How Japanese Warfare Created the Ninja
Researched and Compiled by Sensei Steven Cockell
The Gempei War: Started in the 11th century and finished in1185 with the defeat of the Taira family. It was considered a civil war between the two major family clans of Taira and Minomoto.
Samurai warfare in the early centuries was ritualized by the code of Bushido, and much honour was placed on things such as:
These events and many more brought an individual great honour in the battlefield; and if he survived, he would be rewarded by his lord. The taking of heads was done by retainers, and showed who he had killed in the battle – the greater the opponent, the more koku he received. Koku was the reward – i.e. enough rice to feed one man for a year. Some famous swordsmen received up to 12,000 koku per battle.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, battle went something like this:
During daylight hours only! The 2, 3 or sometimes 4 opposing armies would agree on a location. They would roughly form into their respective clans. After an exchange of arrow fire each individual lord, landowner or trained samurai would eye out a suitable opponent and then they would boldly march out to the battlefield and challenge a fitting opponent to combat. This would go on until more and more men were fighting, challenging and retreating until it was just total chaos and eventually one side would retreat, or the sun would set and the sides would retire to contemplate the day’s battle, beginning again at dawn the next day.
During the Gempei wars the first ninja-like night raids were recorded in a book called heike momogatari. One night raid was conducted by two young Samurai who wanted to gain the honour of being the first into battle. They boldly issued a challenge at the main gates, but no one came out. In another night raid that had been recorded, two Samurai brothers scaled the main walls of the besieged castle and issued challenges in an exchange of arrows. The brothers were killed. This attack is important because this was a break from the conventional and honour-bound samurai way of warfare which was to face the opponent eye to eye after stating your family name and past deeds in battles, then listening to your opponent do likewise to see if he was worthy of fighting you. Only then would you commence the battle.
With the defeat of the Taira clan, the Minomoto clan declared itself rulers and appointed a shogun (Yoritomo Minomoto). However, there was a feud between Yoritomo and his brother Yoshitsune (a talented warrior who employed ninja-like tactics such as assassination, disguise and trickery to prevail in battle). The journeying of Yoshitsune and Benkei, as well as their flight from Yoritomo, are recorded in the legends of Japanese history. An interesting fact is that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th heirs to the Minomoto clan were all assassinated, with the youngest being murdered on the snow covered steps of the Hachimen Shrine in the Kamakura province in 1219.
1274: The first Mongol invasion began. It was a scouting mission; however, they nevertheless, massacred villagers in the provinces of Iki and Yamada, nailing victims to the prow of their boats. The Hojo clan defended the Japanese islands…just! The Mongols had only really been scouting, and so had left due to storms at sea where their ships had been anchored. The Hojo were lucky! Their tactics had not worked. The samurai custom of riding up and challenging an opponent was unknown to the Mongols who simply fired volleys of arrows into the brave samurai.The bodies of hundreds of samurai littered the beaches of Kyushu. The code of bushido was changing to an “every man for himself” code or an “anything to win” rule.
1281: The Mongols returned but the Hojo were ready. They had built a huge wall at Hakata Bay so that when the Mongols landed, they were unable to form a beachhead and unable to use their sweeping horse patterns that had been so successful on flat plains. After fierce beach fighting at the defensive wall (where the Naginata earned its place in Japanese history), which effectively cut down the cavalry of advancing Mongols, the Mongols were forced back to their boats at sunset. That night the samurai, armed with the lethally sharp Katana and Wakisashi, rowed out to the ships in small groups of 10 to 12men conducting ninja-like guerilla raids onboard the boats, engaging in the firebombing of ships, and man-to-man fighting with devastating results. The fighting continued for days and nights until a typhoon or great wind struck, smashing the Mongol invasion fleet to bits, and thus ending the invasion.
Note: the Japanese were the only country to defeat the Mongols prior to their downfall to the Manchu’s (north-eastern Chinese tribes) in the 17th century.
From here, Japanfell somewhat into a state of a civil war. These wars and their significance to the shaping of Ninja are as follows:
Nambokucho Wars: The war of the north and south began sometime after the Mongol invasions. The Nambokucho war was between the Ashikaga - a branch of the Minomoto clan who had declared themselves rulers of Japan, dominating the northern half of Japan– and Godaigo, the current Emperor, had also declared himself as the ruler of Japan. Godaigo’s dominion was over the southern half of Japan.
(Note: The Emperor tended not to be involved with politics in Japanese history).
Takauji Ashikaga, a Hojo general, defected to Godaigo’s side which enforced Godaigo’s power; but in a deceptive plot Takauji Ashikaga replaced Godaigo with a puppet Emperor and seized power for the Ashikaga clan. Godaigo was forced to flee with his loyal Samurai general Kusunoki Masashige.
When the Emperor Godaigo was fleeing, he was aided by a young warrior from Kishu by the name of Yakushimaru Kurando, who was skillfully trained in shinobijutsu (another name for Ninjutsu) and Bugei (martial arts). Kurando disguised himself as a woman and infiltrated the castle where Godaigo was and escaped with him. In one of the halls were Hizume floorboards that were designed to be very noisy to alert guards of intruders. With virtually every guard after them they fled to the gates, scaled the walls, and fled the castle. They were hunted by the enemy samurai and cornered, so Kurando hid Godaigo in a grove of trees, and used his Naginata to mow down the enemy troops. But in the midst of this bloody carnage, the end of his weapon broke, and so, he used the secret art of Bojutsu. He continued to battle the enemy, and again, his weapon broke. So Kurando used the secret skill of sticks to fight on. Eventually General Masashige arrived and they made their escape.
Grateful for his rescue, Godaigo named Kurando’s fighting system Kukishin Ryu (nine demon spirit school) because Kurando had fought like nine demons.
Kusunoki Masashige was a pillar of samurai loyalty to his Emperor (Godaigo). He was also a brilliant guerilla warfare strategist. After Godaigo fled the Ashikaga, Masashige was able to defend him using skilful ninja-like tactics. His armies were small but they always fought unconventionally.
Masahige learnt the hard way about ninja fighting. In his first defeat he was a victim of a well executed night raid which torched the inside of his castle and killed many of his men while they slept. He survived but learnt a great deal about ninja tactics.
Masashige learnt never to fight in pitched battles with enemies when outnumbered. He always fought in wooded areas and used hit and run tactics such as night raids, assassinations, false informants, and clever use of fire in destroying the advancing army’s food supply (rice crops) to weaken the enemy. He stuffed suits of armour with straw and placed them in the woods to lure the enemy in and then attacked from behind with arrows and spears with cleverly hidden men. He ensured the enemy wasted maximum supplies for little gain, such as having the enemy fire arrows into woods where troops were protected. He used logs and rocks, instead of attacking with arrows, by luring the enemy horsemen into ravines where his men would drop rocks onto the opponents or cut ropes with swinging logs. He made sure his men always had the height advantage – firing downhill, not uphill. He also poisoned water supplies to kill off animals such as horses and cattle that the enemy needed. He also trained small groups of fighting elite to engage and slow down an advancing army. These men were trained in sabotage, martial arts, horsemanship, and assassination. They lived off the land and scouted out danger spots so Masashige could avoid being cornered and having to fight man to man.
Masashige was killed in battle in 1336 but it was through no fault of his. It was his loyalty to Godaigo that was his downfall. In the pitched battle of Minatogawa, Godaigo had under estimated the enemy’s size and attacked man to man. Masashige died defending the Emperor’s escape, along with most of his men. Masashige went willingly to his death in obedience to the commands of his sovereign. Godaigo was captured and imprisoned while fleeing to Masashige Castle at Akasaka, the same castle targeted by a night-time raid earlier.
The wars carried on sporadically for 50 years but the southern half of Japanhad been defeated by the northern half. The family of Akamatsu now ruled. However, at the victory celebrations factions of the defeated southern court killed the soon to be shogun after releasing horses during the celebrations. Also descendants of Kusunoki Masashige broke into the Imperial Palace and stole the crown jewels that they believed belonged to their emperor which enforced his legitimacy.
Note: It is said that the southern emperor was assassinated by a group of 6 ninja from the north who stole back the jewels and left the head of the southern emperor in a snow covered mountain range, to recover it later, but the seeping blood alerted the southern warriors to it and they recovered it.
The Onin War: Fought in 1467 to 1477. Onin means ‘great endurance’ and it was. The war began over disputes as to who would be the next Ashikaga shogun. It was mainly the greed of powerful noble families allied with the Ashikaga that led to the war. This war was one where the people of Japan suffered greatly. Fire and starvation were used as much as sword and bow, but it had no principles as in the wars of past times. Peasants were targets because they provided crops for powerful noble lords. The bulk of the fighting occurred near Kyoto with great armies marching to and fro, vying for power. It was written that the battles raged in the streets and that the temples and palaces were burnt. Much of the population fled and corpses lined the streets. Some noble lords left with cartloads of trophy heads that had been collected. Now the power shifted to whoever had the largest army and who controlled Kyoto, as the Ashikaga were now just a puppet shogun and a puppet emperor who had to serve the strongest warlord.The Ashikaga were penniless from all the fighting and powerless without armies to support them.
The Onin war crippled the Japan's Central Government. This caused a disintegration of the social order which was so important to the noble families. These noble families were now in total poverty, and as the Ashikaga shogun grew weaker and weaker these families were eliminated. Those families that survived were headed by upstart soldiers who simply had gained power through their skill in the battles of Kyoto, and thus held power through the fear they generated, regardless of their lack in or having very little aristocratic background. These feared warlords held no allegiance to any of the noble families of the past ages and sought only power for themselves.
With no central government, laws began to change to suit the new warlords. Instead of dividing the land amongst the children evenly – with protection of a government to make sure no one attacked and took the land – now, the warlords willed their lands and titles to one son, usually the eldest, so it could be more easily protected from the rival warlords. This then cast women into a subordinate role with little or no say in anything including marriage.
Note: A warlord often married his daughter off to achieve an alliance or a peace treaty with a neighboring warlord if it suited his cause.
There is little to no account of ninja activity in the Onin War. One assumes there was, but it was possible that the different ninja clans may not have been active due to the political nature of the wars. Most clans kept to themselves not worrying about political motivation.
Sengoku Jidai: The age of a country at war: Occurred some time after the Onin War. With the break up of the central government it became ‘every warlord for himself’. Those who had armies now started to place border guards and many warlords formed roving armies looking for opportunities to attack neighboring lords to obtain more lands.Those who were weak were quickly defeated and the peasants absorbed into their new masters’ fiefdoms (land under the Daimyo’s governing). There are many old maps that show the territories that Japan had become divided up into. These territories were overseen by warlord families who lived by the sword and governed by the sword.
Several of the families are now discussed (as knowledge permits):
In the Western section of the island of Honshuin the province of Echigo was the family of Uesugi Kenshin who was an adopted son (quite rare in Japan). Kenshin had valuable rich fertile land. While he was not the most brilliant military strategist, he was one of the greatest Samurai commanders in Japanese military history. He developed the rolling attack system. This was to aid weary solders. It relied on the rotational movement of his units – when one unit became tired he replaced it with another unit of equal fighting ability. This meant he could keep up intense attacks for long periods of time. It did, however, produce high levels of casualties. He battled with the Hojo and Takeda clans, engaging five times with the great Takeda Shingen – at the battle of the Kawanakajima plain (1553) with no conclusive result. In 1555 Kenshin was out-maneuvered and withdrew. In 1557 Kenshin forced Takeda to withdraw. In 1561 Kenshin (18,000 men) and Takeda (20,000 men) fought the largest battle of the Sengoku Jidai period with the highest casualty figures recorded. Kenshin’s army which was the losing side took 72% casualties; Takeda’s army, the victors took 62% casualties. In 1564 after minor skirmishes both sides withdrew.
Kenshin also won two major battles in 1577. Kenshin, with 30,000 troops, fought Oda Nobunaga with 18,000 troops. Kenshin defeated Nobunaga using his famous rolling attack against the Hojo clan and succeeded in taking two of their castles using siege warfare.
It is said that Uesugi Kenshin grieved heavily when his retainers told him of Takeda Shingen’s death. He is believed to have said “it is such a great pity to have lost such an honourable and skilful opponent”.
Uesugi Kenshin died under mysterious circumstances in 1578. He was 48. Some believe he was assassinated in his lavatory early one morning while he was relieving himself, stabbed with a spear up his backside by a ninja who, the night before had infiltrated into the castle and hid in the lavatory waiting for his opportunity.
Takeda Shingen was the exemplar of a successful Daimyo. Gifted with a brilliant strategic mind, he fought his first major war when he was twenty in 1541. He then went on to be undefeated in 38 battles. Takeda never built a castle in believing that a warrior leader must build a castle in the heart of every one of his Bushi (warrior). He favored fast moving cavalry units which overpowered his enemies with speed and precision. His armies were based on his 24 generals who served him loyally. Takeda created and trained all his troops to follow a simple motto. Each unit was trained to live up to its particular motto. The four mottos were:
Takeda fought in a battle with the soon to be famous general in Tokugawa: Ieyasu (who was a General in Oda Nobunaga’s army). When the two armies met Takeda had the high ground and laid down punishing cavalry raids in units of 50 horsemen. He forced the Tokugawa army to retreat killing several important lords who sacrified themselves to enable Tokugawa to escape. Tokugawa shot an advancing Takeda spearman with an arrow before escaping. Takeda was ruthless and pressed for outright victory sending his son’s unit and 50 horsemen to attack. Tokugawa reached the safety of an allied castle, but the Takeda troops simply made camp. The next day Tokugawa used his harquebusier units and spearmen to force Takeda into a ravine where they were fired at and cut down.Takeda’s son survived. Even with this lose it was still a decisive victory for Takeda.
In 1548 Takeda suffered his first large scale defeat in the battle of Uedahara. One of his generals was killed when his vanguard met a vanguard of men lead by a general of Kenshin Uesugi. In the battle the Takeda horsemen attack were absorbed and encircled. A total of 700 men out of 7,000 were killed. This battle is famous for being the first time guns were used.The Uesugi army had 50 soldiers carrying Chinese made harquebusiers.
Takeda took swift revenge on Uesugi when in 1548 he defeated an army at Shiojiritoge using only lightly armoured yari (spear) cavalry. Takeda launched a surprise dawn raid on the enemy camp. He approached the enemy by night and when dawn broke he attacked the unprepared samurai taking a complete victory as they rushed to arm themselves.
In 1569 the Takeda army was ambushed by an army of the Hojo clan. Although the Takeda forces claimed 3769 heads, they lost 900 men including one of Takeda’s close personal friends and one of his famous 24 generals. It is said that Takeda grieved at his loss and that he personally buried his friend’s body and conducted the memorial service. Takeda placed great value in his generals.
Takeda was killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1573. While he was besieging the Noda castle he had heard a flute being played by one of the garrisons and ventured closer to hear it when the assassin shot from inside the castle walls. His death was kept secret for two years. Takeda Shingen was 52 years of age.
Oda Nobunaga was a minor landowner who had great ambitions. He was responsible for a radical change in Japanese fighting. Some blame Nobunaga for the demise of the samurai way of life. In 1552 the lord of Tanegashima saw a display of marksmanship by two Portuguese sailors where they placed a target about one hundred meters away and fired their harquebusiers at the target, hitting the target’s bulls-eye twice in a row. Impressed, he purchased the foreign objects and soon the Japanese metal smiths were making copies. This was not a major development at the time as the traditional form of samurai warfare remained single one-on-one fencing matches. However, Oda’s brilliant military mind changed all this in the space of one battle.
The battle of Nagashino in 1575 was fought outside the Nagashino Castle on the plains which favored Takeda’s fast yari cavalry. It was between Oda / Tokugawa who had access to 38,000 troops including Oda’s 3,000 matchlock musketeers (similar to the harquebus, the matchlock musket had one advantage, it could still fire in the rain) and the Takeda force of 15,000 led by Katsuyori, Takeda Shingen’s very own son. Oda who used the tactic of volley arrow fire, in which the archers stagger their rate of fire to keep a steady stream of arrows flying, as opposed to interval fire, Oda simply trained his musketeers to use the same tactic. He realized that his musketeers would need some protection, so he built mobile palisades from wood in the castle. They wheeled out the palisades to the midpoint of the plains and soldiers positioned themselves with the castle behind them and waited. Each unit of musketeers was teamed with a unit of long spearmen. When the Takeda horsemen charged, though outnumbered two to one, Katsuyori attacked because of heavy overnight rain and the fact they were only 200m away, only a small distance for cavalry to charge. They saw only thin palisades, but as they got closer (within 50m) the musketeers fired. Oda had trained his men to fire in volleys – 1000 men firing, 1000 men ready to fire and 1000 men reloading. They then rotated as the Takeda horsemen fell in heaps on the battlefield. Those who made it to the palisade met spears 5.6m in length that Oda used to further protect his valuable musketeers. The battle lasted just over 6 hours. With 10,000 Takeda troops dead the retreat was sounded by Katsuyori, but it was too late.
Just as Oda Nobunaga had obtained firearms from the Portuguese, so to did these powerful and potent weapons fall into the hands of the Ninja. It is highly likely that spies in Oda’s land would have seen these weapons in use and notified ninja clan leaders of their potential. There is clear evidence that ninja weapon smiths would have had the skills to duplicate the weapon when it was obtained. Years earlier the Ninja had obtained gun powder from China. It is well known that the ninja clans were trained in the art of Kayaku-Jutsu, the use of fire and explosives and used canons made of reinforced bamboo kept damp to prevent them catching fire. These portable cannons were used in the warring provinces, the advent of these firearms drastically change the face of Japanese warfare and was quickly adapted into the tactics of Ninja warfare. The firearms lead to the creation of small groups of warriors called rappa or suppa (names which translate to mean battle disrupters). These groups would engage in hit and run tactics against better armed and armoured Samurai. They would hit from a distance and disappear into the surrounding terrain. Sugitani Zenjubo was a Ninja trained in the use of firearms and attempted to assassinate Oda Nobunaga using a harquebus on May 19 1570. He failed. He managed to hit Nobunaga twice. However, Nobunaga’s armour stopped the bullets. Practitioners of the Negoro Ryu Ninjutsu were some of the first warriors to recognize the potential of firearms and helped introduced them to Japan. They became highly skilled in the use of hip held firearms. The Kishu Saiga Ninja clan, were masters of Kayaku Jutsu and are said to have had a stockpile of 2000 rifles hidden within their area of operations. Again we see that whenever a new type of weapon was introduced to Japan, the Ninja eagerly adopted it into their arsenal and used it in their unconventional fighting methods.
Oda Nobunaga’s next piece of military brilliance was how he formed his armies. Prior to his invention, his armies were of highly trained nobles bent on gaining a name for themselves in combat under a powerful lord. Oda changed this by recruiting farmers into his army and training them in cheap weapons such as spears and teaching them to fight in formation, lead by a samurai as a unit leader. He also trained young men to use the musket.This cut his training time – as it was possible to train a man in the musket in 3 months, but it took 3 years to train a skilled samurai in swordsmanship and archery. Oda’s invention took away some of the glamour of the samurai.They were becoming obsolete and it was possible for a man with only 3 months training to kill a man with 10 years experience in a matter of seconds. With this highly effective army, Oda now began to have larger plans to become shogun of Japan.
One of Oda’s greatest victories happened in 1560, when he had not yet achieved notoriety. Imagawa, a powerful Daimyo marched 25,000 men towards the capital Kyoto. On the way Imagawa attacked some of Oda’s border forts. As they got closer to Kyotothey became weary and rested in a narrow defile. Due to Oda’s boyhood knowledge of the area, he decided to risk everything (he only had 3,000 troops) and launch a bold attack on the Imagawa forces during a blinding rainstorm. He attacked the flank of Imagawa’s main army and they were taken by total surprise. Oda’s men rushed down the ravine with one of his generals taking the head of the Imagawa Daimyo. This is a famous turning point in Japanese military history. Now Oda Nobunaga was a national figure.
Oda then seized the capital Kyoto and was being wooed by the emperor and current shogun of Ashikaga descent. In 1568 several rival lords sent armies against him, but Oda simply brushed them aside in several bloody conflicts. His motto was “RULE YOUR EMPIRE BY FORCE”. Oda installed one of his generals as shogun which the commoners appeared to like. This was due to the discipline of his troops. When they entered the capital they did not rape or pillage as other armies did, so they were respected more by the commoners.
Oda Nobunaga was not a religious man, not believing in a creator of the universe or an immortal soul or life after death. He appeared to have no religious sympathies and simply hated them all. He was, however, friendly to the Christians because they provided guns and trade.
Oda’s next targets were the monasteries of the Buddhist monks who posed a threat to him as they were warlike and well trained in the martial arts. Oda destroyed the temples at Mt Hiei massacring all the monks and burning down the temple and destroying its famous religious statues. At Sakamoto he razed and destroyed the temple and killed men, women and children. He hunted the warrior monks wherever they went. In a temple on the west coast of Honshu, he built a wall around the temple structure with only one way out and set the structure ablaze. When those trapped inside ran out from the heat or smoke, they were cut down. 5,000 people were killed by sword, lead shot or flame.
Oda destroyed the great Honganji monastery at Osaka, the Holy centre of Japan, by using Portuguese gun ships covered with iron armour and using cannons to blast out the walls and lay siege to it, starving the warrior monks who eventually surrendered to him, with their Amida sect ruined.
After his successful campaign against the warrior monks, Oda Nobunaga set his sights on a troublesome province called Iga.
In 1579 the men of the Iga province, which at the time was governed by the Nikki family who respected the fighting quality of the Ninja and gave them little trouble, would face a threat to their survival. From the security of their mountains region they would face a new threat that started in the Ise province due to the fact that the great warlord Oda Nobunaga was extending his kingdom and had begun to invade the Ise province partly to destroy the two great religious shrines of Ise and the warrior monks who dwelt there. In several successful battles Nobunaga had forced the leaders of Ise (The Kitabatake family) to retreat into their castle at Okawachi. After a fifty day siege on the Okawachi castle the Kitabatake family agreed to terms of ‘peace’ set by Nobunaga, which gave the lands of Ise to Nobunaga’s generals, but left the Kitabatake family as a puppet daimyo.
Oda Nobunaga’s 2nd son Oda Nobuo was to inherit the province upon the Kitabatake death. It is widely believed that the last of the Kitabatake was murdered by a Nobunaga retainer, by the name of Tsuge Saburoza’emon, and so Nobuo was able to obtain the province. It was unknown to Nobunaga that several members of the Kitabatake family survived and were not willing to give up their province, and that these few had begun to plot in the mountainous region of Iga. One surviving member was a warrior priest from the Nara province who gathered the reminants of the clan together in search of revenge. An interesting note is that one of the supporters who joined, was said to be the son of Tsukahara Bukuden, the legendary swordsman associated with the Yagyu clan. This first revolt was put down quickly by one of Nobunaga’s senior generals and the defeated rebels fled to the Iga province’s mountains to escape death.
Oda Nobuo had long had his sights set on the provinceof Iga and needed little reason to attack it. Near the center of the Iga province was an abandoned castle some 600 feet above a sharp bend in a river which would make a great base for operations in Iga and the neighboring provinces, so Nobuo set out to obtain it. After rebuilding the castle and placing a general in charge, Nobuo began to learn the true talents of the ‘samurai’ families that inhabited the province of Iga. Before the castle could be finished the warriors of Iga attacked using castle entry techniques. They were able to achieve a complete surprise. They routed the castle and battles continued until nightfall and even further on into the night – which was not a common tactic for samurai, but the trained ninja fighters of Iga were skilled at night fighting, and so had continued to attack with their superior knowledge of the landscape. The Iga warriors were able to pursue their enemy into the wooded valleys and flooded rice fields. Once again these locations suited the guerilla tactics that the ninja warriors became famous for. The success of this victory was soon to be felt again by the men of Iga against a greater foe. With the humiliation of his general, the young Oda Nobuo decided he would invade Iga and avenge his defeat.
Nobou’s assault was as large (around twelve thousand troops) as it was fierce. He divided his army into three groups who would use the three mountainous passes to enter into Iga (he had obtained a guide to get them through the tricky mountainous region… the guide was from the Hattori Ninja clan) and then the army would split into seven groups to attack the seven villages located in the Awa valley of the Iga province. Unfortunately for Nobou’s army, Iga spies had obtained information of his battle plans (from an informant of the Hattori ninja clan) and the ninja of Iga set up ambushes to delay and weaken the oncoming army. In one of these ambushes the General (Tsuge Saburoza’emon) of the main Nobou army was killed. As noted earlier in this article Saburoza’emon, he had been responsible for the death of the last of the Kitabatake family. His death on the battlefield was an unheard of result – a group of “unruly rebels” defeating the main general of an army. But this was more than a defeat. It was revenge for the survivors of the Kitabataki family. News spread of the humiliation but the battles in Iga continued with the remaining Nobou forces attacking the villages. Again the unconventional tactics of the Iga fighters disorganized the structured army of Nobou. The army was routed and forced to flee back to the Ise province from which they had come from. During their escape the remaining fragmented army was under constant attack by the forces of Iga as they fled, resulting in large casualties. This was a decisive victory for the Warriors of Iga. But this victory would have devastating effects on the province.
In 1581 Nobou’s father Oda Nobunaga decided to avenge the humiliation his 2nd son had brought on the clan .He planned to lead his massive army of around forty five thousand troops on an attack to wipe out the troublesome warriors of Iga. Only a day into his campaign Oda fell ill. He suffered dizziness and sweated profusely, and was therefore unable to lead his army (the result of ninja poisoning?). But this did not stop Oda planning the assault.He would rejoin the campaign at a later date; but for the mean time, it was to be led by several of his trusted generals. Oda wanted to put an end to the “rabble who defied every convention of samurai behaviour”. His army was divided into six main attack groups, each lead by an experienced battle hardened general. They would enter Iga simultaneously along the main routes into the province, much the same way as Nobunaga’s son’s armies did. In knowing that Oda had far superior numbers (information provided by the Iga yukan: double agents), The Jonin (elders) of Iga decided that there was no way their force could match the oncoming assault and so they assembled their forces in two locations in the province for easy dispersal within the battle area. The two sites were the Heiraku-ji temple and Tendoyama – the battlefield site of the first attempt to defeat the warriors of Iga.
As the battle began the Iga warriors bore witness to the Nobunaga army’s destructive combat methods. As his armies moved into the province they attacked the villages, killed all the inhabitants, and burnt the buildings to the ground leaving nothing behind. This is known as a “scorched earth tactic”, you leave nothing behind for your enemy to survive on or use. This attack method was executed with ruthless efficiency and superior numbers from all six attack directions. With the rapid advancement of the armies, the warriors of Iga were force to retreat to their fortresses and mountainous hideouts. The warriors of Iga could not use their tactics which required freedom of movement. They were unable to use their hit and run tactics in the early stages due to the speed of army’s advancement. These tactics disorganized and disorientate and larger force but in this case they were just overrun by a larger and better organized force. Rapid Volleys of gun fire and advancing spearmen and cavalry laid waste to the villages of Iga. Here is a quote from the record of a battle:
“Many soldiers forced their way in en masse at the point of the sword. They murdered all but one man whom they spared. He was a novice youth called Choko, from distant Shimobe. The sad and sacred place which stood there was scoured, and only rubbish adorned it. When the smoke died down, inside and outside was dyed with blood. The corpses of priests and laymen were piled high in the courtyard or laid scattered like strange autumn leaves lying deep of a morning”.
From this account we see the ruthless approach of the highly trained army that formed Japan’s history. The army however, still had to endure Ninja tactics throughout their campaign. For instance, in the siege of the castle the Ninja inside would launch night raids and attacked the surrounding encampments. The Ninja burnt tents and supplies and murdered guards and created as much fear as they could.
There are accounts of great swordsmanship such as this:
“A warrior of Koga (who were aiding the warriors of Iga) fought furiously with a four and a half foot sword. He mowed down many opponents and was challenge by a samurai he advanced and deflected the sword strike, then suddenly struck out breaking both the challengers’ legs who was then quickly dispatched”.
The Ninja of Iga were able to hold off some of the advancing army, such as in the siege of Hijiyama where they did remarkably well, albeit, only for a little while. They managed to halt the advancement of the army lead by General Gamo Hidesato. The army had been burning villages as they advanced towards a fortress located on a steep slope. They were skillfully obstructed by a reasonably large unit of ninja fighters. They were then ambushed (by gun shots) by another unit of fighters and forced to continue to fight uphill while exhausted, taking heavy casualties. The Ninja units’ leader Momoda Tobei advanced and confronted the general’s two sons at the bottom of the slope where he beheaded both of them.
After this the Ninja Jonin held a war counsel where they discussed using night attacks to slow up the army as it moved forward like a wave. We also hear the name Hattori (a famous Ninja family) at this time. The Hattori clan fought in the vanguard during the war. The night attacks created terror in one of Nobunagas’ Six armies. They were attacked by flaming arrows launched from all sides by a Ninja force (of about 1000) that had stealthily positioned themselves around the enemy encampment at night and attacked. The soldiers had no time to done armour or prepare themselves and even ended up killing many of their own men in the confusion. There is a distinct similarity between these tactics and those used by Kusunoki Masashige centuries earlier.
Perhaps the best example of Ninja teamwork tactics was at the battle in Kashiwabara in the southern corner of Iga. There the invading army had become a little complacent as they advanced forward. The Ninja in this area had divided themselves into groups of twenty men. Working at night they harassed the advancing army whenever it stopped to rest. Tactics included burning tents and food supplies, releasing horses, poisoning water supplies. They would sneak into the encampment and murder the sentries as they guarded their sleeping companions. These attacks happened within seconds, and in a blinding flash the Ninja were gone.
Even with all their Shinobi tactics it was inevitable that they were fighting a lost cause. As various parts of Iga fell to the Nobunaga army, the Ninja warriors were forced into smaller and smaller defendable areas. The massive army began to close in on the last defended area of Iga, the temple at Mount Hijiyama. With their food running low and surrounded by 30,000 troops, the men women and children of Iga prepared for the final assault. The forces of Nobunaga are said to have let out a great war cry which was met with a deathly silence by the grim faced defenders as they stood motionless waiting. But the final battle of Iga would not be decided by the conventional method the spear, gun, sword or bow. No, Nobunaga’s favored method was Fire; and with the weather conditions perfect (a strong warm breeze blowing across in the direction of the temple), orders were given to burn the entire complex down. As the fire raged, the fugitives fled from the smoke and flames, at which point they were cut down by gunfire, sword blades, or forced back into the flames for an honourable suicide.
With the final battle finished and the enemy routed, the remnants of the Iga province were left in ruins. Oda Nobunaga traveled to the province to survey his new territory. He traveled with a large contingent of retainers and lords. He chose to set up his encampment in the ruins of the temple at Mount Hijiyama. The warriors of Iga had one more surprise for their tormentor. A carefully laid plan was put into place that would give three of the remaining Ninja a chance to kill Oda Nobunaga. The three ninja warriors had hidden at three key points and had concealed three large cannons. They were attempting to take revenge on the most hated person in Iga. The assassination attempt almost succeeded, except for the fact that the canons were more powerful than the assassins expected. The large shots echoed in the valley but overshot their mark, missing Oda Nobunaga, but killing up to twelve of his retainers.
With the new province under control it appeared that the families of ninja had disappeared into the archives of history never to be seen again. But this was not the case. It is widely known that members of the Hattori clan served as retainers to the famous Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was one of Oda Nobunaga’s main generals and would become one of the two men responsible for uniting Japan. Hattori Hanzo assisted Ieyasu in escaping from the province Sakainear Osaka. Hattori Hanzo was able to gather a large group of Ninja from in and around the Iga and Koga regions, and they escorted Ieyasu through the most dangerous stretch of the Iga region. In time the Hattori clan gained the trust of the Tokugawa Shogunate and became the secret police for them, it is said that they had an extensive network of spies working for them. There were many attempts on the proceeding Tokugawa Shoguns, but all were prevented by this network of Ninja. Many of the clan served as gardeners within the grounds of Edo’s castle. Even today the rear gate of Edo’s castle is referred to as Hanzomon or “Hanzo’s gate”.
This article has been very difficult to compile due to the incredible amount of factual and conflicting information available on the subject of the Ninja. To compare them to the modern day Green Beret or SAS, does however have some credit. There are many simularities between these groups of highly trained men. But as with the SAS, whose history is shrouded in mystery, propaganda, and is never confirmed or denied, so to is the history of the Ninja. Many facts seem to merge into legend and many legends merge into truths.
I Hope this article informs the reader and sheds some light onto the mysterious world of the Ninja. Where ever possible the dates and names have been provided, Please understand that the information is not easy to decipher and often can contradict itself depending on obtainable facts.
Sensei Steven Cockell
Secrets of the Samurai, 1973 Charles E, Tuttle Co., Inc
Samurai Leaders, Michael Sharpe, 2008 by Compendium Publishing Ltd.
Ancient Japan, Time/Life
Ninjutsu history and tradition, Dr Masaaki Hatsumi 1981 Contemprary Books
The Mystic arts of the Ninja, Stephen K. Hayes 1985 Contemporary Books
Classical Bujutsu, Donn F. Draeger 1990 Weatherhill, Inc