Ninjutsu 1 can be translated to mean the “art of endurance” or the “art of lying in wait” and refers to the unorthodox guerrilla and espionage tactics employed during Japan's “warring states” period. Some koryu schools, such as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, contain Ninjutsu in their curriculum, but the term has become synonymous with three organisations: the Bujinkan and its offshoots, the Genbukan and Jinenkan.
Most of the training is based around Kihon Happo ("basic eight way"), which is drawn from schools/ryus in the Bujinkan which were not Ninjustsu schools. Kihon Happo contains the postures Ichimoji Kamae, Jumonji Kamae, Hicho Kamae, and the techniques Omote Gyaku, Ura Gyaku, Hon Gyaku, Musha Dori, and Ganshki Nage which resemble one step Japanese Jujutsu kata. Several weapons are primarily taught: Roko Shaku Bo, (six foot staff) Han Bo, (three foot staff) Shuko, (hand claws), Bikenjutsu (swordwork), Shuriken (star shaped and bo), Manriki Gusari (fighting chain), and dozens of other weapons you learn at advanced ranks (Yudansha). Most of these techniques and weapons are not unique to Ninjutsu practice.
Claiming to be a Ninja is the same as if you claimed to be a medieval knight. Neither truly exists anymore. 2 The actual origins of Ninjutsu have not been resolved, but have been long connected with the adjoining Iga and Koga geographic areas of feudal Japan. While many claim a Ninjutsu lineage from the “Koga”, the last recognized Soke from this lineage, Seiko Fujita, died on January 4, 1966 from cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind no students to carry on his Ninjutsu teachings. It should be noted that during his lifetime Seiko Fugita publicly declared that his Ninjutsu art was going to die with him. 3
Furthermore, it is not well-established that Seiko Fugita was even a legitimate representative of the Ninjutsu practiced in the Koga region of Japan. Many Japanese martial artists doubted Fugita’s claim to a Ninja heritage based on his inability or refusal to divulge a detailed lineage beyond that he had studied with his grandfather. There is no independent proof that Fugita’s grandfather was actually a Ninja, and Fugita said he had only studied Ninjutsu with his grandfather for a short period of time before he died and before Fugita had reached adulthood. So whenever someone claims Koga Ninjustu as their continuous lineage, as opposed to American civil war style battle re-enactment, they are full of hot air.
In the Iga lineage of the ryu that comprise this art, only three of the nine schools are even alleged to have descended from the Ninja rather than the Samurai. These are Togakure Ryu, Kumogakure Ryu and Gyokushin Ryu. However, the first and the last of these three ryus have had their ninjustu pedigrees disputed. Gyokuskin has been claimed to be just another form of jutsu because it has an identical name to a historic jutsu school which also specialized in sacrifice throws (sutemi waza) and Hatsumi has refused to send away his ninja materials concerning Togakure Ryu to be authenticated. (He did offer to let people view his documentation but would not let it out of his sight.)
In any case, of the nine ryus that make up the material taught by Masaaki Hatsumi’s Bujinkan and also its offshoots the Genbukan, Jinenkan, and finally the Toshin Do, all use this disputed material. Ironically, these are the Ninjutsu organizations that HAVE a claim to historic legitimacy! It is possible, however, that these ryus are also legitimate if one accepts the argument that some Ninjas were members of the Samurai Class and also used Samurai arts. This is an argument that most neo-ninjas don’t want to hear because it would destroy the previously accepted belief that the Ninja and the Samurai were mutually exclusive social classes.
The reader should be aware that while Masaaki Hatsumi's lineage stems from a man named Toshitsugu Takamatsu, that there are reports that efforts to prove the existence of Takamatsu's own named Ninjutsu teacher have been unsuccessful. Given that this missing master would have been alive in Modern Japan (post-Meiji restoration, starting in 1868) and Japanese society loves paperwork, there should be some independent documentation establishing his existence. The absence of such evidence has called the existence of Takamatsu's teacher into question. See also this post, this post, and this post on Bullshido, since some of this information has been taken down from E-Budo.
But even if the Iga lineage is real, another problem exists. There are few contemporaneous accounts or texts concerning Ninjutsu that were written during the Japanese feudal period. Those which still exist include: Basenshukai, written by a samurai from Iga-Ueno named Fujibayashi Yasutake, in 1676; Shoninki, written by a samurai from Kishu named Fujibayashi Masatuke in 1681; and Ninpiden, written by Hattori Hanzo Yasunaga in 1653. (We do not know if Fujibayashi Yasutake and Fujibayashi Masatuke were related.) The Ninpide and Shoninki do not mention hand-to-hand combat techniques and the Basenshukai only briefly touches upon this subject. Instead, they mostly discuss intelligence gathering, and (to simplify the subject) sneaking around. Unlike their modern contemporaries, the feudal ninja were not particularly concerned with unarmed one-on-one hand-to-hand combat.
Other records of this period include Densho and Makimono (record books and scrolls). These were often used in Japan to record the materials from a ryu. One thing to understand about these records is that they were mostly written in KANBUN, which was basically Chinese written for Japanese people and predates current kana. For Ninjutsu Densho and Makimono, the passages in the documents 4 were vaguely worded. For example a technique might be described as follows:
- Uke grabs tori's right wrist with left hand.
- Twist ukes wrist and push towards uke’s chest
- Drop down and throw.
If one is familiar with the school or knows the techniques first-hand, this description may be of use, but this does little to tell the neo-Ninjas of today how to do feudal era techniques. Illustrated records were rare and limited by the author’s artistic talents, or lack thereof.
So those who claim to learn from "secret scrolls" (especially those who claim Koga lineage) are fooling themselves.
Masaaki Hatsumi, the creator of the Bujinkan, claims to be the inheritor of three schools of ninjutsu — Togakure Ryu, Kumogakure Ryu,and Gikkan Ryu — along with six other Samurai ryu from Toshitsugu Takamatsu. To date, none of the Ninjutsu school scrolls have been verified as authentic by Japan's most prominent koryu associations, the Nihon Kobudo Shinkokai and the Nihon Kobudo Kyokai. Defenders claim that those ninjutsu schools were passed down orally, but Hatsumi's claim of being the 34th Generation soke of Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu is suspect as this would make it the oldest Japanese ryu in recorded history. The claim also questionable because there would have been little need for advanced espionage techniques before the rise of powerful feuding warlords. Two of Hatsumi's original Japanese students have split off and created their own organizations, the Genbukan (Tanemura) and the Jinenkan (Manaka). One of the first Americans to study under Hatsumi, Steven Hayes, has also split off and created Toshin-do.
Finally another driving force behind Ninja politics is that Hatsumi has created a 15 degree dan ranking system which is not common in Japanese martial arts. The result is that he has given out high ranks which have often been seen as unwarranted. This promises to produce lots of conflict after his passing since not all the people given high ranks have also been awarded menkyo kiden, a teaching license giving you permission to teach that particular school of martial arts. Stay tuned for more drama.
A Fighting Critique
The advantages of Bujinkan training include a wide variety of weapons and the lack of emphasis on performing solo kata drills. Students are generally free to use variations of the basic techniques during training. The disadvantages of the system are:
- The lack of a complete ground game.
- The use of stances or “kamae” during training that are difficult to use in an alive situation.
- With few exceptions, Bujinkan schools do not engage in sparring. Techniques are most often trained against an unrealistic attack.
- Bujinkan does not currently have any significant representation in modern Mixed Martial Arts or Submission Grappling events.
- A large portion of training time is devoted to low percentage techniques and untested material.
- Given the Ninja mystique, we at Bullshido have found more delusional martial artists and live action role players in this art than any other. So be careful who you select as a teacher.
- 1 - There are different Romanization systems for Japanese. Ninjutsu can also be spelled Ninjitsu. We prefer the first spelling because the JSO system is currently the most accepted Romanization system for the Japanese language and all the posers spell it the other way with the i.
- 2 - Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, “Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts” (Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1969, 1980), p. 131. “No Ninja exist today.”
- 3 - Seiko Fujita, "Koga Ryu Ninja Ichidai Ki" a reprint of his autobiography "Doron Doron Saigo no Ninjaz' (Soujinsha 1959) .
- 4 - The lead author of this piece, Ben Bradley reads Japanese and bases this comment on the materials he owns and has seen.