This Too Shall Pass: Will Jinichi Kawakami Be the Last of the Ninjas?
The ninja warriors seen in Hollywood are, sadly, born more of myth than reality. Truths were exaggerated and those exaggerations misconstrued as fact. One cannot wholly blame the screenwriters or producers, however; rather, the lack of definitive documentation of ninja practices for so long merely reveals how skillfully true ninjas hid the exact nature and techniques of their jobs for hundreds of years.
Ninjutsu is a Japanese practice of strategical warfare in which the most significant aspects of its success are the secrecy of reconnaissance and—as a last resort—guerrilla warfare methods of execution. Ninjutsu is highly unconventional when compared to the schools of Japanese martial arts, because of its heavy emphasis on espionage. It is believed that ninjutsu originated sometime before the reign of Prince Shotoku (6th-7th century) during the Asuka period of ancient Japan. However, as previously stated, the earliest instance of ninjutsu is completely shrouded in mystery, likely due to the intended secrecy of the practice.
Drawing of the archetypical ninja from a series of sketches (Hokusai manga) by Hokusai. Woodblock print on paper. Volume six, 1817. (Public Domain)
Japan’s Last Ninjas
Few who can rightfully claim the "ninja"—or shinobi (in Japanese)—title remain. One of those few is Jinichi Kawakami, the "21st head of the Ban family, one of the 53 that made up the Koka ninja clan." There once were numerous shinobi clans—49, according to Kawakami—but now it appears that hardly any remain: only the Koka, Iga, and Togakure.
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Jinichi Kawakami – one of Japan’s last ninjas. (TEDxBermuda Project/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
In fact, another master, Masaaki Hatsumi of the Togakure clan, claims he is also a "last" master of ninjutsu. Therefore, neither can truly claim to be the "last" until one passes and is thus undisputed in his claim. Whether or not both can truly be considered "grandmasters" of the ancient tradition is a debate for someone better versed in the tradition than this writer, however Kawakami is in possession of the prized ancient scrolls of the clan.
Kiku Jidô / Ju Citong / 菊慈童 (chrysanthemum boy) a.k.a. Makura Jidô / 枕慈童 (pillow-boy); no signature/inscription, 2 seal markings, author not identified; late Edo period, i.e. 1800-1850; from a private collection. (Public Domain)
Yet there is one very definitive belief that both Kawakami and Hatsumi agree upon, regardless of who possesses the true title of "Last Grandmaster." The ninja line, these men claim, has to come to an end for a reason that did not exist when the shinobi were at their height.
Stealth, swordsmanship and sabotage are no longer needed in a world of technology and automatic weapons, Kawakami states in an interview documented by Mariko Oi in 2012. Even medicinal poisons and escape potions hold no value in a world of incredible medical advancements. Therefore, neither Kawakami nor Hatsumi will appoint a new grandmaster of their respective schools, effectively ending the long lineage of ninjutsu. Kawakami and Hatsumi both continue to teach the art of the ninja; however, it is without the intention of creating another group of shinobi parallel to those of the past.
Kawakami and Hatsumi both continue to teach the art of the ninja; however, it is without the intention of creating another group of shinobi parallel to those of the past. (Public Domain)
Rise and Fall of the Shinobi
The shinobi reached their height during the Edo period, when Japan and the Emperor himself were run by a military government called the Tokugawa shogunate, which is the period of Japanese history when the samurai took control of the government after years of internal strife. Societal ranking was determined by blood or status rather than merit, and there was no such thing as individual rights. The emperor emphasized an isolation policy, and anyone foreign was regarded with the utmost suspicion—an exaggerated version of "kill first, ask questions later." It was in this culture that the practice of ninja became overwhelmingly important, as dethroning the samurai was essential to "fixing" the government once again.
Some shinobi joined the samurai class as a form of infiltration of the new government (though not every single ninja approved of one form or another). To go undercover in this way was highly dangerous: the risk of discovery might mean execution or, undoubtedly worse for those ninjas with families, the inability to ever return to their previous lives. As Kawakami points out in the interview with Oi, shinobi often worked during the day in ordinary jobs to "pay the bills," so to speak. When infiltrating a new government, or even attempting to wriggle one's way into the intimate zones of the enemy (as the female ninjas called kunoichi did), one had to know there was a chance of never returning.
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Ninja Village in Nagano. (Jérôme Sadou/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
In many ways, this makes the role of the ninja even more valuable. Their bravery knew no bounds.
In the present, however, such risks are not required. The role of Grandmaster of ninjutsu lies more in the tradition of teaching and passing on the secrets of the art, without the need to train one's pupils for the same rigorous and dangerous missions once necessary in Japan.
Kawakami thus continues to teach his art part-time, to keep the name and knowledge of the practice alive, but the espionage missions have long since come to an end. When Kawakami passes (or Hatsumi does), ninjutsu will officially become an art of the past—remembered through ordinary martial art classes, but an institution of warriors no longer.
The history of Japan is vast, somewhat convoluted to the western eye, and interesting! I encourage anyone intrigued by this article to read a copy of Walker's A Concise History of Japan.
Top Image: Ogata Shuma Hiroyuki later known as Jiraiya, with a heavy gun, overcoming a huge Snake which has preyed on his friends the Toads. Jiraiya is portrayed as being a ninja. (Public Domain) Jinichi Kawakami – Japan’s last ninja. (TEDxBermuda Project/ CC BY NC SA 2.0)
By Ryan Stone
Cummins, Antony. 2015. Samurai and Ninja: The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique. Vermont: Tuttle Publishing.
Cummins, Antony and Yoshie Minami (eds. and trans.) 2012. The Secret Traditions of the Shinobi: Hattori Hanzo's Shinobi Hiden and Other Ninja Scrolls. CA: Blue Snake Books.
Gordon, Andrew. 2008. A Modern History of Japan: from Tokugawa Times to Present. (2 nd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Hatsumi, Masaaki. 1981. Ninjutsu: History and Tradition. Unique Publications.
Oi, Mariko. 2012. "Japan's ninjas heading for extinction." BBC News. Accessed July 1, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20135674.
Walker, Brett L. 2015. A Concise History of Japan (Cambridge Concise Histories). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zoughari, Kacem. 2016. The Ninja, the Secret History of Ninjutsu: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan. Vermont: Tuttle Publishing.