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While both originated in Japan, there’s a worldwide interest and curiosity in ninjas and samurai. Both are deadly warrior clans but are often described as being as different as light and dark, as the ongoing mystery continues between ninja vs samurai.
Even though ninjas and samurai are described as unique, original classes of warriors, apart from one another, their origins can be traced back to the story of Prince Yamato of Japan. He killed two enemies while disguised as a woman, and both groups attribute their warrior ways to the actions of this Prince.
If you are one of the millions of people around the globe interested in learning more about both ninjas and samurai, keep reading. Here you can learn about some striking differences, along with some factors that make them more alike than many ever realized.
Before diving into the differences or similarities of ninjas vs. samurais, it is important to have a better understanding of who the ninja and samurai were and the role they played in Japanese history.
In Japan, ninjas were known as “shinobi.” They were essentially the equivalent of the secret agent in the country. Most ninjas were involved in sabotage, espionage, assassination, and infiltration.
It’s also important to note, most ninja were from lower-class often poverty-stricken areas. This is because these are the individuals who were more willing to do nefarious acts for a generous payday.
While the samurai adhered strictly to the principles they followed, ninjas were unique. They used an array of covert methods to achieve their end goal. However, similar to the samurai, ninjas were employed by very powerful clans to do their dirty work.
While there’s not a lot known for sure about ninjas, what most do know about them today is a far cry from what is considered historically accurate. Today, most people have developed their idea of the ninja based on pop culture and movies, such as “American Ninja.”
The samurai, which were called “buke” or “bushi” in Japanese were considered Japan’s military nobility. These warriors lived during a time when Japan’s Emperor was nothing more than a ceremonial figure and the country was being ruled by a military general, called a shotgun.
The shotgun ruled several powerful clans, which were called daimyo. Each of the clans controlled a small part of the country and hired samurai warriors to serve as guards.
Not only were the samurai fierce warriors, but they followed strict codes of combat and honor. During the Edo Period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868 when there was peace, the samurai lost their military function and begin to expand their roles as administrators, bureaucrats, and courtiers.
Eventually, the samurai class was abolished in the Meiji Reforms that occurred in the 19th century. This is after they enjoyed several centuries of influence and power.
The appearance of the ninjas vs. samurai is one of the most distinguishable differences worth noting.
While the portrayal of ninja’s today makes it seem as though they were always involved in some action-packed event or activity, history has revealed somewhat of a different (and to some disappointing) truth. Being a ninja was more about gathering information, rather than assassinating people under the cloak of darkness.
Rather than being dressed in all black, most ninjas would be dressed inconspicuously, as a priest or farmer. This allowed them to act as scouts and observe what the enemy was doing without being seen. If you think about it, someone running around in all-black would be rather conspicuous.
The first-ever ninja portrayed all in black is attributed to painter Hokusai. Some believe this painting was a portrayal of the garb worn by stagehands in the Japanese theater. These individuals wore dark colors so they could not be seen while on set.
The samurai, unlike the ninja, were not trying to blend in. Instead, they appeared imposing and awesome. They were covered in head to toe armor, which served a functional and ceremonial purpose.
During the Edo Period, when the samurai were no longer having to charge into battle, some of the armor became exaggerated. The exaggerations in some cases were so severe that wearing it into battle would have been ridiculous.
The ninja and samurai had very different philosophies that ruled their lives. These are some of the most important differentiation between the two warriors.
The ninjas were quite different in their philosophies. Their standards weren’t as focused on values as the samurai. Instead, ninjas were taught to get the job done – by any means necessary.
There are three main texts where most of the knowledge about ninjas have been found. These include the Ninpiden from 1655, the Bansenshukai from 1675, and the Shoninki from 1681. These texts include information about the proper way to disguise oneself, how to gather information and break into homes, how to create false trails, and observations on emotions and human nature.
Bushido is the rules that governed the lives of the samurai. Put simply, this is the Japanese version of chivalry. The code of honor they followed was influenced by Zen Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism and it introduced an element of peace and wisdom to the otherwise violent life of a samurai warrior.
The seven virtues of the Bushido include loyalty, honor, honesty, respect, benevolence, courage, and righteousness. A frugal lifestyle and the mastery of martial arts were also very important to samurai. These warriors followed each of these governing standards in all aspects of their lives.
It was during the mid-Heian Period, which occurred between 794 and 1185 when the concept of the samurai warrior started to emerge. While the concept of the ninja likely existed during the latter part of the Heian Period, the shinobi only appeared in the 15th century. This made them 500 years (or more) younger than the samurai.
The ninja was created because of a demand for fighters who were willing to perform dishonorable deeds. They were also reliant on war and political unrest to remain employed. After Japan’s unification in the 17th century, the ninja faded into obscurity.
However, the samurai were able to adapt to their new role in society. This is one of the main factors that allowed this class of warriors to endure longer.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of these ancient Japanese warriors is the weapons they used for combat purposes.
For the samurai, these warriors mainly relied on their swords. There was an array of swords used, including:
While each of these weapons was commonly used by samurai warriors, the most notorious item was the war fan. The fan, called a tessen, had outer spokes made of pointy iron or were a solid club designed to have the appearance of a fan. The tessen was used for throwing, as a swimming aid, to fend off darts and arrows, and in attacks.
Since the ninja were reliant on unorthodox tactics and ambushing individuals, they used a wider array of weapons. Remember, samurai were all about honor, which meant mostly face-to-face combat.
While the ninja likely used swords, they also used other weapons. Some of the most common include:
While they did not carry all these weapons at the same time, according to the Bansenshukai, which is a ninja text, “a successful ninja is one who uses but one tool for multiple tasks.”
There is an array of significant differences between the ninja and samurai. These were two groups warriors from ancient Japan, but that’s where the similarities end. The samurai fought with honor, while the ninja used often unscrupulous methods to “get the job done,” regardless of what the job was.
While these two groups of people are extremely different, they both play an important role in Japan’s history. Today, the portrayal of samurai and ninja is slightly left-of-center as these concepts have been somewhat commercialized by Hollywood.
Understanding the true origins and standards of these classes of warriors, helps you better understand the country of Japan and its history.