All throughout history, no other martial art was more surrounded by mystery than Ninjutsu. Since the dawn of time, in Feudal Japan, the ninjas (shinobi) were seen as almost supernatural beings, deadly assassins and spies who did what nobody else was capable of doing.
Having started karate in the early eighties, I was absolutely ready to set myself on the path to becoming a true ninja. In fact, the very year I started training karate, the movie “Revenge of the Ninja” was released. At the time, I thought Sho Kosugi was possibly the coolest man alive. I started buying up every ninja magazine I could get my hands on. I even manufactured my own ninja swords out of some of the school’s yardsticks… Man those simple yard sticks looked great when you gave them a handle, guard, and spray painted the blade with silver spray paint!
Ninjutsu is a term used to describe the martial art, strategy , tactics and guerilla warfare including the art of espionage that were practiced by ninjas. Today, we find several styles of Ninjutsu, but, it’s hard to say which one is the original, due to the fact that Ninjutsu was always an art that wasn’t centralized like other martial arts. It was an art taught from father to son, from family to family, and its teachings were secret for centuries. None the less, there are some things that are known for sure:
History of the Ninjutsu
Historically, spying is as old as the 500s in Japan, in the time of Prince Shotoku. However, it is believed that the origins of the ninja are much older. Even so, Ninjutsu is believed to be developed by a group of people in the Koka Shiga and Iga Province of Japan. The ninjas were seen as scouts, spies and assassins all throughout history. The main characteristics that define Ninjutsu is stealth and deception.
One of the most well known schools of Ninjutsu is the Togakure-ryu school that was developed after the defeated samurai Daisuke Togakure escaped to Iga. There, he met the warrior monk Kain Doshi, and he learned from him a new way of viewing life and the means of survival. Hence, Ninjutsu was developed as a collection of fundamental survival techniques required to have if one was to survive in the “always-at-war” feudal Japan. Ninjas used their knowledge to ensure their survival, and their methods included techniques of non-detection, misdirection, avoidance and techniques of information gathering. Ninjas were trained in disguise, escape, archery, free running and medicine. ( They were hardcore parkour before it was cool! )
The Iga and Koga clans were the first to produce ninjas. There are countless accounts throughout history of this, and they are believed to be correct. It should be noted that it was common to hire samurais as spies or mercenaries. However, the ninjas from the Iga and Koga clans were raised as professional ninjas and had specific training.
The role of the ninja can be found in the Buke Myomokusho where Hanawa Hokinoichi talks about their role:
“They travelled in disguise to other territories to judge the situation of the enemy, they would inveigle their way into the midst of the enemy to discover gaps, and enter enemy castles to set them on fire, and carried out assassinations, arriving in secret.”
Traditional and modern Ninjutsu training
In the mid 15th century samurai families started to focus on espionage, assassination and covert warfare. Just like the samurai, the ninjas were born into the profession, and the traditions were passed from family to family.
Traditionally, ninjas started their training in early childhood, learning survival, scouting and acquiring the knowledge on how to use poisons and explosives. The physical part of training was also emphasized, and it focused on running, stealth methods of walking, swimming and climbing. Ninjas were also taught several professions as they were required to disguise themselves for the purpose of blending in easily. Medical training was also a part of the ninja’s skill set. Since ninjas were not always working alone, teamwork was also learned. The other techniques that ninjas learned involved avoiding detection and methods of escape.
According to the Togakure-ryu school, there are 18 training areas for ninjas. The techniques and training are always updated to remain relevant to modern threats that ninjas need to face. The original 18 skills of the ninjas were:
– Spiritual refinement (seishin teki kyoyo)
– Unarmed combat (tai jutsu)
– Sword techniques (kenjutsu)
– Staff and stick fighting (bo-jutsu)
– Throwing blades (shuriken-jutsu)
– Spear fighting (yari jutsu)
– Halberd fighting (naginata-jutsu)
– Using chain and sickle weapons (kusari-gama)
– Explosives and fire (kayaku-jutsu)
– Disguise and impersonation (henso-jutsu)
– Stealth and entering methods (shinobi-iri)
– Horsemanship (ba-jutsu)
– Water training (sui-ren)
– Strategy (bo-ryaku)
– Espionage (choho)
– Escape and concealment (inton-jutsu)
– Meteorology (ten-mon)
– Geography (chi-mon)
Today, the Bujinkan, the International Ninja Association teaches a combat system that comprises of nine separate ryuha, integrated into one system called Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. The school trains practitioners to protect themselves and others using techniques that focus on disabling attackers as efficiently as possible.
Training in the Bujinkan shools is somewhat similar to aikido training where practitioners play the role of both attackers (uke) and defenders (tori). The difference is that unlike in Aikido, there is no predefined set of moments (meaning katas). The training consists in spur-of-the-moment and slow motion techniques during which the defender learns how to block, lock, hit, choke or throw the attacker.
The Bujinkan school doesn’t adhere to official guidelines or rules that limit the actions of techniques that are used during training. After all, considering this type of training means gaining compliance through pain, the training partners need to cooperate. The main teachings of Bujinkan are joint manipulation (koshi jutsu), bone manipulation (koppo jutsu), throwing grappling and ground fighting (jutai jutsu), strikes (dekentai jutsu), use of weapons (happo biken jutsu) and Ninjutsu (ninpo strategies and tactics).
So What’s it all about?
Ninjutsu is still the art of the stealth warrior, of the assassin. Even today, the curriculum of the Ninjutsu schools hasn’t changed, as emphasis is placed on ending an attack as efficiently as possible, and as deadly as possible. The difference is that today, the thrust of the training is placed mainly on self defense. The techniques used are however, equally deadly and dangerous if they are used to their full potential.
Even if today most schools don’t teach all of the original Ninjutsu curriculum, the teachings adhere to the ninja philosophy: creating disciplined warriors, highly skilled in multiple forms of combat and self defense. Ninjutsu is a highly effective self defense martial art, and, its practitioners deserve a lot of respect, because this art takes a long time to master, it takes a lot of discipline and a trained mind and body.
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of training in a Nin-Jitsu school in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. One of the head instructors there, Louis, was a very talented martial artist and if I remember correctly, was about to turn pro in his MMA career. I still have the video of him performing 15 or 20 handsprings in a row, and or walking on his hands while killing time waiting for the subway. This guy was as close to a ninja as you can get. He had many stories to tell regarding some of the myths, and ninja lore. Perhaps some of those will be divulged in future articles…
Remember, standing united we pack a punch.
Modern Samurai Societyby