Japan from the inside out

Who do you believe?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 24, 2012

THE BBC website offers a text version of a piece Mariko Oi did for the BBC World Service called Japan’s ninjas heading for extinction. It’s a reasonable overview of who the practitioners of the martial art of ninjutsu actually were and what they actually did.

The article concludes, however, with the statements from modern-day ninja masters that they will not appoint successors.

Both Kawakami and Hatsumi are united on one point. Neither will appoint anyone to take over as the next ninja grandmaster.

“In the age of civil wars or during the Edo period, ninjas’ abilities to spy and kill, or mix medicine may have been useful,” Kawakami says.

“But we now have guns, the internet and much better medicines, so the art of ninjutsu has no place in the modern age.”

As a result, he has decided not to take a protégé. He simply teaches ninja history part-time at Mie University.

Despite having so many pupils, Mr. Hatsumi, too, has decided not to select an heir.

“My students will continue to practice some of the techniques that were used by ninjas, but [a person] must be destined to succeed the clan.”

There is no such person, he says.


Note that Mr. Kawakami says there is no place for ninja in the modern age because of guns, the Internet, and better medicines. But there were guns, telecommunications, and better medicines when both men started practicing the discipline. That explanation seems a bit inadequate.

One of the first posts I presented at this site was a profile of Hatsumi Masaaki. It contains more detail on the man and the practices at his dojo than the Oi piece, and has an overview of one of the lesser-known aspects of the art of ninjutsu.

That post also contains quotes from Glenn Morris, a university professor and business consultant who trained for many years in Japan with Mr. Hatsumi and wrote three books about his experiences. (I read the first two; the third seems to have been slapped together to fulfill a publishing contract.)

In one of those books — written about 15 years ago — Morris specifically addresses the succession issue at Mr. Hatsumi’s dojo. He said succession to the role of grandmaster leapfrogs generations, and he thought he had an idea of who the next designated successor would be. He even discussed the matter with other foreigners at the dojo whom he respected and thought were perceptive people.

But why then would both of these men publicly announce that a secretive tradition several centuries old was coming to an end?

This will make sense to people who have been in Japan for a while (and of course to Japanese), but Morris thought the reason Mr. Hatsumi became interested in recruiting foreigners to his dojo to begin with was to save the art from extinction. Contemporary Japanese youth weren’t interested in ninja tricks — old fuddy-duddy stuff. But it would intrigue those younger Japanese inclined to ignore ninjutsu in favor of other martial arts if foreigners came from around the world to his dojo to practice. (Remember that the films of Kurosawa Akira became well-known among the Japanese public only after he received overseas acclaim.)

In other words, Mr. Hatsumi used foreigners as a recruiting tool to attract Japanese practitioners.

Perhaps he thinks he has accomplished that mission and intends to enshroud the whole business in secrecy again. The public comments to the BBC would be meant to discourage new foreigners from coming.

Does anyone really think that a Japanese man who has spent his whole life in this tradition would so casually let it die? (Without hunting down the precise number in one of the Morris books, I think Hatsumi Masaaki is the grandmaster in about nine different lineages.) Now consider that the essence of this martial art is secrecy and deception.

Here’s another thought: Perhaps the reason for going underground again is that this is a traditional Japanese martial arts version of going John Galt.

In my first post, I quote the Japanese proverb, Uso mo hoben, or circumstances may justify a falsehood. This seems to be an excellent opportunity to quote it again.

Can the BBC story be taken at face value, or was Mariko Oi used as a messenger girl who brought two men together to say the same thing at the same time? Purely by coincidence, of course.

I know which one of those two options I choose.

3 Responses to “Who do you believe?”

  1. toadold said

    Well from some things I read about three decades ago I got the impression that Ninjas came from poor Burakumin villages that were land poor and did espionage to make a living.
    One tale I heard was that the black Ninja costume was bull because most of the peasants wore black or faded black. A tale told by one man who had an older relative who was from a Ninja clan said that during a period of unrest during the early 20th century said he was a child at the time and his adult relative was trying to get them to safety. They had to hide so the older man produced some hollow straws and hid them in a big “honey pot.” Ninja’s would do things no typical Japanese or most Westerners for that matter could face. I don’t know but I’ve heard that there is still lingering prejudice against those of Burakumin ancestry.(More so in California than Japan if I heard correctly.) So your thesis of the Ninja using foreigners seem real likely to me. As one old time law enforcement officer once told me, under six feet a knife will often defeat a gun.

  2. Andrew S. Mooney said

    In the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies: “Well he would, wouldn’t he?”

  3. Ken said

    Ninja appeared!

    How to become a ninja (There is always a Youtube.)

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