he needed quickly.

Every part of the ninja’s clothing was designed to help fulfill his mission silently, efficiently, and successfully. Like modern spies of every type, the ninja tailored his disguise to suit his circumstances. Black pajamas look menacing on a movie set, but in the real world of medieval espionage, a shinobi’s primary clothing choice was “whatever ensured you didn’t see him coming.”

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Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com),  on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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Know Your Ninjas – Shinobi Spies of Medieval Japan http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/know-your-ninjas-shinobi-spies-of-medieval-japan/ Sat, 24 May 2014 11:02:03 +0000 http://socialinsanfrancisco.com/?p=2603

by Susan Spann

Ninjas are a popular part of 21st century culture. We see them in films and on television, in Internet memes, and even on chocolates and coffee mugs – but how much do you know about who ninjas really were?

In medieval Japan, ninja assassins represented a very real, and dangerous, threat.

Ninjas – also called shinobi (“ninja” is based on a Chinese pronunciation of the characters, whereas “shinobi” is the more accurate Japanese term) – were highly trained spies and assassins. The word “ninja” translates “shadowed person” – and like most spies, real ninjas knew how to use the shadows to their advantage.

The characters for "ninja" (or "shinobi")

The characters for “ninja” (or “shinobi”)

Ninjas used a variety of weapons and stealth-based tactics. They also acted as “spies for hire.” As experts in disguise, they could infiltrate castles or pass as priests, musicians, or other “harmless” members of society. Sometimes, ninjas spent years undercover, gathering information or preparing to strike at an opportune time.

Despite the often contentious relationship between the shinobi clans and the samurai warlords who ruled Japan, samurai frequently hired ninjas to gather information or eliminate troublesome rivals. Then, as now, espionage was a common political tool.

Historically, samurai warriors favored hand-to-hand combat with swords and naginata (a type of halberd). Ninjas trained with those weapons, too, but favored daggers, shorter swords and other concealable items like shuriken and caltrops.

Samurai in Hakama (public domain)

Ninjas also studied stealth, disguise, and various ways to disappear into a crowd.The Shoniniki, a 17th century ninja training manual, describes ten major methods of concealment. These range from “concealing yourself by virtue of surrounding noises” to blending in with the enemy’s environment and vanishing without a trace after an assassination or other clandestine activities.

Whether acting as assassins or as spies, the ninjas of medieval Japan were highly skilled and very much a reality. The modern “ninja myths” contain a number of inaccuracies–ninjas didn’t just wear black and sneak around on rooftops–but they also hold a grain of truth and, sometimes, more than that.

In the Saturdays to come, we’ll look further into the world of “real ninjas,” separating fact from fiction and revealing the men–and women–behind those ninja masks.

© 2014, Susan Spann. All Rights Reserved. For Reprint permission, please contact the author at the links below.

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Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com),  on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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