Difference between a Ninja and a Samurai

Updated on May 31, 2017

Ninjas and samurais were once feudal Japan’s most fearsome warriors. While both came to be known at about the same era, they are in no way cut from the same cloth. This article explains why.

Definitions

Ninja
A Japanese man in an “authentic” ninja costume.

A ninja, also known as “shinobi,” was a mercenary who worked on covert operations in 15th century Japan. Ninjas typically worked in teams and conducted assassinations, espionage, infiltration, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare. It is widely held that ninjas were peasants recruited from the lower class, thus not much was written about them. Moreover, historians have suggested that ninjas were highly secretive about their ways and how they operate.What little facts recorded about them were mere mentions in historical accounts about their encounters with the samurai.

The word “ninja” was a regional term as well as monomi (“one who sees”), and rappa (“ruffian”), to name a few. In the West, the use of the term “ninja” grew in popularity after World War II. However, the word “shinobi” appears in historical documents in almost every instance.

During the Sengoku period (1467-1603), a specially trained group of spies rose to prominence at a time of great social unrest and almost-constant military turmoil in feudal Japan. These mercenaries actively operated around Koga, a village in Iga Province. They were contracted, usually by lords and high-ranking officials, to perform assassinations, infiltration, and other covert missions deemed by many as being “without honor.”

Ninjas were known masters of ninjutsu; skills that help ninjas to remain undetected by their enemies. These are thought to be what stories about ninjas were usually based on – lethal, highly skilled fighters, rather than the unsavory assassin-mercenaries of the Sengoku era. The unification of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate ended the era of the ninjas.

samurai
An 18th-century photo of samurai in full battle gear

The samurai were highly-skilled and disciplined soldiers bound to a code of honor. They were the military nobility of their time and were held in high regard. This is why samurai always wore full-on kimonos, ancient Japan’s national costume. The samurai were typically recruited from the upper classes and some eventually became lords as well. They were highly literate and were trained in the arts as much as much as they were trained in fighting.

The samurai were usually referred to either as bushi, or buker, which originally meant “to wait upon,” or “accompany members of the upper castes of the family.” The word also meant saburau and eventually evolved into samurai. By the end of the 12th century, the samurai had risen to the middle and upper classes of the warrior class. They were often under the employ of a lord. The samurai received training as officers in grand strategy and military tactics. They also received training in the literary arts and became scholarly writers.

Numerous accounts of the samurai tell of heroic feats, often in defense from foreign invaders. One great story tells about Shimazu Yoshihiro and Konishi Yukinaga, two samurai generals who fended off a huge army of Korean and Chinese forces with only 7,000 highly trained samurai. Their greatest weapon was their sword, or katana, and they wore armor for protection.

During the Tokugawa regime (i.e. Edo period) the samurai became bureaucrats, courtiers, and administrators with the relative decline of wars that once plagued the country. By the end of the Tokugawa period, the samurai became aristocratic bureaucrats, with their katanas taking on a symbolic representation of power, replacing their purpose as a weapon. The samurai class was eventually demolished during the Meiji period in an effort to give Japan a modern and a highly westernized army.

Ninja vs Samurai

So what’s the difference between a ninja and a samurai? A ninja was recruited from lower class families, and trained to perform secret missions such as assassinations, infiltration, sabotage, espionage, and guerilla warfare, which are deemed dishonorable actions. In contrast, samurai came from middle-class to upper-class families trained in the bushido (“way of the warrior”) code of honor. They were fierce and highly disciplined warriors who served their lord or the Emperor.

A ninja used a variety of weapons: from throwing stars and daggers to brass knuckles and stolen katanas. A samurai’s main weapon was his katana, often accompanied by a short sword. Ninjas declined during the Tokugawa period, while the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji period.

Comparison Chart

NinjaSamurai
Recruited from Japan’s lower classRecruited from middle to upper-class families
Assassinations, infiltration, guerrilla warfareHonor-bound soldiers
Trained in the art of ninjutsuTrained in the way of bushido

Video

Check out this informative video talking about ninjas and samurai.