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Ninjas I Have Known

No person can be certain that they are not being followed by ninjas in any area of the world. Even though it seems improbable, logic can not demonstrate a negative, and the skill of ninjas is to go unnoticed.

In my search for them, I have traveled all over the world, tracing their steps in reverse. Every time I find a likely candidate, they will typically deny it. During a pause from his ninjutsu class in Tokyo, Mats Hjelm, a web designer from Stockholm, exclaimed, “No, no, no!”

Although I’m aware that others may refer to it as such, I personally do not like to give it that title. Furthermore, I would never claim to be a ninja. This is precisely the kind of thing a real ninja would state.

On a Friday night, I was among a group of Westerners, led by Hjelm, who had journeyed to the Budokan, the concrete exhibition hall of Japanese warrior arts which is located near the end of the Chiyoda metro line.

It was easy to identify our party on the subway, as we were all clad in black and carrying wooden training tools in bags crafted in peculiar shapes, as if they were authentic.

I was informed that Ninjutsu was only a fraction of the training in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, a recent martial art system that had been combined from nine classical martial arts schools. Of those nine, only three had connections to teaching ninja techniques.

George Ohashi, a Bujinkan instructor and administrator, who is one of the few Japanese among the hundred thousand global members, expressed that he was not highly interested in ninjas.

At our dojo, we are exploring budo or “the way of the warrior”. Certain individuals may have an alternate notion of it, yet we are unable to address that and we are not perturbed by it.

Koichi Oguri, an experienced shihan, was keeping watch over approximately fifty pupils as they repeated the intricate combination of guards and punches which he had just shown them.

The large room was otherwise deserted and the only sound heard was the muted thuds of bodies hitting the floor and turning over.

Ohashi nodded in concurrence, remarking, “Yes, it’s very silent here. We don’t do a kiai.” This is the yell used in martial arts such as karate that have become competitive sports. However, the Bujinkan has not adopted this.

There is no audience, nor any specific regulations.

Karate is mainly composed of punches and kicks, and judo is all about throws, but this system is based on eight foundational physical principles, called kihon, which provides the ability to execute a theoretically endless selection of movements and scenarios.

After two decades of training, Paul Masse, a Bujinkan veteran, and I met up in a Starbucks near Roppongi’s entertainment district.

The weather outside was perfect for the meeting, with a heavy rain and illuminated signs visible through the window. Many of his colleagues have forsaken their martial arts in favor of a more refined, and more effective, kind of combat.

Masse informed me that he was okay with being called a ninja. He explained that it was representative of his technique, his philosophy, and his spirituality. Growing up in Florida,

Masse came to the conclusion that there were only two career paths available to him: a rock star or a martial artist. He concluded that martial artists tend to have longer and more satisfying lives, so he chose to pursue aikido, followed by karate, judo, jujitsu, and kung fu.

He commented that kung fu was particularly beautiful, but it would not necessarily protect him from getting beaten up.

Masse wasn’t satisfied with any of the martial arts he tried. He thought it was like chasing a child’s dream, so he gave up and went on to get an accounting degree and work in international finance.

However, he soon discovered that was no better. He said, “Chasing money that isn’t even yours, your life is just slipping away.”

Masse states that his adult anguish was put to an end, when a follower of Stephen K. Hayes, who was the first American to study under Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, showed some ninjutsu.

Hatsumi was chosen by the 33 grand masters who preceded him in a lineage that can purportedly be traced all the way back to Daisuke Nishina, the originator of the Togakure Ryu school in the 12th century.

The analogy of Buddhism can be used to describe Hatsumi and Nishina’s relationship. Masse referred to Hatsumi as the Soke, an honorific, and noted the importance of traveling to Japan to learn from him directly.

He is analogous to a modern day Dalai Lama and Nishina is compared to the Prince Siddhartha of ninjas.

Fifteen years ago, Masse had an ambition to go home and open a dojo within five years. Now, however, he has taken a different career path, becoming a street performer in Yokohama and utilizing his physical skills to juggle chain saws and other items.

The Soke has allegedly remarked to him that he is akin to the ninjas of the past, who would customarily masquerade as artists or acrobats when operating covertly in hostile areas. The Soke is known for making a lot of statements.

Now in his seventy-eighth year, Hatsumi has been tutoring and publishing on this issue for nearly fifty years.

Due to a lack of written documents, he informs his disciples that their practices largely rely on an oral tradition, which was brought to Japan from China during the Tang Dynasty by ex-militaries and mystics.

These teachings were shared in hushed tones.

In his 1982 book, Ninjutsu: History and Tradition, a definitive statement was made: those who were later known as ninja did not refer to themselves as such.

Rather, they were practitioners of unconventional tactics in the fields of politics, religion, and warfare that contrasted greatly with the mainstream ideologies of the era.

Ninjutsu evolved as a stealthy and unlawful method of opposing the powerful samurai class. Consequently, the art’s beginnings were shrouded in centuries of enigma, concealment, and the intentional obscuring of its history.

Bujinkan students have a tendency to accept what Hatsumi says as absolute truth.

However, the more skilled martial artists have realized that this is not what he wishes them to do and they have become aware of kyojutsu, a technique of ninja misinformation that is often translated as “the blending of truth and lies”.

Paul Masse highlighted that, in order to become true scholars, we must also be gentlemen. This, I can confirm, as I have never met an unlikable ninja – none of them looking like the ones I have imagined.

This is partially due to a Polish-Israeli director, Sam Firstenberg, and the B-movie he directed in 1983.

During a discussion at his residence in Los Angeles, Firstenberg told me that he had not been familiar with the term “ninja” until his employers at Cannon Pictures released Enter the Ninja two years prior.

“I had no knowledge of martial arts,” he stated. “I did three years of compulsory service in the military in Jerusalem, like everyone else, however, we weren’t Special Forces, so there was no instruction in hand-to-hand fighting.”

Menahem Golan, a financial-savvy leader in the nascent home-video business, was contacted by Mike Stone, the instructor of Elvis’ performance techniques in Las Vegas.

According to Firstenberg, Stone explained to Golan that Western audiences had yet to be exposed to the ninja genre, and Golan immediately sensed its potential. The action movie viewers were already familiar with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.

Golan supervised Enter the Ninja, filming in the Philippines with Italian actor Franco Nero as the protagonist in a white hood, and Sho Kosugi, a Japanese karate master, in the role of the antagonist donning black.

When assigned to direct the follow-up film in the United States, Firstenberg advanced Kosugi to the lead actor and the fight choreographer.

Kosugi asserted that a neighboring ninja, labelled “Mr. Yamamoto”, had instructed him during his youth in Minato. Firstenberg never checked to verify this. He was not concerned if his actor was legitimate or if the ninja had ever been present.

Kosugi had an aspiration to turn the movie into a purely martial arts and spiritual piece, however, I didn’t find that appealing. The ninja character gave me flashbacks to the Tarzan movies I adored while growing up.

He had mysterious capabilities and a remarkable costume.

He had his own set of techniques and weapons that were unfamiliar to others. As someone who is not a psychologist or sociologist, I could clearly understand the appeal this held for viewers, especially boys and young men.

Thus, we took this character from the East and placed him in a Western setting.

At the apex of a period sometimes referred to as the “ninja boom”, Revenge of the Ninja was released. During this era, ninjas were a popular subject in cartoons and comic books.

In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a parody of this trend.

As a child of seven, I was certain that nothing could top either Firstenberg’s movie or Lustbader’s The Ninja. It was from this overage novel that I first learned about sex, however I didn’t think it was important in comparison to the action.

In my imagination, I placed ninjas in the lush, green foliage of Dublin’s suburbs.

I felt aggrieved that my folks had not prepared me since my infancy using techniques such as the use of toxins, fashioning of disguises, or training me in the kusari-gama — a sophisticated weapon with a retractable scythe and an iron chain and weight on one end.

My dad told me not to whine when I asked for something, telling me that a true ninja is always adaptable. It was many years before I met a real ninja, and upon meeting him he made it clear that being able to do ninjutsu does not automatically make you a ninja.

I had given up on my dreams of being a ninja long ago, as I was not as agile as Winnie the Pooh. Then I met Mike Hammond who did not look particularly strong or stealthy either. He said to me, “Physicality isn’t the most important thing; it’s a mental state.”

Ninjutsu could be seen as the art of surviving and the science of safeguarding oneself in the most practical manner.

It’s not only relevant in situations of physical confrontation, such as a brawl, a knife fight, or a gunfight; but also in everyday situations, such as crossing a road or getting to one’s car securely in a dark parking lot. In essence, it is the way you present yourself.

Hammond had a Bujinkan dojo and a security agency located in a warehouse situated in an industrial area to the southeast of Sydney.

He informed me that his company had provided protection to renowned personalities such as Jon Bon Jovi, Tina Turner, and Dwight Yoakam when they were on their Australian tours, with the security personnel wearing plain black polo shirts or cowboy outfits to be inconspicuous.

I did not enquire about what Elton John had made them put on. He showed me his in-house weapons, which ranged from throwing stars to firearms with licenses.

It’s an old-fashioned practice, so we train with classic tools. However, the times have shifted and in the field, a nine-mil would be used.

That might not sound like a contradiction but the tradition itself is debatable.

The two Chinese characters that make up the word ninja are usually associated with “heart” and “blade” (although interpretations can differ), but it’s almost impossible to find anything about it in Japanese records before the mid-1800s.

For over two centuries, the Japanese nation had been unified and free from conflict under the Tokugawa shogunate.

It is thought that ninjas came into prominence during the civil wars that preceded the shogunate, when warring samurai factions hired experts from mountain clans and families to carry out espionage and assassinations.

There are various terms which have been used to refer to these operatives, the most common being “shinobi” and also “tupa” and “rapa”, which allude to their role as agents provocateurs.

In some cases, extant densho scrolls are still consulted as reliable instructional guides in dojos and practices having similarities to ninja arts.

The Bansenshukai, composed in approximately 1676, may have compiled thoughts and practices from Iga and Koga. However, this record has become so intertwined with legends that even scholars have difficulty distinguishing the facts from the tales.

I was apprised by a British-based historian, Paul Richardson, that the Kumogakure Ryu school of ninjutsu is attributing Sasuke Sarutobi as an esteemed student.

In spite of the fact that Sarutobi is nothing but the imaginary ninja hero of popular children’s stories originating no earlier than the beginning of the twentieth century.

Richardson queried, “How can people take ninjas seriously then?” and conceded that the Japanese do not. He continued, “Most Japanese people view researching ninjas in the same way that people in the UK see researching Robin Hood – as a bit of a joke.

They don’t really care whether or not Robin Hood was a real person.”

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the term ninja was introduced to our language, popularized by American soldiers, Japanese television programs, and Western practitioners of martial arts.

The term was later adopted by Indonesian death squads, Angolan emergency police, and rebels from the Pool region of Congo. Later, a unit of Serbian red berets based in Knin, Croatia changed the spelling to Kninjas. Nowadays, the term is often used for humorous purposes.

Last summer, I visited the small and isolated village of Farr in Scotland’s Highlands, where I encountered the Bujinkan dojo run by instructor Jock Brocas.

He related a story of a few prospective students that had arrived at his facility wearing cloaks and metal gauntlets, hoping to be taught how to execute and vanish.

Brocas suggested that the students should look into taking a different course of action. Those who decide to stay with him usually have less complex troubles.

Hamish MacLean, a red-haired teen, shared with me that his prior suspension from school was due to his regular outbursts of aggression, which had gone away completely after he began his Bujinkan training.

MacLean declared that he hadn’t been involved in any physical altercations since he enlisted.

He continued on to mention that he just laughs when people refer to him as a “ginger ninja.” Sergeant John Knowles, stationed at the close-by Fort George, remarked that it had nothing to do with being a combative person.

Knowles was once a part of the Ulster Volunteer Force, an organization based in Northern Ireland, and his arms are still decorated with its tattoos. During his young years, he acquired the skill of spiritual thinking, which is not something easily learned if one has not been exposed to it before.

Knowles confessed that not long ago he was so prejudiced that he would not converse with me, likely due to my Dublin accent which would indicate that I am a Republican Catholic. He then went on to say, “When you become a ninja, it completely changes your life.”

In my case, I am an atheist, which makes me a bit confused when Jock Brocas affirms that “the Bujinkan is like a faith in God.” This sort of talk is why some other martial artists consider the organization a cult.

On a balmy Sunday in June, I made my way to Masaaki Hatsumi’s Hombu dojo in the north satellite of Tokyo, Noda City.

When I arrived, I found a dark, cool sanctuary lined with portraits, candles, and racks of weapons, creating a gallery within an armory. I was here to observe the Soke’s class, yet I was mostly obligated to take part. This was the Godan Test, which could only be administered by Hatsumi himself.

The elderly Dr. Hatsumi is still quite capable of being street lethal, and is also a renowned osteopath.

He is well-versed in matters concerning bones, as he demonstrated by delivering a seemingly nonchalant chop to the face of an assistant. He went on to say that knowing what to do is not enough, and that it must be done properly in order to break, rather than hit, the cheek.

Law, culture, and science are part of our lives, but simply having knowledge is not sufficient. To achieve a balance, budo must be incorporated, something that can not be articulated, but rather experienced.

He was teaching a physical lesson that was akin to a Zen-like saying, which seemed a lot more real than just empty words.

“You have to be as light as dust, snow, or even a flying speck of trash,” he said, as he gracefully moved aside from an oncoming staff before pushing it back and up under the jaw of his partner, using it like a lever to force his head to the ground. “It takes courage to do that.”

Afterwards, he bid us farewell with his succinct bilingual slogan: ” Hai. OK. Play.” My training companion was a German police officer known as Dirk Rummel.

who had stopped doing judo a few years earlier to initiate his musha shugyu, an old-fashioned Japanese expression that translates to “warrior’s journey.” “I consider it necessary to come to grips with the Bujinkan,” Rummel stated, lightly throwing me to the ground and helping me back up.

He was an exemplar of the typical traits of the ninjutsu members: polite, educated, patient, and of the middle-class Caucasian group. Those who are committed and can manage the cost come to take the Fifth Dan (Godan) test as mandated in the Togakure Ryu school’s densho scroll, now owned by Hatsumi. It is here where the ninjutsu training becomes something of a metaphysical experience.

The student kneels with eyes shut, back to a master who holds a raised sword. Formerly, it is said, the weapon was a sharpened steel, and if unsuccessful, death would result. Today, however, it is made of wood.

Two foreign, athletic individuals come to stand before Oguri-Shihan, the Soke’s closest companion. Hatsumi speaks, “Your unconscious will guide you when to act.” A hush falls over the area. All of a sudden, Oguri strikes and the first candidate is hit on the head.

The Soke gives a dismissive “No” as if this were a common occurrence. Oguri attempts a second strike and the student, seemingly by luck, rolls away in time.

The Soke then gives a pleased “Yes”. The graduate’s expression conveys amazement, and appears to express a newly-discovered or remembered realization. To me, the graduate appears to be in a childlike state of joy and awe.

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