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Who Were the Ninja?

Uncovering Japan’s mysterious shadow warriors through modern science and ancient scrolls.

By 4 min read

From movies to manga, Japan’s ninja have gained a universal fan base. While fictional stereotypes of these serial assassins dressed in black from head to toe continue to prevail in popular culture, recent academic research suggests they may indeed have existed. If true, it means that contrary to pop-culture depictions, these shadowy “superheroes” were, in fact, regular Japanese people.

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This summer, from July 2 to October 10, an interactive exhibition at Odaiba’s Miraikan will integrate historical research with science to unmask the myth and mystery surrounding these historic masters of the art of ninjutsu. At the forefront of this research is Professor Yuji Yamada of Mie University—where the ninja and their art of espionage have been an academic subject since 2012—whose findings shed light on the practical aspects of ninja knowledge and wisdom. Rather than simply showcasing artifacts and literary texts, this exhibition by Mie University and the Japan Ninja Council, unveils the mysteries surrounding these “super warriors” through a cross-disciplinary analysis—or what researchers call: “Ninja X Science X Training.”

Divided into three interdisciplinary stages—shin, gi, tai (literally “mind, technique, body”)—the exhibition outlines the vigorous training and mental fortitude required for the ninja to successfully carry out a mission. Upon entering, visitors first encounter The Ninja Lab featuring a wall of vintage movie posters and bookcases stocked with action adventure manga and novels. Here visitors will find the familiar representations—if not cliché caricatures—of the ninja: shadowy mercenaries scaling high walls, dispatching enemies with a single shuriken (throwing star) hit and then instantaneously disappearing into the darkness.

The real treat for ninja fans lies beyond the media compilations where a surviving ninjutsu manuscript from the Edo period awaits. This sacred scroll, the Mansenshukai is the equivalent of the ninja “bible.” It’s an encyclopedia chronicling every existing ninja infiltration art accumulated from across 49 of the Iga and Koga ninja schools. The revelation of these historical texts is the inspiration behind this—first exhibit of its kind to piece together an authentic picture of the shinobi (ninja script) as a reference guide for medicine, pharmacology, physical education and nutrition. Furthermore, far from the prevailing stereotypes of sorcery and supernatural powers, the scientific analyses prove that these ancient warriors were well-versed in practical knowledge of the natural world.

Following in the footsteps of this secret fighting force, visitors to this exhibit can experience first-hand the three stages of ninja training. Stage one starts with an interactive obstacle course that fuses sports science and neuroscience. Learn the art of physical prowess that enabled ninja to cover more ground than standard steps through a special walking method called nanbaaruki. Test your ninja potential with shinobi-ashi, the mastery of silent tiptoeing performed on a wooden floor equipped with sensors that go off when movement is detected. And, of course, no ninja dojo would be complete without trying out the ninja’s trademark projectile—shuriken throwing stars!

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After gaining the physical prowess, stage two introduces the technical and holistic knowledge that, in turn, made ninja well-rounded in the science of survival. As a testament to their spirit of ingenuity, an elaborate display of tools—not intended to harm people—is presented that includes screw drills to pick locked doors, floating foot platforms to cross large bodies of water, grappling hooks to scale walls and explosives to create diversions or force evacuations. The ninja’s repertoire of survival skills also encompassed a profound understanding of the medicinal and nutritional properties of wild plants and herbs. A section dedicated to their herbal lore—including recipes for what it calls “hunger pills” retrieved from the Mansenshukai—reveal the resourcefulness required to ensure survival in both society and nature.

However, it’s the third stage that’s deemed the most important of all: the merging of mental, physical and emotional endurance into one’s body. With respect to ninjutsu, stage three makes a strong case for “mind over matter” by emphasizing the psychological skills vital for those leading a life dependent upon stealth and espionage. From breathing techniques used to calm the mind in extreme danger to the kuji-in (nine hand poses) employed to enhance concentration, a ninja’s perseverance under adversity is largely credited to their seishin—a spirit of unfaltering fortitude.


This lifelong devotion towards acquiring not only physical skills but also knowledge—by way of practical, psychological and spiritual training—reveals the ninja to be forward thinking people who possessed a well-rounded perspective. After successful completion of all three stages of the exhibition, you can walk away from the exhibit with an official “Ninja Certificate” and a newfound appreciation of these deceptively disarming warriors.


National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan)

July 2 (Sat)—October 10 (Mon), 2016

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Entrance closes 30 minutes prior to museum closing time)

Adults: ¥1,600
Junior (Elementary School Students to 18 years old): ¥1,000 / ¥900 on Saturdays
Child (Preschoolers over 3 years old): ¥500
Free admission for 2 years old and under


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