Real Ninjas Wore Black … Or Did They?

By Susan Spann

Popular culture often depicts the ninja as a hooded, black-clad man with a sword in one hand and a shuriken in the other – silent, lethal, and invisible against the midnight sky.

Unfortunately, the Hollywood version of “black-pajama ninjas” represents only a fraction of what real ninjas wore–and even that, with some inaccuracy. A real ninja escaping a moat might look more like this:

Woodblock by Kuniyoshi, 1842-43 (Public Domain)

Woodblock by Kuniyoshi, 1842-43 (Public Domain)

Real shinobi (aka “ninjas”) were masters of disguise, as well as camouflage. Next week, we’ll look at some of the most popular disguises shinobi used to keep from attracting attention when on assignment. Today, however, let’s look more closely at those famous black pajamas.

So, what did real ninjas wear?

For nocturnal missions, infiltration of enemy strongholds, and other objectives requiring a shinobi to remain unseen (as opposed to just “unnoticed”), ninjas often wore a special outfit (called shinobifuku or shinobi shōzoku) consisting of a shirt and knee-length trousers similar to those worn by modern practitioners of martial arts–but with tight-fitting sleeves and gaiters that tied at the knees and ankles to keep the sleeves and pants from flapping.

Ninjas sometimes–but not always–also wore a hood or cowl which hid the lower face.

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)

Ninja sketch by Hokusai (1760-1849)

Did ninjas really wear black?

Sometimes, but not always.

The shinobi shōzoku might be black, or blue, or even brown (and sometimes other colors too), depending on the environment in which the ninja planned to hide. For example, operations in the snow might call for white or camouflage-patterned garments.

In some cases, the black (or blackish) clothes were dyed to contain a reddish hue, to conceal bloodstains. Some ninjas preferred a dark blue garment, because they felt it concealed them better in shadows or against the midnight sky. 

Sometimes, the ninja’s outfit was reversible, with different colors on different sides to allow the shinobi to blend into different environments without carrying a separate change of clothes.

Was the color the only special aspect of the ninja’s costume?


A ninja’s clothing  contained hidden pockets and special compartments used for storing the ninja’s weapons. Shinobi utilized many special weapons, and needed to carry and store them efficiently. If a special device was needed, the ninja didn’t need to waste time rummaging through a satchel filled with many different objects! Multiple, smaller compartments helped the shinobi find the tools he needed quickly.

Every part of the ninja’s clothing was designed to help fulfill his mission silently, efficiently, and successfully. Like modern spies of every type, the ninja tailored his disguise to suit his circumstances. Black pajamas look menacing on a movie set, but in the real world of medieval espionage, a shinobi’s primary clothing choice was “whatever ensured you didn’t see him coming.”

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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.

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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