The destination for history

The man who saved the ninja


Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, Japan entered into a series of wars: villages were burned, swords – red with gore – stained the sky, and warriors mounted steeds with arrows poised across their armour. During this time there was one branch of the samurai army that held a particular reputation, the shinobi no mono, or the ninja as we know them today.

Far from a band of peasant warriors who fought against the samurai, these special forces were the clandestine arm of a warlord’s faction. They were: the secret keepers, the Wormtongues of Tolkien’s world, the twisted liars, those who burned in the night, who crept and stooped in deep marshes waiting for the enemy …

After the castle walls had crumbled, the bodies stacked and counted, and the lords of power enthroned in castles of gold, the war-like days were over and the covert figure of the ninja – like all men who rely on the darker side of military matters – fell from grace. Lacking the commissions available during a time of war, the families of the ninjas were unable to maintain their military lifestyles. From this point on, the ninja began to fall in social position, finance and popularity. Slowly the skills of the ninja, too, faded into a bygone amusement.

Chikamatsu Shigenori: the 16-year-old War Master

Born in 1697, during a time of peace and stability, the samurai Chikamatsu Shigenori made his mark on the world. By 16 he had mastered a multitude of art forms: bow, sword, spear, staff, battle skills and even the art of tea preparation and ceremonies. But there was one art that he had yet to master, the dying arts of the ninja. Chikamatsu trained under a man of Iga and a man of Kōka. Ninja adherents will know that Iga and Kōka were the homelands of the shinobi and were the areas from which most ninja-samurai were recruited. Therefore, these two men, born in Owari but most likely decedents of the original ninja of Iga and Kōka, taught the ancient secrets of the ninja to our hero Chikamatsu.

Working in Owari, under one branch of the ruling Tokugawa family, the then 40-year-old Chikamatsu put pen to paper and recorded the ninja’s secret ways. His writing distinguishes itself from others on the subject by its use of plain vocabulary, a direct tongue and a genuine wish to save the fading arts of the ninja. The following are some of the skills that Chkamatsu learned from his masters:

The tradition of fleas and lice: the skill of moving through towns in ninja groups, making contacts with people, bribing locals and inserting their group into the social framework – then collectively collating their findings and discovering gaps for military takeover.

The tradition of the spider: like the spider spins a web, the ninja uses rope: to climb walls, tie up doors, or even as a means of escape. Taking an extremely long and thin rope, the agent tied one end to a post as he started his infiltration, then, like Theseus in the labyrinth, the ninja would use the cord to find his way back through a building complex on his retreat or escape.

The tradition of no sword: there was a possibility that a ninja might become a doomed spy, either knowingly or unknowingly going to his death. The tradition of no sword falls under this category. The ninja, having wormed his way into the upper echelons of the enemy, or at least enough to get an audience with the enemy lord, would be stripped of his swords before he was allowed to directly address him. It was here the ninja would find his gap, reach out and grab the lord’s sword, assassinating him before he too would be butchered for his crime.

The tradition of the letter in the fire: if a ninja had to carry a letter which had important information within, that may or may not have been coded, he would fill the letter with gunpowder, then, if questioned he would throw it into a fire, thereby quickly destroying all evidence.

The tradition of hiding your identity: sometimes a ninja would set up his house at the edge of the enemy town years in advance, waiting for his true lord to go to war but would remain familiar enough with the locals that he would hopefully not raise suspicion. However, as many ninja were aware of each other – some may have even been distantly related – they used to fill their mattresses with gunpowder. If the finger of accusation was pointed at them, they would return to their house, commit ritual suicide by disembowelment and set a blaze to the gunpowder so that their identity and bones were dissolved in the heat of the inferno.

By Antony Cummins

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books