Ninja boom: how Japan’s secret warriors swapped the shadows for the spotlight

Japan is exploiting a global craze for ninjas as the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Olympics approach

Beware the moment when Masaaki Hatsumi offers his hand. The gesture could end in a conventional greeting or, as it transpired during a recent demonstration, with his victim sent tumbling to the floor with a mere turn of the wrist.

Thats a technique Ive taught members of the French special forces, said the 84-year-old, one of Japans few living ninja, the feudal era spies whose modern descendants are at the centre of a tourism push as Japan prepares to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Olympics a year later.

Masaaki Hatsumi shows off what he can do.

Once revered for their ability to combine stealth and violence in the service of their samurai masters during the warring states period from the mid-15th century, the ninja of today have taken on the far more benign role of tourism ambassadors, as Japan attempts to exploit a global craze for ninjas.

Ninja used to be portrayed as very grim and dark, but since they became better known through animated films, games, movies and novels they have always been portrayed as heroes, especially overseas, said Yasaka Inagaki, director of the tourist association in Iga-Ueno, home to one of the countrys best-known ninja clans.

There cant be many people who have not at some time wanted to disappear with a quick uzura-gakure (curling oneself into a ball to look like a rock), make a swift exit with the help of a kaginawa (grappling hook), or discombobulate an adversary with a well-aimed powder bomb.

At his global network of Bujinkan schools Hatsumi teaches fighting skills and qualities rooted in bushido (the moral code of the samurai) to tens of thousands of trainees, irrespective of their cultural or religious backgrounds.

We have students from lots of religions around the world, said Hatsumi, the purple-haired 34th grand master of the Togakure school of ninjutsu. As far as my version of martial arts is concerned, students have to be flexible about their religious beliefs, and then they start to learn to enjoy life through martial arts.

While several places in Japan claim connections with ninja, Iga and neighbouring Koga are credited with developing the two main schools of ninjutsu, or the art of stealth. It was here that ninja were arguably at their most effective, thanks to the areas proximity to Edo-era trading routes and mountain hideouts where they would train in between missions.

As well as mastering weaponry, escape and evasion techniques, the ultimate ninja was versed in concentration and disguise skills that were used to gather intelligence and infiltrate enemies.

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A performer at the Ninja Museum of Iga-ryu in Iga, Mie prefecture, Japan. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

In the castle town of Iga-Ueno, cartoon ninja adorn trains stopping at the local railway station, depositing visitors dressed in colourful versions of the ninjas trademark black costumes. At the nearby ninja village they watch live combat demonstrations and take tours of a ninja house, complete with hidden ladders, fake doors and secret stashes of coins and weapons.

This is the best opportunity weve had to promote Iga as the one and only ninja village, said Inagaki. We want everyone to know that Iga is the birthplace of the ninja.

Almost 20 million tourists visited Japan last year after visa requirements for Chinese tourists were relaxed and as memories of the 2011 Fukushima disaster faded, prompting the government to double its 2020 target to 40 million to coincide with the summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo launched Japan on the world stage, but now China is the dominant force and Japan seems to have fallen out of favour, said Stephen Turnbull, a visiting professor at Akita International University and ninja authority. Now Japan is appealing to the world through its geek culture, and the ninja are a part of that. Its a bit of fun and the Japanese are very good at doing fun.

Aichi prefecture, which also claims a ninja heritage, recently hired Chris ONeill, a 29-year-old American, as the first foreign member of its ninja squad of tourism ambassadors.

ONeill was chosen over 234 other applicants most of whom were not Japanese after demonstrating a series of dazzling backflips. He was really amazing, said Satoshi Adachi of Aichis tourism agency. He has great acrobatic skill and is comfortable speaking in front of the public.

But Turnbull, who is writing a book titled The Ninja Myth, believes that the ninja as we think of them today are better described as a romanticised version of feudal-era specialists in irregular warfare.

Its true that Japan had a huge martial tradition, but the ninja as a class of people didnt actually exist, he said. The samurai used espionage and guerrilla warfare, and carried out assassinations, of course, but Id be surprised if they hadnt.

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Grounds of the Iga Ueno castle in Japan where the Iga-ryu ninja museum is located. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

The mythology created around ninja started with stories set in medieval Japan, and became the money-spinning multimedia extravaganza it is today, added Turnbull, who credits the 1960s series of Shinobi no Mono films with popularising the image of ninja as acrobatic, heavily armed assassins with superhuman powers.

Ninja found new fans among western audiences when they appeared alongside James Bond in the 1967 film You Only Live Twice to which Hatsumi acted as a fight scene adviser setting off a Hollywood fascination with ninjutsu that also gave us Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, more recently, the Ninjago Lego movies.

Ninja are also the driving force behind a huge catalogue of manga, anime and video games. Naruto, a manga about an adolescent ninja, has sold more than 220 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling manga series ever.

Today ninja are mostly nonsense and the product of a made-up heritage, said John Man, author of Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior. But mock heritage is great for tourism, if you exploit it right. Theyre like Robin Hood or King Arthur there are grains of truth, and barrels of romance.

Whatever the truth of their origins, Inagaki believes the tenets of ninjutsu hold lessons for todays political leaders, who might like to familiarise themselves with boryaku the barely perceptible manipulation of political and current affairs.

Ninjutsu is often described as a martial art, but it isnt really, he said. Its more akin to a military strategy that governments use to try to manipulate other countries and extract information, but without actually attacking them. The ninja are experts at manipulating their enemies emotions.

Masaaki Hatsumi delivers a talk on practising martial arts

The need for bands of men versed in unconventional warfare diminished when Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th century, but Hatsumi agrees that the skills and philosophy of ninjutsu have a strictly benevolent role to play even today.

Its about teaching students things they never even realised they needed to learn, said Hatsumi, whom one martial arts magazine described as a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Ive never had one bad guy come to my dojo (place) bad people know that its no place for them.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/11/ninja-boom-how-japans-secret-warriors-swapped-the-shadows-for-the-spotlight