The rise of ninjutsu—the way of the ninja—gained worldwide recognition through popular culture.
James Bond had to fight a ninja army in 1967’s You Only Live Twice; then you’ve got ninja turtles living in sewers, plus numerous Marvel and DC protagonists with ninjutsu training.
The sword-wielding, mask-parading ninja with the uncanny ability to disappear at will is really just a romanticized version of men trying to survive the difficult times in Sengoku Jidai, Japan’s Warring States Period (1467–1590)—an epoch marked by warlords, epidemics and terrible earthquakes.
Actually the trade of a ninja—collecting intelligence on enemies—is much more subtle.
Ninjutsu is essentially the art of survival, which includes physical training, mental strength, chemistry, meteorology and psychology.
‘In the beginning, it was almost like an extension of child’s play but it gradually became more and more serious, like learning how to make explosives out of nitrates’
Men became ninjas primarily to earn a living and support their family, with most alternating between the lives of a hired ninja and an ordinary farmer.
A ninja in training
Fast-forward to modern day and the 21st (and last) head of the Koga Ban ninja clan is no different: Jinichi Kawakami was an average salaryman—an engineer at a big corporation in Japan—before he retired.
As a kid, Kawakami also went to school like every boy his age. Had it not been his chance encounter with a ninja who later became his master, he would have grown up to be a very ordinary man.
At the age of six, young Kawakami met an old man wearing an apprentice Buddhist monk robe.
Masazo Ishida, around 70 at the time, was throwing coins—ancient looking ones with a hole in the middle—at a wall studded with nails, each coin hanging neatly off the nails.
Deeply impressed, Kawakami befriended the old man and started to learn his tricks.
‘It was more of a grandfather-grandchild relationship rather than a master-apprentice relationship,’ he says.
‘Knowing your limit helps you to maintain good mental strength’
Ishida taught Kawakami many things. He learned the way to breath, walk, get pass any lock and sneak into a house.
‘In the beginning, it was almost like an extension of child’s play but it gradually became more and more serious, like learning how to make explosives out of nitrates.’
He was even taught to identify useful components in the dirt by tasting it.
Gradually he built his stamina through enduring pain, extreme temperatures and hunger (he went through strict fasts for a month).
‘Knowing your limit helps you to maintain good mental strength,’ he adds.
It all sounds very Karate Kid and incredibly hard for a child, but Kawakami never thought about quitting.
The reason? For quite some time, he wasn’t aware that he was training to be a ninja.
‘I simply didn’t think that much about the practices as the training was incorporated into my daily life,’ he says.
He did have the sense to keep all this from his parents though.
It wasn’t until one day when his teacher at junior high had noticed Kawakami’s unusually pale hands that his ninjutsu training came to light.
‘A good ninja extracts secrets out of his enemies with excellent communication skills’
The sign pointed to hand-arm vibration syndrome, a neurological disorder caused by prolonged exposure to strong vibration, which was part of Kawakami’s training regime.
Although not an heir to the original ninja bloodline, Kawakami learnt everything he needed to know to become a true ninja.
His master even passed down documents detailing the family tree, history and origin of the clan, weapons, and scrolls and books on the secrets of ninjutsu.
The 21st century ninja
This makes Kawakami the official 21st head of the Koga Ban family, taking over from the aged Ishida.
Despite being the clan’s sole heir, Kawakami decided not to take on apprentices because the way of the ninja—breaking into houses and entrapping people—is incongruous in today’s society.
This makes him the last in a 500-year line of ninjas but this does not mean the end of ninjutsu.
Now a professor at Mie University to research ninjutsu, Kawakami is also an honorary director at the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum.
He gives regular lectures and workshops on ninjutsu and is currently researching into the history of ninja—its origin is somewhat shrouded in mystery, masked by how the profession is (mis)understood today.
‘You might think it’s weird, but the most important quality in a ninja is sociability,’ he reveals.
‘A good ninja extracts secrets out of his enemies with excellent communication skills.
‘Ninjas are good at disguising themselves, understanding desires, as well as manipulating people’s minds.
‘Their heart must be in the right place, since there is only a fine line between practicing ninjutsu and crime.
‘The study of ninjas and ninjutsu could be useful for the present time because of the philosophy behind it,’ he explains.
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Photos: Alamy/Jinichi Kawakami/Shutterstock