Thursday, 31 March 2016

The 12 Misconceptions About Ninja & Ninjutsu

The popular representation of ninja has been vastly wrong, as in this example.
   Most people are probably unaware of most realities about Shinobi (a.k.a Ninja) and ninjutsu, probably because this art is so secretive and then distorted. By the popular portrayal, a ninja is shown as a creepy, heartless, shadowy figure that has no other purpose in life other than killing people for money or revenge, as mercilessly as could be. Some see ninjas as masters of several martial arts and call ninjutsu 'the mother of martial arts'. Using these misconceptions, many people are being mislead by self-proclaiming (fake) masters of ninjutsu, probably for private gains. This is a serious issue and hence in this post we point out those 12 greatest misconceptions which are commonly found against Ninja and then to defeat those claims or solve the misconceptions through evidence from history and the true teachings of the Shinobi.

   Presenting, the 12 greatest misconceptions about ninjas and ninjutsu:
1. Ninjutsu is a martial art. This is by far the greatest misconception I can see. I don't know the exact proportion but I assume in every 100 people, there may be 95 -those who know something about ninjas- who believe that ninjutsu is a form of martial art or a combination of martial arts. As already said, many fake ninjutsu masters or teachers take advantage of the fame of ninja and Bujinkan ninjutsu so as to fool young minds, by teaching them a combination of martial arts they know and call it ninjutsu. These types of fake ninjutsu masters, I have seen, most commonly exist in Asian countries like Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia and China where most people are unaware of the teachings of Bujinkan or there are no Bujinkan teachers at all. But the most famous of the fake ninja masters live in U.S and Japan (This must be discussed in a separate post. Update: Top 5 Fake Ninja Grandmasters). They have gained both fame and money through this; respect from students of martial arts is something that naturally comes with it. What is even the greater issue is the misconception that Bujinkan is itself ninjutsu which lies all over the world and even the Shihan level teachers of Bujinkan have been into this misconception. The prominent names are those of Yossi Sheriff and Richard Van Donk, whom I respect personally for their effort they put into their teachings. Richard Van Donk holds the highest level of 15th dan menkyo (mastership certificate) in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, but I do not understand if he really doesn't know or it is on purpose to attract more students and so money; it is said that he has been titled the "golden boy" by Hatsumi Masaaki Soké because of his love for money, though overall he seems to be a good person (this I can say because he gave a lot of personal discount to someone about whom I know, who couldn't afford one of his courses). Much of this Ninjutsu-martial art has also been spread, unfortunately, by Bujinkan teachers themselves although clearly knowing the difference, of course for personal gains. Bujinkan itself isn't ninjutsu though it contains what is said to be 'the essence of ninjutsu', because the principles of ninjutsu have been adopted into the teachings of Budo (Martial Way). Hatsumi Soké himself always uses the word of Bujinkan Budo now, Bujinkan ninjutsu was used only in the time when the main focus of the teachings were the Ninpó ryu-ha. Nowhere in the books of earlier Shinobi is this written that ninjutsu is a martial art neither given any hint other than 'you should learn various arts so as to use various disguises and do various jobs', martial arts was just one of these skills and not every shinobi learned it but those who carried on their family arts or had personal interest for the field (In this too most shinobi preferred the sword or spear arts and to wander as a Rōnin or Shugyosha, for double benefits).

2. Ninjas always wear black. I guess this is the next big misconception, especially if considering the term 'always'. The figure of ninja dressed in black, has been a famous representation in the movies, games and other media. The black color was generally wore by the Kabuki players of the Bunraku theater and it was this image of shinobi adopted in the early story tales of Nippon history because it made sense that ninjas were invisible because they wore the same color as the night, for those who had not seen it. Although, it's not totally wrong that ninjas would wear black 'sometimes' but it was only one of the many preferred colors wore by shinobi for covert night activities (this was the job of nusubito, meaning 'thief' . The other preferred colors were dark green, dark red, dark blue, brown and dark silver. It depends on the weather conditions, the territory and availability. The Shinobi would generally prefer other disguises, the most preferred of which was that of komusō zen priest, this was because most komusō priests were allowed to roam freely in various provinces and also keep katana or wakizashi with them. It was also because they hid there faces with tengui (the basket like hat) and played shakuhachi, which could be used to divert attention of people around for other fellow Shinobi to do their job. Other disguises that were used were that of a trader or merchant; Rōnin (they could carry swords, roam freely in most provinces and also attract attention and could also challenge a Samurai into fight, hence killing him formally in the process, but this needed greater skills and only those having surety of their success were allowed to take it); Artists such as musicians, magicians or tricksters, painters e.t.c; Gardeners, cooks or other house workers such as maids (kunoichi were better at this than males, especially for information gathering purposes).

3. Ninjutsu originated in Japan: A lot of people think that ninjutsu is of Japanese origin. This is probably because it came from Japan to the public attention. This is completely wrong and any one who claims such is probably being mislead or do not know much, for anything about ninjutsu; such people you must avoid or correct them. It has been accepted by the Shinobi of all periods and all regions -Iga, Koka, Kumo, Toka- that ninjutsu has its origins in China. Some history of ninjutsu has been discussed in detail in the article History: Ninjutsu.

4. Shinobiken /Ninjatō: The ninjatō (lit. 'ninja sword') is the famous single edged, straight, short sword with square tsuba (hand guard) carried by ninja on the back of his shoulder, in the popular representation. There's a lot of debate in its support and too against it. Misconceptions lie on both sides about this. For those who are against the claim that ninjas used straight sword and those who say that it didn't even exist in Japan, I must tell them that the straight sword existed even before the tachi/dachi (that latter became katana) that was used by the Samurai. It existed in China where it was called Zhanmadao, miaodao (or similarly named) from where it came to Japan (in 9th century A.D) along with other Chinese traditions. Here with some design modifications, it became Chokutō (lit. 'straight sword') carried by officers while the original straight sword was carried by lower soldiers. Hence it's evidently possible that Shinobi of earlier periods may have carried it. It's also possible that this was carried as a tradition to the latter periods. However, evidence to this can not be found in the records of 15th-17th century, when shinobi were extensively used. It's fairly logical that the short straight sword could be easily concealed and used for stabbing. The method of it carrying on the back on the right side is logically correct in that it can be easily used to counter the nuki (sword draws) of katana, carried on left side of the waist line by the Samurai. For the square tsuba, the logic is given that it can be used as a shuriken. But this is practically difficult since the sword on the back provides hindrance to the movement in many ways, hence it must be carried on the back near the waist line or on the side like the katana or wakizashi for easy movement and there must be some method to quickly shift it towards the shoulder and for the tsuba (hand guard) to be released as shuriken from the sword, the habaki (collar which holds tsuba and tsuka to the blade) must either be not there or it must be loose which makes it difficult to swing the sword if needed and once tsuba is released, there will no protection for the hand to slip over to the blade and against the enemy's blade. Historically, there is only mention for the wakizashi to use as a concealed weapon and it makes more sense. So some doubt still exists between the two opinions but we must take a medium path and believe in what is more acceptable. So my conclusion is that shinobi 'may have' used the ninjatō but wakizashi was more commonly used for the same purpose.

5. Loyalty: Some believe that ninjas were the most loyal, that they would even shave their heads off for their master, while, some believe that shinobi were loyal to no one but themselves. Actually, both claims are wrong, for which evidence exist only in rare cases and still twisted by the traditional story tales about ninjas. The first claim is proved wrong by evidence in the Hyakushu (lit. hundred poems, one of the books of principles), where it says (translation), "How could you be ashamed of telling a lie, since you, as a samurai, think that faithfulness to your lord is the most principal issue?". This is said for those shinobi, who as a Samurai stick to their principle of not telling a lie to their lord, but it can be beneficial to them (their lord), in times. Hence even if some shinobi were loyal, it was not because they were shinobi but because they were Samurai too, or there was some other reason to show their loyalty. The second claim is proved wrong by the same verse, since most shinobi, though low level samurai did stick to their loyalty with shear determination. The path of shinobi is that of flexibility between the two regions.

6. Samurai vs Ninja: It has been in portrayal that Samurai and Ninja are two opposing forces -Ninjas often killing Samurai and Samurai exterminating Ninjas. Like many other misconceptions, this one too is also true to some cases and a period; the problem is that the bigger picture and context of events is often neglected. So to Much of this Samurai vs Ninjas occurred in the time of Oda Nobunaga who attacked the regions of Iga and Koga, the major control regions of Shinobi .Though there are many differences between the two paths but the two figures were not that repulsive. Many Shinobi were also Samurai, many low level but some held good positions as retainers. Also some Samurai also learned some ways of ninjutsu. Shinobi and Samurai held much deeper relationships than portrayed. They were like two dragons of yin and yang. This has been discussed in detail in a previous post- Samurai vs Ninja.

7. Deadliest Assassins, Thugs, Bandits, Thieves and Mercenaries: These are some of the common representations of ninja, mostly as a group or creed; we will discuss each in order. First, no doubt that Shinobi were masters of covert activity and sometimes it involved assassinating someone. But unlike the popular figure, assassinations were not the main job of the Shinobi and most missions were about information gathering, stealing, sabotage, tracking, commanding troops, advising and/or to guard/escort a specific higher personality or a convoy for its protection. Then, deadly can be believed but deadliest not, because such missions were often accompanied by failures. Assassinating missions were taken only after surety that no one from the family or company of the target must come to know about the Shinobi and/or come for revenge against him. About thugs, bandits and thieves, someone may learn similar skills as the ninja and call it ninjutsu, but they can not be called the true shinobi, since their effort is all for themselves. About this, master Natori Masatake expresses in his book, "(translation:)...Some experts in robbery have written down their achievements and claimed that it is a family tradition handed down for generations. Nowadays, these so called schools or ryūgi of the shinobi, which are widespread in the world, are simply schools for thieves". Coming to the ninjas as mercenaries, this was dependent on the class of shinobi, their family associations, the type of shinobi and also on the personal ethics of the shinobi. Some shinobi would work as mercenaries (mostly from Koka) which means they would take missions from anyone but this doesn't mean they would do it only for money, while most shinobi didn't take missions which were against their family associations and personal beliefs (mostly from Iga, since many of them were Samurai too and some were commonly known, even if shinobi).

8. Ninjas without feelings: This is another major misconception based on exaggeration and/or fictionalized truth. Shinobi do have feelings as other people but they are advised to control their
their expressions or what is called as emotions. This one meaning of the shinobi (忍) is that you keep a sword for your heart, which can be further interpreted that shinobi must have a control of where his hear goes. The reasons to this (controlling emotions) lies in the deepest secrets of ninjutsu and hence it should not be discussed here. An example that shinobi have feelings can be found in the life of master Hattori Hanzō, when he refused to aid in the seppuku of the son of his lord -Nobayasu of Tokugawa Ieyasu- upon which his lord said that even the devil can shed tears (some may interpret from this that this may be out of his loyalty and not his feelings; the answer to this is that lord Tokugawa himself had ordered the seppuku of his son Nobuyasu).

9. Children of Tengu: This is more popular in Japan, believed even by some historical ninjutsu schools. It is believed that ninjutsu was created by an entity who was half crow like and half man; most commonly this is the figure of Tengu. It is also believed by some that ninjas were the children of the tengu. One belief is that Minamoto no Yoshitsune learned ninjutsu and kenjutsu or kenpó from the Tengu, in a Buddhist temple on Mount Kurama; that he used to defeat the overwhelming Taira clan in Genpei war (12th century). This account is incorrect, since ninjutsu existed even before that. There's another similar account in which the Yamabushi (mountain warrior monks) learned ninjutsu from Tengu. The Kumo-ninja believed in this story. Most of these beliefs are based on teachings of Shinto Buddhism. By preference, this should have been on number 11, but I chose number 9 because of its significance in relation to the subject this matter falls into.

10. Keeping Mission Above All: This belief have been commonly found in the most famous Manga (Japanese comic art) and Anime (Japanese animated series). It may be thought this issue must be part of the loyalty section, but I have separated it for the reasons that Loyalty is something a part of Chivalry and/or ethical behavior but this issue is a part of belief; also because it needs its own specific attention. I have down-rated this issue in the list of misconceptions (compared to Loyalty), although it is more commonly seen (i.e popular) since Loyalty is of major concern than this, and those willing to partake the path of Shinobi must know about it and they should take care so as not to be left in any misconceptions about it. Coming to the issue underhand, it is believed that a ninja must keep a mission above all -his friends, companions and he himself- even if it may take his life. This is not so in real, since the Path of Shinobi was always that of Survival. The fate of Togakure-ryu forged after Daisuke Nishina failed to commit seppuku at his loss and preferred life over death. Through out shinobi teachings, it is advised that you should take the safety of your own self and those your companions, above all. Though it's difficult to survive than to die, we should not lose hope in the difficult situations. Death is decided from the heavens, so when you feel there is some chance do not let your guard down and sum up to your difficulties. This is crucial to the success of your mission, if necessary, since not in the first time you may succeed but you may devise a better strategy, when you have survived, to be successful next time.

11. Ninjas Walk on Water. This has been adopted from the folklore. The Shinobi would actually use a device called mizugomo (water spider) for crossing moats and waters of little depth; for much deeper waters, a collapsible boat is used. There's misconception to this too. It is thought that the 'mizugomo' would have been wore like sandals to walk on water but this isn't so. The misconception has taken form from a misinterpretation of the text or perhaps an innovation by Fujita Seiko, who claims to be the last Koka ninja. The mizugomo was actually used to sit on and not stand upon, to cross the water. It is used as a single device and not in pair. An oar, a spear or the 'mizukaki' (water sandals) were used to move/drive away with the mizugomo in water.

12. Ninja stars- the deadly weapon of ninja: First we need to understand the main function of the shuriken to understand the problems with this. Different types of shuriken had different purposes. There were two main types of shuriken: bō shuriken; hira shuriken or shaken -each have further different types. The bō (stick) shuriken is a simple stick or skewer like throwing dart. The bō shuriken may vary from the size of a needle to the size of the spear. It's this type of shuriken that is the most deadly, especially if dipped in poison. There are other uses to this type of shuriken such as using it as a surgical tool in first aid, climbing the walls of castle, setting up traps, for digging and you can even use it as a skewer (for a fun barb q) unless it's poisoned or covered with blood. This shuriken has many other uses. What's more, they are simple to make; easy to conceal; more accurate and can be released from any angle. However, what we commonly see of the shuriken in popular media are the shaken, more specifically the star shuriken, as the main weapon of ninja probably because it looks more attractive. The primary purpose of this shuriken is to use it as a decoy. The next purpose is to hit the targets behind obstacles, which couldn't be directly reached. The star shuriken was difficult to be dodged by the sword or spear but it wouldn't prove as deadly as the bō shuriken, since it was difficult to throw (needs to be released at specific angle); less accurate and wouldn't pierce deeper into flesh. The main purpose of the shuriken is to immobilize the target, to enter or escape, and not actually to kill though it can prove fatal.

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