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.
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.