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What is Ninjitsu?

By Alison McAdams
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ninjutsu, also sometimes and less commonly known as ninjitsu, is an ancient Japanese practice that combines martial arts with strategy and mental acuity. Practitioners are commonly known as “ninjas,” though the modern associations of a ninja as a fierce warrior and deadly killer aren’t usually quite in line with the art, at least not as it was practiced in ancient times. The practice was developed in feudal Japan during the height of samurai power, and records describe ninjutsu schools and training as early as 1100, though they could well have existed before this date as well.

Most scholars believe that practitioners were primarily experts in espionage. They were sly and cunning, but in most cases their mission was information gathering — not violence, fighting, or warfare. The practice is traditionally made up of 18 “disciplines,” or focus areas. Some of these concern modern-day martial arts and self defense, but most are more concerned with mental acuity and situational manipulation. The mystery and mystique surrounding the art has lead to a lot of speculation over the years, though. In ancient times the ninjas were often credited with having supernatural powers, and even today their image is glorified in many places as vicious and deadly warriors.

Origins and Early Development

Most experts attribute the art’s early development to the feudal lords that controlled the land and much of the power that went with in ancient Japan. Back in the era of the samurai, different gropus fought almost continually over land rights and honor issues. It is widely believed that ninjutsu developed as a training plan to enable men to gather information on rival movements and plans. Most ninjas worked for and were trained by feudal lords known as Daimyo. In ancient times women were not trained in this art, at least not officially.

Its primary focus was espionage and spying. Doing this well requires a certain amount of physical agility, as well as some knowledge of defensive postures and warfare when needed. Practitioners typically wore dark clothing and masks over their faces to blend into the darkness in which they did their primary work, and most of their movements were designed to be quick, silent, and unnoticed. They were rarely sent on missions that involved killing and were not traditionally known as assassins. In some cases, though, mortal injury and death may have come with the territory. A lot of this depended on circumstances and the precise nature of the assignment.

Disciplinary Basics and Core Skills

Ninja work can have a lot in common with that of the samurai, at least when it comes to philosophical education and rigors of training. The samurai were warlords who studied sword fighting and battle as an art, often spending as much time on book learning and spiritual training as physical prowess. Ninjutsu practitioners are sometimes thought of as “anti-samurai” due to their more closeted and hidden ways, but in terms of discipline, the two are similar in a number of important respects.

Practitioners were generally trained according to 18 separate “disciplines” or skills known as ninja juhakkei. These include everything from combat and sword art to disguise, impersonation, and techniques on entering buildings and staying concealed; some more practical skills like meteorology and geography were also incorporated.

Folklore and Notoriety

The stealth and secrecy of ninjitsu gave rise to a lot of speculation and mystique that has persisted in modern times. Ninjas were rumored to be ruthless, cunning and stealthy killers who would stop at nothing to defeat their opponents. As the reputation of Ninjas grew in the countryside, the peasantry escalated the notoriety of the Ninja's prowess, attributing them with supernatural powers. Although many Ninjas were skilled warriors, their abilities were often exaggerated to include flying and the ability to predict future events.

Misconceptions about the art persist to this day. Movies and modern media frequently portray ninjas as stealthy assassins who deftly use karate and other martial arts to defeat enemies. In many respects this is an over-glorification of the ninjas’ traditional role, and doesn’t take into account the other skills and responsibilities of the ancient specialists.

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Discussion Comments
By anon951537 — On May 16, 2014

Nin - Survival.

jutsu - Technique.

Ninjustu: art of stealth? Hmmm, maybe it translates to "survival techniques".

By anon936704 — On Mar 02, 2014

Roughly 80-95 percent of this is pure bull.

Even though the ninja did whatever was necessary to protect their loved ones, the ninja who were assassins were in the minority. Most clans lived in seclusion and did not sell their services.

The actual combative part of ninjutsu was only 10 percent of what it was in its entirety.

The effectiveness of a martial art depends on the practitioner and how well they train. Even the highly regarded muay tai and jujitsu can fail against some punk if the practitioner trains poorly or not enough. It also depends on the state of mind of the practitioner.

No ninja would walk around covered head to toe in black or dark blue, especially if that is what the people would be expecting to see. They dressed like everyone else. You could be at a kabuki club and there could be a ninja right next to you and you would never know it. You might work with one, or attend school with one and never know because they wouldn't be so stupid as to advertise, even though each and every clan had their own symbol they could be recognized by. If there is somebody next to you right now, assuming you read this far, that person could be ninja.

One of the ninja's primary skills was espionage, remembering that if a shogun was assassinated, the best place to look for the killer would be the people working for him. They looked everywhere from the cooks to the guards to the servants -- almost always girls (hint, hint) because that is where ninja would be hiding right in plain sight.

Finally, just because I'm sure what has already been said will go right over the heads of most of who may have read this post, and being a practitioner myself I can tell you that most of the footwork ninjutsu employs is defensive and I say footwork because ninjutsu doesn't use static stances like other arts such as karate, tae kwon-do, or muay tai, to name a few. The evasive techniques are traditionally the first thing a ninjutsu practitioner would have to learn before they learned anything else.

By anon356497 — On Nov 25, 2013

I think it should be obvious that neither ninjutsu nor any other martial art will transform a geek with glasses watching "Kung Fu Panda" into a UFC champion.

Is ninjutsu effective? It can be, depending on how you train. Some of the joint locks are quite painful if done correctly, and the throws are used in many other martial arts with better reputation (BJJ and Judo). If practiced in a correct manner, it can prepare a person for a fight.

Is it the ultimate MA style? absolutely not. It has its fair share of unnecessary moves.

Does it have a chance against thai boxing and/or BJJ? Depends on both practitioners. I've seen ninjutsu guys beat thai boxers and BJJ guys with almost no effort, and I've also seen some others lose in less than five seconds.

The fact is fellows, you have to train to become good at something -- make that anything. In conclusion, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."

By anon261276 — On Apr 15, 2012

Yes, The US Navy Seals list Ninjutsu on their official website in their list of martial arts that they train in; in fact, it's listed as their second martial art. It's not a list that's in alphabetical order, so one would assume Ninjutsu is high on their list (second) for a good reason.

I train in Bujinkan Ninjutsu myself, and I find some of the comments here quite amusing! In Ninjutsu, we basically learn two things: how to take out your opponent/s as quickly as possible (two to three seconds at most), and how to inflict extreme and incapacitating pain or death in those two or three seconds. Is that effective? The Navy Seals seem to think so. As do the FBI, CIA, SAS, and the Israeli Special Forces. But hey - what do they know about conflict?

By anon163674 — On Mar 28, 2011

I studied Ninjutsu for five years intensively. It was my first martial art. I have then gone on to study Jeet Kun Do, Tai Chi and right now I'm studying BJJ.

I would have to disagree that this art is at all effective. First of all, the unarmed skills are pretty much useless. People here are claiming that the skills were designed to take down larger opponents blah blah blah. But the reality every martial art says that about their techniques. And yes, against a Thai boxer or BJJ practitioner they are at a severe disadvantage.

The reason this is so is largely due to the training methods of these dojos.

Most Dojos that train the way Hatsumi wants people to train, do not train in a live and effective manner. Therefore the skills are watered down and would not stand up in a high pressure environment. As for their weapons, the movements are large and clumsy and are based off wearing large,,heavy clumsy armor and wielding large heavy weapons. The weapon techniques taught in Jeet Kun Do are much more realistic and applicable in modern day scenarios.

As for learning assassination techniques, etc., etc., there is nothing that was taught then that isn't done 100 times better by special forces in today's world. Grow up and get real.

By anon124682 — On Nov 06, 2010

I take ninjutsu and it is a very effective way for defense against bigger opponents, but yet again it's only if there is no other way out and you have to fight. unlike any other martial artist, they usually like to start fights and get cocky (not all of them but a lot of them do that I've met) and yes I've taken other martial arts myself and I do find ninjutsu to be very effective but it's all on the person and how they go about their style.

By anon80185 — On Apr 26, 2010

I take Ninjutsu,and it seems effective. You don't have to use a lot of energy to take someone out. It is more technique.

By anon61332 — On Jan 19, 2010

There is no top fighting style. I hate saying it, but that's how it is. Any style can beat any style. I have been trained in ninjitsu, northern kung fu (by a shaolin monk no less, De Ru), Northern praying mantis kung fu, MMA, gracie jiu jutsu and taught new recruits for the marines, so I know a little about different styles. Anyone can be beat, it's part of being human. Sorry to bust everyone's bubble.

By anon50634 — On Oct 30, 2009

anyone know any good places for learning ninjitsu? much appreciated if so

By anon50616 — On Oct 30, 2009

All martial arts are just tools. MMA is a wonderful tool for fighting one guy in a cage with rules. Ninjitsu is a wonderful tool if you need to end a fight quickly with minimum damage to yourself using the best means possible to end your opponent's aggression. There are a lot of wonderful arts out their and you need to choose the tool you want use but realize that not every tool is designed to be the best at every job. Try driving a nail with a screwdriver. --Warlord

By anon42145 — On Aug 19, 2009

All the people who say Ninja were mere assassins are grossly incorrect.

In reality, the Ninja that took on missions for a price (AKA mercenaries) were usually information warfare specialists. A mere 5 percent of their missions at most were assassinations, while the other 95 percent of their missions were stealing/planting/modifying information, sabotage, and similar tasks. A better description for ninja would be "spy," not assassin.

Also, many Ninja weren't actually mercenaries. In fact, "Ninjutsu" was created by Samurai that had adapted other martial arts (such as Kendo, Aikido, Karate, and Wushu) to a form that was more suitable for fighting against other Samurai. This is why Ninjutsu focuses heavily on how to fight against armored opponents and the Katana.

As for the martial art itself. There are many knock-offs, but the real style is quite capable of defeating anyone in a real fight (not a ring match), provided that the practitioner is more skilled than his/her opponent. The reason why it's so effective is because a skilled practitioner can use anything as a weapon with incredible effectiveness, allowing them to take down even the most powerful of opponents. Plus, Ninjutsu focuses heavily on "cheating" (or, more realistically, surviving by any means necessary). However, weapons are illegal in most tournaments, as is cheating, so Ninjutsu will never be truly effective in ring fighting, such as MMA tournaments.

To comment #13: You're incorrect. The Grandmaster of the Bujinkan Dojo (Masaki Hatsumi; his dojo is by far the most legitimate), is quite open about the art. He has public demonstrations, and anyone can join provided they abide by the rules.

Despite the misconceptions about Ninja being killers, Hatsumi teaches quite a bit of compassion, and he's also the first (and possibly only) Grandmaster of a Japanese dojo to allow non-Japanese to progress beyond black belt.

As a bit of a side note: We (that is, the people I've met within the Bujinkan Dojo and myself) love to talk about our art, even in public. The truth is, no one cares. :P As long as we don't abuse our art, or teach to those that will abuse it and not abide by the rules, there is nothing wrong about being public with the art.

Last, comment #9: I don't feel entirely comfortable listing the websites or contact information of the various teachers in different states, as I consider such information to be somewhat private, and I don't think it's my right to make that information very public. However, if you're interested in learning Ninjutsu, do a little research. Make sure the dojo you find is associated with the Bujinkan dojo and Hatsumi, and chances are, you've found a good dojo =)

By anon38853 — On Jul 28, 2009

I can assure you that after 23 years in Navy Special Warfare, that ninjitsu is not recommended nor required. I suppose it couldn't hurt, but it's definitely not a requirement.

By anon32773 — On May 26, 2009

If any of you were real ninjas you wouldn't have anything to say on the subject, especially to the mindless people we live around in a socialistic society. There's a reason why you don't hear much about ninjitsu. It's because if you are a ninja & you talk about it, you could be killed for opening your mouth. (the art of the assassin)

By anon29675 — On Apr 06, 2009

i have a 2nd degree black belt in ninjitsu and i also have had to study the tech. used in the old day. as far a being able to fly, no they don't fly but they did develop ways to use capes to 'glide from certain heights'. turn in to animals?? no, they used to carry animals with them to cause confusion. they did develop strength that was extra ordinary from years of training.

people need to consider that in the early centuries in japan superstition and fear was the main weapon that was used to cause fear and momentary shock in the enemy. people in feudal japan were very easily fooled into believing that anything could be paranormal.

but yes ninjas were used by war lords to spy and assassinate rival leaders.


By anon19336 — On Oct 10, 2008

The Ninja, or practitioners of Ninjitsu, were merely just trained assassin. They applied their practical scientific, technological, and improvisational skills to their craft. Sure there were various "clans", or networks, but they just worked for the local Samurai warlord (Shogun or Daimyo), or the highest bidder. There was no "code of honor", all they did was do what they were paid to do, whether it be spy, steel, or assassinate a rival warlord. So essentially the Ninja were just some of the worlds best assassins for hire. As for you "modern" Ninja, you are in belief to a popular misconception. There was nothing mystical about the Ninja, though it seemed so to the people of the feudal rule of the Shogunate in Japan. Martial Artist: Chris, USA

By anon18865 — On Sep 30, 2008

Ninjutsu is interesting, but anyone who thinks it is the ultimate hasn't done MMA, as a Ninja Black belt and MMA fighter, I quickly learned of ninjas limitations - I walked into MMA as a Black belt ninja and was Intermediate compared to others, the fact is the 'lethal' techniques are much harder to do in a real fight than you think.

Do Ninja to learn weapons, learn a few flashy moves and have fun, but honestly don't expect to be a top fighter because you train ninjutsu. Don't take my word for it, try ninjutsu out then train in mma the next day.

By anon12243 — On May 02, 2008

I have a question - how is one to go about learning the art of ninjitsu - I have no fighting background or experience except when I was very young, but I am changing my way of life. Instead of being lazy and passive and womanly, I want to become active and use my God given body and train it. Would like to learn how to fight and defend myself but with guidance on how to control anger and be patient. Ninjitsu seems to be very attractive to me. Can this be studied under a regular teacher or do you need to seek out someone connected to a chain of trainers to learn? Thanks for help

By anon12006 — On Apr 28, 2008

There is no "best way" to fight. All ways are equal, it just depends on the individual.

By anon11148 — On Apr 09, 2008

guys i have been taught ninjitsu...and have been doing it for 10 years now. ninjitsu isn't the most tough of the tough. tho it has the potentail. ninjitsu has an honor code that im not allowed to mention. ninjitsu utilizes the opponent and basically he destroys himself. he studies the enemy and finds flaws. it was made by poor commoners to defend themselves against crimesters. it was meant to make it possible to take down the strongest, biggest, baddest opponent in seconds and with less than 5 to 4 punches or kicks. they strike pressure points and disable the enemy before killing or running. fighting is a last resort in ninjitsu....

ninjitsu is not associated with the navy seals or spies....those people would be dead in an instant in a fight. and the thai boxer....lol come on guys.....yes we could win in a fair fight. and no we don't do whatever it takes to win in a battle. we only are desperate to get away, only cornered or no other choice do we fight then kill. ninjitsu can also be used for offense such as assassinating someone but we follow the honor code.

By anon8694 — On Feb 19, 2008

dude who ever said a Thai boxer would win against a ninja is totally wrong, I mean the point of the "ninja" wouldn't be just kill the Thai boxer, it would be to study him and his technique while using defensive or evasive moves and then use what he gathered to defeat him the fastest way. If you could read it was rumored that "ninjas" were ruthless killers and in ninjitsu they have a code of honor and it isn't just a way of surviving by doing whatever it takes.

By anon3456 — On Aug 30, 2007

since ninjitsu was basically a way of surviving by doing whatever it takes, it could be considered the most effective art but it would not necessarily beat other arts in a straight fight. For example a "ninja" vs. a Thai boxer. The boxer would probably win. The point of the ninja would be to kill the boxer before the match or just not be there in the first place. Secondly we have the equivalent of ninja today. Certain military special forces groups do the exact thing ninjas did. They infiltrate enemy lines, gather intel and or eliminate targets. Special forces and intelligence operatives are the modern ninja. On the cutting edge using whatever it takes to get the job done.

By anon2747 — On Jul 23, 2007

i have been studying up on it and i have come to the conclusion that it indeed is. it is a art that is unknown to most but non the less an art that can kill i seconds. ninjutsu i actually recommended by the navy seals if you want to join there elite squad.

By anon2581 — On Jul 17, 2007

is ninjitsu the most effective fighting art?

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