The Global Phenomenon of ‘Naruto’ and the True History of Ninjas

The original manga Naruto was published for 15 years and sold over 250 million copies. It has become a pride of Japanese mega-content, with the anime, games, and other media derivatives also being highly popular. This article explores the unique worldview of the series, which diverges from the typical shonen genre focused on shinobi battles, and delves into the enigmatic reality of ninjas that still remains shrouded in mystery to this day.

The Worldview of the ‘National Hero’ Ninja

Naruto was released as a series in the Shonen Jump magazine starting in 1998 and quickly became a national success. It was adapted into an anime in 2002 and gained popularity beyond Japan, with a total of 250 million copies in circulation worldwide. When the official website organized a global popularity contest for the characters in January 2023, it received a staggering 4.6 million votes from all regions of the world. The character who came out on top in this popularity poll was Namikaze Minato, the father of the main character Uzumaki Naruto (who ranked 6th). In Japan, the number one character was Uchiha Itachi, the older brother of Sasuke, the other protagonist of the series. In Latin America, Haruno Sakura claimed the number one spot, but Minato was widely loved worldwide. The series revolves around ninjas, with Uzumaki Naruto being one of them. However, it’s important to remember that this work is a fictional world with its own culture and history, created by the author Masashi Kishimoto. In the series’ universe, there are five major elemental forces – Fire, Water, Earth, Wind, and Thunder – each with its own hidden village of ninjas and armed forces. The countries are ruled by an aristocratic class called daimyo, whom the ninjas must respect. In return, the daimyo gives final approval when it comes to choosing their leader, the “hokage.” The relationship between daimyo and ninjas is equitable, and even requests from other countries can be accepted at the discretion of the ninjas. In fact, Naruto’s first major mission is to serve as a bodyguard for engineers from another country. While the image of ninjas is often associated with stoicism, living in secrecy or blending in with ordinary people to carry out secret activities, in Naruto, the ninjas are flamboyant and openly display their activities. However, at one point in the story, Naruto’s teacher, Jiraiya, says, “A ninja is someone who endures with patience.” The stoicism of ancient ninjas is also part of the legacy of the Naruto characters. In 2002, three years after the start of the series, Naruto was adapted into an anime series by Pierrot Studio, which aired on television until 2017, followed by Naruto Shippuden.

What are the origins of ninjas?

The historical origins of ninjas are unclear, as they have always been individuals whose very existence was hidden. According to some, they date back to the 7th century in antiquity, but it was not until the Middle Ages that they are specifically mentioned in history. They are said to have originated from the “rogues” that appeared in the late 13th century (according to “What is a ninja?”, published by the Japanese Council of Ninjas). These “rogues” were, so to speak, irregular samurais. Regular samurais, on the other hand, were the servants of the shoguns, born from the union of frontier lord colonists and a military aristocracy more or less distant from an emperor. The backbone of their income was therefore agriculture. On the other hand, the “rogues” constituted a new social layer that emerged with the development of the monetary economy, and commercial activity was their backbone. The word “rogue”, or “badass”, has an antisocial connotation, but “bad” in modern English also has the nuance of cool. Similarly, the “bad” in “badass” does not only evoke a ruffian, but also includes positive meanings such as “intelligent” or “patient and strong”. Members of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo’s ninja squad, whose activities are centered around Nagoya Castle. Ninja culture is omnipresent in modern Japan. (Jiji Press) In the 14th century, while the Mongol dynasty of the Yuan ruled over China, and Europe was on the eve of the Hundred Years’ War, Japan saw the rise to the throne of Emperor Godaigo, who tried to regain political control over the samurais. The first to follow this emperor were the “rogues”. They engaged in guerrilla warfare and played with the forces of the regular samurais. However, the shogun eventually regained power and the rebellious elements became independent forces on the ground in various regions. Eventually, during the Warring States period, when small semi-independent fiefs were established in various regions of Japan, communities specialized in what we would now call intelligence activities and irregular military operations were created from these forces. These were the “ninjas”. They were employed by the daimyos, the “kings” of these small kingdoms.

A 17th Century Handbook Discusses the Righteousness of Ninjas

Their abilities are legendary, possessing superhuman strength and endurance, mastery of martial arts, and survival techniques. They are skilled in handling firearms, including buried bombs. Their main tasks involve intelligence operations through the infiltration of virtual enemies or war-torn countries, and manipulation of information using encrypted messages or decoys. In modern times, this would be akin to using “fake news” to influence public opinion. They have also allegedly conducted subversive activities and assassinations. While the truth is shrouded in mystery, some Japanese historical lords, such as Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, indeed met their end at very opportune times for their enemies, and legend suggests ninjas were involved. In the world of Naruto, ninjas are openly active, their missions even including the search for lost dogs and cats. However, they are also engaged in illicit or secret activities, aligning with their historical counterparts. It seems even historical ninjas had no ethics and were ready to undertake any task for payment. There is a book called Mansen Shūkai, likely written in the late 17th century, detailing ninja techniques passed down by the ninja families of Koga and Iga (now part of Shiga and Mie prefectures), considered the sacred land of ninjas. In this “manual,” the first virtue emphasized is righteousness.

Essential: The Importance of a Positive Attitude

Rectitude is derived from Jin-Gi-Chû-Shin, meaning “Benevolence-Justice-Loyalty-Faith”. Jin signifies benevolence, humanity, and compassion; Gi stands for justice and duty. Naruto’s master, Hatake Kakashi, stated, “To see where justice lies and not honor it is a lack of courage.” Chû is loyalty and obedience to one’s lord, and Shin signifies faith and trust. In Naruto, trust in comrades is a highly valued virtue. However, being “loyal” doesn’t mean blindly obeying the lord or losing one’s soul. Submitting to a powerful figure who orders scandalous actions is not loyalty. Even Uchiwa Itachi, when village leaders told him to harm his family, made his decision after painful contemplation. Through rigorous training, ninjas gain superhuman strength. If they lacked the “right spirit” of benevolence and loyalty, they would surely be overwhelmed by power or wield it emotionally rather than rationally. This is accurately depicted in Naruto. On October 3, 2022, for the anime Naruto’s twentieth anniversary, author Kishimoto Masashi released a congratulatory illustration and comment.

Hate and Justice Portrayed in Naruto

The real world’s complexity, with its blurred lines between right and wrong, true and false, is mirrored in the world of Naruto. Post-Great War, stability has been achieved among superpowers, yet smaller countries have been invaded and blood-related conflicts in the villages persist. A seemingly peaceful world conceals an insurgent ninja organization plotting in the shadows. To confront this impending crisis, village leaders form an alliance, unaware of a grander plan linked to ninja history. Misunderstandings, mistakes, distrust, and deceit escalate, leading to tragedies and spreading waves of hatred. Extremists commit acts of terrorism in the name of a grotesque form of justice, while others plot for personal revenge, resulting in conflict. These seeds of perpetual tragedy are meticulously portrayed in Naruto, suggesting that if distrust can be passed down, so can trust. The action game Naruto X Boruto Narultimate Storm Connections, celebrating the anime’s 20th anniversary, will be released in 2023. The protagonist, Uzumaki Naruto, a ninja from the hidden village of Konoha in the Land of Fire, fails his ninja school exams repeatedly and houses the ‘Nine-Tails Fox’ within him. Adults’ disdain towards Naruto, who spends a solitary childhood, is palpable. Consequently, he aspires to become the village leader, or ‘Hokage’, and earn recognition as the greatest ninja ever. The creature sealed inside him, responsible for numerous deaths in the village, could break free at any time, causing distrust. However, Naruto is fortunate to have skilled mentors such as Iruka, Hatake Kakashi, and Jiraiya, and guidance from ninjas and frogs from other villages.

Leave a Comment