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Ninjas Wore Black Suits

Nobody's really sure how the idea of the ninja always running around black got started. Some argued it was Westerners misinterpreting bunraku; puppet plays with people dressed in black assisting the puppets. A ninja attack would generally be one of the stagehands, dressed in black, leaping forward and offing the target, and people just assumed ninjas wore black.

In fact, ninjas didn't wear black unless the occasion absolutely called for it. More often, they ran around disguised. It was pretty easy to disguise yourself in feudal Japan; all you had to do was wear the right clothes and have the right haircut, and as far as most people were concerned, you WERE that guy. Adding to the fun was the caste system, which was so strict that if you were, say, a peasant, then somebody like, say, a samurai would barely notice you long enough to stab you if you weren't getting in his way.

The ninjas used this to become "invisible"; i.e. the people they were hunting couldn't see them because they were bigots. Remember, this is before photography, as well, so basically a ninja could, for all intents and purposes, "disappear".

Ninjas Were Assassins

Well, they were occasionally. But that wasn't their main job. Ninjas were essentially the all-purpose dirty tricks guys of feudal Japan. If you needed a guy offed, find a ninja. But if you needed your rival's sake brewery sabotaged or his house burned to the ground or to figure out what was going on in your enemy's household, or to incite his vassals into having a good, old fashioned ikki (Japanese for peasant riot)? You also got a ninja. In fact, the best word to describe the ninja is less "assassin" and more along the lines of "spy" or "terrorist". He was the one you got to scare the crap out of the guy you hated.

In fact, it's pretty hard to prove ninjas ever assassinated anybody because they're just so slippery. Most of the records we have of ninja assassinations are actually ninja who messed up and either got caught and killed, or ran away. The most records of dastardly deeds on the part of ninjas that we have are actually arsons they committed. Since their entire style of architecture centered around wood and paper, the Japanese were deathly afraid of fire. This pretty much cemented the ninja's reputation as a scary guy to tangle with.

Ninjas Only Snuck Around at Night

Ninjas didn't actually do this all that much, or at least not the way people are thinking. Ninjas actually had as much to do during the day as the rest of us, so they spent a lot of their time outside, in the sunshine, standing right next to you with a spike ready to stab into your kidney if you annoyed them.

This is where those disguises we talked about came into play. Properly disguised, a ninja could walk around the province collecting information, figuring out which house he wanted to burn down, which wife he wanted to mack on under a samurai's nose, stuff like that. So they were sneaking around, but it was more "nobody knows who I am"-type sneaking around, not "nobody can see me because I blend in with the night"-type sneaking around.

Ninjas Wielded Exotic Weapons

Ninjas have a reputation for using lots of fancy weapons: blowguns, sickles with chains and heavy weights called kusigara, throwing stars... all sorts of fun death-dealing toys. The truth is actually a lot scarier. Yeah, the ninja had plenty of fancy weapons. But that didn't mean he wouldn't just kill you with a rock if that happened to be easier.

Ninjas were masters of death improv and turning innocuous items into really scary nightmare inducing engines of death. Take the ninja's signature weapon, the shuriken.

The shuriken weren't custom weapons; they were usually whatever flat metal was handy to sharpen, like coins, or was already sharp, like nails. They weren't designed to kill directly, either; they were supposed to be distractions or handy tools. For example; soak a cloth in poison, wrap it around the shuriken, and light it on fire. Boom, flying poison smoke cloud. Or they'd leave them in feces to rust, and then plant them in the ground as foot spikes. Then you got tetanus, which was incurable at the time and also still a really horrible way to die.

But they didn't need them. A ninja attempting an assassination dressed as a peasant could just use the sickle he happened to be holding, or have a rifle handy (yep, ninjas used guns). In short, the entire idea of the ninja wasn't using fancy weapons, it was making sure the other guy was dead.

Ninjas Had Mystical Powers

Most ideas people had of ninjas fading through walls and catching swords in their bare hands are either exaggerations from historical sources, or outright lies spread by the ninja. Remember, they wanted people as scared of them as humanly possible: it made their jobs a LOT easier if just the mention of their names had people soaking their underpants in fear.
Also remember that this is the fifteenth century. People in general were a lot more gullible and ignorant than they are now, and even the smartest samurai was no exception. He was a lot more likely to assume the samurai had demons at his command instead of thinking "Hey, this douchebag is throwing around smoke bombs! Somebody get me a pail of water!"

Partially thanks to their PR department and partially thanks to people misinterpreting the stories they heard on the road, the ninja enjoyed their reputation as really scary hombres and sometimes designed their techniques to cater to it. For example, if a samurai was distracted, a quick throw of a blade that he doesn't see would convince him he was being attacked by an invisible swordsman. Or they hid steel climbing claws in their gloves, which could easily parry a katana, but the attacker would be convinced they had steel hands.

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