From the Shallows into Deep Water: Ninjutsu and the Path into the Shadow Zone

Everyone wants “ninjutsu” techniques.

We want the tomae-nage throws, oni-kudake shoulder locks, powerful shuto, and powder spells that can put an enemy to sleep.

However, according to the manuals, these techniques do not define what ninjutsu is. I know, I know…this point has already been expounded upon ad nauseam….but as I have also already explained, I am a ninjutsu fanatic.

I will not let this subject go until I have spoken all that I can about it. So take a walk with me please.

Ancient Manuals vs. Martial Arts

A project that has its beginnings with research into the Shoninki in 2008, Antony Cummins became an agitator unto the “ninjutsu” community when he promulgated (with Yoshie Minami and others’ help) the long coveted and secret manuals of the shadow warrior known as a shinobi-no-mono.

People castigated Cummins for his efforts to demolish the misguided visions of what Hollywood, and martial arts instructors taught about ninjutsu, often-times launching spuriously reasoned invectives that attacked the character of Mr. Cummins rather than the content of the translated manuals.

“He is not Japanese so he is wrong.”; “He has not studied the martial arts or koryu古流 so he cannot furnish any truth on ninjutsu.”; “He seeks to tear down the the stature of our master (Hatsumi, Hayes, etc.) so he is our enemy.” -these kinds of things comprised the cloth that those who had no interest in assessing the manuals threw over the work of the Historical Ninjutsu Research Team.

Rather than retain their own translators and put them to work transcribing the Bansenshukai, Gunpo Jiyoshu, Shinobi-Hiden into English for a reasonable comparison to the grammar and content of Cummins’ translations, the “ninjutsu” community seemed more threatened by the manuals than interested, and thereafter community members sought to lambaste anyone who subscribed to his view of the art.

This indignant behavior further solidified the notion that the “ninjutsu” martial arts industry is a ‘business’ seeking to protect their bottom-line.

“I find it a shame that so many supposed ninja dojos have become profit-led conglomerates, whilst failing to remain true to the ancient art” Cummins said while being interviewed for the Japan Times “I hope [these] translations provide insight into what life as a ninja was really like.”

And indeed, even if there are extant grammatical errors within the manuals due to translation impediments, a thorough reading of these texts will leave the inquirer far more enlightened as to the nature of ninjutsu than could ever be achieved in a “ninjutsu” dojo.

Without going into too much detail at this juncture, let me just say that I personally know this to be so. “Ninjutsu” dojos tend to be imbued with the trimmings of a religion, mysticism, and a cult-like atmosphere. What better way to make money than by duping a largely vulnerable population by peddling a veneer of being all-powerful and enlightened yourself?

The Cult of Ninjutsu

I don’t know what it is exactly about the ninja that so attracts the imagination of the public.

I had my own reasons and unconscious pull towards the shadow agent of feudal Japan, but once I experienced sufficient cognitive dissonance between what a shinobi was as opposed to what is taught in the dojo, I threw my imaginings asunder and vowed to pursue what is real respecting ninjutsu.

Moved by books on the ninja by Stephen K. Hayes, I tried to find a dojo to train in. The allure of mysticism, Kuji spells, access to some mysterious power of the universe, motifs that were all pervasive in Hayes’ texts, were difficult to shy away from as I had my own preconceptions about the hidden universe and surreal realities (I used to dabble in the occult). To my mind, the ninja peddled by the dojo industry had connected to inner archetypes of power and omniscience with great vigor.

I wanted power of the variety extolled as an attribute of the ninja. The ability to sprint faster than the average man across rooftops, dodge swords, break necks, and invoke the power of the universe through strange mudra and mantra, etc.  To this unconscious world of mine, a ninja was stronger, faster, smarter, and more capable than any enemy that would stand in one’s path – so why not train in the ninja arts? My naivete got me going in a strange direction.

Entering the dojo for the first time, I was apprehensive of the ‘sensei’, a 200 lb. man with large biceps and black gi. He was into Harleys, had loads of tattoos, and acted the part of being “a tough dude” (as years went on I came to the understanding that his emphasis on physical fitness is not the norm among instructors, many of whom are obese). He was into firearms as well, had a concealed carry, and I am sure that he could throw his weight into an opponent of decent physical stature should he have to defend himself.

He seemed like a good instructor to learn from, so I purchased a  uniform, payed ‘tuition, and began studying To-Shin Do.

The dojo was decorated with Japanese motifs, including a kamidana 神棚 altar misted by the smoke of burning incense, and hanging upon it was a bell that was rang at the beginning and end of each class. There was a giant composite portrait of Hatsumi and Hayes on the wall, thick mats sprawling across the floor, wave-master punching bags, and jubilant students of various belt colors, treating each other with respect as they took turns as an uke 受け to another’s technique.

Starting with a white belt in the art was a bit demeaning. The first class I attended spent the whole period standing in an “Earth-Stance” hitting a bag on the ground with a downward palm strike to simulate the motion of breaking a wrist-grab. “This is ridiculous.” I thought. “When do I get to learn the kuji? How to run up walls? Dodge bullets?And, where the hell is the incendiaries training? I want to set something on fire.”

I temporarily arrested my questions with the supposition that the greater secrets of the ninja’s art would be revealed as I progressed through the belt ranks. So I started training hard, showing up to the dojo 3x a week while putting in hours each day at home. There were four techniques a month that were to be “mastered” and after 3 months one could test for a new belt.

I steadily progressed in accord with the proctor’s expectations, and soon found myself in a randori session wherein I had to demonstrate my techniques on multiple opponents…but there was a catch, none of them knew how to fight at all. Every test I had, the uke would launch a watery punch or kick and just like the usual with LARPing martial arts, let me perform my technique.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the techniques can be utterly devastating when properly applied, but the commitment to damaging each other was just not there.

“This doesn’t feel like fighting.” My head hummed with reasons to abandon the training, but the stigma associated with attending a dojo and not getting a black belt (what a superficiality) kept me going back. “This doesn’t seem like ninjutsu either.” I was aware that ninjutsu, even according to Maasaki Hatsumi under whom Stephen K. Hayes trained, was so much more beyond physical martial arts. I wanted to learn how to hide in urban environments, breathe through a sword saya underwater, and climb walls with a grappling hook. Where were all of the missing pieces?

The class sessions became a slow grind on my enthusiasm for To-Shin Do. Some of the techniques I could not perform (as they required some movements inhibited by my disability), and others were outright stupid.

My interest in MMA made me quite aware that a good portion of the curriculum would not perform well against legitimate swings, kicks, and throws. But still, my affinity for ninjutsu lead me to commit myself to the art for about 4 years. I never learned how to climb walls, spy on an enemy, or forge letters for psychological operations throughout my time there. I remember wanting more….but I didn’t know how to get it.

A seed was beginning to sprout in my mind that would give life to self-training and self-education. While attending the dojo and going through the motions of saying the class creed and acting as though I was thoroughly enjoying myself, I was secretly studying every piece of legitimate historical ninjutsu literature I could get my hands on and critiquing the dojo atmosphere with what I had learned.

Even before Antony Cummins’ research, there were loads of information referring to the triumvirate of ninjutsu knowledge – the Shinobi-Hiden, Bansenshukai, and Shoninki. Unfortunately, I had to rely on the over-filtering of others who could access these foreign texts, because they had not yet been translated into English. This meant I had to invest my trust in Hatsumi and Stephen K. Hayes, acclaimed authorities of ninjutsu on the supposed merit that they had read the texts while I could not.

As time went on though, and I progressed through the belts, it became quite apparent that these dojos did not teach historical ninjutsu, nor were they particularly adept at providing students with the tools they needed to survive an altercation. As a supplement to my historical ninjutsu studies, I began reading about the nature of violence, war, and how to deal with adrenaline that is bound to surge when a hostile situation unfolds. I kept this knowledge to myself as it slowly eroded my loyalties to TSD.

Meanwhile, there was a storm brewing in the ninjutsu community headed by Antony Cummins. He had finally published the manuals that I had long sought after. I purchased the books and assiduously collected principles and philosophies from them that could not be found anywhere in the “ninjutsu” dojo community. These manuals contained secrets on espionage and guerilla warfare, the likes of which are incredibly deep as they hearken to ancient Chinese modalities of spycraft.

Synoptically speaking, I learned that a shinobi was not a martial artist. He wasn’t a mystic either. A shinobi operated as a clandestine saboteur, spy, and field warrior. He had knowledge of poisons, covert communications networks, how to infiltrate an army, physical security, the use of incendiaries, manipulation of local politics, and yes, a shinobi was often highly athletic and capable of scaling walls, running long distances, stealth infiltration, and swimming within dark waters.

This portrayal of the shinobi is nothing like what is encountered in those dojos. “We’ve all been duped.” I thought. I had to let TSD go and pursue the principles of ninjutsu on my own through study of the manuals and the ancient Chinese warfare texts that they referenced. But I wasn’t about to leave without leaving a mark. I wanted to use ninjutsu in effecting this, so I kept attending classes while I collected information on “ninjutsu” dojos. I was now a spy of differing loyalties, so to speak, gaining intelligence.

I hastily wrote up Ninjutsu: Tactics, Principles, and Philosophy (heavily referenced from legitimate ninjutsu manuals), ran 100 copies off the press and dedicated the book to my sensei. I waited for the right opportunity, handed him a signed copy (he was surprised and did not seem to know how to react), and I left the dojo. I was off to train myself in the principles of a shadow.

Into the Shadow Zone

I should have known from the beginning that when one chooses to go down a neglected, untraveled path…one has to go down that path alone.

There were many hazards along the path. Many times I wanted to turn back as my pursuits alienated me from others, though this was to be expected for how could others understand a path less traveled?

I kept training, learning, studying along this cold road…I was becoming accustomed to solitude until one day the darkness broke as I noticed a single lantern out in the distance. I wasn’t alone. There were others moving through the shadows…

………….Enter Stealth Technique…………

End Part 1

(click here for Part 2)








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