The three enigmas
The Japanese terms samurai, ronin, and ninja are likely words you have come across before, however, do you really know what each of them are? While most people will feel like they have a good understanding of what a samurai and a ninja is, the truth may be very different; ronin on the other hand may be much more of a mystery.
In reality, these three terms refer to three types of people — and somewhat their professions — which can be remarkably similar with interchanging qualities. There are also times when one can become another under the correct circumstances.
All three were mostly active from around the 12th century until the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the mid 19th century, marking the era of Japan’s modernisation when both the need and desire for them evaporated.
(There are also some modern connotations of these words but today we will be focusing on the traditional sense in which they are mostly used.)
So what is the difference between a samurai, ronin and a ninja? Well, I’m glad you asked.
What is a samurai?
Let’s start our understanding by asking the question: what is a samurai? Contrary to popular belief, the term samurai doesn’t merely refer to a katana wielding warrior that charges into battle. While it’s certainly one aspect of them, it is just that — one aspect.
The meaning of samurai in the true sense is someone who belongs to — what is often referred to as — the Japanese warrior caste. Putting it more simply; the samurai were a class of people in a similar way in which we often talk about the working class, middle class etc.
The samurai were members of what could be considered upper class or nobility of Japanese society.
For reference, ‘bushi’ is the specific term for Japanese warriors which, together with samurai, were synonymous when the warrior caste was initially formed. However, as samurai gained influence they obtained more political power and standing in the imperial courts, to the extent that they acquired roles and responsibilities beyond that of a mere swordarm.
This is especially true heading towards the late 16th century and beyond when the samurai class became even more convoluted. At this point a samurai could be a scholar, a politician, an advisor, or an administrator in any number of fields.
However, above all these characteristics is one more that serves as a key distinction between samurai, ronin, and ninja – the presence of a lord or daimyo in which they serve. All samurai will serve under a lord who is in charge of their entire clan, sect etc. and a samurai’s chief responsibility is to serve and protect them – no matter their other roles. Failing to do so has dire consequences.
What are ronin?
The answer to the burning question; what are ronin? Can be entirely understood in relation to the samurai and their daimyo.
If a samurai serving under a daimyo (lord) fails to protect them (resulting in the daimyo’s death) or is considered to have committed acts against them, then they would have failed in their duty and brought dishonour amongst themselves. For a samurai, honour is the keystone to their existence.
In order to remedy the situation and regain their honour, they are required to commit ritual suicide in an act known as seppuku — also known as harikiri.
This involves using a short sword or knife to disembowel yourself.
For many samurai who faced such circumstances, this was their (surprisingly) preferred option. Yet there were also those that refused.
These figures would come to be known as ronin.
Japanese ronin are people who were once samurai who chose to remain dishonourable in the eyes of society. They no longer served or had loyalties towards anyone and were essentially outcasts. Yet, they still needed to make a living to survive and became entirely dependent on themselves.
Many ronin would become mercenaries, looking for work as a hired sword. However with a void of responsibility and being already universally loathed, more often than not, ronin would go down less honourable career paths. Banditry, highwaymen, muscle for criminal gangs, guards for shady organisations etc, were not above these ex samurai. Some came to hate their life as a ronin while some thrived upon it.
This is another point where some similarities start to appear between our three groups, especially between the Ronin and the ninja.
What are ninjas?
We’ve already established how Ronin were shunned and loathed by the samurai, but how does this help us understand the question: what is a ninja?
Well, the ninja had very much the same effect on the samurai nobility. Both Ronin and ninja lived in the shadow (mind the pun) of Japanese society and both their chosen professions further alienated and spoiled their image.
Ninja’s, also known as shinobi, were secretive individuals who were hired to carry out actions for lords, influential figures and even samurai. These actions were deemed dishonourable and far below that for a samurai to consider performing – yet were often considered necessary. They included things such as spying, arson, and of course some assassinations.
Much like ronin, ninjas were seen as mercenary types of figures, however, while some ronin may have performed spying and arson related activities, for ninja it was their primary role and was trained to do it much more effectively and efficiently. But, during the Tokugawa shogunate rule starting in 1603 in the era of relative peace, in a strange twist of fate, ninja became something more closely resembling guardsmen and traditional soldiers with occasional spying duties. This transformation of their role brings them much more inline with our other two Japanese terms.
In truth, the very nature of the ninja means there is little documentation associated with them and any word of mouth stories are misleading — sometimes intentionally so by the ninja themselves.
In the modern day views of samurai, ronin, and ninja, there is often a lot of romanticisation and embellishment of their traits and accomplishments. In some ways, this adds to the confusion of understanding who or what exactly each of these three historical groups of figures were.
There are certainly differences in the roles they each performed in Japanese society but surprisingly they are also quite similar in other ways. Skills and roles can sometimes overlap and much of their status can come down to circumstance and who is inevitably paying the bill. Yet, despite saying that, there remains an air of mystery to all of them that will probably continue and maybe that’s not a bad thing.