The Martial Art of Ninjutsu
Of all the different fields of martial arts that we have already looked at, or will look at more closely in the future, perhaps the most misunderstood one is that of ninjutsu – the art and techniques of the nearly-mythical hidden attackers known as ninjas. From its ancient roots to its explosion in popularity during the last few decades, mostly thanks to pop culture phenomena like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the idea of what ninjutsu is and what its practitioners do has always walked the line between legend and reality.
The methods of the ninjas began centuries ago, in feudal Japan, but due to their secretive nature it is impossible to tell exactly when the discipline was truly established. However, the first ninjas – or as they were originally known, the shinobi – were not the black-clad masters that we would imagine today. Rather, they were simply poor people from the countryside and farms who became very good at infiltration and spying, and taught the same methods to their children over generations. They become renowned for their ability to blend in, do their task (whether that was assassination, information collection, sabotage, or something else), and then disappear without raising the alarm. Their guiding principles became the ideas of stealth and adaptation to any situation.
So what does that mean? The biggest thing that differentiates ninjutsu from other martial arts is that ninjas are not just focused on how to fight well. They may incorporate techniques from other arts, like karate or kung fu, but it is only a small part of true ninja training, which begins from a young age and runs through a student’s entire life. This training involves stealth practices, increasing your resourcefulness, long-distance walking or long periods of standing still, planning proper diets, knowledge of poisons and cures, using commonly-found objects as weapons, and a variety of ingenuous techniques for how to incapacitate, blind, harm, or silently kill targets.
Ninjutsu is known for its use of simple farm tools as weapons, like scythes, flails, or sickles, which not only could be used to great effect, but allowed anyone wielding such a tool to claim they were only a farmer, not a fighter. They also used hidden objects like hollowed-out eggs filled with broken glass and pepper, sharp metal throwing stars, and blades on chains to attack from a distance and catch their targets by surprise.
Though the idea of dressing in all black is a great Hollywood trope, it is more likely that they dressed in disguises that would allow them passage to their targets – monks, priests, farmers, and so on. They became so good at blending in that legends told of them being invisible, and the reputation progressed to the point that sites fearful of being infiltrated had all kinds of traps, alarms, and failsafes to prevent anyone from getting past the guards.
So where does that leave the idea of ninjas today? Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a school that teaches ninjutsu, you are likely to be out of luck – not only because it was a hereditary concept to begin with, but also because there is no such thing as a single, overarching discipline of ninjutsu. It is a mix of trainings and practices from all parts of life, and deals with a lot of ideas and methods that are obsolete in the modern world.
But it’s still interesting to look back and see how a group of poor Japanese peasants turned into some of the most feared and respected martial artists in history, by constantly practicing and using only what was available to them!
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