Every so often in life, even the lay person will encounter… A Ninja!
Let me start this article by making two things very clear:
– There are no such things as Ninja.
– I have met people who CALL what they do “Ninjutsu“, and who presumably think of themselves AS Ninja (at least nominally); whose martial arts skills are good enough to break the average person in half… But that doesn’t make them Ninja.
A little history might be useful at this point.
In old Japan (from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries) there MAY have been organised clans of mercenaries specialising in assassination and espionage, who were called “Shinobi”, which translates to “One who escapes stealthily”. But how organised they were is a matter of debate, and will probably never be determined with any accuracy. A cursory glance at the few actual historical records of “Ninja” attacks and tactics will show that they seemed to be regular assassins or mercenaries, doing the same things that mercenaries and assassins did everywhere throughout history, and still do today: Infiltration, stealthy killing, spying etc, and with a similar rate of success and failure.
Just as the english word “Assassin” (which derives from the old Arabic word “Hashishin” a derogatory name for a particular sect of Islamic warriors from the 11th century) is used to describe any mercenary whose primary task is killing specific individuals, it’s probable that the term Shinobi was used to describe any spy, infiltrator or assassin in old Japan interchangeably. i.e: even if you weren’t a member of the Koga or Iga based clans (if they ever existed), you might still have been called a Shinobi. Every vacuum cleaner is a Hoover .
To sum up, all the available evidence suggests that the Ninja were: nothing very special, definitely not magical, probably not even a singular clan, not exceptionally skilful when compared to their international counterparts and lastly, not in existence beyond the 17th century.
But there are people who claim to be Ninja today! I hear you cry. Indeed there are.
Such people fall into one of four categories:
1. Delusional nutjobs
2. Deliberate fraudsters
3. Practitioners of a particular martial arts style which they call “Ninjutsu” (translates to “Combative art of stealth”).
4. Some combination of 1, 2 and 3. (Yes, there are people who are some/all of the above. Quite a few, in fact.)
Of the above, the nutjobs are easy enough to spot, the fraudsters follow the same patterns as every other martial arts fraud, but the 3rd category is what I’m really interested in discussing in this post. The question at hand is: Is it intellectually and morally permissible for practitioners of Bujinkan, Genbukan etc. to call their martial art “Ninjutsu”? And more to the point, is it useful to THEM?
Let’s face it, there’s only one reason one would associate one’s martial art with an ancient, long-dead order of spies and assassins: to attract impressionable people who are drawn like moths to the flame of a sensationalist, exotic lineage, with super-secret-society overtones!
And attract them it does. Everyone who was into Chambara or Samurai manga as a youth, everyone who ever wanted to be a mystical super-ninja, every fan of low-budget eighties classics like Sho Kosugi’s “Revenge of the Ninja” secretly wished to be a Shinobi… and when a local McDojo operator pops up claiming to teach the authentic way of the Ninja, is it any wonder they flock to enrol?
Most modern Ninjutsu schools stem from Masaaki Hatsumi‘s Bujinkan, and use essentially the same martial curriculum: A mixture of fanciful wrist-locks (presumably taken from Jiu-jutsu and Aikido); some genuinely workable grappling & clinchwork (Undoubtedly a Judo/Ju-Jutsu mix), some solid weapon-work (Some Battojutsu, Bojutsu and sundry weapon-arts); some dreadful weapon-work (Fanciful over-choreographed nonsense, sometimes using outlandish pseudo-weapons), and a small dose of “ninja-specific” stuff, such as buddhist mudra (hand positions) for “Ninja!” meditation, and flinging powder into the face of one’s opponent during combat.
Is this what the Ninja clans were learning in 16th century Japan ? Doubtful. Is this practical for modern self-defence or military special forces? No. Is it then… Ninjutsu? The answer is: “Highly doubtful” at best, “absolutely bloody not” at worst.
I could have spent this post picking on fraudulent nutjobs like Frank Dux or Ashida Kim… but that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. The point is: without the slightly more respectable face of the Bujinkan to add legitimacy to the study of “modern ninjutsu”, The Ashida Kims of the world would look even more insane than they do now, and perhaps they would be forced out of business.
To followers of modern ninjutsu: I’m not picking on you. I’m picking on your organisation’s claims and its marketing. My advice to you is: Take whatever useful skills you’ve learned in your time studying Taijutsu, and go and train something without the pseudo-mystical ninja trappings. There are plenty of options.
Oh, and if I don’t post any more blog entries, please assume that I have been assassinated stealthily by a Ninja, and avenge my death accordingly. :p