Ninja boom: how Japan's secret warriors swapped the shadows for the spotlight. Japan is exploiting a global craze for ninjas as the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Olympics approach. A ninjutsu master poses in Iga-Ueno, home to one of Japan's best-known ...
Beware the moment when Masaaki Hatsumi offers his hand. The gesture could end in a conventional greeting or, as it transpired during a recent demonstration, with his victim sent tumbling to the floor with a mere turn of the wrist.
â€œThatâ€™s a technique Iâ€™ve taught members of the French special forces,â€ said the 84-year-old, one of Japanâ€™s few living ninja, the feudal era spies whose modern descendants are at the centre of a tourism push as Japan prepares to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Olympics a year later.
Once revered for their ability to combine stealth and violence in the service of their samurai masters during the â€œwarring statesâ€ period from the mid-15th century, the ninja of today have taken on the far more benign role of tourism ambassadors, as Japan attempts to exploit a global craze for ninjas.
â€œNinja used to be portrayed as very grim and dark, but since they became better known through animated films, games, movies and novels they have always been portrayed as heroes, especially overseas,â€ said Yasaka Inagaki, director of the tourist association in Iga-Ueno, home to one of the countryâ€™s best-known ninja clans.
There canâ€™t be many people who have not at some time wanted to disappear with a quick uzura-gakure (curling oneself into a ball to look like a rock), make a swift exit with the help of a kaginawa (grappling hook), or discombobulate an adversary with a well-aimed powder bomb.
At his global network of Bujinkan schools Hatsumi teaches fighting skills and qualities rooted in bushido (the moral code of the samurai) to tens of thousands of trainees, irrespective of their cultural or religious backgrounds.
â€œWe have students from lots of religions around the world,â€ said Hatsumi, the purple-haired 34th grand master of the Togakure school of ninjutsu. â€œAs far as my version of martial arts is concerned, students have to be flexible about their religious beliefs, and then they start to learn to enjoy life through martial arts.â€
While several places in Japan claim connections with ninja, Iga and neighbouring Koga are credited with developing the two main schools of ninjutsu, or the art of stealth. It was here that ninja were arguably at their most effective, thanks to the areaâ€™s proximity to Edo-era trading routes and mountain hideouts where they would train in between missions.
As well as mastering weaponry, escape and evasion techniques, the ultimate ninja was versed in concentration and disguise â€“ skills that were used to gather intelligence and infiltrate enemies.
In the castle town of Iga-Ueno, cartoon ninja adorn trains stopping at the local railway station, depositing visitors dressed in colourful versions of the ninjaâ€™s trademark black costumes. At the nearby ninja village they watch live combat demonstrations and take tours of a ninja house, complete with hidden ladders, fake doors and secret stashes of coins and weapons.
â€œThis is the best opportunity weâ€™ve had to promote Iga as the one and only ninja village,â€ said Inagaki. â€œWe want everyone to know that Iga is the birthplace of the ninja.â€
Almost 20 million tourists visited Japan last year after visa requirements for Chinese tourists were relaxed and as memories of the 2011 Fukushima disaster faded, prompting the government to double its 2020 target to 40 million to coincide with the summer Olympics in Tokyo.
â€œThe 1964 Olympics in Tokyo launched Japan on the world stage, but now China is the dominant force and Japan seems to have fallen out of favour,â€ said Stephen Turnbull, a visiting professor at Akita International University and ninja authority. â€œNow Japan is appealing to the world through its geek culture, and the ninja are a part of that. Itâ€™s a bit of fun â€“ and the Japanese are very good at doing fun.â€
Aichi prefecture, which also claims a ninja heritage, recently hired Chris Oâ€™Neill, a 29-year-old American, as the first foreign member of its â€œninja squadâ€ of tourism ambassadors.
Oâ€™Neill was chosen over 234 other applicants â€“ most of whom were not Japanese â€“ after demonstrating a series of dazzling backflips. â€œHe was really amazing,â€ said Satoshi Adachi of Aichiâ€™s tourism agency. â€œHe has great acrobatic skill and is comfortable speaking in front of the public.â€
But Turnbull, who is writing a book titled The Ninja Myth, believes that the ninja as we think of them today are better described as a romanticised version of feudal-era specialists in irregular warfare.
â€œItâ€™s true that Japan had a huge martial tradition, but the ninja as a class of people didnâ€™t actually exist,â€ he said. â€œThe samurai used espionage and guerrilla warfare, and carried out assassinations, of course, but Iâ€™d be surprised if they hadnâ€™t.â€
The mythology created around ninja â€œstarted with stories set in medieval Japan, and became the money-spinning multimedia extravaganza it is todayâ€, added Turnbull, who credits the 1960s series of Shinobi no Mono films with popularising the image of ninja as acrobatic, heavily armed assassins with superhuman powers.
Ninja found new fans among western audiences when they appeared alongside James Bond in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice â€“ to which Hatsumi acted as a fight scene adviser â€“ setting off a Hollywood fascination with ninjutsu that also gave us Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, more recently, the Ninjago Lego movies.
Ninja are also the driving force behind a huge catalogue of manga, anime and video games. Naruto, a manga about an adolescent ninja, has sold more than 220 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling manga series ever.
Today ninja are â€œmostly nonsenseâ€ and the product of a â€œmade-up heritageâ€, said John Man, author of Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior. â€œBut mock heritage is great for tourism, if you exploit it right. Theyâ€™re like Robin Hood or King Arthur â€¦ there are grains of truth, and barrels of romance.â€
Whatever the truth of their origins, Inagaki believes the tenets of ninjutsu hold lessons for todayâ€™s political leaders, who might like to familiarise themselves with boryaku â€“ the barely perceptible manipulation of political and current affairs.
â€œNinjutsu is often described as a martial art, but it isnâ€™t really,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s more akin to a military strategy that governments use to try to manipulate other countries and extract information, but without actually attacking them. The ninja are experts at manipulating their enemiesâ€™ emotions.â€
The need for bands of men versed in unconventional warfare diminished when Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century, but Hatsumi agrees that the skills and philosophy of ninjutsu have a strictly benevolent role to play even today.
â€œItâ€™s about teaching students things they never even realised they needed to learn,â€ said Hatsumi, whom one martial arts magazine described as a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Obi-Wan Kenobi. â€œIâ€™ve never had one bad guy come to my dojo (place) â€¦ bad people know that itâ€™s no place for them.â€
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