Ninjas, also known as shinobi, were mercenary warriors in the 14th through 17th century Japan, though they didn’t become well-known until sometime during the 15th century. In more recent years, ninjas have gained popularity, thanks primarily to their appearances in movies, television shows, and anime. But how accurate are these media portrayals of ninjas, and what did they actually look like?
Ninjas looked like average citizens of their native country Japan. Most, though not all, were men, and there was usually nothing extraordinary about their appearance. Some ninjas wore the head-to-toe ninja outfit showcased in pop culture, though those outfits weren’t necessarily black.
More than anything else, it was important for ninjas to blend in with their surroundings. They were mercenaries, assassins, spies, and other things that required them to be sneaky, stealthy, and, above all, to go unnoticed; for that reason, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely how ninjas looked. This article, however, will go into more detail about ninjas, including their nationality, genders, and wardrobes.
Were Ninjas a Certain Ethnicity or Nationality?
Ninjas were Japanese. While some ninjas were born outside of Japan – typically referred to as “foreign ninjas” – the vast majority of ninjas were Japanese, just like the samurai. Interestingly, though, “ninja” is a Chinese word; Japanese ninjas called themselves shinobi.
“Ninja,” the word, wasn’t a thing until the 20th century. Its first known usage was in 1964 when ninjas first came onto the Hollywood movie scene, and the Western world got their first real glimpse of them. 
Shinobi, however, were most certainly a part of Japan’s earlier history, though they weren’t incredible warriors like the samurai. Instead, the first shinobi likely came from Japanese farming villages; they were lower class and took on the role of ninjas to earn more money through mercenary work.
As time went on, the ninjas formed their own societies and factions, much like the samurai, with ninjas being born into the role through family ties. As a result, all “genuine” ninjas were Japanese. There were very few foreign ninjas, at least as far as historians and scholars know. 
What Did Ninjas Wear?
Ninjas wore different outfits depending on their current mission. Some wore light armor beneath their clothes, but the clothes varied to help them blend in with the people around them. Some ninjas would dress like Buddhist monks; others donned the attire of Japanese peasants or merchants.
The goal of a ninja’s clothing was camouflage, but not like the green and brown camo hunters in America typically wear when heading into the woods. A ninja’s camo needed to help him blend in with the other Japanese people around him – whatever that may have meant at the time.
So what about the shinobi shōzoku – the dark, head-to-toe garb commonly seen on ninjas in movies and television shows? Is that strictly a piece of Hollywood fiction?  Yes and no.
When ninjas worked at night, they sometimes wore dark clothing similar to the well-known shinobi shōzoku. These outfits kept the maximum amount of skin covered and helped them blend into the city in the darkness.
Sometimes they were black, but most historians and scholars agree they were more likely dark blue, as that color dye would have been cheaper than black and more representative of the actual color of Japanese cities at night.
If ninjas were engaging in open combat and had no need of stealth and secrecy, they wore clothes similar to what Japanese samurai wore, though they’d tuck theirs in more securely around their bodies. The samurai often left their clothes flowing and loose.
Some ninjas wore armor called kusari or karuta under their clothes. These were lightweight armor options that provided some level of protection but didn’t weigh the ninja down or make it harder for him to move or fight.
Additionally, ninjas favored lightweight shoes so they could move fast without making any noise. These split-toe shoes were called tabi.  Today, Japanese people still wear tabi, but they wear them as socks instead of shoes.
Finally, no ninja outfit was complete with the famous tenugui, or Japanese hand towel.  They had various uses for the tenugui; they wore them as face masks, headbands, belts, etc. These small but valuable items were also quite popular among the Japanese samurai.
Could Women Be Ninjas?
Women could be and were ninjas. The Japanese called them kunoichi, and they were just as stealthy, intelligent, and competent as their male counterparts. In some ways, they were even more effective because people often underestimated them because of their gender.
These female ninjas often posed as priestesses, servants, or geisha. In extreme circumstances, they became mistresses and concubines of powerful men to gain closer, more intimate access to them and accomplish whatever goal they had set.
Kunoichi weren’t just spies and informants for male ninjas (shinobi), either. They trained in the same martial arts and weapons training as the males. Their most oft-used weapons included all of the following:
- Katanas (usually shorter than the ones the male ninjas used)
Those first three weapons are common enough that most people know what they are. The following several sections will provide more information on the last three weapons.
Neko-te was the female version of the ninja’s tekagi, or tiger claws. Neko-te, or “cat claws,” were false fingernails made of metal that resembled cat’s claws. They attached to the hands, usually with leather straps. Kunoichi used them to claw their opponents’ vital areas, usually near the eyes and face.
They would sometimes tip them with poison, as well, to make them even more dangerous and deadly.
Though many people don’t recognize the word “tessen,” they’re usually familiar with Japanese war fans, which is precisely what tessen are. Typically made from iron plates, these folding fans were elegant and easily concealed; they were also deadly weapons in the hands of a trained kunoichi.
Naginata were poleaxes consisting of a slightly curved metal pole at the handle and a sharp blade on the other end. Trained ninjas and kunoichi wielded them both as blades and in the same way they’d wield bamboo staffs.
There’s no standard answer for what ninjas actually looked like. Nearly all were Japanese, but they could look vastly different beyond that.