The Ninjas are one of two dominant powers in The Antelope Books (In this case, the term "Ninja" refers to a culture, rather than a profession). Their rivals are the Pirates, and their principal cities are Ninpou and Receon.
Ninjas speak Common and do most of their writing in it. The Ninjas also have a traditional language of Kanji or Kanji Script (often referred to simply as "the old script"), which uses a slightly different sentence structure and alphabet, but is effectively the same. Being much more poetic and aesthetically beautiful, the old script is primarily used for decoration, ornamented signs, and such. It is also the language of all religious texts (See the section on 'Religion', below).
Some high-born ninjas and those of particularly wealthy families may choose to have their children educated entirely in the old script (at great cost). Most ninjas, even commoners, are taught kanji in school as part of their education; though, depending on the quality of the school, the extent of instruction may be limited.
In addition to the old script, Ninjas have a few words and phrases of what they call "the old tongue". However, no intact writings or even nearly complete lexicon for the old tongue survive. Each word or phrase has its Common equivalent, and what bits of the old tongue are know usually are spoken alongside. Typically business, personal, most education, and most literature is written in common, peppered with words or phrases from the Ninja lexicon.
The ninjas value space-efficiency. Their homes, particularly middle and lower-class homes, are often cramped, and making the best use of available space is always a priority. Beds are typically very high, and bunk-beds are common, as are beds with cabinets and drawers underneath for storage.
This particular trend in space-usage has led to a number of curious results. Specifically, the height of one's bed off the floor denotes social status; the higher the bed, the lower the sleeper. The poor often have to sleep very close to their rafters or even in lofts, while the very wealthy have their beds in depressions in the floor. These are not strict rules, but a general fad. Most ninjas prefer their beds exactly halfway between the floor and the ceiling.
In Ninpou, as in most large Ninja cities, books are a highly prized commodity. Not a rare one, but important. As such, book lenders often live on generous stipends provided by the city, in exchange for lending books free of charge to the public, and maintaining their collections. A few large libraries also exist; but private citizens aren't often allowed to explore the more obscure stacks. Only common and popular books can be found in these libraries.
Every holiday on the ninja calendar calls for a celebration. Every full moon they celebrate the Light's Day Festival, and there are five or six other major holidays throughout the year (thus an average of two festivals per month). Some regions also celebrate the night of the new moon, or Dark's Day.
Festivals are always held after sunset, lit by torches, lanterns, and bonfires (though most ninjas have excellent night-vision). Whenever one of the major dated holidays coincides with Light's Day, it is cause for an even greater celebration.
The festivals are held along the processional leading up to the local temple. In major cities such as Ninpou, local neighborhoods might hold smaller festivals around their own shrines.
The festivals are all largely the same: booths offering food, goods, wine, or games. Lots of music, prizes, dancing, and everyone dressed in their very best. The men always wear their blackest clothes, while women don festive kimono-style outfits filled with bright colors. The festivals are heavily steeped in tradition, and each includes hundreds of small, unwritten rules that must be followed.
Each festival is also completed with offerings at the local temple or shrine.
The ninjas do not necessarily have a concept of "sin" or feel that any specific act is, in and of itself, inherently good or bad. Instead, their system revolves around a concept of honor, that a given act is honorable or dishonorable. This admits of a great deal of subjectivity, which most Ninjas freely admit is a problem.
The ninja religion can best be described as "complicated". In simplest form, the ninja "god" is a being they call "The Undying Soul of the Ultimate Warrior": a twelve-foot-tall being covered in armor, carrying a two-handed sword in each hand. When a ninja dies, the Undying Soul judges them according to the cleanliness of its honor-coat (more on that below), and they must fight him until either the dirty parts of the coat have been cut completely from their bodies, or until the Soul kills them (Note: Ninjas believe you can feel pain in the afterlife, and the Undying Soul can kill you).
The ninjas believe everyone wears an invisible "honor coat", and every dishonorable act is a stain on that coat. No one can defeat the Immortal Soul, but if your honor coat is clean, he will allow you into the afterlife. The dirtier the coat, the longer you must face him in combat; and if he kills you, your soul is destroyed.
The Undying Soul is typically depicted as mute, and communicates his desires through honorable combat (he has a somewhat limited vocabulary). The ninjas do not directly venerate the Undying Soul, but rather pray to their ancestors, whom they believe have already passed the tests of the Undying Soul. Ancestors can provide wisdom and guidance in this life, as well as help to forgive wrongdoing and erase stains from one's honor coat.
The Ninjas believe in a "heaven" called Eiennoeiko, which is an eternal journey towards glory, and a hell. Every ninja has the opportunity to go to Eiennoeiko when they die, but must first face the Undying Soul of the Ultimate Warrior. Their ability to begin the journey is determined by their honor coats: if a coat is clean and without blemish, the Warrior will let the wearer pass immediately, and the dirtier it is, the longer the wearer has to fight him. If the coat is "heavy" with stains, the wearer may not be able to fight at all, and may die again. This Second Death is considered to be the ultimate shame.
According to some interpretations of the legend, the battleground is littered with those whose honor coats are so heavy they cannot even move to fight for themselves.
The ninja religion is based on a set of stories called "sacred texts" from which various parables are derived. The texts are always in the Ninjas' traditional written tongue. By tradition, the texts must always be hand-copied, though with the advent of the printing press, numerous mass-marketed books in the common language were produced. Still, each temple retains its own set of hand-written copies. The sacred texts are, in fact, so numerous that it is believed no single temple holds a complete copy. Save for [the main temple], which tradition holds has the only perfect record as well as the originals. Though it is not a primary story element, the series builds on the religion all through the three volumes. In the third book, the primary antagonist invents his own series of scrolls that allows him to seize control of a large portion of the ninja population. This is especially infuriating for the protagonist, who has seen the original scrolls and knows exactly what the ninja religion is truly based on.
The religion has grown with age, as the deeds of living heroes are included. Each temple has a number of shrines dedicated to warriors who were good and true ninjas, generally those who died in great battles and achieved great victories. When a ninja commits an act of dishonor, they must go and make an offering before an appropriate shrine.
Smaller temples, such as those in new colonies or sparsely-populated areas, have a sort of "one-size fits all" shrine, considered "every shrine". Some are even as small as a birdhouse.
Priests look after the temples; memorize the rituals (to be recited on each proper occasion); conduct offerings and sacrifices; offer prayers in the old native language; dispense curses and blessings; preside at births, namings, comings-of-age, marriages, and funerals; and play the music at the major festivals.
An important part of the belief system revolves around ancestor worship. Your ancestors, who have already passed into the afterlife, can help you face the Undying Soul and guide you to the proper shrines to remove stains from your honor-coat. Further, because the Ninjas place a high priority on family lineage, genealogy can mean more about your standing than anything else.
By and large, the religion focuses on ancestor-worship and honor. The afterlife is described as a great journey, having no end. When you die, after you face the Immortal Soul of the Undying Warrior, you begin the journey. Your ancestors who have passed before you may leave signs for you to interpret.
In addition to the temple shrines, every household has a small family shrine in which the genealogy is recorded, and where they can make offerings. Each shrine is composed of several elements and has small icons of the ancestors, and (sometimes) spirit guides.
The Ninja Empire is governed by the Most High and Mighty Emperor, may he live forever. According to tradition, the imperial family descends from the Undying Soul of the Ultimate Warrior (nearly every noble ninja family makes this claim). The emperor is venerated as a living god, and all ninjas are required to wish him health and long life at every mention (typically by adding the words "may he live forever"). In practice, the average imperial reign is between eight and ten years, with most emperors dying by assassination.
Because the imperial family is typically wrapped up in assassination plots and coronations, the actual day-to-day governance of the empire is handled by a High Council. Councilors are not elected by vote, but by honorable combat, with local and regional tournaments. Pitched battles are not normally to the death, and it is considered dishonorable to deliberately kill your opponent.
It was once common practice to eliminate political rivals by killing them during the electoral tournaments. Most ninja attacks are designed to be instantly fatal, so in a battle with sharpened blades and death on the line, it was certainly a common occurrence. Attitudes changed at some point during Ninja history, with the belief that the council should be led by the most skilled warriors. Since it takes more skill to win a fight than to kill an opponent, those that won without killing were highly favored.
Local matters, such as funding schools, libraries, road maintenance, militia, and various other matters of public interest, are typically handled by the priesthood. Funding comes from donations as well as taxes. The temples also organize the local leadership tournaments, with combatants for a council seat required to win at least one local tournament.
In more densely-packed areas, there may be a local council. In the sparser regions (and in much of Ninpou), councils are only at the regional and national level. The highest levels are the High Council, and the Imperial High Council. Thus, they have a local, regional, national (by island or group of islands), High (in Ninpou), and Imperial (in the Imperial City).
Tournaments for council seats are held every two years, assuming any seats are available. Councilors who achieve four consecutive victories in the bi-annual tournaments are granted a seat for life, or until they enter a tournament for a higher seat. As such, assassination is a very serious issue, and elaborate safeguards are often undertaken.
The Imperial High Council building, for example, is one of the most complex structures ever designed. The High Council chamber has three nested levels, with a council floor where anyone wishing to address the council must stand, and individual booths for each counselor. Each counselor has a private door leading to a private section of the building, with a private exit. Some of the more paranoid counselors may never leave the building, and others keep scores of guards to escort them everywhere.
One ongoing problem with Ninja government: being a High Counselor, or any level of counselor, does not come with a salary. The Ninjas feel that public service is its own reward. As such, while technically anyone may enter in the tournaments, only those with the personal wealth to afford elaborate security last any length of time.
The ninjas have a nominal free-market economy, dominated largely by various families or houses. In addition to taxes, these houses have the ability to buy titles (another form of taxation), with the most common title being "Great House". The Great Houses of the empire also heavily control the military (houses pay taxes by fielding soldiers and warships directly).
The more successful high counselors tend to come from powerful houses, who can afford to keep their counselor alive. As such, the government is indirectly controlled by the families.
Ninja economy has some unique elements that help it stay strong and keep the great houses from eliminating the lower and middle classes entirely.
Firstly, ninjas do not have a concept of "rental", except in the short-term, such as inns, public houses, etc. They also do not place as high a value on land or structures, unless such structures are unusually expensive. As such, it is common practice to buy and sell land and buildings. In a relation, a structure is only "owned" so long as its owner is both using it regularly and maintaining it. An individual or corporation that fails to do both therefore forfeits the structure to the next person willing to do so.
So, if a warehouse were to sit in disrepair for a number of years, anyone who fixed it up and started using it may claim rightful ownership. The rules are slightly different regarding farmland, which sometimes must be left fallow for long periods. In these cases, the owners are expected to maintain access roads and structures around the land, or forfeit its use. Many a young entrepreneur has gotten a start merely by claiming and rebuilding abandoned sites in these ways.
Businesses are expected to take care of the whole needs of their employees. This can be done either by providing services for them or paying a substantial wage. A business that fails to do either will often be shunned by the community and will have difficulty finding workers.
In ninja culture, crime is rare. Every citizen is armed, a capable fighter, and follower of a strict honor code. Minor crimes like theft are exceedingly uncommon (who would steal from someone who could cut your head off?), and most disputes are handled through personal combat. Crimes of passion are more common, and settled the same way.
At the local level, Ninjas have a militia usually hired by the temples, responsible for keeping the peace and maintaining general order. Usually called "the watch" or the city watch, they are mostly known for patrolling and making sure anyone fighting has a valid reason. They will also step in, if it appears one combatant has a very obvious advantage over the other (such as a young man attacking an elderly woman). The watch can also be called whenever there is a disagreement which needs to be solved without violence.
The army is under the direct command of the emperor; but soldiers, weapons, and equipment are provided by the houses. This is done as part of taxation, meaning only the rich pay for the military. Each house is given a quota based on it's wealth, but houses can earn respect by going well above and beyond.
Each house is responsible for equipping its own soldiers as well as providing supply wagons, horses, ships, whatever else it needs. Smalelr houses that cannot afford warships of their own will usually attach their soldiers to a larger house for transport. The Imperial House also fields a milliary force of it's own, which sets the standard the other houses are meant to follow.
The Ninja calendar is fraught with difficulties. Officially speaking, they count dates from the year in which the current emperor began his reign. This creates serious issues, since news of a new emperor coming to power may take months or even years to reach some of the outlying provinces, leading to inaccurate dates. When a new emperor comes to power, he ascends the throne immediately, so only dates within the capitol are known to be accurate.
Dates are also not typically given in direct Day/Month/Year, but rather tracked by season and year. Ryo Sansen, for example, talks about her age in Author of the Gust, in which she explains that at the time she was actually born, it was the 74th year of Emperor Tau's reign, while that same year Emperor Lycet came to power.