The Seven Disguises Used by Real Ninjas

By Susan Spann

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)
Hollywood likes to portray the ninja in black pajamas, scaling a roof to assassinate a samurai.

In reality, ninjas, also called shinobi, were more like spies.

Assassinations played a role (as did those famous dark pajamas) but ninja training focused as much on espionage as it did on killing, and then–as now–a large part of successful spying depended on disguises.

During the 17th century the head of a famous ninja clan wrote a manual called the Shoniniki, which described techniques and methods used by medieval ninjas. At the time, the Shoniniki was considered a “secret” manuscript, used and protected by shinobi clans. Now, it offers a glimpse into the real ninja’s world, including the types of disguises ninjas favored.

Shoniniki page (disguises)(pd)

The Shoniniki lists “Seven Disguises” as recommended “personas” a shinobi could assume in order to infiltrate a town, obtain information, or generally fool people into thinking he was someone other than a spy. (Female ninjas, called kunoichi, used disguises too.)

The Shoniniki’s Seven Disguises include:

1. Itinerant monks (komuso) – for wandering the countryside. 14F13 Actor

2. Buddhist monks – for infiltrating temples, towns, and cities.

3. Mountain ascetics.

4. Merchants.

5. Actors.

6. Street entertainers.

7. “Normal Appearance” – which means taking on the persona of a typical resident of the city, village, or area the shinobi wanted to infiltrate without being noticed.


Ninjas weren’t limited to these seven roles. When on a mission, a ninja blended in with the population–or with the environment, in the case of truly clandestine missions–and was expected to take on any persona or disguise that allowed him (or her, in the case of kunoichi) to pass unnoticed.

Yoshitoshi print (pd)

Shinobi assigned to long-term missions might use only a single disguise, living for years as a farmer, monk, or merchant. This allowed the ninja to gather information or “wait in place” as a sleeper agent until his clan was hired to assassinate a nearby lord or other valuable target.

On short-term missions, a shinobi might use multiple disguises, blending in with different crowds as needed to reach the goal.

Ninjas were trained to think independently and conceal themselves in many ways … including the use of disguises to hide in plain sight.

Disappearing is great, when you have the cover of night or foliage, but hiding in plain sight is the best disguise of all.

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Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

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