Ninjutsu: A Different Perspective

Dr. William Durbin

The terms Ninjutsu and Ninja are very well known all over the world, yet in the 1960s very few people outside of Japan, and the special forces of England, had ever heard the words. The special forces in England were reportedly the first non-Japanese t o use Ninjutsu in training their men for espionage missions, whether it be true or not is a matter of conjecture.

By the 1970s certain American military men were claiming to know and have training in some form of Ninjutsu. Once again the actual validity of this is hard to ascertain. But that is the very nature of Ninjutsu. The art has been clouded in shadows since it’s inception, no one really knows the truth of Ninjutsu. Even those who claim to represent it today do so in a cloud of mist, telling partial truths and leaving the real nature of the art hidden. This article will try to bring Ninjutsu into the light, where people can see what truly is and know the falsehood that has grown around the art and it’s practitioners.

According to Japanese tradition the oldest extant system in Japan is Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. It is a Samurai system, teaching the ancient arts of combat needed by warriors to survive on the battlefield. According to the late Donn F. Draeger, possibly the greatest martial arts historian of the last generation, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu was also the first system to have the art of Ninjutsu in it’s curriculum. These practitioners were Samurai, not Ninja. They followed the code of Bushido, as yet unnamed at that time, but a code of honor none the less. If the first system of Ninjutsu was encoded in a Samurai Ryu, then what does that tell us about the art? Let us look deeper into the past and see the real history of the art of Ninjutsu.

In Japan, among the older martial artists, while Ninjutsu may be thought of as an honorable martial art, the Ninja are considered less than scum.
Someone once said that the practitioners of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu would not allow themselves to be referred to as Ninja, and that is true. In Japan, among the older martial artists, while Ninjutsu may be thought of as an honorable martial art, the Ninja are considered less than scum. Why? First of all the art of Ninjutsu originated in the Buddhist temples of Japan. There was a time in Japanese history, where people who practiced the indigenous faith feared the new religion entering th eir land from China. That new religion was Buddhism. Many forms of it entered Japan, some very esoteric others more on the meditative side. But to some Japanese a threat to their way of life.

Many of the monks of these temples were martial artists, who practiced some form of Kempo. Kempo formed the foundation for all the other forms of fighting they learned. Many monks became famous for their skills using the Naginata (halberd), Yari (spe ar), and Ono (battleax). Yet during the earliest time, before Buddhism was fully established and the monks secure in their fortified temples, more subtle work needed to be done. And this is were the very special skills of Himitsu Kempo played an important part.

Himitsu Kempo literally means secret fist law. Some have thought of it as nothing more than a form of Jujutsu. But it was more. Himitsu Kempo was based on the religious practices of the monks and referred not only to typical fighting skills, but also to spiritual forms of training which emphasized the use of the spirit and how it affec ted the body. One of these primary arts, which according to legend dates back to the Shaolin temple in China, was in Japan called Karumijutsu.

Karumijutsu is the body lightening art. It was thought that if a monk could uplift his spirit, he could lighten his body. Techniques of leaping and climbing were practiced in order to allow the monk to train his spirit to lighten his body. This took a great deal of patience, even as all forms of true spiritual training does, and this followed the principle of Nimpo, at this point not a reference to a martial skill, but a religious principle. Thus the monks originally developed those skills, that al lowed clandestine movement, to help their spiritual development.

But due to the persecution of the Buddhists sects by those of the indigenous faiths, not yet fully established as the religion of Shinto, another application of Himitsu Kempo was developed. It was found that the abilities of the Sohei, warrior monks, who trained fully in the religious practices of Nimpo and Karumijutsu had very special-skills which could be put to use spying for the Buddhist believers against their enemies.

At first these monks used their skills to seek out knowledge which could be passed on to warriors who had converted over to Buddhism. Eventually the monks realized that there were some things their vows as religious men kept them from doing and some p laces they could not enter to do their spying, and so they taught the Buddhist Jisamurai, farmer warriors, in their districts the special skills of espionage based on their religious training. Some of the Jisamurai were very religious and entered the training with great fervor and sincerity, seeing the training as part of their religious faith, and the service of espionage as a duty to their faith. These warriors developed great skill in their new art of Nimpo, developing certain technical skills into an art form which later came to the called Ninjutsu. But there were other less devout men who studied the art with no desire to increase their religious faith or aid their fellow man. These excelled in the deception phase of training, spending considerable time in mastering the technical aspects of the art of Ninjutsu. These men will be mentioned later.

First let us deal with certain misconceptions, or fallacies, about the art of Ninjutsu. The first is that Ninjutsu is only practiced by Ninja. As can be seen above, those who originated the actual art were monks who were interested in preserving their religious freedom by developing certain subtle methods of information gathering and supplying. These monks then passed these skills onto Jisamurai of the Buddhist faith, who would aid them in the original goal of religious freedom.

Who then, we might ask, are the Ninja? According to the late Donn F. Draeger the actual Ninja were unscrupulous Samurai who decided they could make a better living for themselves selling their skills than living in service to their lord. Some Ronin, ‘wave men’ or Samurai who had lost their position due to the death of their lord or some type of dishonor, also took on the work as a Ninja. Finally Hinin, literally the non-humans or sub-humans, of Japanese culture were recruited to train i n espionage skills by these rogue warriors. Most Jonin, leaders of Ninja groups, were made up of the renegade Samurai or Ronin who brought with them the original skills of their Bugei training and thus Ninjutsu. Chunin, the middle men, were usually renegade Samurai as well, while the Genin, lower men, were the expendable agents sent on missions where it did not matter if they lived or died because they were only ‘Hinin’. Each Genin would only be taught those skills that he would need on his particular type of mission. Some were trained as fighters, others as trackers, some as assassins, and so forth. Most Ninja were limited to very specialized skills and not trained as thoroughly as their Samurai or Sohei counterparts.

Second, it is the contention of many that Ninjutsu was developed by the Mikkyo Buddhist monks exclusively and that most Ninja were also of that-faith. The actual situation seems to be that the Mikkyo Buddhist were closer to the Samurai in the Iga area , while Zen Buddhism was the religion of choice of the Koga Samurai. Ninia brought with them whatever religion they might have, but it did not guarantee loyalty, for the Ninja were always at the service to the highest bidder. It is important to realize that Ninja were mercenaries who would do any job for pay. They were terrorist and assassins for hire, with no loyalty, other than money. They would change sides in a moment if the money was right. However there were Samurai trained in Ninjutsu who would accept missions as long as they did not have to be disloyal to their lord or unfaithful to their religion. The same was also true of the Sohei who would perform missions using Ninjutsu as long as they could remain loyal to their temple and their faith. Another false assumption is that Ninjutsu is an art which encompasses the learning of many martial arts. This is erroneous. The late great martial arts scholar and senior master Seiko Fujita categorized thirty four arts as Bugei, with Ninjutsu being one of those arts.

Ninjutsu is the very specialized art of learning how to covertly enter and exist all types of places. It is the art of espionage and counterespionage. At times it can be applied to guerrilla warfare, where a small force infiltrates the castle or province of the enemy to raid and harass.

Kempo has always been a preserve for the development of Ninjutsu. Out of the spiritual training of patience develops the stillness of body necessary for the advanced espionage skills. Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei contains in it’s Kobujutsu curriculum Ninjutsu skills based on the ancient spiritual practices of the Sohei, warrior monks.

Among the Nimpo Kempo Kobujutsu, as the Ninjutsu of Kiyojute Ryu is taught, are the following skills: Suieijutsu, swimming art; Hichojutsu, leaping flying art; Hayagakejutsu, swift running art; Karumijutsu, body lightening art; Shinobiirijutsu, stealth entering art; Shinobiderujutsu, stealth escape art; and Shinobisugatajutsu, stealth disguise art.

Ninjutsu is the very specialized art of learning how to covertly enter and exist all types of places. It is the art of espionage and counterespionage. At times it can be applied to guerrilla warfare, where a small force infiltrates the castle or province of the enemy to raid and harass.
These skills follow the same curriculum as the Koga Ha Kosho Shorei Ryu, following the Zen principles for developing the advanced physical and mental abilities. Koppo, the bone art, based on the footwork of Karumijutsu, develops the athletic ability a long with physical skill and coordination. Gogyo, the five elements, are studied as ways of developing analytical strategy in regard to personal combat and battlefield tactics. The Gogyo also helps the development of the mental attitude that any situation can be handled since all things have strengths and weaknesses.

Other forms of mental training, developed through the practice of the physical skills, are Mushin, Honshin, and Zanshin. It is these mental attributes which are so special to the Zen based martial arts, with Ninjutsu being no exception. Mushin is the no mind, referring to abolishing all extraneous thoughts, which interfere with the perception of reality. This leads to Honshin, the right mind, which allows the practitioner to make correct choices, in both combat and life. Beginners always ask, how will I know when to use what technique? The answer for the true martial artist is Honshin. Finally, there is Zanshin, the ever present mind, or more simply the surviving mind. This is the awareness and living mind of the practitioner who now is ready to enter the spiritual realm.

At this level, all things are Ki. This was the point Morihei Ueshiba reached. Several of the arts which Ueshiba studied taught Ninjutsu as part of their curriculum and it was said that on certain occasions he would give slight demonstrations of the a rt. And yet in one sense his whole art reflected the monks style of Ninjutsu in it’s strength and emphasis of Ki.

Nimpo, as the principle of patience, was involved in Haragei, the spiritual art, which is the art of the energy field. Sensing beyond the five senses. Which leads to Kijutsu, the aspect of expansion and contraction of the energy field for application in fighting techniques. This in particular was expressed in the personal techniques of Morihei Ueshiba, who many believed personified the art of Muto of the Yagyu Ryu.

Kiaijutsu is the spiritual harmony art involved in focusing all of ones strength into one point for a powerful technique, be it strike, throw, or kick. In the Okinawan arts this was the primary principle, which could have come to the systems through a Japanese influence.

The highest level of spiritual training could be seen in the arts of Aikijutsu, Kimejutsu, and Shimmejutsu. Aikijutsu, written with the Kanji meaning loving spirit art, refers to the projection of such love that any sane person would refrain from combat due to the feeling of compassion and caring they sensed from the other person. It was said that such a skill could also stop a charging animal from attacking. I t has been said that Ueshiba just before he died, wanted to change the writing of Aiki from harmony spirit to loving spirit for this very reason.

James Mitose used to tell a story of a Kosho monk who walked into a tiger cage and was able to tame and pet a wild tiger with this ability alone. Love in all faiths seems to be credited with the greatest amount of power.

Next is the art of Kimejutsu and related to it is Shimmejutsu. Kimejutsu, not to be confused with focus, is the spirit eye art. According to tradition it was possible to focus your inner intent into your eyes so that an opponent could be psychologica lly overwhelmed, made to flee, frozen in fear, or put at ease. It was said that Morihei Ueshiba could lead his students in techniques by his eyes alone. Many reported that he stopped them in their tracks with his gaze.

Shimmejutsu was the art of seeing with the, ‘eyes of God’. Some felt that this was in the sense of each persons potential for achieving Kami, divine nature. Others felt this showed the ultimate goal of training, in the religious sense was to be one with the creator, seeing the creation as he saw it, thus having a greater understanding of man in his place as a part of the whole. In the most esoteric sense, only one who has achieved it can hope to understand it.

This brings us to the two concepts of Heiho and the circular tradition of martial arts training. Heiho may be written, the law of the soldier or the law of peace. It is usually translated strategy.

In the tradition of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, Heiho the law of the soldier only has value when it leads the practitioner full circle to the law of peace. For the individual warrior this is peace within. For a nation it is an era of peace insured by the army being fully versed and skilled in war, so that no one dares to challenge the peace. In essence, the goal achieved by the Tokugawa for two hundred years.

To close this article I think it is important that we look at the connectedness of all martial arts. For too long have those of different countries criticized the arts and skills of those of other countries. As do those of differing Ryu criticize each other.

In regard to the skills of Ninjutsu, they began when the Shaolin temple began the training of Shih Pa Lo Han Sho which came to be called Chuanfa. As with all the skills of spiritual martial arts the essence was found in the patience to be fully traine d. This principle of patience was called Jenfa which was practiced and developed through the skill of Ching Shen, body lightening, and Chuanfa.

In Japan, Chuanfa became Kempo, Ching Shen was known as Karumi, and Jenfa was Nimpo. The Sohei of the Japanese temples learned these skills and developed them to extremely high levels. Eventually these were shared wit h the Jisamurai. As the Samurai developed the arts, many maintained the spiritual essence so that these special skills were considered part and parcel of martial arts training, an aspect that has been considered so esoteric that in the light of sport development, they have almost been lost.

In the beginning of the Ryu tradition Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu is considered the granddaddy of all Ryu. From the Heiho of this system developed the Tenshin Sho Jigen Ryu which gave birth to the Jigen Ryu of the Satsuma, which influenced the de velopment of the Okinawan martial arts. It is said that Yasutsune Azato, Gichin Funakoshils teacher, was a proponent of Jigen Ryu. It is believed that the flying kicks and certain leaps in some of the Kata are the application of Karumijutsu and Hichojut su in the Okinawan martial arts. It is also believed that the Koppo, bone breaking method of Ninjutsu, is seen in the use of the Tsuiken, hammer fist, of Okinawan martial arts. Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu also influenced the development of Shinkage Ryu, which gave birth to Yagyu Shinkage Ryu from which Kito Ryu derived, along with other influences.

At the same time that Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu was developing out of the Mikkyo tradition a Zen monk by the name of Jion received a dream in which he received the secrets of the mysteries of combat. His disciples founded such systems as; Chujo Ryu, Nen Ryu, and Kaneshige Nen Ryu. Their disciples then established the following systems; Toda Ryu, Itto Ryu, Akamatsu Nen Ryu, and Maniwa Nen Ryu.

Even as Heiho, the law of peace, was the ultimate goal of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, so it should be for all martial arts. In 1868, the feudal system of Japan was abolished. All ancient titles of the warrior groups became obsolete. There are no more Samurai, no more Sohei, and no more Ninja. These titles mean nothing any more. Today there are Bugeisha and Budoka, simply martial artists. There are Kempoka, Judoka, Aikidoka, and so on, with the Ka referring to those belonging to the house of the art. In explanation a Kempoka belongs to the house of Kempo po.

With the fall of the feudal system of Japan, the martial arts could fulfill their real destiny and truly be the laws of peace through the confidence in oneself, the security of self protection, and the development of patience.

These then are the products of Koga Ha Kosho Shorei Ryu Kempo and Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei as preserved in the arts of Kempo, Karate, and even Ninjutsu. This is the other perspective of Ninjutsu. That it is one of the Bugei, the arts of peace. That it is the art of patience, developed for spiritual growth with a side benefit of quiet movement useful in situations requiring stealth. That it was abused by greedy and sinister men who perverted the original purity of the spiritual art and created the dastardly image of the Ninja. And that even today, the term is reviled by the older Japanese.

In the list of Bugei there exists Kenjutsu (sword art), Bojutsu (stick art) , Sojutsu (spear art) , Naginatajutsu halberd art) , Suieijutsu (swimming art) , Ninjutsu (stealth art) , and so on. It is improper to say Ninja Kenjutsu or Ninja Bojutsu, it i s a mixing of separate arts that are actually unrelated. Proper designation would be to name the Ryu and then the art. Such as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu or Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu Ninjutsu. Certain elements of principles apply in an overlapping manner, but Kenjutsu is Kenjutsu whether practiced by a Samurai, Sohei, or Ninja.

Some actual Bugel systems which while famous for other arts, such as sword fighting, also taught Ninjutsu are; Yagyu Ryu, Jigen Ryu, Tenshin Sho Jigen Ryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, Togakure Ryu, Sato Ryu, and Kosho Ryu.

Probably the most famous Ninjutsu practitioner of Yagyu Ryu is Jubei Yagyu, who is believed to have performed secret missions for the Shogun all during his life, acting like a Ronin who had been dishonored. Shigekata Togo was a Satsuma warrior who trained under the monk Zenkitchi-bo in Tenshinsho Jigen Ryu and eventually founded his own system simply called Jigen Ryu which became the main system of the Satsuma warriors with very effective Nimpo techniques. It is interesting to note at this point that Toshitsugu Takamatsu, the man who instructed Masaaki Hatsumi who gave Mikkyo based Ninjutsu to the world, had stated in an interview before he died that he learned Ninjutsu from his uncle Shinryuken Masamitsu Toda, whose family descended from the Samurai class in Iga province. This solidly establishes the Samurai basis of modern Ninjutsu over the Ninja concept.

Two other men should be noted, one maybe unknown in America, and the other unsung in the Ninjutsu tradition. First there is Seiko Fujita, who as noted above was one of the truly great historians of the martial arts. He was also the headmaster of Koga Ha Sato Ryu. He was as such an accomplished master of Ninjutsu and Kempo. It is said that he instructed his students to study not only the traditional Japanese arts but to explore the Okinawan arts as well, having them study Karate and Ryukyu Kobujutsu . There is a special connection between Okinawan martial arts and Ninjutsu which will be explored later.

The other man who needs to be mentioned is James Masayoshi Mitose. While well known for his Kempo knowledge, he is almost totally unknown for his Ninjutsu skill, which traces from the Koga lineage as well. Unknown to most American martial artists is the fact that Mitose was the first actual Ninjutsu teacher in the United States. Included in his two manuals are lessons in Koga style Ninjutsu, which to the uneducated eye seem to be either standard Kempo or, in the case of his second book, abstract Gib berish. Actually his Kempo footwork contains the Karumijutsu based movement of Ninjutsu, while he passed on the extremely lethal bone breaking art of Koppo in secret.

The last private student of James Masayoshi Mitose continues to train in and preserve the very special temple form of combat passed on to him directly in Mitosels own house. Currently under the name of Koga Ha Kosho Shorei Ryu Kempo, the art of Mitose is taught by Nimr Hassan, that very special student. Mitose’s Kempo preserves first of all Koga Ninjutsu and the related arts of Karumijutsu, Hichojutsu, and Hayagakejutsu. These three form the foundation upon which everything else is based. Mitose re fered to it simply as ‘the system’. Next, Kosho Ryu Kempo Jujutsu forms the foundation of gentle response to an attack. This includes certain soft aspects of Koppo as well, which Mitose refered to as ‘destroying the fort’. Finally there is Shorei Ryu K empo Karate which he learned from his uncle, Choki Motobu. Mitose considered the forms of Karate the best way to analyze the attacks which must be defended against, and then he taught the devastating response of Koppo in it’s purest form, which would lit erally break the bones of the attack coming in hard and fast.

Mitose taught Nimr Hassan that the Koppo and Karumijutsu could be used as the foundation to combat all other styles of martial arts. He instructed his student to learn the Kihon Kumite of Karate styles, and the Waza of Jujutsu. Then in a very special training pattern known as the Hakkakkei, octogan, ways of defeating and overcoming the moves were developed.

Unlike Mikkyo based Ninjutsu, Zen based Ninjutsu seeks the practical in everyday life and avoids the superstitious or overtly mystical. Nin, patience, the original meaning of the word, was developed so that the strength of the spirit could shine throu gh in daily life. Keiko, daily practice, was engaged in so that the spirit could be made strong and light. Mitose emphasized the teaching of Bodhidharma, which taught that the spirit and the body are intricately linked. To develop the spirit, one must develop the body; and to develop the body, one must develop the spirit. His emphasis was on spiritual rather than mystical consideration. This is the difference between Zen Ninjutsu and Mikkyo Ninjutsu.

Two things may be helpful in preserving the peace of the day. First a story. An American martial artist heard of a Japanese gentleman opening a store in his area, and visited it so that he could talk to him about mart ial arts. After a short introductory phase, the American asked in what martial arts the Japanese was trained. After a short statement, the Japanese returned the question, and the American, expecting to impress and be admired, replied, ‘I’m a Ninja.1 The Japanese gentleman exclaimed and threw the American out of his store and told him never to come back. The American was confused. He had been taught that Ninja were the true heroes of Japan

To older Japanese, especially of Samurai descent, the stories of the atrocities of the Ninja still echo in their minds as realistically as if they had happened yesterday. This is because to the Japanese who maintain any type of Shinto connection, they feel they know their ancestors and honor them. If Ninja had terrorized their families, assassinated an ancestor, or been mercenaries sent against their clan, they remain hated enemies of the present day families. We must remember that while today people use the term Ninja just to mean that they train in some form of Ninjutsu, in the past it was only applied to the subhuman people who would take the dirtiest of jobs, living a life without loyalty or code of honor.

Modern practitioners must be mindful of the history of the Ninja. They need to explain to people that they are not connected to the historical Ninja who were terrorist, assassins, and mercenaries. If they do so, the reaction may be quite different and less volatile.

Ninjutsu should take it’s place along side the other historical and honorable martial arts. Developed by monks for religious freedom and learned by Samurai to be applied in the establishment of peace in the realm. An idealism which helps young men an d women strive for a code of living conduct full of honor, courage, loyalty, truth, and justice. Something we all need more of in this day and age.

Dr. William Durbin is the founder of Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei. He teaches at the Hombu dojo in Frankfurt, Kentucky.