Top 10 Ninjas That Performed Legendary Deeds

Tags: #Japan ,   #History ,   #Ninja ,   #warriors

Dan N. Scarborough

Dan N. Scarborough

Last updated:  2023-05-16 06:00:09

People worldwide are fascinated by the silent, cunning spies and killers of Japan's Sengoku era. Though so much about them has been glorified and idealized, it's important to remember that ninjas existed. Yet, ninjas are notoriously secretive; therefore, there aren't numerous official records about them, and many are shrouded in myth and legend. Even though this is the top ten list of "real life" ninjas, it is highly disputed whether or not any of them were genuinely ninjas. In other cases, the question is whether they even existed.

10. Kido Yazaemon

This ninja was a rifle and explosives expert who attempted to kill Oda

Iga ninja Kido Yazaemon was born in or around 1539. He seemed to be an expert with the Tanegashima arquebus, a particular matchlock weapon. Yazaemon might have been a specialist with explosives and versed in teppo-Jutsu, a subset of Katon-no Jutsu or fire techniques, if the arquebus was his weapon of choice. Contrary to common belief, guns like the arquebus were the ninja's preferred weapon, frequently used in their assassination attempts.

But Yazaemon's real claim to fame was his failed attempt to kill Oda Nobunaga in 1579. Even though this endeavor was unsuccessful, it was significant enough to be mentioned in the Iranki, a historical account of the Iga ninjas. Yazaemon and two other ninjas fired at Nobunaga as part of the operation. Yet, instead of killing Nobunaga, they ended up killing seven of his allies.

9. Kirigakure Saizo

The Sanada Ten Braves lieutenant infamously tried to kill Taiko

The fictional ninja Kirigakure Saizo, second-in-command of the Sanada Ten Braves under adversary and buddy Sarutobi Sasuke, is most famously based on the real Kirigakure Saizo. Regarding the historical Kirigakure, it is said that an Iga ninja by the name of "Kirigakure Saizo" (perhaps an alias for another person by the name of Kirigakure Shikaemon) once attempted to kill Toyotomi Hideyoshi by driving a through the floor beneath him.

Kirigakure's life was spared when the attempt was unsuccessful on the condition that he swear allegiance to the Toyotomi clan. In reality, some accounts contend that Saizo was only a "careless ninja" who was caught eavesdropping on Hideyoshi. However, he foiled a genuine murder attempt on Hideyoshi by double agent Yusuke Takiguchi due to being discovered. Because of this, his life was spared under the condition that he pledged allegiance to Hideyoshi.

8. Tomo Sukesada

He became famous after the infiltration of Kaminogou Castle

The founder of the Tomo Ryu tradition and a Koga jonin (master ninja) is Tomo Sukesada. Following the Imagawa clan's defeat at the Battle of Okehazama two years earlier, Tokugawa Ieyasu, an agent of Oda Nobunaga, was sweeping up the remnants of the Imagawa clan in 1562. The Imagawa clan, led by Imagawa general Udono Nagamochi, had taken refuge at Kaminogou castle, positioned in a strategically advantageous area above a precipice.

Ieyasu knew that taking the castle would be challenging, especially because the Imagawa had kidnapped some members of his family. To do this, Ieyasu employed 80 Koga ninjas under the command of Sukesada to break into the Imagawa fortress. Sukesada and his 80 warriors infiltrated the castle with Hattori Hanzo's help, lit its towers on fire, and massacred 200 of the garrison, including the general. The "Mikawa Go Fudoki" provides a detailed account of this incident.

7. Fujibayashi Nagato

One of the Iga Clan leaders left an invaluable document about ninjas

Along with Momochi Sandayu and Hattori Hanzo, Fujibayashi Nagato is said to have been one of the three greatest jonin of the Iga. He and Momochi Sandayu shared leadership of the Iga ninjas. However, nothing else about him is known. The Tensho Iga War, an apocalyptic invasion of the Iga province by Oda Nobunaga in 1581, completely destroyed the Iga and Koga ninja clans. Nagato died during the event, and the survivors joined Tokugawa Ieyasu's army.

Despite how little we know about his life, Nagato left a significant legacy: His descendants would eventually compile the ninjutsu knowledge he provided to create the Bansenshukai. The Bansenshukai is a multi-volume compilation of the "secrets" and techniques of the ninja as written by the Fujibayashi clan. Thus, much of the information about ninjas today comes from it.

6. Mochizuki Chiyome

An honorable ninja lady had a whole army of spy girls

Perhaps the most well-known kunoichi (female ninja) of all is Mochizuki Chiyome. She was a noblewoman who married the samurai warlord Mochizuki Nobumasa. Rumor has it that she was a member of the Koga ninja clan in the past. Chiyome was left in the custody of her husband's uncle, renowned daimyo Takeda Shingen, during a period in the 16th century when her husband was abroad at war. She was then given the task by Shingen to approach ladies and teach them to become part of a clandestine network of female espionage agents.

Chiyome established her headquarters in the Shinshu region's Nazu hamlet and enlisted up to 300 young girls—most orphans, former prostitutes, and war victims. The majority of the populace thought Chiyome was running an unauthorized orphanage for abused girls. Yet, she was preparing them to join her intricate spy network. Chiyome's kunoichi network served Shingen for years until his mysterious death in 1573. They were trained to use disguises like Miko (Shinto shrine priestess), prostitutes, or geisha for reasons of espionage or assassination.

5. Ishikawa Goemon

Japanese Robin Hood met his bitter end in a horrific way

No list of real-life ninjas would ever be complete without Ishikawa Goemon, even though neither the Iga nor the Koga would acknowledge him as one of them. Ishikawa Goemon, Japan's Robin Hood, was born in 1558. Legend has it that Goemon was a nukenin (runaway ninja) after beginning as a genin (ninja apprentice) of the Iga under Sandayu Mochizuki. However, no historical evidence supports this.

In Kansai, he rose to prominence as a gang leader who regularly plundered wealthy merchants, clergy, and feudal lords before splitting the loot with the oppressed peasants. He is said to have been apprehended during a botched murder attempt on Toyotomi Hideyoshi and publicly burned alive in 1594. Although there are contradictory reports about whether or not his son survived, legend has it that he held his small son over his head while being cooked.

4. Momochi Sandayu

An Iga Clan founder changed homes when going got tough

According to the preceding paragraph, Momochi Sandayu purportedly taught Ishikawa Goemon before he became a runaway raider. One of the Iga Ryu Ninjutsu's founders, Momochi Sandayu, is among the three finest Iga jonin, along with Hattori Hanzo and Fujibayashi Nagato. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Momchi Tanabe Yasumitsu was Sandayu's valid name. According to some reports, Sandayu and Fujibayashi Nagato were indeed the same people.

Whatever Momochi's true identity, he was said to have perished in 1581 during the Tensho Iga War. It happened when Oda Nobunaga attacked the Iga province and nearly wiped off all of the Iga and Koga ninjas. One of Sandayu's methods of operation was keeping three different homes, each with a different wife and family. When things were challenging, he would relocate to another of his homes and become a new persona.

3. Fuma Kotaro

Fuma Clan originator was truly a master of deception

The Fuma clan stands out among other ninja groups because it evolved apart from the Iga and Koga clans while working for the Hojo clan in Odawara. The fifth-generation chief and most well-known clan member was Jonin Fuma Kotaro. At that time, the Fuma was a group of 200 Rappa (battle disruptors) that served the Hojo as brigands, pirates, and robbers. Katsuyori, the son of Takeda Shingen, assaulted the Hojo at Odawara Castle in 1580.

During the night, Kotaro and his men covertly infiltrated the Takeda camp. Consequently, they caused so much disruption and chaos that the Takeda men started killing each other in confusion. In 1590, the Hojo were defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with the Fuma reduced to common bandits. A widespread (though most likely false) story is that in 1596, Kotaro assassinated Hattori Hanzo but was then betrayed by former Takeda ninja Kosaka Jinnai. Finally, he was beheaded by the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603.

2. Kato Danzo

Danzo made people believe in magical ninja techniques

Kato Danzo was the ninja who, in many ways, made people believe that ninjas had magical abilities. Danzo was a magician who many people mistakenly thought was a sorcerer. His feats included flying, devouring a bull in front of crowds, and making seeds instantly grow and bloom. These feats earned him the moniker Tobi Kato (flying Kato). Despite the lack of evidence, researchers today assume he was a master of hypnosis.

In any case, Uesugi Kenshin ultimately learned about Kato's reputation and decided to put the ninja to the test. He challenged Danzo to break into the castle of Naoe Kanetsugu, one of his vassals, and seize a valuable naginata. Danzo not only managed to get inside the tightly guarded palace and steal the sword but to kidnap a servant girl. Ultimately, Danzo switched to Takeda Shingen, a competitor of Kenshin. Still, this decision was expensive because Shingen had him assassinated after learning that he was a double agent. In 1569, Danzo was beheaded.

1. Hattori Hanzo

The most famous ninja in the entire history

Among all ninjas, Hattori Hanzo is arguably the most well-known. This legendary warrior was a samurai and vassal in Tokugawa Ieyasu's service, playing a significant role in Ieyasu's rise to power as the shogun and supreme ruler of all of Japan. His most famous deed occurred in 1582 when one of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, betrayed Oda Nobunaga. This forced Tokugawa Ieyasu into a situation where he was close to Mitsuhide and in grave danger. To accompany Ieyasu to safety, Hanzo gathered his fellow Iga ninjas and their erstwhile adversaries, the Koga clan.

Hanzo was an expert spear fighter and strategist who devoted his entire life to the Tokugawas. Under his direction, the Iga ninjas evolved into the Tokugawa shogunate's clandestine organization known as Oniwabanshu. They served as the shogunate's palace guard at Edo castle. Following Hanzo's death in 1596, his successor adopted the moniker "Hattori Hanzo" for himself. This practice became customary among Iga commanders and fueled the misconception that Hattori Hanzo was invincible.

Ninjas had a fearsome reputation as silent assassins who could do unbelievable feats of athleticism and mental fortitude. The exploits of the most prominent ninjas are legendary, bordering on fantasy. However, although they existed, their feats were mainly exaggerated, and they were romanticized. Nevertheless, real-life ninjas were greatly appreciated as valuable assets, thanks to their espionage skills and various ways to turn the tides of battle in the opposite direction.

What are your favorite historical ninjas? Which ninjas would you add to the list?

Cover photo: Midjourney creation



Add new Comment

Characters 0 of 1000

Thank you for comment

Similar Articles

Latest Articles

Top 5 Articles

Trending Articles

Sponsor Ads