Ninjas I Have Known

Among the more than one hundred thousand trained ninjas in the world, there are no battle cries, no spectators, no punches—and very few Japanese.
Dojos, Ninja-Specific Techniques, Shihans, Blocks and Strikes, A Theoretically Infinite Range of Movement, Combat Effectiveness, Philosophy and Spirituality, Chain saw Jugglers, Preventative Ass-Kicking Methods, Ninjutsu, Samurai Counterculture, B-Grade Action Movies, Cultural Transplantations, The Eternal Search for Ninja Authenticity, The Science of Practical Protection, Fifteenth-Century Spy Missions, Robin Hood Studies

Ninjas I Have Known

Stephen Phelan
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

There is no place on Earth where a person can say with absolute certainty that they are not being stalked by ninjas. Common sense suggests this is unlikely, but pure logic dictates that you cannot prove a negative, and the art of the ninja is to go unperceived.

I have been around the world to look for them, to shadow them in reverse, and whenever I find a possible candidate, he or she tends to deny it. “No, no, no,” said Mats Hjelm, a web designer from Stockholm, during a short break from his ninjutsu class in Tokyo.

“I don’t like to call it by that name, although I know that some other people do. And I definitely don’t call myself a ninja.” This was, of course, exactly what a true ninja would say.

I had followed Hjelm and several other foreigners to the Budokan on a Friday night—not the famous music venue where Cheap Trick recorded that killer live album in 1978, but the concrete exhibition hall for Japanese warrior arts at the end of the Chiyoda metro line. These Western pilgrims were not hard to spot on the subway, dressed mostly in black and carrying arcane wooden practice weapons in suspiciously shaped cases, slung as if they were real.

Ninjutsu, they told me, was just one part of their training in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, a modern fighting system amalgamated from nine traditional schools of martial arts. Only three of those nine have been linked to the teaching of ninja-specific techniques.

“I am not so interested in ninjas,”­ said George Ohashi, a Bujinkan instructor and administrator, and one of the relatively few Japanese among a global membership of more than a hundred thousand.

“We are studying budo [which roughly translates as “the way of the warrior”] here. Some people have a different image in their heads, and they are not satisfied with what they see in our dojo. We can’t help that, and we don’t mind it.”

While we spoke, an older and more senior instructor—or shihan—named Koichi Oguri was supervising fifty or so students as they practiced a fluid, complex sequence of blocks and strikes that he had just demonstrated. The vast auditorium was otherwise empty, and silent except for the low rumble of bodies falling and rolling.

“Yes, it’s quiet,” agreed Ohashi. “We have no kiai.” Kiai is the battle­ cry often heard in karate and other martial forms that have become competitive sports. The Bujinkan has not. There are no spectators, and no rules as such. Where karate is mostly kicks and punches, and judo is all throws, this system is based on eight grounding physical principles—known as kihon—which allow for a theoretically infinite range of movements and variables.

Many of its practitioners have abandoned those sports in favor of an art they consider both more esoteric and more combat effective. Paul Masse, a twenty-year veteran of the Bujinkan, met me across town after class, at a Starbucks overlooking the Roppongi entertainment district. The view out the window was ­ideal—heavy rain and neon.

Masse said I could call him a ninja. “I’m fine with that,” he told me. “It describes my technique, my philosophy, my spirituality.” As a child in Florida, Masse had decided that only two vocations made sense: rock star, or martial artist. “Then I figured that martial artists live longer and happier lives.” He took up aikido before he was ten, then karate, judo, jujitsu, kung fu. “Kung fu is beautiful,” he said, “but it wouldn’t really stop you from getting your ass kicked.”

None of these, in fact, seemed quite right to Masse. “I started to feel like I was chasing a little kid’s dream, like there was no ‘real’ martial art. I almost gave up.” He got a degree in accounting and a job in international finance. “What a nightmare that was. You’re chasing money that isn’t even yours. Your life is slipping away.”

The way Masse remembers it, all his adult discontent ended with one display of ninjutsu by a student of Stephen K. Hayes’s, who was the first American student of Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi’s, whose own authority was inherited from the thirty-­three grand masters who preceded him, in a lineage that supposedly traces back to Daisuke Nishina, the twelfth-century founder of the Togakure Ryu school.

To use Buddhism by way of analogy, if Nishina was the Prince Siddhartha of ninjas, then Hatsumi is the current Dalai Lama. “I knew I had to come out here to Japan and learn directly from the Soke,” said Masse, referring to Hatsumi by his given honorific.

“I thought I would eventually go home and open a dojo. That was my five-year plan, fifteen years ago.” Masse now makes a living as a street performer in Yokohama, transferring his physical skills and training into a new career juggling chain saws and so on.

The Soke has apparently told him that he’s not so different from the original, historical ninjas, who would often pose as players or acrobats while working under cover in hostile territories. The Soke says a lot of things. Now seventy-eight years old, Hatsumi has been teaching and writing on this subject for almost half a century.

In the relative absence of documentary evidence, he reminds his followers that theirs is, by necessity, a mostly oral tradition, passed down in whispers from the exiled generals and mystics who first brought their wisdom to Japan from Tang-dynasty China.

The definitive quote comes from his 1982 book, Ninjutsu: History and Tradition: “The people who were later referred to as ninja did not use that label for themselves. They were merely practitioners of political, religious and military strategies that were cultural opposites of the conventional outlooks of the times.

“Ninjutsu developed as a highly illegal counter-culture to the ruling samurai elite, and for this reason alone, the origins of the art were shrouded by centuries of mystery, concealment, and deliberate confusion of history.”

Many students of the Bujinkan seem to take Hatsumi’s word as something close to gospel, although the more adept have learned that he doesn’t want them to, and often fakes them out with kyojutsu, a ninja disinformation tactic they like to translate as “the interweaving of truth and falsehood.”

“The point is that we have to become scholars, too,” said Paul Masse. “And gentlemen. You wouldn’t know a real ninja to look at him.” I can vouch for this, in the sense that I have never met a ninja I didn’t like, nor a single one who remotely resembled the ninjas in my head. Which is partly the fault of a Polish-Israeli B-movie director named Sam Firstenberg, and a film he made in 1983.

In a recent conversation at his home in Los Angeles, Firstenberg admitted to me that he had never even heard the operative word until his paymasters at Cannon Pictures put out Enter the Ninja two years earlier. “I knew absolutely nothing about martial arts,” said Firstenberg. “I did three years’ mandatory army service in Jerusalem, like everyone else, but we weren’t exactly Special Forces, so there wasn’t any hand-to-hand combat training.”

His friend and boss Menahem Golan, budget-conscious king of the early home-video market, had been approached by Mike Stone, the eminent karate-man who taught Elvis his Vegas-period stage chops. “The action crowd was already familiar with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, but Stone told Golan that ninjas hadn’t really been explored in the West, and he immediately smelled their potential,” Firstenberg said.

Golan directed Enter the Ninja himself, shooting in the Philippines with Italian actor Franco Nero as the hero in a white hood, and Japanese karate champion Shô Kosugi as the patently superior bad guy in black. Hired to direct a sequel on US soil, Firstenberg promoted Kosugi to leading man and fight choreographer.

Kosugi later claimed that a mysterious ninja neighbor known only as “Mr. Yamamoto” had taught him as a child in Minato. Firstenberg never verified this. He didn’t particularly care if his star was the real thing, or if such a thing had ever even existed.

“Kosugi wanted to drag the movie into pure martial arts and spiritual ideas, but I wasn’t interested in that. There was something about the ninja that reminded me of the Tarzan pictures I loved as a kid. He had magical powers, and a fantastic uniform.

“He used his own rituals, and exotic weapons nobody had seen before. I’m not a psychologist, or sociologist, but I could see how this would appeal to audiences, especially boys and young men. So we transplanted this oriental character into Western culture.”

The result was Revenge of the Ninja, released at the height of a period now known as “the ninja boom.” Those living shadows, so easy to draw, proliferated through cartoons and comic books until Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird sketched out their own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a sort of satirical response in 1984.

I was a child of the times—seven years old and already pretty sure that I would never see a better movie than Firstenberg’s, nor read a better book than Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja. I first found out about sex from that age-­inappropriate best seller, but dismissed it as inessential to the violence.

I mentally projected ninjas into the bright green bushes of suburban Dublin. I resented my parents for their failure to train me from birth in poisons, disguises, or the kusari-gama—a wickedly retractable combat scythe with an iron chain and a weight at the end.

They wouldn’t even buy me one. “A ninja wouldn’t whine like that,” retorted my father, who possessed his own subtle ways. “The ninja is always adaptable.” It was almost twenty years before I encountered a real ninja, and when I did he made it clear that “practicing ninjutsu does not necessarily make you a ninja.”

My own aspirations to ninjahood had long since died when I accepted that I would never be any more physically adroit than Winnie the Pooh, but Mike Hammond didn’t look much healthier or stealthier. “It’s not about size,” he said. “It’s a state of mind.

“Ninjutsu is the art of survival and the science of practical protection. Not just in a rumble, a knife fight, a gunfight, but crossing the road, or getting safely to your car in a dark lot. It becomes the way you carry yourself.”

Hammond ran a Bujinkan dojo and private security company out of a warehouse in an industrial estate to the southeast of Sydney. He told me that his firm had protected big names like Jon Bon Jovi, Tina Turner, and Dwight Yoakam on their Australian concert tours, wearing plain black polo shirts or cowboy outfits as required to blend into the background. I didn’t ask what Elton John had made them wear. He showed me his in-house arsenal, which ranged from throwing stars to licensed submachine guns.

“It’s a traditional art, so we train with traditional toys. But times have changed, mate. In the field, we would use a nine-mil. That’s not a contradiction.” Maybe not, but the tradition itself is open to dispute. The very word ninja, which comprises two Chinese ideograms usually interpreted as “heart” and “blade” (although translations vary), is almost impossible to find in Japanese histories written before the late Edo period, or mid-nineteenth century.

By then, the nation had been united and essentially peaceful under the Tokugawa shogunate for more than two hundred years. Ninjas had supposedly flourished in the preceding civil wars, when rival samurai power blocs hired specialists from secretive mountain clans and families to conduct spying missions and occasional assassinations. Some researchers have identified different names for those operatives—most commonly shinobi, but also tupa, or rapa, which basically refer to the duties of agents provocateurs.

Certain surviving densho scrolls are still read and used as authentic training manuals in various schools and techniques that might be called ninja-esque, or ninja-like.

At least one primary document—the Bansenshukai, written circa 1676—seems to codify related thoughts and actions in the Iga and Koga regions. But the surrounding narrative is now so bound up in folktales that even so-called experts can’t separate out the facts.

A British-based historian named Paul Richardson informed me that the Kumogakure Ryu school of ninjutsu is claiming Sasuke Sarutobi as a noted alumnus, despite the fact that Sarutobi was and is the fictional ninja hero of popular children’s stories dating back no further than the early twentieth century.

“So how can anyone take them seriously?” asked Richardson, before admitting that the Japanese don’t. “Most people in Japan think that researching ninjas is like studying Robin Hood. They treat it as kind of a joke. It’s the same as people­ in the UK not really knowing or caring whether Robin Hood was based on a real guy.”

Since the word ninja first snuck into our language after the Second World War—via American soldiers, Japanese TV shows, and Western martial artists—its use, spread, and meaning have been uncontrolled. Indonesian death squads, Angolan emergency police, and rebels in the Pool region of Congo all have called themselves ninjas. The spelling was amended to Kninjas by a unit of Serbian red berets stationed in Knin, Croatia. More often, it has sillier connotations.

Even in the Scottish Highlands, in the tiny and remote village of Farr, ninjutsu attracts fantasists. When I visited Farr’s community hall last summer, where Bujinkan instructor Jock Brocas has his dojo, he told me about prospective students who have turned up wearing cloaks and metal gauntlets, wanting him to show them how to kill and disappear. 

“I advise them to try a different class,” said Brocas. The students that he does not turn away tend to have less-colorful problems. A red-haired teenager named Hamish MacLean told me that he had previously been suspended from school for his constant aggression, which was entirely dissipated by his training in the Bujinkan.

“I’ve not been in a fight since I joined,” said MacLean. He added that now he just laughs when people­ call him a “ginger ninja.” “It’s not about being a fighting soul,” said Sergeant John Knowles, a British soldier based at nearby Fort George.

“It teaches you to think spiritually, which is difficult if you’ve never done it before.” In his youth, Knowles was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. His arms are covered in its tattoos.

Assuming from my Dublin accent that I’m a Republican Catholic, he admitted that less than a year ago he was still so bigoted that he would not have spoken to me. “When you start down the path of the ninja,” said Knowles, “it throws your old life out.”

Actually, I am an atheist, which puts me at a bit of a loss when Jock Brocas confirms that “the Bujinkan is like a religion, like a faith in God.” It is this kind of talk that makes some other martial artists refer to the organization as a cult.

And then there is “the Godan Test,” which can be administered only by Masaaki Hatsumi himself, at his Hombu dojo in Noda City, a decaying northern satellite of Tokyo. On a warm Sunday morning in June, I went along to watch the Soke’s own class, but was more or less obliged to participate. The dojo was dark and cool, lined with portraits, candles, and racks of edged weapons—a shrine within a gallery within an armory.

Elderly yet still street lethal, Dr. Hatsumi also trades as an osteo­path, and knows a dangerous amount about bones. “If you do this correctly, you are not hitting but breaking the cheek,” he said, demonstrating a casual, almost offhanded chop into the face of an assistant. Knowledge is all very well, he went on.

“It gives us law, and culture, and science. But knowledge is not enough. It must be balanced out with budo, which can never be explained. It can only be understood by doing.”

Zen-like aphorisms sound a lot less like bullshit when applied as painful physical lessons. “You must become a fleck of dust, or snow, or garbage in the air,” he said of another technique, stepping breezily to the side of an onrushing wooden staff, before nudging it back and up into the jaw hinge of his now-prone mock assailant, like a lever for prying his head off. “It is a matter of courage.”

Then he sent us off to try this on each other with his terse, bilingual catchphrase: “Hai. OK. Play.” My own practice partner was a German policeman named Dirk Rummel, who gave up on judo several years ago to embark on what he called a musha shugyu, an archaic Japanese phrase meaning “warrior’s journey.” “I think it is important to get to the roots of the Bujinkan,” said Rummel, knocking me gently to the floor and picking me quickly back up.

Polite and patient, well traveled and educated, middle-class and inescapably Caucasian, he seemed typical of its members. If they’re serious, and if they can afford it, all of them eventually come here to take their Fifth Dan, or “Godan” test, as prescribed in a densho scroll from the Togakure Ryu school, now in Hatsumi’s possession. This is the point at which ninjutsu training becomes metaphysical.

The student kneels down, eyes closed, facing away from a master with a raised sword. In the old days, they say, the sword was sharpened steel, and failure meant death. Today­ it’s made of wood. Two young, athletic foreigners take their places in front of Oguri-Shihan, the Soke’s right-hand man. “Your subconscious will tell you when to move,” says Hatsumi. There is silence. Oguri suddenly strikes, and the first candidate is bonked on the head.

“No,” says the Soke, dismissively. Apparently this happens a lot. Oguri cuts downward again, and the second student, by some trick or miracle, rolls away at the right instant. “Yes,” says the Soke. The graduate’s face betrays his own astonishment. It suggests that he has just discovered, or remembered, something important. To me, he looks less like a ninja than like a child—­ecstatic, and mystified. 

More Reads

Bonus Disc Fever

Alex Rose

Watching Shrek in Tehran

Brian T. Edwards


Leyla Ertegun