Growing up in the 90s, I was raised with the notion that ninja were teenage turtles, silent assassins or similar to the characters in Naruto. As much as we’d like to believe these were the reality, according to an interesting article from Listverse, the ninja that actually roamed the streets and castles as spies and assassins were humans who didn’t always dress in black (apparently they wore dark blue), and they didn’t regularly use the famous weapons we know so well.
So, if they weren’t using shuriken and long swords all of the time, what did they use? Researchers have been investigating the ancient style for decades and have uncovered some pretty amazing and ingenious items that you would never even dream of. There are probably thousands of ninja tools and techniques out there, but we’ll just focus on the few that Listverse brought into the open.
1. Nekome (Cat eyes)
Have you ever seen cats’ eyes glowing in the dark night or their pupils shrinking to slivers in the daytime? The ninja definitely did. In fact, they examined cat eyes so closely that they were trained to be able to tell the time of day, within one hour, based on the size of a cat’s pupil, since they change in reaction to the daylight. Now, this leads me to wonder how well this would work in a rainstorm, but I guess the ninja probably had some correction for that. While this isn’t really a tool they would carry around with them (we hope), assuming the stray cat situation in old-time Japan was anything like it is today, the ninja were never in need of a pair of feline lenses.
2. Nekote (Cat hands)
Staying with the cat theme, we move on to nekote. Used exclusively by female ninja, known as kunoichi, this was a metal or bamboo claw-like weapon, which could be attached to the fingers via thimble-like pieces or with a band around the hand. This could very well be the origin of the term “cat fight.”
3. Kanzashi (Hairpin)
Kunoichi were known for their preference of lightweight and extra-hidden weapons, like the nekote and hairpins. We’re not talking about the hairpins you can use to pick locks (although, I’m sure these could do that too), but instead, kanzashi — long, ornamental hairpins, which could be sharpened and easily disguised and carried in your hair. The pins could be used to attack vital points or dipped in poison to deliver a fatal prick.
4. Saoto hikigane (Ear trumpet)
This one looks pretty uncool, I have to say, but again, I grew up in the age of wiretapping and hidden recorders. While ninja did do some fighting, a lot of their responsibility was to stealthily get top-secret information from their enemies. But without modern day technology, how did they do it? With an ear trumpet, of course! The shape of the device amplifies sound, so it can be used on its own or up against a wall to hear the conversation on the other side. Although, a lot of Japanese doors were made of paper, so I can’t imagine it would really have been that hard to eavesdrop.
5. Yatate (Brush and ink case)
Once vital information was obtained with the saoto hikigane, the ninja had to record it somehow in order to inform their bosses. It sounds kind of lame, but ninja apparently often carried a pencil-box like container for their calligraphy brush and ink— but of course, they may have carried small knives and bottles of poison in there too, for good measure.
6. Donohi (Anywhere heater)
Stakeouts in cold weather are no fun, especially without kairo, the disposable heat packs we use today. Instead, of kairo, ninja used a donohi. This device was pretty simple, but very effective. They would put a flammable material (gunpowder, alcohol, etc) in a piece of bamboo, copper or iron cylinder and light it. The design allowed it to heat up, but the fire could last for hours or even days. I know kairo now last for 24 hours, but they sure don’t last for days!
7. Mizu-gumo (Water spider)
Could ninja walk on water? Researchers can’t really prove it, but they think this tool, mizu-gumo (literally, water spider), which consisted of four curved wooden or inflated animal hide pieces strung together with a fifth piece in the middle, may have been used for water-walking. Perhaps they couldn’t use them to walk over deep moats surrounding castles, but they were probably useful in swampy areas.
Ninja may have used cat eyes and cat hands, but even they weren’t able to harness the stealthiness of felines. As smooth as ninja were, cracking twigs, crunchy snow or even the mere silence of the insects when a human comes near, could give the ninja away. To prepare for this, they sometimes carried a cage of crickets and secret poisons that either made the insects chirp, in order to cover-up the sound of movement, or be silent when need be. Pretty creative! (I know some modern-day people who would like that secret potion to shut crickets up on summer nights.)
What would you do if you were a ninja about to be captured by the enemy? How about throwing eggshell bombs at them? (Aka, Edo era pepper spray.) The trick is to poke a hole in an egg, drain the contents, and then refill it with iron filings, salt, pepper or anything else that would cause irritation to the eyes or nose. Since eggshells are easy to break, throwing them at your opponent would quickly release the blinding substance. I’m interested to know how they transported their egg bombs without breaking them along the way…
10. Goshiki-mai (Five-colored rice)
Japanese people love them some rice, ninja included. To the ninja though, rice was more than just breakfast, lunch and dinner; it was used for a code system. Rice could be painted different colors and arranged in certain combinations or amounts to convey secret messages. When left on the side of the road, a fellow clansman would see the sign and understand the message, but the average Joe would just see some rice. Pretty creative unless someone ate the rice!
Harnessing the power of nature, getting creative with everyday items and using what would probably have been some state-of-the art technology for the time, ninja were actually way cooler than I was raised to believe, and that’s saying a lot. Technology may have made most of these tools obsolete, but some could easily still be used today.