This post contains affiliate links.
The debate over the origins of Samurai and Ninja is a never-ending one, but it’s definitely not something you’ll find in any academic text.
It’s more likely to be found on forums and comment sections across the internet where people seem determined to prove whether or not these warriors were related before we had concrete evidence from either side.
It’s an interesting question to ponder, but ultimately some things cannot be solved with Google searches alone.
Who came first Samurai or Ninja?
We don’t know.
It’s possible that Samurai are thousands of years old and evolved out of the Japanese population naturally. It could be a recent invention from the Edo period when Japan wanted to distinguish its warrior class from China or Korea (who they usually considered beneath them).
And Ninja may have been invented around the same time or even a bit later when the Samurai needed someone to handle the dirty work.
The answer is that we don’t know for sure.
So, it’s better to look at what most historians suggest and leave the debate to those who want to believe their favorite warrior was first.
This article will explore both sides of this ongoing debate to provide insight into what most scholars believe (or at least think they know) about their history and origin stories.
We’re going to start by looking at the story behind Samurai first since it seems like many people assume they came first and then move on to Ninja.
The origins of Samurai.
To fully understand the origins of Samurai (or, to be more precise, bushi), you need to go back thousands of years before their time into the Age of the Gods in Japanese mythological history.
In this era, there were three great gods named Izanagi and Izanami who created the islands of Japan.
They also created the islands’ gods like Susano-o and his sister Amaterasu. After that, these deities married and had many children, including Take-Mikazuchi (the creator god of Japan) and other lesser gods.
These deities are still revered in Shinto today, but we won’t be covering that part in this article.
Then there came an era called the Age of Yomi (sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages) when immortality was lost, and many people died.
The first Samurai was created during this time as gods descended from heaven with their divine weapons to create human beings.
Each god would take a turn creating humans in pairs, but the children that were born from these matings would be either male or female with no resemblance to their godly parent.
The first example of a Samurai God was Take-Mikazuchi, who gave birth to three children without the help of any other deity.
These deities soon stopped having children, and the humans they had created began to die off. This was the start of a new era called the Age of Man, and this is where historical accounts begin to resemble samurai history.
Many different people claim to be descendants of gods from heaven (Izanagi and Izanami). Still, the most famous group are the people descended from Take-Mikazuchi.
The people who laid claim to this ancestry were the Ogasawara clan, who began a campaign of conquest to build a Japanese nation-state.
After defeating many different clans, Ieyasu Tokugawa took control of Japan and established the Tokugawa shogunate.
His descendants continued to rule Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which marked the end of a long period known as Sengoku jidai (the Warring States Period).
The age in Japanese mythological history where Ninja originates is known as Nanboku-Cho or, more commonly, the Nanboku-Cho period.
It was a time of civil war that began in 1336 and continued until the late 16th century. People can have become ninjas during this time, but the term itself didn’t exist until much later.
The first mention of Ninja did not come until 1714 in a book called “Ninpiden,” but it wasn’t until 1755 that the term became widely used.
The first person to popularize ninjutsu was a manual called “Shinobi no jutsu” written by Hattori Hanzo, who established his own ninja school in the same year.
He received this knowledge from Natori Masazumi, who learned it from Hattori Hanzo’s father.
However, it is possible that the terms Ninja and ninjutsu existed even earlier than 1755 since there are a few instances of the word “shinobi” being used to describe people serving under warlord Uesugi Kenshin during the mid-1500s.
At this point in history, ninjutsu had not been developed to a high degree, so there is no way the people serving under Kenshin could have mastered all of its techniques.
Another possibility for earlier usage is that it was used in a generic sense, referring to ninja spies, and then eventually narrowed it down to refer specifically to ninjutsu as a fighting style.
The word “ninjutsu” itself means “art of the ninja,” and it is also possible that Hattori Hanzo’s father used the term in a generic sense since his son was not yet well known.
The definition of what makes someone a ninja has changed quite significantly throughout its history.
Still, even before ninjutsu was developed, the term had already started being used to describe people who concealed themselves to achieve their goals.
In fact, a clan claims to be descended from Take-Mikazuchi, and one of these descendants was called Yamatotakeru, whose existence dates back to the early 12th century.
This man supposedly established the Nakamura clan, whose descendants would evolve into ninjas.
For instance, some examples of people might be seen as modern-day ninjas employed by Oda Nobunaga at the end of the 16th century.
However, their role was very different from how the Ninja serves Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi in warlord folklore and historical accounts.
The Samurai of the Sengoku period was similar to Ninja; many people served under warlords such as Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu.
However, their role was very different. Samurai had a code known as bushido which meant “the way (do) of (warriors),” or more accurately, the way of the warrior.
This consisted of various teachings, including martial arts, self-discipline, and honor.
Another critical aspect was loyalty to one’s lord or master, which is the central theme found in the historical novel that inspired John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” movie.
The Samurai served as their lord’s protectors, which meant they would carry out any order he gave them.
This meant that they were frequently sent out on missions and usually had no idea of what to expect or whether they would even survive the encounter.
To be a samurai was to live with death at one’s side since it could come at any time.
How long ago was the term “Ninja” first used?
The term “NINJA” was first used in 1714 during the feudal era of Japan.
Is it possible for a person to be a ninja without knowing ninjutsu?
Not impossible, but it is unlikely.
Why is there so much confusion with regards to the identity of Ninja?
Historians do not know where they came from, who their leaders were, or how many there were. The truth remains that we don’t even know if they really existed as a unique group.
What kind of people served as Ninja?
They were basically peasant farmers who worked for the rich and powerful families in Japan’s feudal society. And when wars broke out, they became either pillagers or soldiers fighting on behalf of their masters.
Many historians feel that the first real ninjas were born during the late Muromachi period and appeared in small numbers as spies who gathered intelligence from the enemy. These were most often used by the so-called “daimyo” [feudal lords] and warlords of that era who needed to know what was happening behind enemy lines.
When did Samurai start serving Nobunaga and Hideyoshi (the 1600s)?
Samurai started serving Nobunaga and Hideyoshi in the 1560s.
When did the Fuma Clan first appear?
The Fuma Clan appeared in 1439 during the Muromachi period.
What year did the “Ninja” disappear from history (end of the Sengoku period)?
The “Ninja” disappeared from history around 1600 A.D. or roughly 150 years after they first appeared in print.
When did Ninjas become popularized?
The popularity of the Ninja exploded during the 1960s and 1970s. This was mainly due to movies and video games, both of which contributed to this phenomenon.
What is a “Ninjutsu”?
Ninjutsu means “Techniques (know-how) of the NINJA.” It is also known as “Nanban-Gijutsu” (Southern barbarian [i.e., foreign] techniques).
Was Ieyasu well off enough to have Ninja serve him?
No. Ieyasu was not as wealthy or influential as Hideyoshi, so he did not have men like the Ninja serving him.
How can you tell if a person is a “Ninja” or just an ordinary soldier?
An ordinary soldier will wear armor and carry a sword (Katana).
What was the difference between a ninja and a samurai?
A samurai was a member of the armed forces while a ninja was not.
Why were Samurai expected to be loyal to their lord?
Each daimyo had his own set of laws, and a samurai’s loyalty to him would be proven by him following those laws.
What was the name given to Ieyasu by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which means “one who serves loyally”?
His nickname was “Kinoshita,” meaning “very trustworthy.”
Aren’t their examples of Samurai who served Nobunaga and Hideyoshi without being ninjas?
Most men who served Nobunaga and Hideyoshi were either samurai or peasant farmers who had been conscripted into service. They were not Ninja, which is why many historians do not feel that their numbers should be included with the total number of Ninja to have ever existed in Japan’s history.
What was bushido, and how did it differ from ninjutsu?
Bushido was the way of life for Samurai in the Edo period. [i.e., after 1600]. Ninjutsu is a specific type of skill, a job description if you will.
What’s another name for Ninja?
Another name for Ninja is “shinobi-mono” (that which dwells in the shadows).
Why did they call ninjas “shinobi-mono”?
The reason why they call ninja shinobi comes from the word Tokugawa which means to hide. So when people found out that the Ninja was hiding, they thought of them as a man of darkness.